Theater History Under The Arches
by Philip Cosand - Projectionist
Few folks make the trek through six flights of stairs and at least three doors to get to the Eames projection booth. There are plenty of staff members who have worked here for decades that have yet to see where I work. And yet, whenever I have that rare visitor who wants to learn a little bit more, the most common phrase out of their mouth is, "Wow!"
Believe me, I understand. Sitting and watching a movie is a pretty one-sided experience. It is meant to be. All I really want is for people to come in, sit back and enjoy a forty-five minute documentary. Audience participation is not something that is really required. However, for those who do want to learn more, there is plenty to see.
The first sight that greets people is the IMAX projector itself. The fifteenth IMAX projector ever made, it is just a bit smaller than a Volkswagon Beetle. It sits there, content in its place in the world, greeting them with buttons that glow dim shades of red, green, yellow, and white. Once they get past that marvel, they see the actual film itself.
To begin with, we use film. Big film. Film used in other theaters is typically 35mm. IMAX film is 70mm. That means the film folks see in regular movie houses is about the size of a postage stamp. One fourth of that film carries the soundtrack on the side. IMAX film is much bigger, about the size of a playing card. The film is so big and so heavy that it cannot possibly be run vertically through the projector, it must be run sideways. Even with that massive size, there is no room for the soundtrack, so the sound is put on a separate reel of magnetic tape which is synched up to the film through a dubber. Picture a cassette tape player the size of a fridge, and that is our sound system. (The younger generation may have to ask their parents what a cassette tape is. Hopefully they still have an old one laying around in a closet somewhere.)
Showing IMAX films since the current projector was installed in 1979, the Eames IMAX Theater has screened somewhere around seventy-five IMAX documentaries. Three of those went over the fifty-minute limit of our platters. Due to the size of the film, anything over fifty minutes simply will not fit on our three and a half foot platters; they would spill over the sides. So for those few films that have encroached upon the ninety-minute timeframe, an intermission had to exist for the projectionist to stop the film, dethread part one, rewind the soundtrack, thread up part two with its soundtrack and then start up the second part. Yet one more reason why the Eames projection booth is the only "office" at Pacific Science Center that has a toilet within ten feet of a desk.
There are decades worth of details that I could go into. I could tell you about having a film arrive in 12 pieces, each covering about three minutes worth of film, and having to splice them into one giant film. I could tell you that replacing a Xenon lamp can require asbestos aprons and facemasks. I could brag that not only does my office have the highest elevation on site (I like to claim that I'm "above it all") and that through my booth window I have one of the best seats in the house. But for now, I'd just like to tell you how much fun my job is.
Imagine a crowd of over three hundred school kids all streaming into a theater so loud and rambunctious that I can hear them through the walls. Now imagine that same group of kids all sitting and watching a movie on space exploration or African elephants or cave exploration. NASA astronaut Susan Helms once said that she became interested in space because she watched The Dream Is Alive in our theater. With narration by folks such as Leonard Nemoy and Walter Cronkite, I get pretty inspired too. My personal favorites are the personal journeys, Lewis & Clark and Mystery of the Nile. I don't know how many people have cried during Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, but it is more than a few. For one thing, I think in a science museum it is only fitting that we try to teach folks through people, and I firmly believe that film is one of the best ways to do that. Secondly, c'mon, films are just fun. Folks use it as a reason to turn off their phones ("I gotta go, the movie's starting") and for the better part of an hour, they can escape whatever's going on in their normal lives and be taken on a little adventure. I get to facilitate that. If I do my job right; synching up the film, keeping dirt off the screen, then the audience will never even know I'm up there.
I really, really, like this booth. I came to this theater with my family and school groups and watched movies like Beavers and Fires of Kuwait. I remember covering my ears as a shuttle blasted off into space and the loud rumble of the engines scared me. So I challenge others to care as much as I do when confronted with the news that Eames will be closing over the summer. I'm going to have to find other things to do around here; other ways to get people to enjoy their movies. But when the theater reopens, I get a whole new toy to play with.
As far as I know, Pacific Science Center will have the first theater in the world with an IMAX film and IMAX digital projector in the same booth. A two-projector booth. That means I can play almost any movie I want. Of course, I still prefer analog, but I can understand the weight and cost of making films that can make them expensive. With the new projector, I will have a more advanced system. This new creation is actually two projectors that sit side by side, letting digital films play in 2D or 3D. The sound will be digital, the screen will be replaced, and most important to customers, we'll get new seats. But the one thing that doesn't change is that I still get to be one of the people behind the scenes, quietly helping people enjoy a movie. I'll show movies on an 8mm projector and a white sheet if that's what I have available to me. Instead, I get to use two of the best projectors that three-plus decades of innovation have to offer. Now that's something that might even make an old-timer like me say, "wow!"
- Eames is probably the only IMAX theater in the world (certainly in the U.S.) with a slide-through field flattener, the part that keeps dust off the screen. All others were built with or retrofitted in a pneumatic, two-glass system.
- If you want to know how many miles long an IMAX film is, multiply the running time of the film by 330.7, then divide by 5,280. For example, The Dark Knight at 2 hours and 20 minutes was 8.77 miles. Beavers, running only 32 minutes, is still two miles long.
- According to the running meter on the projector, over the last 31 years there has been a lamp on in the projector for 83,000+ hours.
- Assembled films weigh 125-150 pounds; any incoming films must be brought up through a series of elevators and winches.
- The Eames IMAX Theater is included as part of Pacific Science Center's classification as a historic landmark, and therefore certain walls and structures cannot be changed during construction.
- Back in 1998, the Eames IMAX Theater was closed when the Boeing IMAX Theater opened. The space was going to become a new dinosaur hall. Plans were changed and Pacific Science Center went on to have two IMAX theaters when Eames re-opened in 1999.