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Urban Explorer's Handbook 2006

Projection booths aren't like in the movies

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The three bears have nothing on Charlotte's projection booths.

Just as Goldilocks discovered as she checked out bowls of porridge and lumpy beds, size does matter. One projection booth in the area is so small it could be mistaken for a spare bedroom in someone's home. Another is so large its winding corridors bring to mind the maze unsuccessfully navigated by Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But the projection booth at Phillips Place is just right, at least for the dictates of this story.

Still, if there's one thing that all area theaters share, it's that they shatter the common perception of what a projection booth looks like.

"When people hear the term 'projection booth,'" they immediately think it's just a tiny room where some old guy puffs on cigars while sitting all day next to a single projector," notes Mel Shelton, the booth manager at Phillips Place.

For the sake of accuracy, projection rooms would be a more suitable moniker than booths, since most multiplexes contain so many projectors showing different movies they couldn't all possibly fit in one space. Indeed, the "booth" area at Phillips Place contains makeshift rooms divided by small steps and a couple of turns around corners.

Another common misperception today is that movies are either cassettes or DVDs that can be easily popped into a player, as if the movie screen were no different from a TV screen. (It's rare to experience a technical difficulty while watching a movie and not hear someone yell out, "Rewind the film!") In truth, each movie consists of several reels of film that arrive in separate containers, at which point the projectionist must "build" (i.e., attach the reels together) the movie to create one gargantuan reel. "It takes about 30 minutes to build a film and then another 30 minutes to take it apart once we're done with it," says Shelton.

The projectionist then sets the mega-reel flat on a giant horizontal platter. From there, the beginning piece of the reel is wrapped through the projector head. Once the movie starts, the machines largely take over, with the projector handling the visual aspects of beaming the images onto the screen and the accompanying sound rack (loaded with all manner of buttons: Dolby Digital, DTS, etc.) handling the aural experience.

Access to the projection booth is limited to a few people; most employees, such as those who work the ticket office or the concession stand, are prohibited from entering the area. "There's just way too much sensitive material for people to be wandering around up here," says David Jones, the general manager of Phillips Place. Indeed, Jones, Shelton and the theater's other projectionists, David Gray Beal and Rick Fulbright, are about the only folks allowed up there. Exceptions are made for security guards occasionally hired to keep an eye on the prints of high-profile blockbusters that studios fear might be "borrowed" for illegal copying. Wayward prints aren't a concern at this venue, though; Phillips Place has mounted security cameras high on the walls of the projection area.

In a way, the projection booth serves as the nerve center for the entire theater. "Almost everything is run from the booth," says Jones. "The lights, the heat, the air conditioning, the music heard in the lobby, everything."

Aside from the imposing projectors and the countless movie posters adorning the walls ("I don't think you'll ever walk into a projection booth without seeing lots of movie posters hanging on the walls," admits Jones), the rest of the area looks like a basic workshop, filled with boxes of supplies, empty containers and a shelf harboring spare amps, lens cleaners, wipes and screwdrivers -- lots of screwdrivers (I counted 10). Yet for dedicated practitioners like Shelton, the projection booth feels more like home than work.

"It's a great job," Shelton says. "To me, this place is like a big living room. I feel like folks are coming into my house as guests, and it's up to me to show them a good time. A lot of love and care goes into showing the films here."

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