Sundance – behind the scenes

I work projection every year at the Provincetown International Film Festival. I’ve been doing it for 15 years or something, so it’s not hard to get back into. I work the same venue, and even stay at the same place, year after year. I have friends who live in town, so my hubby Slava and our friends and sometimes my parents come down to hang out too. I have time to get breakfast and sometimes lunch with them.

It’s great for me because it’s a small, walkable town. I can bike from my b&b to my venue in 5 minutes, so I can go home for food breaks easily. First show is at 10am; I turn up around 9. Last show is over by midnight, then I usually meet up with fellow projectionists at the Old Colony (if it’s open) for a nightcap. Pretty fucking chill. Plus it’s in June, so the weather is often pretty warm.

Sundance is a different story, not surprisingly. My first show is at 9am, and I get to the venue 7:30-7:45 to check the first show so we can seat by 8:30. In real life, I’m usually getting up around 9am. Ouch!

The geographic area is more spread out. I have to drive to my venue, but I can walk to town from my condo. There are some decent restaurants, but usually I picnic in the booth.

While I always aim for projection perfection, it doesn’t always happen. It’s awful when something goes wrong because the heat is really on here at Sundance because it’s a BIG FUCKING DEAL for the filmmakers! Ptown is late in the festival circuit. Most films we show have found distribution, and most if not all have been shown before – we have few premiers. The fest is aimed at the film loving public. Sundance is different in several ways. It is early in the film festival calendar, so we show tons of premiers. Some venues are strictly industry – screening for press and distribution companies looking to buy films. Indie films are made without promise of distribution, and won’t get shown widely without it, so Sundance is a real business-minded festival.

My venue, The Temple, is a public venue, but does include Sundance-chosen and audience jurors. Winning either official or audience awards is a real coup. You will notice these notes in film credits or trailers if you haven’t already. Sundance is one of the biggest US festival awards.

The fest is worked by outside contractors as well as insiders. I work for Hilltop, an outfit based out of NM that has been doing Sundance and other film festivals forever. (At Ptown I’m an independent contractor for the festival.) Projection tech is run by New Box. Someone else sets up the seats and someone else drapes the halls so they are black (you really don’t want to show movies in a white room).

Most people on the Hilltop crew have been coming back year after year, and they include projectionists but also the people who make projection possible – film inspectors and film traffickers. I know many of them from my last stint here.

Inspectors take a look at the movie ahead of time and determine specific technical details that will help the projectionists run a smooth show. They make sure the film will run, first of all, that it has the correct subtitles, how long it is, what the correct aspect ratio (shape of the picture) is, etc. We couldn’t do this without them!

Film traffic makes sure the movie gets to us in a timely fashion to be inspected, but also to make sure each screening venue has what they need when they need it. Also, some digital movies require a digital key, so print traffic makes sure that’s going to work. In the old days, they had to drive around giant film reels that weighed 60lbs or something- now it’s just a wee box. Clearly, print traffic is also of paramount importance to the show!

Projection is the last line of defense. We are all about presentation, helped along by our pals in inspection and print traffic. I try to set up my shows as far in advance as possible, but things come up.

Now that we are talking digital files instead of physical film, all these jobs have changed dramatically. As projectionist, most of my serious work is pre-show, setting up each “playlist” so the show runs smoothly.

The Go-Gos were in attendance for their doc!

The screen is almost never dark at a film festival. I set up a show starting with walk-in music and slideshow. Then I create a package that includes automation cues, screen-wash (a static image that shows behind people speaking on mic) trailers, promo tags, sound levels, lens shifts, and the feature or shorts. Shorts programs are the most difficult because there are the most chances for mistakes.

Once the show has been set-up, it’s just a matter of waiting for the cue to start.

We projectionists work with the aforementioned crew, plus theatre staff. I’m not sure who hires them, but it may be a similar contractor situation. In any case, they do an amazing job keeping it all together, wrangling projectionists, programmers, filmmakers, plus the general public. Most shows are sold out, yet start on time, at least at the Temple.

The projectionist ideally has a good relationship with these disparate groups. We run tech checks (usually audio concerns) for filmmakers when we can. We all want the show to run well! We work with theatre staff to ensure presentation. We communicate with inspection if we discover something they missed. Of course we work with print traffic to make sure we have movies well in advance of screening time.

So, what can go wrong? I guess it comes down to two basics – human error and machine error. Machine error is easier to talk about. You know, because they can’t defend themselves.

There is a lot of tech in projection. Projector, server that is home to the digital files (“movies”), audio equipment, backup files for projection, lighting, etc. There are many systems with the potential to fail, mainly because that’s just something that happens.

Human error can also insert itself anywhere along the way. Filmmaker errors and misunderstandings about how digital cinema works. (Note to filmmakers: if your film is a short, label it as such in your DCP so the projectionist can find it. Also, have your audio professionally mixed to a standard level, especially true for shorts.) Trafficking or inspection mistakes definitely happen.

Operator error is my least favorite, of course. Other mistakes can (hopefully) be identified ahead of show, but operator error happens in real time in front of an audience and maybe the filmmaker. Very stressful. But, like machines, sometimes people just make mistakes. It’s easier to forgive a machine, though.

When I accepted this job and relief projection was mentioned, I thought to myself that I didn’t want too many breaks because I wanted to watch as many movies as possible. But as it turns out, working a 16 hour shift isn’t reasonable if you’re going to do it every day for 10 days in a row.

Fortunately, I have a crack relief team, and we’ve worked out a schedule so I am able to go home, chat with my roommate, read a bit of my book or write this blog, hit the hay, and still get enough sleep.

On my first break, after 2 long days, I went home and napped. Then I went back to work, feeling much better. The next day I got a longer break, caught up on sleep, visited with some people, grocery shopped, took a soak in the hot tub.

Today I had some time off and went on a walk. I thought I’d climb up this big hill, but I forgot what it’s like hiking at elevation, so I quickly changed my mind after I lost my breath and had some major chest protests. I checked out the cemetery, took an off-road trail that hugs a brook, saw some ducks…pretty idyllic.

In Ptown, I always have time to get out and enjoy things. Here, I’m happy if I can get home for a nap! Still, I’m having a swell time and have seen some great movies, many of which I probably won’t have another chance to see, which is always the festival goal.

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