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Talking movies with AMC’s projection manager John Moon

John Moon has been in the movie projection business 20 years, and has done everything from IMAX to 35-millimeter … as well as witnessing the switchover from film to digital.
Photo: Bill Hughes

John Moon is a master of the big picture. The projection manager at AMC Theatres (formerly Rave) in Town Square since it opened in 2006 has been in the industry for 20 years, has worked all over the country, and has seen a significant evolution during that time—including the switchover from film to digital. Moon, 51, sat down with Weekly recently to talk about the nature of film—and what we really miss out on when we watch movies at home.

How did you get started in this business? When you’re younger you watch a lot of movies as a kid … I was very interested in the large-format, IMAX-type settings, because it was different from everything else. My first job was at the Louisville Science Center in Kentucky. They had an IMAX theater there. Most people start with 35-millimeter and go to IMAX. I went the other way.

How has IMAX changed over the years? It started as specialized films, Everest, Africa: the Serengeti, things like that. That was before they got into the movies as they are today. And it’s not really IMAX anymore. Even though the brand name is out there, it’s all digital now. You can’t reproduce … an IMAX frame is 10 times the size of a 35 mm. They still film it in 70 mm IMAX format. It’s just converted digitally. Here in Vegas, the IMAX theater [at the Palms] is not truly IMAX. It’s IMAX SR, which means “small rotor,” which is a smaller version of what they call GT, or “giant theater.” For it to be true IMAX, the film would have to be shown. That’s my perception.

Do you miss film? Yes and no. Film has a certain look to it, I guess you’d call it graininess. Some of the TV shows film in digital and they actually put the grainy look back into it. Otherwise it can look plastic-y. You see that with these high-resolution TVs. Even old films can look almost fake, like it’s a soap opera. But at the same time, I think any film can be converted to digital. If it was shot on film it’s going to look pretty darn good on digital. You could show a purist a retro film on digital and they wouldn’t know it.

Do you miss working with film? Like if a piece breaks and you have to fix it? I don’t miss that at all (laughs). Working with film on a weekly basis is pretty difficult. On a digital system we can run five different films a day in one house. With film, you’re limited to two pretty much because, mechanically, there’s just no room. You’re talking hundreds of pounds to move a film, and then you have to add clamps, and usually need help to move it. Then there’s wear and tear, moving trailers. On a digital system it’s just like a computer, you just drag and drop pretty much. With film it’s you actually have to cut film, make sure it’s lined up correctly. It’s a much bigger process to do that.

How about IMAX? Heavy lifting was part of your job with film. With IMAX, you actually had to use a forklift. You’re talking 300-400 pounds for one film. And it’s very unforgiving, because with IMAX there’s no audio on the film. It’s all external, so you can’t be off even one frame, otherwise you’re out of sync.

So much for the image I had in my head of just turning a switch on. With IMAX, we used two water-cooled lamps, where you’re actually injecting fluid into each end of the lamp while it’s running.

Sounds … dangerous. Oh yes, these can be quite deadly. Mishaps can happen. They explode. Knock on wood, I’ve been very lucky.

You got to witness the switch from film to digital. What was that like? Before I came to work at this theater, I trained with Rave at a theater in Texas. At first everyone wanted two projectors in each booth—film and digital. They thought digital was going to fail. They figured out quickly that digital was actually much more reliable.

Two projectors in each booth? Sounds like a horrible idea. It was. It was a mess. There’s a lot of film projectors out there right now that are used that are pretty cheap right now.

Any memorable experiences working with film? At the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. It was the grand opening day. We had some mayors there, our senator, the manufacturers. On that particular projector there was a key you would turn to turn the system on—we turned the key and the entire system just shut down. There were no replacement parts in Indianapolis, so we had someone on a plane from California … 30 minutes before showtime, we actually got it up and running. That was a hair-raising day.

What are the best types of movies to see in a movie theater? I think action films do better on a large screen than a small screen. And anything that has a lot of dialogue should be watched in a theater setting. Most people don’t realize a film or the image you see is only 40 percent of your show. 60 percent of your show comes from your audio. That’s why you can’t reproduce this in your house. You can get a huge picture, but very rarely are you gonna have six to 10 amplifiers going through 30 to 50 speakers in your house. So, most of your show is through the audio.

So … just about any movie, then. Yep! (laughs)

Any particular favorite movies you like watching in a theater? Some of the things from the ’70s and ’80 s are fun to watch. Westworld, with Yul Brynner. Soylent Green, that kind of thing.

There’s been a lot of talk about The Hobbit and its 48 frames per second rate. Some don’t like it. Do you like the direction movie technology is going? That’s hard to answer. We don’t know where it’s going in five years. I think if they continue advancing, I think things will look better. But again, the image can be reproduced (at home). I think what people are losing is the experience. A dark theater, popcorn, whatever.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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