I have a character in a book who works as a projectionist, and during the changing of the reels, I need him to accidentally destroy the print. The film is an old black and white non-silent movie, and I'm not clear on the proper format. 35mm Academy format? What could he do in the process of changing the reels that could lead to one of them being forever ruined by accident? Many thanks!

  • You might wanna watch Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds".
    – BCdotWEB
    Apr 18 '19 at 9:19
  • 5
    Do you specifically want the character to accidentally destroy the film? It would not be at all unbelievable that a projector would destroy a film without any action from the projectionist. Also, this might be better suited to another SE such as WorldBuilding. Apr 18 '19 at 16:59
  • Neglect is certainly an option. He sneaked out of the booth for a bit, and I can have a thing go wrong in his absence. He doesn't necessarily need to be incompetent, and likely would not be. The key thing I'm after are the possible methods of destruction.I wasn't sure where to post this question, and I suppose WorldBuilding would also fit, but I feel I would find more accurate information here. My apologies if this is not the case. :)
    – kerbaled
    Apr 18 '19 at 17:26
  • I'm not certain this would be on-topic on WorldBuilding, they might class it as too story-based (i.e. you're asking for help with crafting your storyline, and not the world it takes place in). Nobody's voted to close, so I think this is fine where it is.
    – F1Krazy
    May 21 '19 at 15:43

Lighting it on fire would be one option, but certainly a dramatic option! I'm not sure how much of a "splash" you'd be trying to make.

Other ways to ruin film come to mind:

  1. Spill a drink (maybe a large soda) onto it.
  2. Have the film reel fall apart with the film spiraling off into a pile on the floor (this happened frequently with the cheap plastic reels used with modern, polyester film).
  3. He forgets to load the takeup reel, or it breaks, and the projectionist doesn't notice, resulting in a huge, tangled mess of film on the floor (it would be possible to recover from this, but painful).
  4. Mis-threading the projector or otherwise getting the film stuck in it, resulting in a worst-case of a projector case jammed full of film.

Options if the film is set in a modern cinema running a repertory title (in this case, you'd be running a platter rather than changeover system):

  1. The platter system spins out of control and throws the print off (yes, this used to happen).
  2. A brain-wrap (being one of the more technical terms, it's every projectionist's worst nightmare).
  • I went with a similar situation to the brain-wrap (cool term!), and also had it catch fire to up the drama. I didn't explain how it ignited, but I don't think it hurt the scene. The result was a tangled smoldering mess. I'm sure this would be an absolute nightmare for a projectionist. Thanks to everyone who contributed. :)
    – kerbaled
    May 22 '19 at 18:29
  • Keep in mind, for realism, if you've got any sort of a platter system in place, the odds of using silver nitrate film are small - where would it come from? Did he find an old print that had been stashed away?
    – theMayer
    May 22 '19 at 18:52
  • Pretty much. It is an old print, and only a few remain. The cinema was able to get a copy. The film was from the late 40's, not a real movie, just made up for the scene.
    – kerbaled
    May 23 '19 at 19:44

Set it on fire

Perhaps from a lit cigarette.

Old film stock was nitrate based...

Nitrate film base was the first transparent flexible plasticized base commercially available, thanks to celluloid developments by John Carbutt, Hannibal Goodwin, and Eastman Kodak in the 1880s. Eastman was the first to manufacture this for public sale, in 1889. Unfortunately, nitrate also had the drawback that it was extremely flammable (being essentially the same chemically as guncotton) and decomposed after several decades into a no less flammable gas (leaving the film sticky and goo-like) and ultimately into dust.

As this happened, the likelihood of auto-ignition increased even further. Projection booth fires were not uncommon in the early decades of cinema if a film managed to be exposed to too much heat while passing through the projector's film gate, and several incidents of this type resulted in audience deaths by flames, smoke, or the resulting stampede.


  • 5
    More likely from the projection bulb than than a cigarette,
    – OrangeDog
    Apr 18 '19 at 9:08
  • The real question is how do you control the burn so only the film is destroyed and not the whole theater. Apr 18 '19 at 11:59
  • Burning the film seems a little too expected. I can go with it, if something else doesn't present itself. A youtuber I posed this question to suggested a failing mechanism chewing up the stock. I might lean more towards this route, but other options are always welcome. Thank you! :D
    – kerbaled
    Apr 18 '19 at 17:29
  • 1
    You could always have the projector bulb burn out during the previews, and the only bulb he can replace it with turns out to be too high a wattage, or something like that. Apr 19 '19 at 5:26
  • @ToddWilcox: From what I understand, some theaters were constructed with a projection area that had its own roof and exterior access, and was separated from the rest of the building by fireproof walls and shutters, so a fire in the projection booth would pose no danger to patrons.
    – supercat
    Apr 17 '21 at 17:27

I have been a projectionist for over 20 years, so hopefully can help to answer your question. You don't say what period you are setting your story in as that has a bit of an impact on exactly how the damage might happen.

Nitrate film would have caught fire, from getting stuck in the gate of the projector and the heat from the Carbon Arcs. There were cut off devices designed into the projectors so that it would cut at the film at the top and bottom of the projector making sure only the film laced around the projector would actually burn.

More often than not, the reason that a film would get damaged while actually being projected is if a perforation on the edge of the film got damaged and caused the projector to lose a loop and get too tight or might cause the film to split in half as a result.

The other way a film might get damaged while being run on changeover is if one the projector it was on started to quickly and rather than slowly and would cause the film to snap.

In short, if the film had been on the circuit for a while, quite likely if it was an old cinema, then it is possible that the film had been damaged and that could get more damaged in the projector.

  • By my understanding, many projectors feature a heat shield between the projector bulb and the film which is intended to minimize the amount of infra red and UV which hits the film. Would it be plausible that a projectionist might remove the shield during maintenance and forget to replace it? If so, would it be plausible that a projector's cooling system might work just well enough that a film would appeared to project normally, but on each frame the dark parts of the emulsion could absorb enough heat to damage the acetate after the film had advanced?
    – supercat
    Apr 17 '21 at 17:41

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