Meeting the BFI’s greatest showman

CT climbs the stairs at the BFI IMAX in London to meet Michael Ford, chief projectionist, the careful steward of an award-winning projection team.


Words: Melissa Cogavin


Michael began his career shadowing his own mum who was projectionist at the Swiss Centre and the Cameo Charing Cross Road and, before that, the Gaumont Haymaket before it became Odeon Haymarket in the 1950s. A lifelong Southend resident, he has been with Odeon as a projectionist for 40 years, with the last five at the IMAX in Waterloo. Michael is known for many things, but I was told to expect a decent cup of tea before anything else. He didn’t disappoint.

I was curious to know about his background and his influences. So your passion comes from your mum? “Well yes,” he says, “but I think it’s because she brought me up on her own. Sometimes she couldn’t get a babysitter, so I’d go to work with her and sit in the back of the cinema and get told, don’t make a sound!” What an amazing time to be at the movies, I note. “Not really — I saw a lot of terrible films!”

Modest to a fault, Michael can’t really pin down one particularly fond memory over another during his long career, and he tells me part of his passion for the industry is that “you never know what’s going to happen next.” He admits there are so many good times, it’s difficult to say. What a lovely tribute to the industry, I tell him, that you can’t isolate any one moment. I was expecting him to get starry eyed about the time he bought Sean Connery a pint but no, he’s not impressed by that kind of thing.

As the kettle boils, Michael tells me more about his background. “I worked mainly at the Odeon Southend and then for 19 years at the Odeon Elmer Approach which was like an old theatre. For the past five years I’ve been commuting to the BFI IMAX.” How long does that take? “On a good day, an hour and a half. On a bad day, up to 3 hours…”

I was curious to know about Michael’s mentors and influencers. “Steven Cronin trained me. He’s still in the business in Malta, and he’d tell me stories about Phil Crawley and his friend Michael who used to be at Marble Arch. I used to go to these cinemas, look at them and think, wow, these are like real legends, I’m in the presence of greatness!”

How did they influence you? “Presentation. 100%. Make the music timed, not faded out. Go the extra mile.” I’d heard that in particular Michael worked hard to set the auditorium lighting to match the colour theme on the screen, a nice touch that makes the IMAX truly stand out. “We are very lucky as we have a DMX lighting system in RGB so for “Jurassic World” we would create a green-and-blue scheme to look like the Earth, and then for something like a desert scene we would light it in orange and so on.” 

True cinephiles say exhibition is about showmanship, and presentation is an integral part of that. I wanted to know if Michael felt that has changed over the years if at all, and what he still insists on. “You’ve got to get the basics right first. First it’s the sound in the auditorium, before every show I go down and check it. IMAX is supposed to be self-calibrating audio-wise but you want to go down there and check it yourself. Temperature — I go and check it, is it too warm? It’s all very well looking at a thermometer, but there’s nothing like testing it yourself.”

On the modern audio assault

Michael’s walkie-talkie crackled; while he was attending to something in the booth I wondered if he found volume an issue. Seven is supposed to be the reference point but ,latterly, for the past 7-10 years it’s been so much louder. Or maybe it’s just CT’s ears that are older…

“Oh yes. With “Dunkirk”, again
that would have been calibrated to reference, but we had to run it 2db above reference and it was painfully, painfully loud. Those were the director’s wishes.” I suppose WWII was painfully, painfully loud at times; perhaps that was the idea. Do you find that people complain? “They do, but if it’s what the director wants — and it’s Christopher Nolan as well — they have to kind of put up with it.“

What have you learned about projection that you think transcends changes in technology? “It’s the desire to put on a good show. Some people say ‘it’s digital now, it’s not like a proper cinema’, but that’s just technology. You’ve still got to put on a proper show. They audience should be oblivious to you. That’s what you’re after. You’re not doing a good job when they start noticing you. Sometimes someone will point out the projectionist and everyone is like ‘Really?!!’

“We encourage school tours here. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave. We have a wonderful job and it wouldn’t be fair to not share that. You also want to inspire the next generation of projectionists — it is a bit of a dying art. Filmmakers come up sometimes and they don’t know anything about projection. They know their side but they don’t know this one.”

I ask Michael if he feels that filmmakers should have that understanding of projection — even if it’s digital? It’s more important with 35mm filmmaking than digital, he feels. I was curious to know if he shared the same resistance that a lot of people had towards digital in the early 2000s.

“I remember going to digital demos thinking ‘it’s not as good as film’ and ‘ooh the blacks aren’t as good and grey scales aren’t as good’, but then we had our first machine in Southend installed in about 2006; part of the Arts Alliance roll-out, We ran one film and then four months of nothing. We were still running 35mm alongside digital for some time. Then it was a see-saw and more digital content came through. “Avatar” changed it all. We had a second machine installed for it, then the next year another two. At the time it didn’t seem as good as film but it really caught up.” 

We agreed the skill of chemical development has been lost and is now a specialist area. “Chris Nolan said it’s a lot easier to colour time a film rather than digital because you sit with a guy and they grade it for you. With digital there is too much to play with. There are no limitations with digital, unlike with chemical. You wonder if the quality actually suffers because you have too much choice. Less is more.“

An award-winning team

2017 Awards held at Universal Pictures 10th Floor, Central St. Giles

I congratulate Michael on winning Cinema Team of the Year in 2017 ­­— it’s great news. I wondered what makes his team special and what sets his cinema apart? “Well I am lucky I have the team I have. They are all brilliant. I feel blessed that they are so good and it’s them that make the show. I mean, I just make the tea!” Modesty aside, I’m sure there’s more to it than that. What’s your leadership style? “I try to give them as much training as possible. I want to leave something behind, so encourage them to be the best they can be. To do that you’ve got to give them the tools for the job and responsibility. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s how they learn. If you inspire them they learn. Then they’ll go on and do so much more, inspire others, teach others. Give them the confidence to do it on their own. You have to be serious, you have to have a certain way of doing things, but you can still try and make it fun.”

Starting from scratch?

In Saudi Arabia has relaxed censorship regulations and cinema is enjoying something of a boom. I wondered what advice Michael would give to an operator starting from scratch there?

“Be varied with the programme, because there will be such a mix of things you could show. I was in a cinema in Malta recently — to get out of the heat — and once I bought my ticket, the woman picked up the phone and had a word with someone. I walked in, the show started and I was the only one there.” It makes you wonder how cinemas stay in business. We face down doomsayers every 10-15 years but cinema has always endured.

Does the rise of smartphones, online streaming and so on worry Michael? “Back when I started they said, ‘Oh, you’ll only have the job for about a year, video will kill us off…’, and in the end video did us a favour. People could record stuff while they went to the cinema. There’s always a view that cinema is going to die but it always reinvents itself. There’s no reason why film and digital can’t live together, but film as a medium will become a very niche market. Something new will always come along — you’ve got laser now and flat screen displays instead of cinema screens. No need for projection anymore, it’s basically just a massive telly!” 

“I’m unsure about that,” he went on. “I have a vision of a giant TV and a BluRay player round the back. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see, but the £250k cost for a small screen means it won’t happen any time soon.” It makes you feel sorry for exhibitors having to cough up every few years for yet more kit, I say. “That’s right. When we were on film, the actual film stock got better and changed, but whatever came out we just bolted onto the projector we already had. When we went digital we stepped onto this travelator that is just getting faster and faster.” 

Well, it’s not like the Met…

I wondered about Michael’s view on event cinema. “The opera is interesting. We used to do the Met here. And we had a letter from someone and they said something about the acoustics in the auditorium not being the same as the Met — the cinema is designed to be dead, isn’t it? — so for about six months we’d do acoustic readings, to get a profile programmed into the sound processors that gave us the reverberation, then we did a blind test. The majority of the audience preferred it over the standard set up. So there is a special set up for opera now thanks to one letter.”

Lastly I wanted to know, if Michael could bring anything back from his time as a projectionist, what would it be? Could be a Steenbeck, could be Barry Norman, anything he liked. Michael considers this. “I’d bring back the old Odeon at Southend. When they were knocking it down I asked them for a brick. The first guy told me to get lost. The second guy I asked said ‘which do you want?’, so I got one. When Jurassic Park technology becomes readily available I’ll clone that brick and bring back the Odeon Southend.”


Fact  File

Michael Ford, Chief Projectionist, bfi/odeon imax, london

Michael has been with Odeon as a projectionist for over 40 years, including five as chief projectionist at the prestigious BFI IMAX