Projecting Into The Past

Michael Lightborne made sound recordings of projection booths in UK cinemas, and now releases the results as an LP called Sounds Of The Projection Box (GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 177). As you know this German label specialises in unusual field recordings and phonography experiments, and this particular item is explicitly contextualised as part of the “Field Recording Series by Gruenrekorder”. Across ten tracks, what we hear are straight-ahead documentary recordings of the apparatus of film projectors, and their associated accoutrements, played back in pleasing episodes of sound art. We not only hear the motor of the projector whirling, but also the protectionist handling metal cans of film, opening and closing the door of the projector, and at least two instances where splicing tape (I assume) is being used to make repairs to broken strips.

Lightborne – as I write this, I realise what an appropriate name he has for a project like this – has been working on this since about 2016; some of his efforts tie in with an academic research programme, based at the University of Warwick. Their film and television studies department has an interest in documenting “the projectionist’s role as it passes into history”, noting that most modern cinemas have already made the transition from celluloid to digital presentation some years ago; I gather it took place, without much fanfare, around 2010 to 2012. At one level, Michael Lightborne is capturing evidence of a skillset which is already starting to look historic, like the way that hand-composed type was replaced by word-processors and desktop publishing (although I recently heard an anecdote about a class of young students who asked “Miss, what’s a word-processor?”). Among the projectionists featured on the LP are Frank Gibson at Warwick, Michael Sharples at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, and Peter Howden at the Rio cinema in Dalston (London). Different aspects of the projectionist’s tasks are faithfully recorded as sound events; Lightborne is especially interested in the rhythms and patterns of spinning wheels, the “sonic potentials” of projector operation, the role of the rewind bench…all of these operations necessary to the smooth projection of a film, and mostly kept hidden from the audience. (There might be a metaphor buried there somewhere.)

Speaking of hidden elements..the last track is interesting in that it documents the workings of a modern digital projector, by way of comparison with all the analogue equipment we’ve been hearing up to this point. The workings of this machine are all but impossible to understand; there’s nothing to repair, in the way of broken reels of film; and the only sound it appears to make is a whirring noise, caused by all the fans it needs to keep it cool. Michael Lightborne proves there is however an interesting “inner life” going on inside this box, which he discovered by pointing his electromagnetic coil microphone at its innards. (Joe Banks once demonstrated a trick you can try at home, using an AM radio set tuned off-station to “hear” the sound of your home PC as it starts up.)

The record also contains instances where the soundtrack element – be it music or dialogue – becomes part of the work. The two films where this happens are The Thing (by John Carpenter) and a classic Will Hay comedy. We only hear these elements because Lightborne is intent on capturing some part of the projection process (related to reel changes), but interesting audio artefacts are the result.

Hearing these whirring projector sounds certainly took me back to my art college days, when at Lanchester Polytechnic there was a 16mm projector and a dedicated technician who came in to change reels as we were watching films for our film studies course. I am one of those who loves the sound of a projector, and nod approvingly when I read of avant-garde film creators who created experimental movies with no soundtrack, expecting the noise of the projector to perform that task. However this line of thinking veers perilously close to the “materialist” thinking of the London Film-makers Co-Op, especially the ideas of Peter Gidal, who insisted on the “fact” of projected film as part of their deconstructionist agenda. Lightborne’s Sounds Of The Projection Box has nothing whatever to do with this, is not seeking an advanced aesthetic of our appreciation of cinema, and should be “read” mostly as documentary evidence. As such, he succeeds perfectly, and is clearly knowledgable and sympathetic to the history and context of the film projector in the UK. The images that are printed on the covers to this release (it’s a gatefold LP with a printed inner sleeve – six sides of full colour photos) were created by Richard Nicholson. Oddly enough his take on the subject, while still very sympathetic, is slightly more “romantic” than that of Lightborne, idealising and fetishising the equipment with lush colour images in razor-sharp definition. That said, the whole package does stir the heart and makes one tend to regret the shift towards digital projection. From 17th August 2018.


  1. Interesting “….created experimental movies with no soundtrack, expecting the noise of the projector to perform that task” many London Filmmakers Co-op types were cautious of or even hostile to sound, but can’t recall a reference to the sound of the projector which as you say creates an “inadvertent soundtrack”

  2. I was probably thinking vaguely of some “expanded cinema” projects, but I can’t cite a single example right now! My bluff has been duly called. Even so, projectors do make a nice soundtrack.

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