By Patrick Z. McGavin

It requires a certain dexterity and grace to get inside Steve Kraus’s work space, a low-slung, tightly compressed room accessible only by a narrow, angular ladder on the top floor of a north Loop office building. His work forces him to spend hours in near darkness, in isolation comparable to that of a painter or poet. “When the job is done best, you’re totally invisible,” he says.

Kraus is the projectionist, sound engineer, and lone staffer of the Lake Street Screening Room, a 45-seat exhibition space that is used primarily for press screenings. The space was built in the mid-1980s by the local exhibition chain Plitt after they vacated their offices inside the Chicago Theatre due to a dispute between Henry Plitt and theater executives. The recent history of film exhibition is encapsulated in this cramped space–the consolidation of the national chains, the labor unrest, and the new technology that has significantly altered the craft of movie projection.

In the late 80s Plitt was acquired by Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon, and the suite of offices adjacent to the screening room were utilized for the Chicago branch administration. In late April 1998, in the middle of contract negotiations, Cineplex Odeon locked out its union projectionists, arguing that new technological developments had reduced the number of projectionists necessary to staff the booths. A week later, Loews Cineplex followed suit.

Today, with few exceptions, the standard projection format in Chicago theaters is the platter system, an innovation that fully automates the process of changing reels of film. Where once the projectionist had to master a carefully calibrated sequence of moves to successfully execute a reel change, the platter system runs the film as if it were one continuous loop. Once the projectionist has broken down, threaded, and correctly arranged a stack of 18-minute reels on the platter, the machine takes over. But it still requires a skilled projectionist to set up and monitor the system to prevent errors and breakdowns. In the early days of the lockout there were widespread consumer complaints of projection problems–films out of focus, reels improperly loaded, sound out of sync with the image, and mix-ups in lenses that created the wrong aspect ratio, so that the wide-screen image was cramped and distorted.

Loews acquired Cineplex Odeon in the summer of 1998. Officially it was called a merger, but effectively it was closer to a liquidation, as virtually all the Chicago Cineplex Odeon staff lost their jobs. The lockout continued through October, but was finally resolved when the union agreed to reduce the number of projectionists in the booth and allow a certain number of theaters to remain staffed by nonunion personnel.

Kraus won’t come out and say it, but it’s clear that he feels the artistry, fine care, and personal attention of manual projection have been lost with the increase in automation and the demands of productivity. “I’m a train buff,” Kraus says. “You could say the same thing about the steam locomotive instead of a diesel. Each engine has its own characteristics, each engineer his own personality, and that has been lost. Technology in film [projection] has gotten better, the cameras are better, the lighting is better on the sets. But the technology enables you to get the same result less expensively. The driving force of the technology has been to make things cheaper, not necessarily better,” he says.

On a lazy Friday afternoon, Kraus is preparing the first two reels for a screening of Patrice Leconte’s beautifully composed wide-screen black-and-white French film, Girl on the Bridge. “In a multiplex, oftentimes it’s a big long room with all of the platters and projectors lined up and the person is running down the line, threading up and checking on the quality of each one,” he says. Kraus makes sure the people watching the movie view it under the conditions the director intended. About a half hour before the start of the movie, he is fixated on one of the two Simplex projectors, meticulously checking and rechecking his work.

“That’s the difference between here and a commercial theater,” he says. “At a commercial theater, they’re constantly cranking out the same movie. I’ve run this movie before but not that many times. At a regular theater, aside from quality control, they’re not paying that much attention to the movie. They’re constantly watching the machines, platters and projectors grinding out movies. Even if I’m not watching the movie, I have to be aware of the reel change. I’m more aware of what the movie is even if I’m busy doing something else.”

The Lake Street Screening Room is old school, with two projectors that each handle only a single reel at a time. Kraus seamlessly blends the alternating projectors, keying the transition from one to the other, without, he hopes, any overt sign of the changeover. In the upper right-hand corner of the screen, a succession of dots appears to indicate the end of the reel. “As the reel runs out, I’m taking my place alongside the incoming machine. I have my hand on a button on a projector mode. With the incoming machine, I’ve cued to about nine feet to the actual start of the picture. That’s the same as six seconds. The first cue is called the motor cue–it’s on four successive frames. When the first cue comes, I start the incoming projector, but it’s not projecting because the shutter is closed. When you see the second dot, then you press a button, in some places a foot pedal; the changeover shutter snaps open on the incoming projector and snaps closed on the outgoing.

“Visually, on the screen, it’s just a change of scene. Some films are edited better than others. Some films have the dialogue way too close to the end of the frame. You want to try and get in that last bit of dialogue. There’s supposed to be no dialogue and no music at the end. Some movies today are edited very badly and they don’t accommodate changeovers very well,” he says. Kraus appears very cool and calm, though by his own admission, he works in a heightened state of fear that something might go wrong. “With a platter, unless something has been done wrong with the assembly, once you get started, it’s hard to screw up,” he says. “Here there are a number of ways to screw up. You’re doing reel by reel. You’re doing changeovers. You have so many thread-ups per show. I always want to do things the same way, just by habit, even if it becomes routine. If there’s a mistake I make, I’ll catch it before it becomes a mistake to the audience. It drops the probability that a mistake gets through to the audience. It doesn’t mean I’ve never made one, but that sense of the routine, it doesn’t mean it’s boring, but if I build enough safety checks, it won’t happen–at least in theory.”

Kraus’s father was in the army, so the family moved around constantly when he was young. He found a sense of permanence in technology. He can’t quite explain it, but he was enraptured with the mechanics of how things worked. Kraus studied political science at the University of Illinois in the late 70s, but his extracurricular life centered on a small film society he’d formed with some equally technically adept friends. “There were registered student organizations that ran movies for fund-raisers,” he says. “We did it because we liked running movies. Before video killed the nontheatrical market, we’d get a print and do pretty elaborate shows. We did two projectors, changeovers, previews of coming attractions. We would arrange to borrow anamorphic lenses so we could show 2001 and Apocalypse Now in their proper formats.”

After graduation, he worked for five years as a computer specialist at a bank in south suburban Park Forest. But he had a friend named Mark Gulbrandsen who had a side job as a theater service technician, and Kraus would occasionally accompany him on jobs. Through Gulbrandsen he learned about a part-time projection job at Cinecenter, an editing and screening suite that was, until its 1993 closing, the city’s top private screening space. Kraus was hired and proved to be such a wizard with the equipment that he was named chief engineer about a year later.

From its inception Cinecenter was undercapitalized, and when the company stopped attracting editing jobs from major studios, it couldn’t compete in the increasingly brutal market. On September 15, 1993, Kraus projected the last film there, the Elvis Presley movie Roustabout, from his personal print. (“It’s a widescreen ‘Scope movie in a dye-transfer Technicolor,” he says. “Elvis sings, he rides the motorcycle, he gets slapped by the girl.”) After Cinecenter closed Kraus was hired by Zenith Audio to work on two locally produced television shows, The Untouchables and Missing Persons, but he was laid off when both shows were canceled. With steadily dwindling opportunities to ply his craft, he went back to school and got a second degree in computer engineering from Governors State University.

“I should be working in a cubicle somewhere, but I’ve got film in the blood,” Kraus says. Rather than chain himself to the keyboard, he worked with Gulbrandsen installing projection equipment in theaters. In 1996, he rented his KEM editing table to the makers of the Bruce Willis action movie Mercury Rising, which had been shot in Chicago. One day he went to the Lake Street office building they were renting to service the machine. It was the same building that housed the Cineplex Odeon screening room. He walked up to the top floor, entered the projection room, and struck up a conversation with the union projectionist. Kraus told him how much he liked this method of projection–that he thought doing the same movie all the time was deadly boring. The work with Gulbrandsen was slowing down. When the projectionist asked him whether he was interested in running film there, Kraus jumped back into the craft he loved.

After the Loews merger, Cineplex Odeon shuttered its adjoining offices and subleased the screening room. On the last day of this past June, after weeks of uncertainty as to whether the space would remain operational, Kraus took out his print of Roustabout, and, as a symbolic gesture, showed about ten minutes to a group of critics who had stayed after the regular screening. But then, at the 11th hour, Kraus worked out a deal with the landlord to maintain operation of the space until the end of next June. He also changed the name to the Lake Street Screening Room. He’s still in business, but now the advent of digital projection threatens to make his work extinct. “We can do the same thing with digital a lot more cheaply,” he says. “Can a platter do a better job than a competent projectionist who’s doing changeovers?” He doesn’t answer his own question, but it hardly seems necessary. “I think the money should be spent to improve things for the theater and the audience. Make every show look like a real 70 millimeter show. You have to give something to people they can’t get in their homes: the communal aspect of seeing a movie with an audience; the biggest picture with the highest resolution. That’s what matters.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.