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Changeover Cues: Trivial Marks or Strange Phenomena?

I've never gotten a satisfactory answer as to what those circular or oval marks are that flash by up in the right hand top corners of many videos. I've been told they have something to do with theater projectors, but I've only seen them once when I've been watching a movie in a theater. So what are they?

Well, you've been told right. They're marks that used to be made on all films for the use of film projectionists. At the end of each fifteen to nineteen minute reel of film in a theater, the projectionist would have to switch between projectors to keep the movie running smoothly. Usually a bell would sound when a reel was running low, whereupon the projectionist would put his lunch down, fire up the lamp on the projector with the next reel of film loaded on it, and start watching the screen through the window ports. When he saw the first cue go by, he hit the switch starting the next machine rolling. At the second cue, he would hit a couple of switches that opened up a shutter on the new projector and turned on its audio, and simultaneously shut off the first projector's picture and sound. This was called a changeover, and it is still performed at revival houses that only have a print of a film for a day or so.

Nowadays at your garden-variety theater or multiplex, there are often no projectionists per se. Instead of the five or six separate reels that make up a feature being projected individually, the reels are spliced together into one giant roll and fed into a single projector from a horizontal revolving turntable called a platter. Like an old 8-track stereo tape, the end of the movie is fed out of the center of the spool and spliced back onto the beginning, creating an endless loop. As the film runs only through one projector, there are no changeovers to be overseen by a projectionist. Without changeovers the marks are unnecessary, and if a print of a film hasn't been projected from reels, odds are it won't have any. On video, whether the unnecessary marks are there or not simply depends upon what kind of film source was used to transfer the film to videotape.

The nature of changeover marks is such that they are good clues to what kind of film you are watching. Very colorful marks with odd shapes in them are sure bet that you are watching a film that was originally printed in real 3-Strip Technicolor. Right in the middle of the big Broadway Melody musical number in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, the action stops and the soundtrack becomes quiet to accomodate a changeover, and, wouldn't you know, there are the colorful badge-like Technicolor changeover cues.

Technicolor Changeover Cue

Because ordinary changeover marks are made by scraping a tiny donut-shaped hole out of the film emulsion using a little editing tool, you can tell whether a film is flat or anamorphic (Cinemascope or Panavision or another squeeze-unsqueeze process). Circular changeover marks indicate a flat picture, whereas oval ones are a sure sign an anamorphic lens is being used, because the circular mark is being horizontally stretched out by the anamorphic lens. This is particularly useful if you're trying to determine whether or not the movie you are watching on video is flat or has been pan-scanned.

Oval cue indicates anamorphic print.

One more related tip. An anamorphic lens on a camera squeezes almost, but not quite, everything it sees. Just about the only thing it can't squeeze are the lens flares and haloes produced by bright, particularly small light sources, like distant car headlights. Point sources of light just can't be squeezed any more, so the haloes and glare refractions that are created within the camera lens itself are not squeezed. Therefore, halations and glare patterns in a 'scope movie will be oval-shaped when the film is projected, just like the changeover cues. A great way to see this in action is in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, when helicopters chase the heroes up a Wyoming mountain. The 35mm Panavision 'copters shot on location have oval glare patterns, but the model helicopters shot in flat 65mm have haloes around their lights that are round. It's also a perfect test in that movie to determine which flying saucers were shot 'live' on a set, and which were special effects concoctions. Check it out.

Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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