The Good Old Days..(pic courtesy: cinemaweb.com)
Projector rooms in cinema halls used to be a mess. Cans of film, some open, would lie around the floor, the projectionist, a tired looking, pot-bellied man, attired in khaki trousers and a vest potters around, barking orders at a small boy who would be mounting a reel on a hand-wound spooler, pulling the loop of film, frantically spinning the handle and getting the film wound back for the next show.
On the screen below, a father-son shouting match is on, the mother is imploring the father to forgive the son for some misdemeanour, maybe daring to fall in love with a girl hailing from a dissimilar background. Like most high melodrama Bollywood scenes, from a little distance, the loud dialogue, backed by a orchestra of violins going berserk, sounds like pure cacophony.
The sounds and voices filter clearly through and can be heard above the projector's whirring noise. One, of a total of possibly 16 reels, is winding down on Projector 1. The little circles, usually on the upper right corner on the screen alert the projectionist, another set of marks appear a few seconds later; its time for action. The projectionist lifts himself up from his folding metal chair, walks over, starts Projector 2 with the loaded reel. At the right moment, he switches off Projector 1 and sound and gets 2 going. If all goes well, the switch is not really noticed.
The audience below notices a little jerk in the frame, a few squiggles appear on the screen and the picture soon returns to normal. Youngsters like me would notice this, I would swing around and look up to see that the powerful beam, casting its own little moving image on the glass, had moved from one window to another. Anticipating a reel switch, typically when the scratches started appearing on screen and turning around in time to catch it was pure thrill.
Touring A Multiplex
Having had the privilege of a conducted tour of a modern multiplex in a north Mumbai suburb the other day, I am sad to report that the charm's somewhat diminished though its replaced by a different form of technology-driven excitement. The institutionalization of the business is all there to see, my host looks after marketing for this chain of multiplexes and reels off an array of box office statistics and movie hall economics, once an impossibility in this secretive industry.
The projector room is out of bounds; in the old days, while walking down from the dress circle after the movie, you would glance through the open door and note the frenetic activity, reels being picked up and thrown about. The men who controlled your mind and emotions for the past hour and a half or three look serious and purposeful as they prepare for a next show.
We leave the quiet, carpeted confines of the foyer and its Subway and popcorn counters with their attendants expectantly awaiting the next intermission. We walk past the doors to Screen 2 and 3, overhear the sounds emanating from within and head for the emergency door. We go up two flights and knock on a door which says quite simply, Projector Room. Its access controlled with swipe cards. Obviously, our host’s card did not work here.
The door opens, a cool blast of air-conditioning hits us as a smart, mustached young man, sporting the multiplex colours on his working T-Shirt, lets us in. He is alone. As I learn, he can manage film, stills, sound and yet not be weighed down as our tour proceeded to demonstrate. In some countries in the west, there has been talk of doing away with the projectionist altogether.
Not A Can of Worms
Everything is neat and orderly, the cans are still there but neatly stacked up. The film is transferred to separate spools which are once again filed in a low bookcase like cupboard. The big surprise is the 'platter'. No longer, necessarily do films unspool from a reel on the top and get wound on to the one in the bottom.
Instead, the entire film is wound on a giant horizontal alumunium disc, maybe five feet in diameter and affixed to metal column. From the motor driven disc or platter, the film moves through an elaborate set of spring loaded pulleys and rollers, some screwed to the wall, to the sprockets on the projector and then back again into another platter just below the first one. And this really is what makes a multiplex tick in the truest sense, complete economies of scale in operation.
The platter system was invented around twenty years ago but are making their presence felt in India only now, presumably. Interestingly, the the film is lifted from the middle of the platter and not from the outside, so you don’t lose time rewinding between shows. Typically, two or three platters might be mounted on the column.
Served On A Platter
The platters spin steadily and silently on, the projectors continue to whirr away but much less noisily than the old days – they don't look much different either. Another key change and avantage of the platter system: the entire show, including trailers, advertisements and, now, the national anthem, is loaded onto one platter with reels spliced together. So no more jerky shifts or for that matter beams shifting from one window to the other.
The Platter Approach (pic courtesy: TACC, France)
The room has just two projectors, each beaming out from opposite sides into different halls. The film emerging from one platter meant for one auditorium could technically be wound into another platter across the room for playout in the next hall. Our host explained, "It happens mostly in premiere shows when there is only one set of reels going around, so we show the movie with a five minute gap in two auditoriums." Another small slide projector takes care of the stills, that's not changed really.
The sound console is a simple, vertical rack, the kind you would see in your computer room in the office, with a bunch of desktop like units stacked up vertically. The one on the top looks different and has a display, it's the main processor and has a few knobs.
The man in charge explains that the processor recognizes the input and accordingly displays the result, for instance, Dolby Surround EX and so on. Volume is defined in numbers, 5, 6 or 7. I'm told its usually bumped up when the songs come on. In most Hindi films, this is the cue for most viewers, particularly the men, to go out and stretch, smoke or visit the toilets.
First Day First Show
Bunty Aur Bubli was playing in one hall while Ram Gopal Varma's gangster flick D ran in the other. You had to glance through the darkened window to see what was happening, no sound filtered through. So, Rani Mukherjee lit up a cigarette and bantered around in silence as did a few gangsters throwing money at a garishly attired dance-bar girl on the other side. Both shows appeared half empty at the least but the night shows would be packed I was assured.
Thursdays are the high point in activity, that's when the new films come in for a Friday debut and old ones are sent out. So, film moves back from platter to spool and then onto the can, duly broken up again. The multiplex management takes a call on which trailers to play when. For instance, one for an Amitabh-Abhishek starrer will play before Bunty Aur Bubli because the audience is believed to be similarly inclined. All this is neatly listed on a computer print-out stuck on a wall.
Some things don't change though, most first day first shows are chaotic, often they start late. For, like the old days, the cans of film still arrive at the last moment, either because they are dispatched late from the processors who are fighting various deadlines or the taxi bringing them gets stuck in a traffic jam near by.