The Tech Check / by H.P. Mendoza

"The theater itself, that venue, is a big part of what the festivals bring to the party; the filmmaker brings the film. The tech check is all about getting it right. Doesn't everyone deserve to get it right? Shouldn't everyone care about getting it right?" - Richard Wong

"The theater itself, that venue, is a big part of what the festivals bring to the party; the filmmaker brings the film. The tech check is all about getting it right. Doesn't everyone deserve to get it right? Shouldn't everyone care about getting it right?" - Richard Wong

I/IV.
     When I arrived in Boston for the screening of I Am a Ghost, I was already aggravated about requesting a tech check three times and getting no response. All I wanted was to calibrate the projector and sound before our movie screened to a sold out audience. Fifteen minutes before the screening, I finally get to meet Chris Hallock, co-director of programming for Boston Shudderfest. He seems frustrated and confused, almost as much as the patrons who are all standing on the sidewalk wondering where to pick up their tickets. (Both screenings were co-presentations at The Somerville Theatre by the Boston Asian Film Festival and Boston Shudderfest.) Apparently, he's been waiting to hear back from multiple people of his own. This is the frantic life of the film festival. Against my better judgment, I become the pest, again. "So, can I get a tech check?"

     Chris gladly walks me into the theater and I see the setup: a jumble of wires, a THX pre-amp and amp and random DVI, VGA and HDMI cables running from the floor to a big projector obscured by a wood casing. It looks very similar to the setup I have at home. This is the Somerville Microcinema. "For some reason," says Chris, "we can't get a picture." At this point, I'm damning the gods. Not only am I unable to calibrate the picture, there is no picture! Chris looks at me with a somber smile that manages to simultaneously say "I'm sorry" and "We'll make it happen." And all I kept thinking was "if we'd scheduled this tech check, we could have fixed this earlier instead of fifteen...no, thirteen minutes before the film is scheduled to screen."

     So, what's the big deal, huh? Am I being a diva for asking for a tech check? I don't think so. When you consider how much time, effort and money I put into every single shot of the film, it would suck to have all of that blown by a simple technical problem at the projection end. Richard Wong (Director: Yes, We're Open, Cinematographer: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) chimes in about this.

RICHARD WONG: Any given theater is essentially the funnel in which a person's film is squeezed. I think everyone at this point knows how much work goes into a film's picture and sound. When you are talking about films that are playing film festivals, there's even more at stake. You're trying to make an impression on the audience, trying to lure buyers, trying to make a name for yourself. The theater itself, that venue, is a big part of what the festivals bring to the party; the filmmaker brings the film. The tech check is all about getting it right. Doesn't everyone deserve to get it right? Shouldn't everyone care about getting it right? The filmmakers, the audience, the festival and the theater. Shouldn't that just be the standard?

David Kittredge (Director: Pornography: A Thriller) echoes the sentiment, while talking about the invisible expense of filmmaking. 

DAVID KITTREDGE: You're a filmmaker, you've made a film. You've spent loads of money (yours or other people's), you've stressed and sweated and lost sleep and spent weeks or months or years to make this film, hopefully with minimal casualties. The one thing you owe to yourself, your film, and your audience is to do whatever possible to ensure they experience the film correctly. So do a freaking tech check. These people have paid money, taken time out of their day or evening to spend time with your film. Your film most likely isn't made for a lot of money. Most likely it doesn't have stars. And yet these people have placed their trust in you, they're making a bet you'll show them a good film. You owe them. You owe everyone who worked on the film. You owe yourself.
"Look, the projection is just wrong. This isn't an opinion, you're projecting it wrong." - David Kittredge

"Look, the projection is just wrong. This isn't an opinion, you're projecting it wrong." - David Kittredge

II/IV.
     So, I'm standing there behind the projector staring at a jumble of wires, not knowing what I'm allowed to touch when Chris Hallock's festival partner, Mike Snoonian, walks in. He looks at me and asks, "Mendoza?"

     "Yes."

     "So, what's happening, right now?"

     "Well, there's no picture," I say, with despair. "Not even a menu. It's a black screen."

     "Ah," he says, noticing my frustration. "One question: When you shot the film, did you remember to take the lens cap off?"

     Funny. Mike smiles, knowing that he had to get it out of his system, and jumps into action. The tech check has begun.

     Dealing with the proper people, and dealing with them properly, is something Frazer Bradshaw (Director: Everything Strange and New, Cinematographer: Babies) does regularly. Thankfully, he does so with empathy.

FRAZER BRADSHAW: I make friends with the projectionist and get them on my side. I never dare be unpleasant, since that will usually get you nowhere, and the fate of my film's presentation is in their hands. I happen to have a theoretical knowledge of how projectors work, and have, at times, been able to get access to the projector to tweak settings myself. If one is met with hostility or unwillingness, it's probably because the projectionist feels defensive and that he/she is being accused of doing a poor job. No one likes that!

DAVID KITTREDGE: I'm not met with hostility as I am nervous defensiveness, because they were like"Holy shit. The film looks like crap and in my prep for all the afterparties and awards ceremony and making sure some PA picked up the cast from that movie from Guam, I completely forgot to make sure there was someone around who knew how to fucking work the projector." Of course, they don't say that. Generally they try to spin it, say "Well this is the best we can do." Or better yet, they argue: "Really? I don't see what's wrong with the picture!" This is even more hilarious when the picture is obviously wrong - anamorphically stretched, or out of focus, or slanted in some weird way to the left or right. Then, it's "Well look, I'll try to fix this, but we may just have to live with this."

     And that, dear filmmaker, is when you pull your trump card. It's the card no filmmaker should ever pull. Because I adamantly believe you can't pull it unless you're willing to throw it down on the table.

     It's the Diva card.

     You say the following: "Look, the projection is just wrong. This isn't an opinion, you're projecting it wrong. One of two things is gonna happen. Either we get the projection to screen the film correctly, or I take my tape and we cancel the screening right now. Period." That's when, in my experience, a real projectionist somehow is found and (after a couple of quick menu selections) the film suddenly looks right again.

As far as pulling your film from the festival, Philip Perkins (Sound: Salvador, Nova, Independent Lens) concurs.

PHILIP PERKINS: I have met with resistance from venues to making adjustments and changes to accommodate a particular film and even to doing a tech check at all. This is why the director him or herself really needs to be present and willing to go right up the festival chain of command to get what they want in this regard. Usually that seems to get things taken care of.

     The most common reason given for refusing a tech check is lack of time, running late etc--again, filmmakers must be willing to stand very firm to the point, maybe, of intimating that they might not allow their film to be shown if they don't get at least a brief tech check. I believe it is that important. The reasons for hassles over tech checks are often down to defensiveness of the technical staff (i.e. they don't understand what is being asked of them and don't want to admit it), their private issues with the venue management, the policies of that particular venue, info about the film not being passed to them in advance or downright laziness. Diplomacy is very important in this situation, balancing politeness and gratitude with making it understood that want your film shown as you intended it to be. This can be a tightrope, to be sure, and easier to manage if you have an associate with you.
"Get with the program, people!" - Philip Perkins

"Get with the program, people!" - Philip Perkins

III/IV.

     For some veteran festival attendees, however, the responsibility is solely in the hands of the presenter, not the creator. Quentin Lee (Director: The People I've Slept With, White Frog) has this to say.

QUENTIN LEE: I know many filmmakers who showed up at their screening, including me, and have gotten pissed off at the movies being projected wrong. My sense is that I have been to festivals over two decades and I haven't really heard of the need to tech check a movie. The "tech-check" really falls on the burden of the festivals/exhbitors as they are responsible for screening the movie right.

     But what if the responsibility is left solely in the hands of the venue? Do you run the risk of having a bad presentation that you could have prevented? Richard Wong speaks about the worst presentation ofColma: The Musical.

RICHARD WONG: One that really actually hurt the film was a press screening for Colma where I was not given a tech check. The presentation was terrible. The colors desaturated and contrast cranked.
"The presentation was terrible. The colors desaturated and contrast cranked." - Richard Wong.

"The presentation was terrible. The colors desaturated and contrast cranked." - Richard Wong.

RICHARD WONG: (cont.) So when reviews came out that came from that screening, they uniformly blasted the technical aspects of the film. I'd venture to say it distracted them from the film itself, as it would any audience.

PHILIP PERKINS: I've had a lot of cringe-worthy screenings, many of them back in the old 16mm film-print days. Anymore the worst issues seem to be the venue not playing a film mixed as surround in surround, playing a film mixed as stereo in mono, much too loud, much too quiet, distorted audio due to a misaligned or broken system, and a terrible dislocative sort of playback that comes from having the speakers in the wrong position (i.e. not behind the screen for the L/C/R, but far left and right instead, or some variation on this).

In addition, there can be lip-sync issues, although these are far more rare than they used to be. My main beef is with projectionists who will not change their patches or the settings of their Dolby Cinema Processor boxes to accommodate a video playback in which the audio has been encoded as an LtRt--Dolby Pro Logic in a stereo track-- so that we get our surround back instead of a comparatively lifeless stereo presentation. This is an ongoing issue as venues who formerly viewed surround as being exclusively the province of 35mm film presentations and video playbacks as being stereo only, are now getting virtually all new independent work sent to them in some form of video, usually with 2 channel audio. Get with the program, people!
Chris Hallock and me at the screening of I Am a Ghost co-presented by Boston Asian American Film Festival and Boston Shudderfest.

Chris Hallock and me at the screening of I Am a Ghost co-presented by Boston Asian American Film Festival and Boston Shudderfest.

IV/IV.


After surmising that the problem with the blank picture was a faulty cable, it left us with two minutes to do the tech check. "I'm sorry, guys," I said to Chris and Mike. "But I really want--"

"All right," said Mike, clapping his hands, excitedly. "Let's do the tech check." I didn't even have to ask. We turned the projector on, and after waiting for the picture to come on, we saw an unsightly mess. The picture was far from optimal.

"This must be killing you, man," said Chris, apologetically. Just his acknowledgment of my potential pain was more than I was accustomed to from other festivals. "We have to get this picture right."

Just then, a festival staff member walked into the theater, already pointing at her watch. "We should be starting now."

"We can't start yet," said Chris. "The picture's not ready."

"Ok." The festival worker looked like she understood. "How much longer?" Me, Chris and Mike all looked at each other, searching for a reasonable answer. "Ten minutes?"

"Done," I said, and the festival worker ran off to deal with the waiting audience.

Chris nodded. "All right let's go."

I'm going to save you all from the tedious descriptions of the tech check, but I'm going to list dialogue from our ten minute session, just to give you an idea of the teamwork involved. Whose voice is whose does not matter:

"Left."/"Good?"/"More."/"It's not doing anything."/"Can we keystone?"/"It's getting worse."/"The color is off."/"Fix the blacks."/"Good?"/"Lemme see."/"What's with the temperature?"/"Hey, how about this?"/"Perfect! Analog keystoning."/"That's too far, now."/"Yeah, it is."/"Here, use this!"/"Don't hurt yourself."/"Louder"/"What's your mix?"/"LtRt"/"Let's do this."/"No, the center channel isn't matched."/"Is there a discreet EQ?"/"Let's go stereo."/"Louder."/"Louder."/"Louder."/"Holy shit, we've got it."

Through teamwork and care, the three of us got the picture and sound right. And boy, did we ever. A sharp picture with detail in the blacks. Perfect saturation and no moire (a problem with lots of un-tech checked presentations that want to "zoom" into the picture), perfect channel separation and house shaking bass. I'd say it was one of the best technical presentations of I Am a Ghost, ever.

RICHARD WONG: I will say that some theaters and festivals are really great about this. The Castro in San Francisco we've played at many times with various festivals and they have been open to making time to make sure the presentation is good. Usually it means coming in at 9 or 10 in the morning, which is by all means fine by me. Whatever it takes!

PHILIP PERKINS: Filmmakers--tech check yourself, with your own ears, every situation! Don't take technicians' words for things working fine! Ask someone you trust to listen with you! Ask questions!

FRAZER BRADSHAW: At the end of the day, the filmmaker has very little control over how their films will be exhibited. We'll never know how bad our films look on consumer TVs and we couldn't do anything about it if we did. We have some control over festival theatrical, if we are there to manage it, and have the technical chops to do so. 

This is a shout out to Chris Hallock and Mike Snoonian of Boston Shudderfest. Without your hard work, dedication and willingness to help (not to mention our collective geekiness), I Am a Ghostwould have looked like total amateur hour. The teamwork before the screening was exhilirating, and many festival presenters could learn a lot from you two. From all of us at the I Am a Ghostcrew, we raise a glass to your attention to detail and love for movies.

DAVID KITTREDGE: You can't rely wholly on anybody on your team to know everything. Which is why, if it's your movie, you need to know the basics of everything. Every technical aspect. The camera. The codec. The workflow. Everything. Making a movie can take it out of you. Literally-it can take your money, your time, your health, in many cases your relationship, your sanity, your friends, your sobriety, and any sense of well-being. Of course, it's worth it anyway. 

David Kittredge is the director of PORNOGRAPHY: A THRILLER, (Winner, Best First Narrative Feature, FilmOut San Diego, 2010)

Frazer Bradshaw is the director of EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW, (Winner, International Critics Prize, SFIFF 2009)

Richard Wong is the director of YES, WE'RE OPEN, (Winner, Best Screenplay, LAAPFF 2012)

Philip Perkins is an Emmy-nominated Sound Editor/Mixer/Recordist for over a hundred films and television shows since 1976.

Quentin Lee is the director of WHITE FROG, currently on the festival circuit.