Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Projectionists Take Cues From Marks
True films lovers have no use for watches; who needs Cartier when you can count cue marks?
Laraine Day & Q. Marks in John Brahm's *The Locket*
I miss cue marks. No, not my third cousin twice removed, but changeover cues, or cigarette burns as they are affectionately called. Whether they are round, oval or, in the case of union butchers, hash marks, these prompts appear in the upper right-hand corner of the frame every 15 to 18 minutes. (Two reels equal forty-minutes, three reels an hour, etc.) They were originally intended to alert the projectionist that a reel was winding to an end and it was time to perform a changeover from one projector to the other. In case the projectionist dozed off, three bells sounded as the cue marks neared the gate.
According to Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, “The first cue appears 12 feet (eight seconds at 24 frames per second) before the end of the reel, alerting the projectionist to start the motor of the projector on which the next reel is mounted. After another 10 1/2 feet (seven seconds at 24 fps), the change-over cue appears, signaling the projectionist to make the change. When this second cue appears, the projectionist has 1 1/2 feet (one second at 24 fps) to switch projectors before the black leader at the tail of the exhausted reel is projected on the screen.”
The platter system rendered cue marks obsolete. Multiplexes began mounting the five or six individual reels that comprise a feature film on one enormous platter. Instead of performing a half-dozen changeovers every two hours, operators are now free to simultaneously project several different films in several different auditoriums simply by re-threading and pushing a few buttons.
The only thing in the frame worth looking at.
Before platters (and the multiplexing of America), audiences were guaranteed a projectionist in the booth during the entire show in case the film hit a bad splice and went out of frame or focus. Nowadays, concession workers doubling as projectionists focus on the trailers and don’t return to the booth until it’s time to prep for the next show. That’s why it takes so long after you’ve lodged a complaint with an usher to fix a projection problem.
Cue marks can still be seen in 35mm exhibition prints, but not digitally projected features. To make matters worse, computer geeks are electronically camouflaging them on DVD releases of older films because they may be viewed as flaws in the otherwise pristine transfer. Why? We’ve lived with them for over a century. Cue marks are a part of the fabric of film. Let them be.
From now on I’ll have to check the time remaining on the DVD counter or, even worse, buy a watch.