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Step inside a movie projection booth to see what's changed since film

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Before he became a film critic, NPR's Bob Mondello worked for a chain of movie theaters. He spent a lot of time in projection booths back then, and it had been a while since Bob climbed those stairs. But on a return visit, the first thing he discovered is that things sound different.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: This is the sound I remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECTOR PURRING)

MONDELLO: The purr of a celluloid film strip running through a projector, a purr that is actually 24 clicks per second - one each time the shutter closes so that another frame of film can advance. Each frame has to stop briefly in front of the light source, or all you'd see when you look at the screen is a blur. This is how film was first projected by the Lumiere brothers in 1895 and how everyone saw film for the next 104 years. It's been the subject of movies from a silent comedy where Buster Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself up onto the screen to the Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso," where a little boy falls in love with movies in the projection booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CINEMA PARADISO")

SALVATORE CASCIO: (As Salvatore Di Vita) (Non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: I could identify. When I was working at Roth Theaters in the 1970s, the sound of the projector starting up seemed to me like an overture at a musical. But it's a sound that mostly doesn't exist anymore at the multiplex. In fact, to record the bit I used at the beginning, I had to ask the American Film Institute to bring projectionist Keith Madden to its Silver Theater from a museum to thread the film and show me how.

KEITH MADDEN: Do you want me to talk and thread at the same time? I can do that. There are sprocket holes on the film that align with sprocket teeth here, and you get them on there. You have to align them perfectly.

MONDELLO: Madden, who is now with the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture, got his first job as a projectionist in the 1970s, when film was still being played on 20-minute reels. That meant alternating between two side-by-side projectors three times an hour.

MADDEN: If you do it right, you go seamlessly from the last frame of the outgoing reel to the first frame of the incoming reel.

MONDELLO: Doing it right was tricky, though, involving a cue mark on screen and quick reflexes.

MADDEN: You had to just completely get into the Zen of it. You had to stare at the screen. The cue marks were 1/6 of a second in the upper right-hand corner. A sixth of a second is about the time it takes you to do kind of a normal blink. So if you had a normal blink, you could have - oh, did I just miss that? And until you learn the film, you wouldn't know. And one of the worst things for a projectionist was to get emotionally involved in the content. In a horror movie, that used to happen to me. Somebody would jump out with an axe, and, oh, you'd miss the cue mark.

MONDELLO: Later, they developed a platter system, where a whole film could be strung together on one big reel, which was better. But the actual revolution came in 1999, when a few movie theaters started trying out digital projectors. Cinematographer Harris Savides told NPR back then about seeing one work for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRIS SAVIDES: I felt like we're using horses, and we just saw the first car go by and kind of don't know what it is or what it's going to do for us. But it just seems interesting, better, different.

MONDELLO: That was a minority view at the time. Nobody much liked digital at first. The image wasn't sharp. It was like early TV. Some scenes even looked pixelated. But the projectors got better and smaller. And by 2011, the National Association of Theater Owners estimated that 41% of U.S. movie theaters had converted to digital. Today, it's very close to 100%, says Keith Madden.

MADDEN: Now, if you go to a typical multiplex, in the booth in the back corner of a lot of these places, you'll see piles of rusted metal parts of film projectors.

MONDELLO: Let's go instead to an atypical multiplex - Landmark's eight-screen E Street Theater in downtown Washington, D.C. In what is otherwise a state-of-the-art digital projection booth, it still has one working film projector.

TOM BEDDOW: We barely ever use this anymore. We maybe play two, three 35-millimeter prints a year.

MONDELLO: Tom Beddow, formerly of Landmark Theater, said this while standing in a booth that connects seven of the eight theaters in the complex, a hallway with digital projectors spaced along it and noisy fans blowing the heat away from the powerful xenon bulbs that are needed to light up movie screens the size of tennis courts. The only moving part in a digital projector is the fan. It's otherwise just a light source and a computer.

BEDDOW: Every projector has a little touch-screen interface here. It basically shows the playlist of what you're going to play. It has the ads, the trailers and the film, so all I would have to do to play this film right now is hit the play button. The lights will come down, the sound will turn on, and then at the end of the playlist, the lights come up, it goes back to house music - so literally one button.

MONDELLO: Show me how you thread up one of these digital projectors.

BEDDOW: One of these digital projectors? So we don't thread anything up. We get the movies in these little gray boxes - big, silver hard drives.

MONDELLO: Trailers come on this too?

BEDDOW: Yes. So every week, Deluxe will send what's called a trail mix drive, and...

MONDELLO: In the old days, even with platters, you needed a couple of projectionists to run this place - eight screens, staggered showtimes, cleaning sprocket teeth with a toothbrush between showings, focusing, dealing with bulky projectors.

BEDDOW: It would usually be two full-time projectionists and then two or three part-time projectionists.

MONDELLO: What do you got now?

BEDDOW: (Laughter) We have - everything's automated, so you basically only need to have projectionists there on Thursdays, which is the day that we do the changeover, and everything will start automatically for the whole week.

MONDELLO: For the week?

BEDDOW: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Not every day they have to push a button?

BEDDOW: A manager has to come up here and turn everything on.

MONDELLO: And that would be just as true if this were a 26-plex. Miraculous in its way, the new normal in thousands of theaters around the world is state-of-the-art, efficient, a 21st century technological marvel. So just one more question.

If somebody came up here and wanted to be amazed by something, what would you show them?

BEDDOW: (Laughter) I'd probably thread up the 35-millimeter projector.

MONDELLO: Of course he would.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.