It’s a job that might not be on the mind of the average moviegoer, but without the projectionist working hard behind the scenes, the people in auditorium would be left in the dark.
Sean Wylie, 43, has been a projectionist at the Real to Reel Theater in Johnson City since it opened more than 25 years ago. For someone who was born and raised in the city’s Skyline Drive-In, it’s a job that more or less came with being a part of the family business.
“In our family business, you kind of have to do everything at some point in time, even if it’s for no other reason than there’s just nobody at the time to do it,” he said.
But Wylie didn’t start out as projectionist. Instead, he worked his way up from a sweeping behind the concession stand and cleaning bathrooms, though he’ll be the first to tell you that he still wears many hats in making sure the theater’s daily operations go off without a hitch.
When Wylie’s father, Paul, opened the Real to Reel in the 1980s, he was asked to join the crew as a projectionist — a job Wylie didn’t have very much experience with at the time. With help from the theater’s other projectionist, Jimmy Thomas, who was a union projectionist, Wylie was trained in the art of putting the movie on the screen.
“Jimmy and I literally for two or four years were the only two projectionists here, and we just split every day,” he said.
One would work the first half of the day until the other came in to catch the rest of the night’s shows.
“Nowadays, if you have a schedule where you can have five or six projectionists at your theater, then a guy may be able to come in and learn the job and always have somebody standing there when something starts to make a funny noise or tension starts to build on a film and you know it,” he said.
Those kind of problems occurred quite a bit during Wylie’s early days as projectionist. While most longtime projectionists would probably remember running their first film, Wylie said he tends to remember the first tragedies over his successes.
On one occasion in the late ’80s, Wylie had to drive to Morristown to pick up a film for the theater, which he seems to think was the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street.” When he arrived at the theater, he found that the employees had not put it put back in the cans. With the entire movie still sitting on the giant round platters that hold the film, Wylie had to figure out how he was going to transport the movie back to Johnson City.
Without a ring to hold the film together, Wylie had to remove the film using clamps. By the time he stepped foot in the lobby, the film dropped to the floor, mixing together out of sequence. He took the jumbled film, put it in the trunk and made his way back to the Real to Reel, where he and his father attempted to put it back to together.
“We pulled this piece of movie out from under this piece of movie, and we got it to where it was ready to play, so to speak,” Wylie said.
When it comes to placing the film in the camera, there’s more to the job than just pressing play. The film has to be weaved through the camera and placed on strategically placed rollers with enough slack for the film to move through the camera without breaking. If everything was set up correctly, Wylie said the light, film and sound should perfectly sync up.
“You would like in a perfect world to turn the sound on, to expose the light and do both of those in a gentle manner and do them at a time that is eye-friendly, so it would look right,” he said.
The real art of projection is in cutting the reels together, Wylie said. Typically, a movie is delivered in six to eight reels that have to be pieced together in order to be run through the theater’s cameras. Taking the film, Wylie has to cut out “leaders,” a 10-second countdown to the start of the picture, and make sure everything is lined up from scene to scene and frame to frame.
As with any skill, it’s something that perfected over time and, for the most part, is lost in the large multiplexes of today. With digital projection taking over many theaters, the landscape of movie projection has been changed drastically. It’s a change the Real to Reel even experimented with for some time.
“In the past handful of years, then digital came along, and when digital came along, I think that’s pretty much completely changed the game into two entities,” he said.
Digital and film projection are two processes that Wylie said couldn’t be more different. In digital projection, everything is programmed through a computer, with the film delivered on a hard drive. While it takes out the process of physically cutting the film together and creating a full show featuring previews and commercials, Wylie said it does lose some of the art of piecing a movie together.
“There was definitely something missing from it. It completely became something that you didn’t even look at,” he said.
As the landscape continues to change, Wylie and the Real to Reel continue to offer second-run films as Johnson City’s only independent movie theater, and that’s something the family prides themselves on.
Wylie likened the day-in-day-out operations of the movie theater to that of a stage production, which would make him the man behind the curtain.
“We obviously don’t need as many people making the show go on at a movie theater that you would at a stage performance, but there still has to be a few people making sure buttons have been pushed and the popcorn is hot and ready,” he said.