In October 2022, The Block welcomed Tristen Ives as Head Projectionist, an integral role in the Block Cinema program. We sat down with Tristen to learn more about their work and background, and the skill, technique, and care behind a projectionist’s craft.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you find your way to projection and cinema?
I started projecting in 2017 and never looked back. My involvement in projection and cinema all started at the University of Iowa where I completed my bachelor’s degree in cinema. It was there that I joined the student-run film board, Bijou, and started working within its partnership with FilmScene cinema in Iowa City. I was extremely lucky to become a student projectionist at FilmScene and even more fortunate to work under the supervision of Ross Meyer, the Head Projectionist and Facilities Director. He taught me so much about cinematic presentation and passed down a love for the craft. I have him to thank for making the booth an inclusive space to learn and geek out over films, exhibition, and community. I felt like I belonged in a booth because of him. After graduating, I have worked as the Assistant Head Projectionist at FilmScene. I also worked as a projectionist year round for the Seattle International film Festival and Northwest Film Forum before coming to Block Cinema.
What do you love about your work?
I just love projection. From the handling and inspection of film print to the rush of starting up the motor – it gives me such fulfillment. When filmmakers hand over their file or print to a projectionist, it is such an exercise in trust. There’s nothing like providing joy to a filmmaker after a perfect exhibition. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else to pay the bills.
As a filmmaker, filmmaking and projection go hand in hand for me. When I started working as a projectionist, I soon realized how vital it was to understand film exhibition, how to export a film properly, how to mix the sound for venues I eventually wanted my films to play in, etc. I realized that there isn’t a lot of instruction offered to film students when it comes to formatting their films specifically for exhibition – at least not with the in-depth knowledge that I was fortunate to learn. Not only does projection give me a sense of belonging, it supports my knowledge of how to better exhibit my own work.
What drew you to the Block Museum? What are you looking forward to working on here?
When I first saw the job posting for the Projectionist position at the Block, I was immediately attracted to the programming. I love experimental film. I work in it, consume it, advocate for it. The fact that Michael Metzger and Malia Haines-Stewart love it as much as I do really makes the team flow. We are all on the same page. Over the years, I’ve realized how important it is for a cinematic team to intimately understand and appreciate each other’s work in order to fully appreciate and support each other. I wholeheartedly feel that appreciation and support from Michael and Malia and that’s not something you get everywhere in the projection field.
Additionally, the thing that sent me head over heels for this place is that our programs are free and open to all. In the history of cinema going, the cinema was made to be a socially accessible space to all and often reflected this with pricing. To have a space where you can see rare experimental films and often on 16mm and 35mm analog film for free… that’s beautiful. That’s necessary. And that aligns with my passion for cinema being for all, not just the ones who can afford it.
What is one thing you’d like audiences to know about the field of projection?
A common phrase used in the projection field is, “If you’re doing your job right, the audience won’t even know you’re there.” Which is a catch 22, right? As an audience, we often don’t realize how important projection is until something goes wrong, haha. But it is important for people to know how much skill, technique, and care goes into projection. And even more importantly, realizing that a projectionist being present in the booth is vital for a successful cinema.
Projecting analog film has become a unique and sought after skill that requires patience, attention, and passion. Even though digital projection has become more of a mainstay in theaters, the appreciation for film projection is still vibrant in the communities, societies, and cinemas that value analog film and work to keep it relevant. Veteran projectionists pass down their love, knowledge, and skill of projecting 16 and 35mm to the new generation and then they will pass it down to the new generation and so on and so forth.
You’re definitely getting a tailored cinematic experience when a projectionist is in the booth threading the film, changing the reels, sweating from the heat of the lightbulb, and praying to the universe that the film doesn’t get caught in the gate. This all reflects in the experience. So when you’re in the Block Cinema (or any independent art house cinema), about to see a film – especially when it’s on 16 or 35mm, think about the perfectly timed way the projectionist turns the lights down. How much time the projectionist gives you to sit and settle in the dark. If you’re quiet enough, you may hear the projectionist take a deep breath as they start the projector motor and lower the dowser to let the beautiful images dance in front of your very eyes on the screen.
What museum exhibitions, programs, or cultural activities (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
I attended the Jonas Mekas 100! Program at Gene Siskel and it was incredible. Mekas is one of my favorite filmmakers. He really shaped how I work with film and diaristic documentation. To see the Chicago community come out and support these screenings, the majority on 16mm film, was extremely warm and touching.
What are your upcoming goals for your role in the Block Cinema program?
I would love to work with the students at Northwestern that love film and want to learn projection. Since this was my gateway into the field, I think it’s so important for students to learn this in a safe and forgiving environment. The projection field requires experience, but how can you gain experience without being offered experience? If we can offer that opportunity for students to fall even more in love with the medium and equip them with the skills and knowledge that will set them up for success and keep the projection field alive and well in the future, that is a dream I will always strive to achieve.