Noise, heat, the smell of oil . . . ‘that’s reel work’

Reel work . . . Regent Theatre projectionist Russell Campbell takes care of some maintenance on the theatre’s Simplex 35mm projector. PHOTO: JOHN LEWIS

Long hours and late nights in hot and sweaty conditions.

“That’s reel work,” film projectionist Russell Campbell jokes.

The 76-year-old is celebrating 60 years as a projectionist and cannot imagine being in any other job. In fact, he reckons his career choice was inevitable.

His mother and father met at a picture theatre in Invercargill – she was an usher and he was the relief manager of the theatre.

One thing led to another and a while later little Russell was born, and a few years after that, the family moved to Gisborne where Mr Campbell (senior) became the full-time manager of the King’s Theatre.

“At the time, we had a flat at the back of the theatre, and when you opened up the sliding doors in my bedroom, they went on to a concrete pad which lead to the back of the projection room.

“It was around 1950 that I saw my first projection room.

“When I went in there, the noise, the heat of the projectors, the smell of the oil, the soundtrack of the film and the colour on the screen action, and I thought wow. I was just bewildered.

“That’s where the seeds were sown.”

Thousands of film screenings later, he has just finished projecting the films in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre.

Mr Campbell started his projection apprenticeship in 1960, at Dunedin’s Embassy Theatre in Princes St.

He also worked at the St James Theatres in Dunedin and Gore, before getting a provisional licence to project films.

“At that time, I left Dunedin and went on a series of sojourns which became quite involved.”

He worked in small country town theatres around New Zealand which gave him a great opportunity to see the country.

Surprisingly, he did not get to see many films, despite having the best view in the house.

“When you’re winding and screening seven films a week, you don’t get to see anything.

“Everything just becomes another film. I could watch a film today, that I know I’ve screened, and it would be a completely novel experience for me.”

Fortunately, it was the mechanics of his job that he loved most.

Later, he gained his A-Grade Certificate and was able to work in the big city cinemas.

He spent seven years working at the Odeon in Christchurch before taking a job at the National Film Unit in Wellington.

“I didn’t realise that when I actually started at the Odeon in 1966 that it was the end of the heyday – the end of yje golden era, when everybody went to the pictures.

“Television had killed the movie theatre.”

Previously, going to the theatre was a whole-of-afternoon or whole-of-evening affair, he said.

There would be a series of short informative films, followed by an intermission and then the main feature film would be played.

“Now, it’s kind of like McDonald’s. You get one audience in, get them out quick and then get another one in.”

While there had been some changes to the experience for audiences, the greatest changes had taken place behind the scenes.

“Everything’s digital and on hard drives now.

“I think projection is becoming a lost art.”

A lot of theatres were now automated, he said.

For the past 25 years, Mr Campbell has been the projectionist at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre, and while he is semi-retired now, he still does projection work when the opportunity arises.

He said two of the highlights of his career at the Regent had been screening the Scarfies movie (because he also helped with the production of the film) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times

“I was so lucky to be involved in both.”