The act of showing a movie today is almost embarrassingly easy. Push a button and voilà, movie time! Digital magic, you know? All you have to do is press that button and the show will go on.
Now, put all that equipment outside and things get a little more complicated.
It can be a magical way to experience a movie, under the stars of a gorgeous Summer evening in Portland. That’s the appeal of Top Down, at least for the audience. For projectionists like me and my co-workers, it’s a whole different story.
The annual rooftop movie series put on by The Northwest Film Center is back and ready to kick off Thursday. The makeshift outdoor cinema will be built, as always, atop the Hotel deLuxe parking structure in downtown Portland, once per week through the end of August. The Film Center staff is a small but devoted clan of film lovers, and it takes nearly all of us every Thursday to pull off this event.
For sound, we have six speakers and two large sub-woofers shaped liked giant ice cubes, all run through a mixing board which is set up behind the massive 16′ x 9′ inflatable screen. Keeping that screen erect is a small machine that simply shoots a non-stop funnel of air through it all night long. If the power goes out, or some hapless child decides to pull the plug (which has happened before), it will deflate almost instantly, and we have to scramble to solve the problem.
Setting up projection, though, is the most laborious and time-consuming part of the process. We opt for rear projection up there, so the portable digital projector is setup behind the screen. This arrangement is akin to a great special effect: when it’s done well, with plenty of advance preparation and testing, the audience won’t even notice all the hard work it took to make it happen.
Portland is spoiled rotten with outdoor screenings during these hot Summer months. Most of them are free, relatively low-key community-based events at parks across town. Not Top Down, where your ticket gets you a seat to the movie (or at least a place to put the lawn chair you bring), a live band or DJ performance preceding it, and a stunning 360 degree panorama of our lovely city. If you’re lucky, a gorgeous sunset will not only fill the sky with more sparkling yellows, oranges and purples than a Terrence Malick film projected through black lights, but also signal the movie is about to begin.
Once the sun goes down, the real magic hour begins. After the film ends, the audience departs, almost certainly tired and maybe a little tipsy, but also (ideally) buzzing with the joy of a special cinematic experience. For the staffers on site, breakdown begins and we reverse all the set-up from the day, packing up the equipment, tents, and hundreds of chairs. If we’ve done our job correctly, there’s nary a trace that a movie was shown here, or that 500 people sat atop and watched it. We won’t be done working until 1:00 am, if we’re lucky. Working Top Down is a right of passage for the staff, something we all have to do at some point, and even though it’s exhausting and stressful as hell, it’s all worth it.
The seven films programmed for the series this year—can’t miss highlights include “Attack The Block,” “Raising Arizona” and “Key Largo”—include something for everyone. As always, it’s an eclectic mix of titles. Where else could you see Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” one week and then John Waters’ musical “Hairspray” only a few weeks later, all projected on a big screen? (If it’s windy up top, the screen will bulge in and out as though you’re watching a 3-D movie without glasses, which is a special treat, believe it or not). Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s 1986 film “True Stories,” less a musical than an art film inspired by that decade’s music video aesthetics, closes out the series on August 25. But first, this week, there’s Ed Wood’s infamous shitshow “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which you have to see to believe.
Now’s your chance to see them all, under the stars with friends and a bunch of like-minded strangers. I can’t think of any better reason to work so hard for one screening. There’s plenty more to this story, but at least now you know that simply pushing a button is only 1% of this event.
Erik McClanahan is a projectionist for The Northwest Film Center. If you see him and/or any other crew members at Top Down, make sure to say hi. Advance tickets are highly recommended for this event. You can purchase tickets for each film here.