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What It’s Like to Be a ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Projectionist (With Quentin Tarantino Watching)

What It's Like to Be a 'Hateful Eight' 70mm Projectionist (With Quentin Tarantino Watching)

Editor’s Note: Adam Witmer is a 22-year-old senior at UNC School of the Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where he works in film preservation and as a projectionist at one of the largest film archives in the country. At this very moment he is the projectionist at the AMC Burbank 16 in Los Angeles for Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm Roadshow of "The Hateful Eight."

READ MORE: Here are the Most Brutal Reactions to ‘The Hateful Eight’ 70mm Roadshow

When I first heard about the plans for "The Hateful Eight" 70mm screenings, I quickly contacted Boston Light and Sound about being a projectionist for Quentin Tarantino’s Roadshow. I had a strong sense this would be something historic and I desperately wanted to be part of it. I emailed and called BL&S every other day trying to get my foot in the door, but was told over and over again to be patient and remain flexible while they worked out the scheduling. Finally, at 1am on Christmas Eve, I received an email saying they needed me to fly to Torrance, California to split some shows with the AMC Del Amo 18’s current projectionist. The next morning I was on the phone with a travel agent booking flights and hotels, and at 2pm, barely 13 hours after being assigned, I hopped on a plane. I arrived in Torrance in time to run to the theater and see the projection system during the final show of the evening.

Before I go on, I should mention that I have years of experience projecting 35mm and 70mm film on a two-projector, reel-to-reel system, but I’d never used a platter system like this before. The weeks leading up to the Roadshow, I’d done lots of research, looked at manuals and diagrams, and talked to some of the installers of the system. So, while I arrived with a solid grasp on how the system worked and what I needed to do to make it work, I’d never actually touched the system before I arrived in California. 

The next morning in Torrance I had some time before our first show, so I practiced and became familiar with the platter system. Together, the other projectionist and I got the first show of the day up and running without any major issues. While we were threading up for the second show, however, the theater manager raced upstairs to inform us of a new development, "Quentin Tarantino is here and wants to introduce the film."

I’ll be honest, I was more than a little anxious. This was only my second time with my hands on these machines. Sure enough, as soon as the patrons took their seats, Tarantino walked to the front and introduced the movie. He took a seat in the fourth row, and we started the show without a hitch. I checked the projector to make sure it was running correctly: all good. I checked the platter, and that’s when I noticed it: The brain.

Now, the brain controls the pay-out platter’s speed based on the tension of the film. It sits in the center of the film on the pay-out platter, and the film goes through it before anything else. The film runs through a little arm, and depending on the tension, tells the platter to spin faster or slower in order to provide a consistent feed to the projector. Essentially, it’s like the gas pedal in a car.

Imagine that you are driving your car and have to maintain 55mph on a road with lots of hills. Going down the hills you don’t need to press the gas as much because you can coast, but on the way up a hill, you have to really floor it to maintain that speed. Now imagine that your gas pedal sticks. It’s unresponsive, and you can’t push it down past a certain point. So now as you climb those hills, you gradually slow down, and eventually get to the point where you can’t make it up. 

It was as if the arm was bouncing off an invisible wall. The film would tighten, pull the arm, and then suddenly the arm could go no further. The platter wasn’t being told to spin fast enough, so the film started to wrap itself around the brain. It scared the hell out of me because I knew that if it kept tightening it would seize the brain, become tangled amongst the rollers, possibly tearing or creating a massive knot that would stop the show. In desperation, I grabbed the arm with my fingers and pushed it to the left, forcing it to speed up. The platter responded and the film unwound. Problem solved, yes? Until I let go.

I released the arm, and the same thing started happening again. I put my finger on it, and again it responded. Now, I don’t know about you, but Quentin Tarantino is the last person I want witnessing any hiccups in my screening, and it was then that I realized I was going to have to hold my arm at shoulder height, reach across the film, and manually drive this mechanical beast for the duration of at least the first half of the film.

For 90 minutes, the other projectionist and I took turns operating the throttle. I’d go for five to ten minutes, switch arms, go another few minutes, then switch out with my partner and take a break. We switched back and forth like this up until intermission, when we could finally stop the projector and poke around. We had a back-up brain and swapped it out. This brain had the same issue (we later isolated the problem to within the gears of the platter itself), but we had luck on our side.

By this point in the movie, half the film is off the platter, and it doesn’t need to spin as fast. The arm was able to handle the tension at this point, and we could allow it to regulate itself under close supervision. The intermission was perhaps five minutes longer than usual while we troubleshooted, but other than that, from the audience’s’ perspective (and more importantly, Tarantino’s), the film went off without a hitch.

The job of a projectionist is to manage and fix problems as they arise without the audience being aware. We are the buffer between the chaos of projection and their experience. Every time a show needs to switch to DCP because of a problem, or a show shuts down for a technical issue, there have been 10 equally large issues that the projectionist covers. Many of these projectors are practically antiques, the platter systems were never intended to support the weight and size of 70mm, and entire new pieces of equipment had to be specially manufactured for this production.

Because of this, dozens of tiny mechanical failures are bound to happen, and part of our job (the above story is a prime example) is to make sure small issues don’t propagate into catastrophes. Just today, I’ve had a lamp shift slightly to the right creating a vignette effect at the left of frame, a fuse blow, and a lens slightly scoot forward in its housing, causing me to have to refocus and tighten it down.

Film is a temperamental medium. It doesn’t always want to do what you want it to. There’s a lot of sweat and dedication behind the glass in the back of that auditorium, and that is often overlooked. The projection is the pickiest one in the entire crowd, and we do everything we can to uphold the quality standards we so often fail to see in modern megaplexes.

Not to mention, projectionists were flown to their Roadshow location at most a day before their first show. And that’s not walking into a system that is ship-shape and ready to go. They had to unpack the film, load it onto the platter, and get it ready to project, which takes no less than five hours in and of itself. Then they have to learn the system, because no matter how experienced you are, every system is slightly different — I was moved to AMC Burbank 16 after my first day in Torrance and it took time to feel out that projector and learn its nuances.  All this while not being able to practice or test fully because I started running shows immediately upon arrival.

Now that the Roadshow has started, we work 15 or 16 hours per day, with no days off for the duration of the run. Sleep deprivation begins to become a legitimate issue as your reflexes begin to slow, particularly for the late evening shows. I leave the booth by 2:30am every night, and I’m back in at 10am the next morning. That said, I’m lucky in that I only have four shows per day. Some projectionists are doing five shows a day, making for 20 hour days without a break.

"The Hateful Eight" looks incredible projected in 70mm, and the difference between the print and the DCP are striking. The print’s colors are more saturated, the blacks are blacker, the whites are whiter, and the entire thing is much crisper and, for lack of a better term, deeper. The DCP looks flat and washed out. But along with that quality difference comes a need for finesse and care on the part of the projectionist. This job is by no means easy; it’s really fucking hard. We are only human, and these systems are only machines. It’s the price we pay for that beautiful, quality image. But it’s undoubtedly worth it, and I think audiences are starting to understand that.

Tonight the DCP of The Hateful Eight opened at my theater, with 60 tickets sold. Simultaneously, in my house: packed seats, 300 strong. And they got a great show.

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Comments

Linda S.

i CANNOT wait to see this film, hopefully this weekend. I commend Mr. Tarrentino for wanting to create his film in 70mm, the way the older epic films were done. It’s a lot of work, but you must appreciate what he brings to the table as the director of the film. I am hearing only great things about this film and I bet it is a work of beauty up there on the screen. God bless all of the dedicated projectionists who run the print. Keep up the good work.

DAN

WHAT the BEEP is ‘DCP’ and why couldn’t the writer tell us? Phooey. One major dropped ball. SOMEONE should have caught that screw up. Phooey!
DCP stands for DIGITAL CINEMA PACKAGE.

Thatisit

Hey, 70MM costs $.

When 70mm imax was invented, they made imax film camera first and projection system later. Now with laser, they are basically saying, ” shoot it on whatever, we will make it look better ”.

Blacks are not better in laser – whites are brighter. Close your eyes and sit in darkness. The black you now see is not as inky as the dark grey on white paper.

Whatever, they’ve just screwed audience.

Bill Martin

Christie Platters do not have "gears" and YES these Platters WERE designed to support the weight of 70mm film.

Michael Staley

Thanks, Adam! This was a great article, but now I’m going to go have a "brain-wrap" nightmare and hope that I can survive it!

Jerry Thornhill

Very nice article. Your dedication to the medium is admirable and this sounds like it was a great experience for you.
There’s a part of me that yearns for more film projection and yet when I saw H8 in 70mm it was reminded that film gets scratched (the beginning of the print I saw had annoying scratches), flicker (it was especially noticeable on snowy scenes in H8, and the edges of the frame are fuzzy if the screen masking isn’t properly positioned). Also seeing it in a multiplex where there are 19 other auditoriums, isn’t the same as the 1950s experience of seeing it in a theatre dedicated to one special event film. When Cinerama, Cinemiracle, and Todd-AO films opened it was in an auditorium newly refurbished to accommodate a large curved screen and new projection booths. There were new draperies, seating, and carpet and it all even smelled good. The showmanship with reserved seats, the overture, the curtains parting, hawkers selling programs in the lobby, and high-end chocolate but no popcorn made the event even more special. There is an overture and entr’acte in H8, and a cheap 14-page program but overall the presentation a pale imitation of wide screen road shows in the 1950s.

Heather Cain

Hi there, YEAH NO! the 11:00am was in NO way good. The entire film was projected slaneted, the lens needed to be turned. the top right hand corner was slightly cropped, possible due to aperture. The film was stopped before intermission once. the lights seems like they were auto timed (BAD IDEA FOR FILM). Lights kept coming on during the film before intermission and before the end and one time randomly. the entire theater was issued passes. I’m sorry but with how bad that 11:00am show was projected I was majorly disappointed in what was going on in that booth and as an experienced projectionist, those problems could have been solved easily.

Casey Maddren

Thanks for sharing your experience with the Hateful Eight. And thanks especially for your commitment to showing movies on film. While the industry rushes to embrace digital, we can’t forget that the first hundred years of cinema exist on celluloid. People like you are crucial to keeping film history alive.

engshen

i am a celluloid lover, period, and i am only 34; still photographer, i am surprised, totally surprised how us public, human being should compromise for a lesser grade image like those projected digitally; don;t get me wrong, i don’t mind digital images shot digitally and projected digitally, they are clean sharp (with a thin veil of plastic, if tht makes sense), but they are no where near film images done photochemically. I live in Sydney, and i went to watch mission impossible 6 in Syd IMAX theatre. OMG, the experience was nothing less than appalling, yes, appalling is the word, laser projection, apparently is the best, even acc. to JJ Abrams’ word, that his latest star wars looks better in 3d imax. But man, what is wrong with people, i am no genius, but i am truly surprised when we as public viewer could tolerate such inferior projection even when we pay such price for moviegoing; experience. Like tarantino said:" it’s no more than a public tv…." i am looking forward to star wars in IMAX (1570 projection) and i have also got my hands on the last screening of the hateful 8 70mm roadshow in sydney, hope things will go well, and hope film will go another 100 years…..

Charles Moran

Above all else, I want you to know that I saw "Hateful Eight" today in 70mm, and I want to send a shout-out not just to Mr. Witmer, but to all the projectionists who made this possible. I loved the experience I had today and at at my advancing age (55 – but not THAT advanced), I realize just how bad I miss 70mm. And your article made me realize just how under appreciated the projectionist is/was. Great article. And thanks for going into film preservation. Damn, we need more people like you.

L Jakubecz

Apologies for typos in my comment. New iOS keyboard has a nasty habit of "correcting" words just as one hits the Enter key.
Should read "while the new digital kid on the block gets all the love."

L Jakubecz

The best thing about this article – and its comments – is that people are talking about filmwithsomething resembling respect and appreciation! A VERY short time ago, film was written off and dismissed as archaic and cumbersome, while the rest digital kid in the block got all the love. Which is fine, it’s how things go, after all. And I honestly don’t see it coming back in a big way, certainly not as long as digital proves cheap and useful on the production side. But, as with vinyl’s return, it’s another small way we’re helping keep some quality of warmth in our world.

Victor

Thank you for sharing this experience with us!
I had the pleasure of working with 35mm projectors for about 4-5 years, until everything became digital. Imagine operating on 8 auditoriums alone at the same time and all of them having their own problems at some point… :D Working with film had it’s own charm, maybe even was kind of an art i guess. You don’t have this with the digital projectors now.

Grant S. Vuille

I saw "Hateful 8" in 70mm @ the AMC Potomac Mills in VA 22192 on the 4th day of it’s 70mm release on Dec 25th 2015. The masking of the screen was not correct, but fitted with a transparent black top & bottom strip of black cloth attached to the 1.85:1 standard ratio, thus creating what looked to be a 2.21 standard 70mm ratio & not the required 2.76:1 standard Ultra Panavision aspect ratio. The 70mm projection was letterboxed on this 2.21:1 frame with the top of the image meeting the top screen masking, but with the bottom portion left to 25% of the open screen. Had they used their usual 2.39:1 ratio screen & letterboxed the 2.76:1 projection of the 70mm frame into the center of this ratio, the result would have been superior. Also, the lamp of the 70mm projector was somewhat dim. I sat close to the screen, only five rows back in the center, but even this close didn’t allow the screen to appear as wide as I would have liked. According to the program, The Hateful 8 was supposed to be presented on the Cinerama screen, unfortunately, there are only a few in existence. In the USA there is the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, & the Cinerama theatre in Seattle. The Uptown in Wash.DC, just north of where I live, used to have a Cinerama screen & 70mm projection. I’m not certain if it still does or not, but The Hateful 8 would have been ideal for Tarantino’s Ultra Panavision 70 Single-Lens Cinerama film. I sincerely hope the Hateful 8 -70mm run will be successful enough for theatres to bring back into existence the Single-Lens Cinerama process which originally opened @ the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood back in 1963 with It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This Cinerama process is every bit as exciting & enveloping as any of the new systems in use today including IMAX & the many ersatz digital cinema processes competing with it.

Adam Ouellette

I also used to be a film projectionist in college, miss it so much. I can imagine the sweat beading down your forehead as this was happening. I remember every problem I had to fix working….always turned out ok, but the hardest part of the job. Glad to hear there are still people out there enjoying it.

Imax Projector

Imax laser systems dont use film anymore.

Jane

Kids these days….

Michael Prestage

Adam, you’re to be commended for your quick-thinking and coolheadedness in what could’ve turned into yet another highly-publicized snafu for 70mm. Heaven knows, naysayers of celluloid projection are looking wide and far for any fodder they can get their pixelated hands on. In the grand scheme of things, the earnest efforts you and your co-worker expended at that lone, narrowly-successful screening could prove fateful to whether traditional projection ultimately secures itself a place in 21st century exhibition.

Championed by equally dedicated projectionists worldwide, film may yet have a fighting chance!

jon woolf

Thanks for sharing! I did 2 shows in 65mm in the ’80s, as Key Grip. They were not only 65mm, but 3D. The shooting rig was a beast. There was only one place in the country where we could see dailies- Pasadena, as I recall. When you get technical limitations like this, same as your "brain" issue, it forces you to be on your toes and be that much more creative to get a good result. Somehow, with digital everything, that heart thumping awareness is largely gone. People just don’t bother seeking excellence any more.

Fruitcake

Believe me the money they are paying its well worth it.

Tony S

Great read. Glad you were like fonzie and kept cool in that situation

John Clemens

All you had to do is adjust the high speed on the platter a fraction of a turn.

Dustin

Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to see the roadshow.

Tom

Have you seen the movie Inner Circle? It’s about a projectionist in the Kremlin.

Jeremy D'Entremont

I’m a former Omnimax projectionist and I respect your dedication and knowledge of your craft. Your story reminds me of the day the Xenon lamp exploded inside our projector just a few hours before Andrew Lloyd Weber and Sarah Brightman were coming for a show. We just barely got everything operational before they arrived.

Butter Birkas

I saw the film yesterday without the benefit of a 70mm print. The color in the film was still beautiful. I only wish I could have a chance to see it screened on film stock as intended. The film archives at UNCSA is a real treasure, and David Spencer and his crew deserve accolades for their work in perpetuating the screening of films in their purest form.

Lourene Bender

Adam, you are amazing! You have extreme patience and creativity.

Art?

Samuel L. Jackson was the only Black actor in the movie-play, except a cameo of another Black actor. However, the "N" word was used ten thousand times.

Paolo Ongkeko

Good Job Sir. I appreciate the hard work you guys went through to get these going but I really really wish you were there to help for the earlier shows on the 25th at the torrance location. A lot seemed to go wrong and it pretty much ruined the experience for me. Anyways I understand things happen especially on those early shows but it was still quite unfortunate for us at that time. Keep up the good work!

Roojvar Kruggiwston

Someone ‘upgrades’ (sic) film projection system to a brand new digital projection system. You are told that digital projection will improve greatly in coming years. OK but you should have asked that till the time digital gets as good as film, we want film! Come on its already 2016 now. The 70mm film format is still unrivaled in terms of sheer quality. In fact digital does not want to compete with film. It rather believes in eliminating the film as a medium. Why do you think IMAX is getting rid of film projectors. It’s because (and nobody will ever tell you this) even two decades from now digital MAY get ALMOST as good as film. What’s Digital? An approximation of film. Film is the role model for digital. Every new digital projection is inspired by film. New is not better, not always. I can’t understand why the hell you as a consumer are SO excited that we will get (almost) as good experience as people sixty years earlier had. You are paying the same (or more) for your ticket. Why the hell are you worried that film projection is so complicated and tough job. I mean, we have skilled projectionists who maintain significantly better track record than the so called ‘reliable digital technology’. It’s projectionists job after all, and they will be more than happy to do it.

Alex

The IMAX Laser is nowhere near as good as 70mm film and 70mm IMAX projection. It is also not possible for even 10% theatres to be upgraded to laser system.

The truth is… IMAX LIED to its audience. This is what they were claiming, ” Towards the end of 2014 the new digital system – which uses two projectors to generate an image because one simply isn’t strong enough to fill the massive screen – will be replaced by an even newer one, using a single projector with a high-powered laser (so high-powered, in fact, that it has a tendency to melt the hard drive on which the movie is stored).” and…

” “By the end of next year(2014) the whole [IMAX] industry will be digital. There will be no more film projected anywhere in the world.”

Louis Bornwasser

Yep! That’s how good 70mm is. Most of these "problems" are teething problems. In a couple of days, smooth operation should settle in. Also, remember that the plattter runs fastest at the beginning and slowly has to slow down until the end. Placeing the small weight to run at the correct speed will make it run too fast within a minute or two. Christies were made to run 70mm from the start.

Timber

Digital projection has recently gotten much better, with the arrival of Laser IMAX and Dolby/Christie HDR Laser, but most theaters are still using standard DLP, which has much less contrast. It’ll be quite a few years before everyone has advanced laser projection.

Shirley Dulcey

Question is… does the DCP actually look washed out, or only look washed out on typical projectors? Would the result be different if the DCP were screened on an IMAX laser projector, which reportedly produces more brightness and better contrast than any previous digital projector?

Rick Green

Thanks for sharing. I’m a former IATSE (union) projectionist with nearly 40 years experience. I too, have experienced the type of problem that you experienced with the feed platter. On a long feature like "H8", it can kill your arm to try to operate the feed arm manually like that. If it ever happens again, you can put a small weight next to the feed arm, to maintain the platter spped without having to hold it open. But you can’t walk away from it. You MUST keep a close eye on the speed, and be ready to re-position the weight, as the platter needs to slow down as the film reaches the end of the roll. Hope this helps.

Brenda Witmer

Thanks for your candor and commitment. Film is one art medium that can’t be rushed, and excellent projectionists clearly have the endurance and creativity to see each show to the finishing credits. Well done.

Tim

Great read! I’m also 22, and was a 35mm projectionist at a local discount theater from age 19 to 20, miss threading movies! :(

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