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Paul Markey
What To Know

Reel good! We go behind the scenes as a film projectionist shares stories from beyond the booth

Paul Markey from Dublin’s Irish Film Institute takes us on a tour of a cinema projection booth.

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE the magic of cinema. Settling into your seat in a darkened screen as the world outside carries on. Even while you get lost in the film, do you ever find yourself wondering what goes on behind the scenes?

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“There’s never a dull moment in the projection booth,” laughs Paul Markey when The Journal asked him about his work as a projectionist for the Irish Film Institute (IFI). A lifelong passion for cinema led Paul down a fascinating career path. He began as an usher in the now demolished Screen Cinema and trained as a projectionist in a multiplex cinema in Liffey Valley before moving to the IFI. There, Markey has worked as a projectionist for over a decade. 

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 This September, the IFI celebrated thirty years in its current location on Eustace Street, in the heart of Temple Bar. During that time, it has shown thousands of films from An Cailín Ciúin to Citizen Kane and hosted interviews with acclaimed directors including Ken Loach. Its commitment to maintaining the tradition of film is as strong as ever, not only in its diverse programming but in the methods of screening the films. “Coming to work here was great because it’s also an archive and has every format you can imagine; 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and digital. I finally got the opportunity to learn about 70mm, which isn’t in any other cinema in Ireland,” he says.

Today, Markey is one of two full-time projectionists working there along with the technical manager who oversees the maintenance of the equipment and a part-time projectionist. He explains that the work can be physically demanding and requires great concentration and patience. The training process, too, is extremely intensive. 

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“Before digital came, it would probably take you around 6 months to a year to train. Then it takes another year to experience all the problems you encounter with this line of work,” he explains. “Back when I trained, I was operating 14 screens with 2 to 3 films shown per screen; it’s like keeping plates spinning. You’re running around constantly for 12 hours, and you learn everything really quick. It’s a job where you’re constantly learning. You might handle a certain gauge of film and then not work with it again for 6 months, so you have to retrain slightly or need time to get used to the different formats.”

The demand for projectionists has lessened as technology has evolved. “It’s mainly digital that’s used in most cinemas. If you go to a multiplex, there’s generally no one in the booth. It’s all programmed remotely so if something breaks down they have to ring someone in another country and they’ll dial into their computer to fix any problems. There’s no physical presence, we’re one of the few cinemas left in Ireland that has a constant physical presence up here.” He demonstrates how drastically the technology has developed by pointing to several large canisters stacked on top of one another containing one film (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in 70mm) and then retrieves a USB stick from his pocket which can be plugged into a server to play a film. 

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As Markey details the intricacies involved in his work, a hum of machinery fills the projection booth. It’s a sound he’s so finely tuned to that he immediately knows if there’s an issue with any of the projectors. Due to the nature of the machines – age, in particular – it can be difficult to find replacement parts. “If anything goes, if we lose even one little tiny screw on this projector,” he points to the 70mm projector, “we can’t do anything. Luckily, we’ve been able to use a 3D printer to replace some of the plastic parts. That’s one of the trickiest things because spare parts for something like this machine are very rare.” 

Despite the challenges that come with working in a specialised field, the physical component of the job is hugely important to Markey, especially in the digital era. “You can’t beat the human eye. [When testing films] we try to watch them all the way through, even if they’re digital because you just never know. Most of the time, they’re reliable but occasionally you might discover an incompatibility, something could be out of sync, or the subtitles may not appear. It doesn’t happen too often but occasionally you’ll catch something.”

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Furthermore, it’s that human touch that can enhance the audience experience. Markey reveals, “When you look into the screen and it’s packed, that gives you an added bit of pressure. If you’re running physical film to a full house, that’s really nerve-wracking! It’s a nice nervousness, though. You want to get everything right; check the focus is correct, make sure the sound is perfect and on certain scenes, maybe even turn the sound up a little bit. I used to do that in my multiplex days with There Will Be Blood. There’s great music in that film and several moments where it would add to a particular scene so I used to higher it up. Again, that’s the power of the human touch. It’s one of the little perks of the job.”

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