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Avon Cinema's two 75-year old projectors, pictured here with their Brenkert Enarc lamp houses, worked continuously every night of the week, 365 days a year, before they were retired in 2013. Taylor Umphenour
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Projectionists refer to film on a reel as either "heads out" or "tails out." The former has the start of the film on the outside, and is ready to be threaded for projection. The latter needs to be rewound before it can be put away, which is what's happening here on the motorized rewind bench. Taylor Umphenour
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The film in this photo is polyester based. Before that, acetate was the standard film stock, which was preceded by nitrate-based film. As Cinema Paradiso fans know, nitrate stock was highly flammable, and could even spontaneously combust. Taylor Umphenour
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Looking at a piece of 35mm film, most people focus on the individual frames. But there are plenty of other goodies embedded in the strip. Here, you can see two of them: Waveforms for the left and right channels that together make up this movies's stereo soundtrack. Taylor Umphenour
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No, they're not called cigarette burns. We saw Fight Club too. Cue dots typically appear in the same spot on four consecutive film frames. When the frames are played normally, viewers see a single dot for 1/6th of a second. Taylor Umphenour
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Most cue dots you see in movies are inserted in the prints themselves by the film lab during the creation of a movie's release prints. Occasionally prints were made that did not have lab cues, and in those cases, projectionists used a cue marker like this one to create the dots. Taylor UmphenourAdvertisement
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Negative and positive carbon rods in their original National boxes. As a movie plays, the carbon steadily burns and the copper sheath melts and drips into a collection pan at the bottom of the lamp house where it is accumulated and resold. Each rod typically only lasts only a few reels. Taylor Umphenour
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It's carbon rods that produce the light moviegoers see onscreen. A negative and positive rod are electrified and struck together creating an arc of electricity (an arc light). As the movie plays, the projectionist adjusts the burning carbons (called trimming), keeping them at the perfect distance from each other. This is a negative carbon, still burning hot, as it's pulled from the lamp house after a changeover. Taylor Umphenour
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The film is threaded up and ready to go here. If one of these rollers gets skipped or left open, the film will bunch up in the head of the projector, which can be bad for both the moviegoers and the 35mm print. Taylor Umphenour
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When a film is photographed for the widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio, the image is squeezed with a horizontal compression as it is captured on the camera negative. The result? Objects and people appear much taller and thinner than they should. Taylor Umphenour
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It's one of the most recognizable symbols in cinema, and one of the most misunderstood. The countdown film leader both protects the body of the film from being damaged by dirt and oil and also allows the film to be threaded up in a specific spot so that when the projector is started the images are projected on the screen precisely on cue. Taylor Umphenour
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This is what a take-up reel looks like just before a movie starts. The film leader is wrapped around the center; the entire reel will be full after about 20 minutes. At that point, a projectionist will change over to the next projector, and the take-up reel will be pulled from the machine and rewound. Taylor UmphenourAdvertisement
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Film bins were used to hold reels between performances. Each reel held 2,000 feet of film and could have a running time of up to 20 minutes. Most feature films were about six reels long, plus an additional reel of trailers. Taylor Umphenour
Working the projection booth at Avon Cinema was like a second film school for Taylor Umphenour. The single-screen theater on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island—a favorite among Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students—provided a sublime mix of unlimited free movies and a century’s worth of cinematic innovation.
The nine-year education would prove invaluable to the aspiring filmmaker. But as much as Umphenour cherished the analog world of carbon rods, lenses, and aperture plates, by 2011 it was clear film was dying—or at least fading into a specialty medium. Despite the protests of high-profile directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, studios were shipping fewer and fewer 35mm prints, and hundreds of art-house theaters like Avon Cinema were folding. Owners faced two choices: adapt (which usually meant buying a $75,000 digital projector) or die.
The Avon adapted, going digital in 2013. But for two years the owner allowed Umphenour to photograph and film what has become a relic in most US movie theaters: the 35mm projection booth. “I saw that there was an opportunity to take people into this vanishing world,” he says, “a world that was also deliberately kept in the shadows, unseen for almost a century that it existed.”The Avon Cinema projection booth Taylor Umphenour where worked on and off for 9 years. While no longer in use, the two projectors still sit in the booth today, surrounded by the exhaust systems, sound racks, wiring, and computer consoles needed to run the new digital projector. Taylor Umphenour
The result is The Cue Dot, a photographic time warp back to a place that existed for the better part of a century, but few of us ever saw. Taking its name from the small dot that flashes on screen for 1/6th of a second to signal an imminent reel changeover, the project began simply as a way to get people interested in what quickly was becoming a lost medium and artform. In addition to capturing and cataloging the archaic machines and instruments many theaters were throwing out, Umphenour wanted to also impart the magical feeling of being inside the projection booth.
There are shots of the copper-coated carbon rods that fuel the projectors, close-ups of input sprockets and lens cabinets, and of course the stars of the series: Two 75-year-old projectors that Umphenour ran about 20,000 reels of film through.
“For a piece of equipment to run daily, several times a day, for three quarters of a century, [it] speaks to the craftsmanship and incredible attention to detail invested by the designers of these machines,” Umphenour says. “To me, the film projectors are like a wondrous magic trick: thread them with a celluloid ribbon, strike the carbon arc, open the douser, and the stuff of dreams pours out.”