'There's now no need for anybody to handle the content': Pete Naples on modern film projection

When I first met Pete Naples, he emerged from a projection booth wearing a leather jacket, sporting hair right down his back and the kind of beard that made him look like a suitable candidate to work in the bar featured in From Dusk Till Dawn. After a brief chat, it transpired he was a very pleasant fellow with a surprisingly vast knowledge on projection for one so relatively young.

Fast forward some sixteen years and he’s now a key employee for a highly respected company specialising in the repair and installation of projection systems. Since I’ve embarked on a mini tour of interviews looking at the projection craft, it seemed ridiculous not to speak to him about a subject on which he knows so much.

Ian Hoey: OK Pete, let’s go back. What drew you to projection in the first place?

Pete Naples: We have to go way back to when I was in Primary School. Of course, today kids will watch some DVD or something on computer in class but we actually used to get taken out the classroom and down to the school assembly hall to watch educational films of one description or another.

These were actual films?

Films yes, 16mm. Fife Educational Regional Council had an audio-visual library department. It was in Auchterderran in Fife if I remember rightly, a place called ASDARC. They made TV programmes, films, slide tape shows and all sorts of things. And quite often we used to get these filmstrips, which were 35mm film but stills – basically slides, but instead of being a single slide it would be a strip probably ten feet or so of film and you moved it one frame at a time and either a tape ran with it or some spiel you had to read.

I reckon we had something similar in my school, though I don’t remember the specifics.

We did get movies as well and these were 16mm and they had a...I think it was a Bell and Howell projector at the back of the stage and some of the teachers were terrified of this thing. So there were a couple of kids, me and my mate Stuart, who learned how to use it. Usually when it was our class having to watch a film we would run this thing. Then, in the cinema we went to, to get into the projection room you actually had to go through the auditorium and, whenever I was at the cinema, I was that kid who was always sat there looking at the back trying to catch a glimpse of what went on.

What cinema was that?

The Orient Express in Dunfermline, which was run by the now defunct Caledonian Associated Cinemas.

That was the actual name of the cinema, The Orient Express?

Yeah, named after the train. Later it became Robins, owned by Robins Cinemas who are also now defunct. The Orient was tripled and they called the screens Pullmans One, Two and Three.

Dunfermline Orient Express in the 1990s (courtesy Donald Kirkbride)

So how did you actually get into being a projectionist?

I was seventeen, thereabouts I think. You could date it by Jurassic Park, whatever year it came out.

OK, em…’93 or something like that?

Sounds about right.

(And I was right! UK release date - 16th July 1993)

My ex-girlfriend worked at what was The Orient and there was a job going as part time trainee projectionist. I’d just left school and had a nine-to-five Monday to Friday job but this was evenings and weekends.

So you kept your original job and took on the trainee role?

Yeah, I was working at a TV production company doing camera and lighting and that kind of thing.

Did you have school qualifications towards audio-visual work?

No, not at all, we didn’t do that kind of stuff at school. I think you could do video production but it was only very basic equipment based on VHS.

So you were now a trainee projectionist.

Yeah, though I wasn’t actually there that long. I came through to Edinburgh because I got into Napier University studying film and TV production and, when I got here, like every other student I needed to get myself a job. So I wrote a blanket note to every cinema in Edinburgh, every single one of them. Most of them replied with ‘thank you but no thank you’ but I ended up starting work at the ABC – the MGM at the time – on Lothian Road, what’s now the Odeon building. I worked on the floor mainly and helped out in the booth occasionally.

So you worked front of house?

Yes, I absolutely detested it. But a job’s a job, you know. I had to wear a waistcoat and a bow tie, can you imagine? [Laughs] And smile! While I was there, I got a phone call from a fella called Dave Rawson at the Cameo saying there was a position there – a projectionist position. Well I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained so I went there and had a word with him and about two days later handed in my notice at the MGM. I did four years at the Cameo.

How did the projection experience differ over the three cinemas?

Actually, not all that radically because it was all 35mm, all three places were three screens and all of them had really old gear. The Cameo and the Robins in particular ran on the Westrex Tower System, giant spools. The MGM used Phillips gear, platters, so slightly different but the feel was the same. And all three of them were old school cinemas and an awful lot of care and attention to detail went into presentation.

So the next job you move onto is OMNEX.

Yes, and still here! Knocking on fifteen years now.

So how did that come about?

OMNEX Pro Film, based in Stockport, are one of three nationwide cinema projection and sound suppliers, installers, repairers etc. By a quirk of fate, wherever I worked, the same engineer, Simon, used to turn up to look after the equipment. I used to joke with him when he came in the Cameo saying, “It’s about time you had an engineer up here in Scotland”. Simon incidentally came from Leicester so coming up here was a fair old journey. One day, they’d been due to come to the Cameo but were about six weeks late because they were so busy, Simon came in with his boss – now our mutual boss – and the rest as they say is history.

I assume you have a huge amount of travelling to do, am I right that you cover Scotland and the North of England?

Scotland and the North of England and I tend to cover Ireland as well because, living so close to Edinburgh Airport, I can be in Ireland in a couple of hours after leaving the house. There actually isn’t all that much work in Scotland itself because our market is traditionally in the independent cinemas, though we have done a bit for Odeon, their nearest engineer is in Nottingham.

By Ireland, do you mean Northern Ireland?

It’s the whole of Ireland. Forty-minute flight to Belfast, an hour and something to Dublin or Knock or Shannon, whatever. A fair old whack, although, I’ve been to Plymouth in the last twelve months, now that’s 538 miles from home I think. I’ve also worked in Spain.

I take it you’ve covered a huge variety of locations?

We’ve done multiplexes, but our niche market is the smaller, independents and very often jobs that are difficult, which are much more interesting. Things where half a building has to be demolished to get the projector in, or the projector has to be modified in some way to make it fit into a space. We tend to do a lot of arthouse venues as well for the same reason.

I’d say they’ve got higher standards than your regular mainstream cinemas but they have different requirements. Your average cinema has two formats, flat and cinemascope, technically it’s 1:85 to one ratio and 2:35 to the other. But there are other ratios that have existed for a long, long time so places like the Cameo and the Filmhouse are all about presenting some of these more unusual films and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to do it properly, which means presenting it in the correct aspect ratio. It also means presenting it in the correct sound format and even running speed.

How variable is the running speed?

Nowadays, largely everything runs at 24 frames a second but not necessarily. Anything that was made for television is probably 25 frames a second, silents can be just about anything. If you think about it, most of the silent cameras were hand turned, most people think that silent speed is 16 to 18 frames per second or thereabouts.

There’s no fixed speed, so you have to set up equipment that can do that. This time last year I was out at the Hippodrome, Boness modifying their 35mm projector so it can now run anywhere between dead stop and 30 frames a second. They were finding that single setting silent screenings, 16 frames a second or whatever, weren’t totally right. You literally have to screen the image and adjust the speed until the motion looks about right. These sorts of things are challenging, but a bit more interesting than twelve screens all the same.

The Bo'ness Hippodrome

What do you make of what is largely regarded as the demise of the projectionist?

It started a long time ago. When I first started loads of people told me, “You don’t want to go into that, it’s going to be overtaken by video”. We’re still here. But even then, in The Orient Express in Dunfermline there was a video screen, Screen Three had a very early video projector that hung from the ceiling.

And now digital of course.

In the UK it started to take off with the DSN, the Digital Screen Network, which was the Film Council, the late Film Council. And now we have the DFP, the Digital Film Partnership I think it is, which is a buying co-operative for independent cinemas. But we’re now onto what they call Series 2 Projectors. The technology is still not perfect but it’s far better than what it was. All the major chains have more or less gone digital and those guys are the major exhibitors so the distributors will gear everything to their major customers and the little guys must follow suit.

How do you think the cinema experience has changed for people?

It really shouldn’t have changed at all because 35mm done well is every bit as good, in some respects better, than digital. The big difference for the audience I suppose is that digital doesn’t get scratched, doesn’t get dirty. You can’t have misaligned sound. If everyone’s doing their job, it will look exactly the same on its first show as it will on its millionth show. That can only be a good thing.

There’s a whole argument raging as to whether it’s better or as good as 35mm, but frankly, the average ticket buyer really doesn’t care. However, it should make distribution cheaper and easier. You’re not sending a heavy box of reels, you’re sending either a small hard disc or, if they get their act together, you’re sending it in via satellite or across the Internet or whatever.

How soon do you think that will happen?

The satellite stuff is happening now.

Could that be the norm in a year or two?

It should be. There is no need now, really, for anybody to physically handle the content at all. Just like there is no real need for anyone to operate that machine day-to-day, which is a bit sad and has put a lot of people out of work.

But then we come down to the presentation. It’s one thing for a film to operate but it’s an entirely different thing to…

Again, a digital projection system, if it’s correctly installed and set up, can put as good a presentation on screen as an operator.

So it basically comes down to the cinema operator. It’s not an argument to say ‘there’s no projectionist, we’re all automated’, a standard of presentation can still be achieved.

Absolutely, yeah, there’s no need for it to be bad because there’s nobody there. Some of the problems start if the equipment malfunctions or it’s incorrectly programmed and then there’s nobody there to correct it. There’s definitely a case for having someone on site who knows what can go wrong and how to put it right when it does go wrong. It’s not an ‘if’ it goes wrong', it’s a ‘when’ it goes wrong. Also this stuff is not maintenance free. It has a hell of a lot of air moving through it to keep it cool. Air brings dust, so it has to be cleaned. There are air filters that have to be cleaned. Lamps have a finite life and have to be changed.

Talking of technology, what do you think will be the next big thing to come out? There’s been a lot of talk of 4K.

Most of the current crop of 2K digital projectors can be upgraded to 4K and all the 4K movies have also been available as 2K as well. There’s a big argument over whether 4K is necessary and, again, if you got the man on the street and showed him two pictures, it wouldn’t make a particular difference. It does have a big advantage on big screens because you get more light. So if you’ve got a very big screen and you want 3D….

Of course, that’s one of the main arguments against 3D, how dark it makes the image.

But that comes down to spending money in the right places. You need to put in projection equipment big enough for the job of putting light on your great big screen. Or in some cases you have to put two projectors in.

Really?

Yeah, you overlay the pictures.

So some of the big screens in the UK have two projectors overlaying the same image?

Oh yeah, though it’s not very common. I believe I read somewhere that the premiere of the last Harry Potter film had four projectors overlaid. Don’t know if that’s gospel truth. The advantage is that if one of these machines decides to have a heart attack you haven’t lost your show. But it’s a phenomenal amount of money, you’d be looking at, off the top of my head, £120,000 worth of projectors for one screen. When you consider that the high end of standard cinema 35mm could be bought for £10,000 to £15,000 and it would last for fifty years, easily.

What’s the oldest piece of equipment you’ve seen still in service as part of your job? I know the main Cameo one dates back to the Fifties.

Yeah, the two projectors in Filmhouse One are Fifties as well. There are a few places down South that are running Gaumont Kalee equipment and I think I’m right in saying that Gaumont Kalee went bust in the Fifties, so they’re going to be old. I’ve seen in Leeds somewhere a Simplex E7, which is pre-war.

Filmhouse projecting 70mm

Still working?

Still going, because 35mm hasn’t really changed and even these old machines, you can add modern sound, pick-ups and so on. I mean, you could take a piece of film made now and put it through a projector from 1900 and it would work. You can take a piece of film from 1900 and put it through a modern projector. Nothing has changed dramatically in all that time. Whereas the first digital projectors that I trained on are now considered totally obsolete. There are some still in use but they’re used for pre-show adverts and things like that, you can’t put Hollywood content on them anymore.

You must have met an enormous number of characters over the years, do you think there’s a certain kind of person that becomes a projectionist?

You could group it into two, maybe three types. There was die hard, just wanted to do a damn good job of it. You had the people that fell into it for one reason or another and also you get the nerds that want to physically handle Star Wars. You tend to find with a lot of them, the good ones, they’re very analytical to the point of OCD just about, but it is…was the type of job that actually requires that. And that’s what makes the difference between a good or an outstanding film presentation and a run-of-the-mill or bad one because, as a medium, it’s incredibly fragile. It doesn’t take much to damage it.

The frame is probably not much bigger than your thumbnail and think how many times that’s magnified onto your average screen, even one of the smaller ones. So a speck of dust off that suddenly looks like a meteorite, you know? What’s almost invisible to the eye on the film itself is extremely visible on screen so the people that do it really well tend be analytical…anally retentive…

Passionate is another way of putting it!

Yeah, very much so. You’ll get someone that has been in the game a long, long, long time…I was at a customer in Plymouth recently and the Chief Projectionist there has worked, I think, forty five years at that cinema.

Sheesh!

He’s an absolute gentleman and it was a pleasure to go in there. EVERYTHING was spotlessly clean, beautifully organised. His projectors in the big screen have water-cooling, which is not unusual on big screens but the pipes that carry the water in and out of the projectors are so well polished you can see your face in them. That’s real attention to detail and it shows. We’ve not seen an image on screen there with a scratch or dirt, a badly made join or any of those sorts of things. And they’re dying out. One time it was considered a proper trade. You did an apprenticeship and in many cases you attended college. Here in Edinburgh you went to Napier Polytechnic, as it was at the time. They had a department and you left with a certificate, a proper qualification. Not now.

Any other characters come to mind?

Of course, during my spell at the Cameo, I worked with the legendary Eric Saunders. Another local weel kent face is Bill Shearer, who seems to pop up everywhere. And we had a Chief Projectionist in a cinema in Carlisle, Jimmy, who was deaf as a post.

The Chief Projectionist was deaf? How could he do his job?

You don’t wanna know. If I remember rightly, he’d been there since he came out the army at the end of WWII and that place only shut three or four years ago. Certainly he was well past retirement age.

And he worked there the entire time?

Yeah, he had this fascinating collection of photographs on the booth wall. It was big old ABC cinema that, like many of those places, did live shows, bands and stuff. And he had all the flyers framed up on the wall; Rolling Stones, Beatles, Deep Purple, Bert Weedon, Chuck Berry, you name it. But he also did a lot of stage work, lighting and so on, and he had all these pictures of him, you know, “Here’s me with the Beatles”. A lot of people wrote him off because he was the old duffer and he was quite difficult to talk with because of his deafness but he was absolutely fascinating. Another funny thing, when you were in there he would give you a tip on the horses and he was always right.

Good to have another interest I suppose.

They all have vices, because their working hours are everybody else’s leisure hours and their life’s all back to front. They spend a lot of time on their own in a dark room filled with machinery that whirs. And after a period of time that goes for the brain, it does. You get some real oddballs. Years ago, I used to make Airfix kits. You’d get the show on and, so long as nothing went wrong, that was you for two-and-a-half hours. In Dunfermline we had an entire squadron of Spitfires up in projection.

Would you say female projectionists are a fairly new thing?

That’s more in my time, in the last twenty years or so. Previous to that it was very unusual. It’s not sexist but the physical demands were a major factor, especially if you’re dealing with towers. 13,000 feet of film on a metal reel is pretty damned heavy, you know?

Yep, I’ve had to lift one or two myself and it’s not a lot of fun.

It’s hefty and moving that around is challenging. Same with platters. If the film has to move from one screen to another, you have to get it off the platter deck and it’s not on a nice, handy spool, it’s wound round a ring. If you know what you’re doing you can lift it, though you shouldn’t really. There are devices to help you lift it, but again it’s big and heavy.

I don’t suppose you’ve encountered any old women that have been in the job for years?

No, only my age and younger. In Dunfermline, for a while the Chief Projectionist was a woman. I think she’s now either at the Prince Charles in London or the London IMAX. To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t seen her for twenty years.

You’ve worked in film environments for a long time, do you have any particular favourite films?

Yeah, Restless Natives, which a lot of people have never seen and never gets shown anymore.

I know, why is that?

I don’t think there’s a decent 35mm print in existence.

And it hasn’t been digitised?

It’s been released on DVD but it’s a very definite transfer. Somewhere, I like to think, there must be a master but, like a lot of films that weren’t a huge success, it may have got destroyed.

Anything else?

Apollo 13.

Really?!

Yeah, quite often things that I remember from specific places I worked, like Jurassic Park. Although some of them we ran for so damned long that it puts you off them. Pulp Fiction opened when I started at the Cameo and I remember Quentin Tarantino enthusing about how well we ran his movies but, you know, I’ve never actually sat down and watched one of them. Yet I could recite them word for word, scene by scene because we ran them for years it seemed like. I really love the good westerns including the spaghettis, and a lot of the late Forties, Fifties black and white British stuff. You know, Ice Cold In Alex and the like. My dad worked in submarines so things like Das Boot and We Dive At Dawn and all that kind of thing.

And that’s where I had to bring our conversation to an end. Pete has such an extensive knowledge and fascination for every aspect of cinema presentation that he could talk solidly for several days on the subject and still not run out of things to say. What’s written here is only a fraction of the conversation we had that day. He’s a passionate man when it comes to getting things right and it’s reassuring to know that people like him are still to be found at the heart of the industry.

Top image courtesy www.scottishcinemas.org.uk