The Almost-Lost Art of the Film Projectionist

Carolyn Funk, Film Projectionist
Photo by Genevieve Walker

Wo/men’s Work | Film Projectionist

In this series, we explore the lives of women who use their hands—to drive, break, crank, construct and create. Working in fields typically dominated by men, these jobs dictate a lifestyle as much as a workday.

It was a Tuesday, which meant that the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York was closed, and Carolyn Funk could focus on preparing a movie that was delivered for projection. In this case, preparing meant inspecting each film reel for missing or damaged frames, fixing bad splices, and checking countdowns and cues. The theater quiet, Funk was, as usual, alone with the towering metal boxes and cog-like apparatuses that give the booth a submarine-like atmosphere.

Funk, 36, is a film projectionist, or more accurately a presentation specialist. She’s the person behind the box of light at the back of a darkened theater making sure the show goes on. If the movie is celluloid film, as opposed to a digital file, then it’s Funk replacing a reel in time for viewers to enjoy the seamless mystery of cinematic magic.

Carolyn Funk, Film
Photo by Genevieve Walker

Film projectionists are rare. Though not as rare as was collectively presumed they would become five to 10 years ago when they were thought on the “verge of extinction” as theaters switched to fully digital operations. “‘Projectionists who have been able to strip down and reassemble a 35mm projector with their eyes closed are suddenly being presented with a box and an on-off switch,’” Phil Clapp of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association told Timeout in 2010.

 
“Once a friend described my job as being like a wax figure sculptor … it’s a similarly specialized skill and an obsolete profession whose mechanical process and technique produces human experience, and traffics illusion.”
 

Celluloid film and reel-to-reel projection, similar to still photography and vinyl records, has maintained a cachet of quality, as well as its diehard loyalists (Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan among them). Movies are still made in the medium, a couple recent commercial examples being The Girl on the Train (2016) and Fences (2016). But these are outliers in what it is now essentially a digital industry, which means that Funk is one of a dwindling number of specialists with the expertise needed to project film. “Once a friend described my job as being like a wax figure sculptor,” she says. “The people who make the figures in Madam Tussaud’s—it’s a similarly specialized skill and an obsolete profession whose mechanical process and technique produces human experience, and traffics illusion.”

When the celluloid film arrives in its large metal canisters, Funk sets to work at the rewind bench, looking it over, making note of existing damage, and splicing—a process in which she joins ends of film using a special cement glue. Once it’s been thoroughly checked, Funk cues up a reel. A typical 90-minute movie is five reels, each about 10 to 30 minutes long. After the countdown, she hits a switch that shuts off the light beaming through one reel and begins projecting from a neighboring machine, where the next reel is already cued. If she’s done her job right, no one will notice a thing.

Funk is at the MoMI full-time. It’s a relatively conventional nine-to-five job, though it includes weekends. She also spends one day a week at Film Forum, where she puts in 12 to 14 hours, a more typical projectionist’s schedule. She occasionally projects at film festivals or travels to theaters offering one-time showings. The work itself, though guaranteed to involve lugging film cans and spending “hours and hours alone in a dark, windowless room,” varies. Because the MoMI is a museum, Funk might work with the media installations in the galleries, or preparing the digital and sound components used in lectures, performances, and events.

Funk’s first job was at an art house cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was a teenager. “I was fascinated by the work of the projectionist,” she says. “But so was everyone. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy to convince a working projectionist to train the curious. And I personally had no innate mechanical or technical facility so I wasn’t about to beg someone to train me, of all people.”

Once upon a time, a projectionist’s license required a test given by the Bureau of Gas and Electricity, and was a storied 100-questions long. (It was slowly reduced over the years until it was done away with entirely, in June of 2016, after being taken over by the Committee of Consumer Affairs.) “Traditionally it was a blue-collar job. My coworkers are mostly mechanically minded guys,” says Funk, winnowing between the hulking, “distinctly 20th-century” metal machines in the booth. “I think a lot of projectionists got into the field through family. I’m one of the only projectionists I know here who really loves to go out and see movies on actual film.” Even the names of the tools she uses evoke a bygone simplicity—days when people made, understood, and operated mechanical devices. “Metal Goldberg reels, frame counters, RP40 film leaders for focusing and masking; monstrous film shipping cans,” Funk lists. “Solid machines that work today the way they did 80 years ago.”

In graduate school, Funk took a job doing displays for the campus cinema. A head theater tech offered to teach her to project. “It was a dream come true at the time,” she says. When she moved to New York City in 2007, multiplexes were still showing film, but only big studio releases that didn’t demand special expertise. “In New York City there were, and are, tons of art-house cinemas, archives, museums, and galleries that would show the rare, foreign and avant-garde films that need archival-approved, reel-to-reel projection as opposed to plattered film that’s more labor intensive and requires a certain constant attention,” she says. This meant that there was plenty of work to go around for projectionists, and Funk could take all the fussy, archival gigs available—now some of the only remaining type of projection work to be had.

 
“I can be very moved, sitting in the booth, showing this medium that’s plastic but also ethereal, archaic, present; it’s a process that’s mechanical yet abstract.”
 

At the Anthology Film Archives, where Funk started out, she was able to apply for a union membership with IATSE 306, a local chapter whose slogan is “We put the ‘Pro’ in Projection and the ‘SHH’ in Usher.” Being in the union means Funk gets benefits and some kind of future security, so long as there are projection jobs to be done, and she still wants to do them.

A lot has changed since Funk got into the trade. “When I was learning to project, the medium of film was perceived as disposable,” says Funk. “Use it and throw it away. So I was able to learn through trial and error. Then the sweeping digital shift in distribution and projection began around 2010. Now all film is basically considered archival.”

But this—along with showing to sophisticated New York audiences—is part of the fun and the challenge. “It’s satisfying to know that I can provide a passionate and discerning audience of filmgoers with a historical, personal experience,” she says. “There is something very magical about handling film as an object, and there is something very magical about the projection of film—the experience and perception of light, image, grain, and sound; translucent light on a matte screen. I can be very moved, sitting in the booth, showing this medium that’s plastic but also ethereal, archaic, present; it’s a process that’s mechanical yet abstract. I’m moved just by the pure beauty of the experience of film.”

See more “Women’s Work” articles or read How Do You Refuel a Plane in Antarctica? This Woman Knows.

Carolyn Funk, Film Projectionist, on stage
Carolyn Funk, Film Projectionist. Photo by Genevieve Walker

We’re so glad you’re with us. We’re a community of women who are changing women’s media. That’s no small task. But because you’re here, we know that you care, too. For us to keep doing what we do, we need your support. So we can keep printing, posting and furthering our mission. With you.
Join us – Become a member   Get the latest issue in print

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed