Taking Cues From The Cue Dot: A Providence-based Effort to Preserve Film Projection History

By John Campopiano

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.– Rick Shamel on the film projection booth, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them. The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.

NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?

Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.

Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.

The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.

Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection called Film Leader.

The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening of FilmProjectionBooth.com as a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.

If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…

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Taylor Umphenour

NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?

TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.

NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?

TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.

NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?

TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.

NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?

TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.

When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.

I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.

NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…

TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.

As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.

NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?

TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.

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Avon Cinema in Providence, RI. Photo by Ken Zirkel

NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?

TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:

All For One (Continued) by Eric P. Gulliver

Inside the Booth by Stephanie Pixley

Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society by John Campopiano and Josh Thomas Gravel

Crate Diggers Part 1: A Man & His Projector by John Campopiano and Andrew Bobola

 

The Electric Grandmother (Revisited) – *Article & Video

By Eric P. Gulliver

Plot: A trio of children, traumatized by the death of their mother, and their father get a very special robot grandmother to assist them.

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It’s a joke in my family that I have no memories before my teenage years. “Don’t ask Eric, he won’t remember,” my sister often quips. To justify this, I tell myself that new learning has had to shove old memories further down the memory-hole. But why do some memories stick and others don’t? This question has become somewhat of a preoccupation of mine as I approach my third decade. Trauma can’t explain all the memories I do recall, because some are pleasant: there is the giant water fight on Bayberry Lane where we all got soaked, even mom. Then further along when us Tucker Street boys lit an enormous dead pine tree on fire in the town forest. Like that pine tree, these moments, though few and far between, illuminate small pockets of space through my formative years.

It was during this same time that movies began to mean something to me. I didn’t just let them fade, I would watch and rewatch them. I wanted to know how they were made. “How can they do that?” I apparently asked upon seeing the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins. I use the word ‘apparently’ because this is a memory passed along by my family.

One film firmly planted in my mind was the 1982 television movie The Electric Grandmother, which for some reason, my parents let me watch. This film stayed with me. And create memories it did. Although scene details were hazy, I could remember the unsettling feeling it gave me and the questions it posed. Does Grandma have to plug herself in in the basement too? Did she come from a factory?

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Maureen Stapleton as The Electric Grandmother

And everyone’s personal favorite: My wanting clarification that my grandma couldn’t actually shoot orange juice out of her fingertips for breakfast. Something about the subject matter affected my small mind. I would reference the film as I grew up, and now, strangely enough, I have to remind my parents what the film was even about.

The difference in these memories was not in images but rather in mood. In terms of TEG, I remember being unsettled by the grandma being delivered by helicopter (it was later I would learn she was delivered in a sarcophagus, an object I didn’t know yet). I remember Maureen Stapleton’s calm, almost robotic tone throughout the film. And being stupefied when she descended to the basement and performed her before-bed (or shutdown?) mechanical exercise, before plugging herself into the wall and rocking alarmingly in her rocking chair. Something about this image scared me good; I was never totally comfortable in my grandmother’s basement ever again.

It was later that I learned that this film was based on a Ray Bradbury story, in a discussion with John Campopiano, who had tracked the film down after I referenced it in a discussion about obscure movies from our past. In a stroke of chance, another of John’s friends, Adam, also referenced TEG stating that he had an extended version on 16mm. This serendipitous reference spawned a night of revisiting The Electric Grandmother projected on 16mm film.

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The Electric Grandmother re-fills Agatha’s milk glass

For Adam and I, the film is still unsettling even upon second viewing as adults. The collective cringing of our fellow audience members validated our unease from scene to scene. This time it was the sound effects that proved most peculiar for me; the positively frightening opening noises of the sarcophagus and awakening/activating of the grandmother, and the sound of liquid coming out of her fingers. When I think more about it, even the word choices one uses in regards to describing TEG are significant, too. Was she awakened or activated? Was she turned off or did she go to sleep? Did she actually love the children or was she merely programmed? Such questions may form the ethical subtext of the Bradbury story. Perhaps my small mind wasn’t ready to ponder these questions yet, and why it has held onto them so many years later.