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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.

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Jay Allen Sanford June 1, 2011 @ 8:14 a.m.

I remember in 1979 and 1980 when we first automated the reel switchovers at the long-gone downtown all-night grindhouse theaters, first at the Aztec and Casino on 5th Avenue and then at the Balboa on 4th and then the company's other SD theaters. It seemed like a space age miracle, to be able to literally flick a light switch (behind the snack bar!) at the buzzer prompt, enabling anyone on duty to seamlessly roll in the next reels.

That early automation was the beginning of absentee projectionists, rather than when platter feeds came in -- after the auto-switches were installed, theater owners Walnut Properties (who also ran moviehouses in Oceanside, El Cajon, and National City) cut the projectionist staff downtown from six people to only two, tho the remaining duo spent a LOT of time sprinting from theater to theater (including the Plaza and Cabrillo in Horton Plaza, the Pussycat on 4th, and the Bijou on 5th) to keep things running smoothly.

BTW, LOVE that you use a pic from a John Brahm film in this blog!! Been lately digging his work on the DVD sets for both Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff's Thriller ---


Scott Marks June 1, 2011 @ 8:36 a.m.

Love it when the film cinches on the big rotating wheel. Nothing more painful to the eye than oobleck-colored platter scratches.

Brahm's string of noirs in the 40s are remarkable. What I wouldn't give for a clean DVD pressing of "Guest in the House." If nothing else, there's always "Hot Rods to Hell," a film I've seen more times than my feet.


Colonna June 5, 2011 @ 3:13 p.m.

As a small boy, I remember a family movie outing (some crappy 1970s Disney live action movie with Kurt Russell - take your pick) with my parents and maternal grandmother.

After the movie, I overheard my gran talking to my parents: "You'd think they'd have better film projectors - all those holes in the upper right hand corner."

Guess what I was looking for at every screening thereafter? Thanks grandma!


KrugerSound June 29, 2011 @ 5:32 p.m.

Cue marks should be left on all DVD's of movies made before projectors were automated. That would be a true representation of cinema history.


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