Chapin Cutler

Third AMIA Film Projection Workshop to Be Held at BL&S HQ Later This Month

Founded by principals Larry Shaw and Chapin Cutler in 1977, Boston Light & Sound (BL&S) has spent the last 40 years taking theatrical presentation seriously. The company has made a mission of training projectionists to handle film carefully and adjust and maintain projectors to do no harm as precious film prints make their way through the chattering machinery. More recently, as film exhibition has become a decidedly boutique practice in the shadow of digital projection systems, the company is catering to a smaller niche of the exhibition community. Today, its mandate includes jobs like setting up one-off 35mm projector set-ups for film-festival screenings, or building on-location dailies screening rooms for film productions. In August, BL&S set up a 35mm screening of Reservoir Dogs at The Theatre at Ace Hotel for the Sundance Institute’s Next Fest, and earlier this month, the company installed a pair of 35mm projectors at Duke University in Durham, NC, and at the Dundee Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, where the nonprofit arts group Film Streams is overseeing a restoration. Higher-profile jobs have included crucial roles in the roll-out of projection hardware for 70mm screenings of The Hateful Eight and Dunkirk.

From October 30–November 1, BL&S and the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) are hosting a three-day intermediate-level 35mm projection workshop in partnership with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation at BL&S headquarters in Boston, MA. (Similar one-day and three-day workshops were previously held at the film-friendly Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX.) The goal, according to Cutler, is to continue passing along crucial knowledge earned by projectionists over the years and decades of film’s still short history. “I’m in a somewhat enviable position where many of the people who trained me [as a projectionist] in 1960 were people who started by running silent films and nitrate films, who were working in projection when they first put motors on projectors and when sound first came in,” Cutler told StudioDaily. “Larry and I believe that it is part of our mission to teach as many people as we can and pass on that legacy to as many people as possible, and that’s what this seminar is all about.” We asked Cutler for some more info on who is still projecting 35mm film in the U.S., how the upcoming workshop will help experienced projectionists train up, and what’s so great about screening 35mm film in the first place.

Students at a previous AMIA Projection Workshop check out the hardware

StudioDaily: What is the state of theatrical exhibition of film in the U.S.?

Chapin Cutler: There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 screens, or commercial movie houses, in the U.S. Of those, my understanding, based on information from the National Association of Theater Owners, is that about 10 percent can still run 35mm film off of platters. It may be less than that by now. Some theaters can still run only 35mm, and studios will still make a small number of 35mm prints of major releases for those locations. However, what we’re talking about with the AMIA workshop is exhibition of film prints on a specialty archival or museum basis, as well as at theaters on the arthouse circuit. In our area, both the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA, and the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA, regularly run 35mm prints whenever they can get them. A few commercial theaters continue to run 35mm film, but that’s a different category. That’s what an exhibitor or distributor does when Christopher Nolan says, “I want my film shown on film.”

In our case we’re talking specifically about running archival print materials under circumstances that won’t damage them or require splicing them together. It’s a craft that died in the 1970s and 1980s, when film platters began allowing a feature to be spliced together and run on a single projector — meaning you’re damaging the film print simply by the fact that you’re splicing the pieces together. The art and craft of film handling went out the window.

So that’s the focus of the workshop?

What we are specifically doing is teaching trained professional film projectionists who are working in archival or art-house circumstances how to service, repair, maintain and adjust their 35mm film projectors and how to handle the prints appropriately in order to keep these fragile artifacts healthy and wholesome and available to be seen by more people. To make sure they’re being handled in a way that’s respectful of the format.

Cutler with the elements of 35mm projection

Is most of the focus on the projector? It seems like improper use of a projector would be the easiest way for a piece of film to be damaged.

There are certainly a lot more moving parts to a film projector than a rewind bench, but an improperly adjusted rewind bench or improper use of one will damage a film print rather quickly. It can be disastrous. An example would be if you rewind a film print too quickly, and then the end of the reel comes and someone grabs hold of the reel, the reel stops but the film keeps spinning. Part of the film will accordion up, and that will scratch and fold and make all kinds of a mess.

And we’re teaching how to inspect a print. How do you respectfully repair a print? What can you do, what can’t you do, and how do you do it? That’s all part of the craft. Our program will involve the basics of that, but the main thrust is proper adjustment and alignment of film projectors, the lamp houses, the feed and take-up mechanisms, how to repair or replace major mechanical components, how to line everything up optically, how to deal with cleaning lenses and, yes, even cleaning portholes. It has to do with presentation quality as well as the service and hygiene of the equipment itself.

So what are the days actually going to be like for attendees at this event?

We’ve limited the number of people that we’re bringing in [to 12], and that is primarily because we have a facility that has to continue operating. We can’t overfill a place that’s used for technical set-up and prep. The current plan involves several different film projectors. We may use one particular manufacturer over a period of two days and go to a second manufacturer for the third day. But the truth is, we’re going to find out what equipment the participants use and set up one of their systems so they can dig into the back of it and get their hands dirty. In addition, we’ll have equipment that people don’t necessarily run into, so they can look at it and poke at it, including a bunch of antique hand-cranked projectors. The intent is not just to teach somebody how to change a sprocket, but to give them a better idea of the various forms that projectors have taken from 1900 to the present day.

In addition to that, we’ll be teaching people about lenses — what they do and how they work — and aspect ratios, various things that confuse people. One morning we’re doing a teaching seminar in what I call presentation quality. We’ll take the kind of film show we’d run in the early 1960s, which started with a cartoon or a short, followed by two or three trailers, and then a feature. We’ll replicate that with all the moves that it takes — curtains and lights and all that. We’re doing it at Coolidge Corner with the kind assistance of Warner Brothers distribution, which is providing the print materials for us.

StudioDaily covers a lot of new technology, and we write about 2K restoration and 4K restoration …

As far as I’m concerned, those are not restorations.

Digital “restorations” are not restorations?

No. A photochemical restoration of print materials or negative and then making a print on the same or better format is a restoration. As far as I’m concerned, making a digital copy and then making that look better is really a format conversion, not a restoration. Look at it this way: you go to a museum to see the Mona Lisa. You want to see the Mona Lisa as an oil painting hanging on a wall, presented in a way that allows you to appreciate everything that went into making the Mona Lisa what it is. What you don’t want to see is a lithograph of the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall. The difference between film restoration and digital is that one is the Mona Lisa, and the other is a lithograph.

One is the actual native medium of the work of art, and the other is something else. 

As soon as you do a format conversion from one medium to another, it changes, and there is no way to avoid it. Something gets lost when you go between different mediums. If you go from digital to digital, that’s great. If you go from film to film, that’s the way it was intended to be done. But if you go from film to digital, and then maybe from digital back to film, it’s not the original and it will look different.

Previous iterations of the workshop took place at an Alamo Drafthouse location

I know some film programmers who have been frustrated to some degree because they would like to program certain films from studio libraries as 35mm prints. They have trouble because, especially if there is a new DCP out, I am told, the studio often does not want to send prints out to theaters. 

A lot of that has to do with the fact that the print they send out is not the print that they get back. We are there to make it so that if WB Classics sends out a print of Casablanca they get that same print back. They don’t want to get it back with scratches and dirty and ripped-out sprocket holes and all the other damage that can be done to a print. In holding these seminars, we are endeavoring to make it so that projectionists who handle film prints know how to handle them properly. So that when Ned Price [VP of mastering] at WB or Grover Crisp [EVP, asset management, film restoration and digital mastering] over at Sony does restore and send a print out, somebody at the location knows how to handle that print, and what the studio gets back is not damaged from poor handling on improperly adjusted equipment.

I started working in a movie theater in 1964. It would not be unusual for us to get a print and run it for six months or a year and then have a print go back out looking as good as it did when it came in the door. Nowadays, people don’t know how to do that. There is no on-the-job training. The opportunity to apprentice in your home town to learn the craft is non-existent. What we are doing — and this includes the roll-out of Dunkirk and various other projects we’ve worked on — is bringing back and helping to preserve the proper exhibition of film prints. That’s our goal. The more people we can teach and train and put into the field, the more people there will be who can do film prints the way they should be done.

What happens when projectionists realize they need a part replaced, rather than repaired? Are there repositories where people have been collecting parts from decommissioned projectors? And have you been helping with that? 

Absolutely. When we set out to do The Hateful Eight, we located and purchased about 130 derelict 70mm projectors, many of which had parts that had been lost or broken. The machines were being pulled out of service for digital so they weren’t maintained or serviced, and the manufacturer had stopped making those projectors. We were doing this in 2015, and they had stopped making them 15 years before. So parts were very difficult to find. What my partner Larry ended up doing was designing and manufacturing about 125 different parts in order to rebuild and make these machines do what they needed to do. We’ve done that with other equipment, too. Of course, it is true that I’m a business, and I have to generate revenue to help support my overhead. Getting one of something made is very expensive. But if I can find a dozen people who each need two of something, then making 24 of them and spreading the development and manufacturing costs over 12 different entities is far more reasonable. That’s what we endeavor to do, along with buying up stockpiles of new and used parts from dealers that have gone out of business and maintaining as strong an inventory of wear items as we possibly can.

After nearly vanishing from the face of the earth, vinyl record albums have staged a comeback, with sales climbing to a 25-year high in 2016. Is there potential for a similar renaissance when it comes to film projection?

Yes, there is a resurgence of vinyl, because there are people who understand that listening to an analog reproduction of a concert is very different than a CD of that very same concert made at the very same time. The same thing is true with film. I’m a firm believer in the fact that the physiological effect of watching a movie as projected on a film projector is very different from watching television or digital. I am a subscriber to the concept — and there are people who are doing physiological research on this — that from the dawn of time until about 10 years ago, almost all entertainment that we saw were done around a flickering light. It started with people sitting around and telling stories around campfires or around communal town squares and stayed that way [through flickering film projection] until digital moved into movie theaters. Everything we saw was through flickering light. There is a very distinct difference between the effect that one has over the other. That’s one of the reasons why Dunkirk looks so stunning and was so enthralling as a 70mm film print. It was being shown to us the way we watched our entertainment for thousands and thousands of years.

The fee for the workshop is $350, and attendance is limited to 12 participants. For more information: