Cigarette burns

On Friday, Bill Pankow, Brian DePalma’s editor came to visit the classroom. He talked about The Black Dahlia and Redacted, Brian’s next film.

We asked him questions about specific films and about editing in general.

I asked about the reel change marks that I saw during the new Die Hard film. Films used to be delivered in a series of 20 minute reels. Cinemas used to have two projectors for each film. The first reel plays on the first projector. The second reel is threaded into the second projector. Ten seconds before the first reel runs out, a mark appears in the top right corner of the screen. The mark looks like a cigarette burn in the film. That prompts the projectionist to switch the projectors over when they see the second cigarette burn, which appears a few frames before the end of the reel.

The reason why this is important for editors is that it isn’t advisable to have a reel change within a scene. We have to allow for a few seconds of the film after the reel change not to be shown. The projectionist may switch too late, and the first few frames of the next reel may be missing – they are the frames left dangling on the outside of the reel if the leader isn’t re-attached properly.

That means we can’t have any important frames in the first few seconds of each new reel. Also the score and sound shouldn’t carry across reel boundaries or there will be a jump in the soundtrack.

This means that you need to bear in mind reel breaks when putting your film together. You need to ‘balance the reels’: make sure that each reel is as close to 20 minutes in length as possible, but not over.

These days films are played using a single huge platter connected to a single projector. So why are there the same marks in modern films? Bill said that films still need to be projectable in reels for executives and for festival showings.

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3 comments
  1. Andy said:

    Bloody hell, Alex.

  2. alex4d said:

    It turns out that films are often still delivered in 20 minute reels, the job of the projectionist is to splice the reels together so that the whole film can be played from the platter. Distributing 5-8 reels of film is a lot easier than distributing a reel that would be over 6 feet in diameter. I suppose editors need to allow for more ‘optional’ frames at the start of reels because it is more likely that they get lost during distribution than when they were shown on separate projectors.

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