Always on Film: An Interview with Lindsay Laven, film archivist and projectionist.

Lindsay Laven’s love for film started at home at an early age. As with many other American families, her travel and everyday life were documented with cameras. For Laven’s family, it was a Hi8 camcorder owned by her father and, before that, an 8mm film camera owned by her father’s father. Home movies were watched as a form of entertainment. Soon, being in front or behind the family camera became an obsession that shaped her personal and professional life. Laven, is a full-time archivist and projectionist at one of the few movie theaters that project film on a regular basis in Los Angeles, CA. In this interview, she talks about her background, her many film interests, and what she loves most about being a projectionist of film in the age of digital exhibition.

Claudia Pretelin: Lindsay, can you tell us about your first conscious memory related to film?

Lindsay Laven: That one is difficult. I’d have to say the home films of my father’s family. They had tons of 8mm films. My grandpa was terrible at shooting film, getting the exposure correct, and a whole list of common mistakes people make when shooting film. I just remember being fascinated with it and not even understanding anything about the medium other than it looked curious, especially when there was a double exposure. I find it funny because later I would purposely experiment with these “mistakes”.

I’ve always loved movies. Many early memories have to do with them and how they made me feel. I have so many ridiculous in-depth stories. As a really young child I went the whole actress route. I wanted to be an actor or some sort of performer. I assume that came from being in front of my father’s camera all the time and just wanting more and more. My friends and I would call each other and start movies at the same time and watch them “together” via the telephone. We would act out scenes in movies. We would re-start the VHS tapes over and over until we had it in synch to our liking.

CP: When did you realize that this would be the professional path that you would follow?

LL: Going to the movies was my favorite thing to do. It felt like such an event, still does to this day. I suppose this all just happened and I didn’t even realize it. The interest kept escalating with age until it got more serious. I started getting into film history and classic films. I met other kids with the same interests and we learned from each other. It turned into digging really deep and becoming interested in foreign films, experimental films, B movies, exploitation films, etc. That opened another world I knew nothing about, which in turn opened a whole other chapter for me.

CP: Your training includes a variety of skills including filmmaking, processing, projecting, and archival studies. When did you transition from being in front of the camera to behind it?

LL: I went through so many stages of “film jobs”. I believed I wanted to be an actor, a cinematographer, to work on sets, etc.  For a while I really wanted to be an editor. I would sit for hours and hours in community college editing the perfect scenes for these editing classes until I was out of my mind. I had this really intense moment one night in the editing lab where I realized I actually deeply disliked it and to do it for a profession would not be for me. This was all digital editing, of course. At this point my main format was Hi8. I had shot film in my life but never saw the final processed product for many different reasons.

Then I moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. I was interested in the school because of their heavy influence with the underground film movement. Plus they still had an actual “film” department with actual equipment and resources, exactly what I sought out. George Kuchar, one of my heroes, taught there so I was on a mission. He had transitioned from film to digital for many years at that point. I would always laugh because he said he would never shoot film again. He said it was too much work and too expensive when I would drill him about techniques and equipment. He totally loved the new form and here I was so gung-ho about only shooting film.

While shooting and processing film I was exposed to the work of film preservation. I never really thought about film archiving as a job or what went into preservation. I only really thought about shooting film, developing film, film cameras, film techniques. That was that.

It was when I started interning at Canyon Cinema that I decided being a film archivist was my dream job and pleased every aspect of my interests in life. I realized the possibilities and then soon after the limits and difficulties of finding this type of work. I was at a total loss and the Bay Area was very limited to those positions. They were all very much so taken.

CP: Are you still making your own films? Have you archived what you’ve made so far?

LL: I haven’t shot any film since 2014, I believe. I still have a bunch of unused stock that I am keeping for the future. I know I will get back into it again. I don’t have the time I used to have anymore, but mainly it just hasn’t felt right. It was second nature at one point and I was filled with stylized ideas.

I was shooting digital/Hi8 shorts up until around 2016. It started to feel like a chore and that’s when I decided to break. It always has to feel right for me. I do have everything I have made archived and keep it very safe.

CP: What do you find most gratifying about archival work?

LL: Hands down the most gratifying thing is knowing that what you’re conserving hasn’t been forgotten and that it will last for years and years to come. That is important to me. It brings me actual joy and a sense of accomplishment to be conserving something I genuinely have a passion and interest for. Then tied for what’s most gratifying would be teaching others.

Image Courtesy of Lindsay Laven

When and how women became film projectionists is a story that still needs more attention. With limited scholarship focused on female labor in the projection booth and with fewer projectionists working in movie theaters, finding a woman working in this position is unusual but not unique. Besides projecting her own 16mm and Super 8 films at home, for Lindsay Laven it all started when she was a manager at The California Theatre. After she moved from Berkley to Los Angeles, in her current job as booth manager, Laven not only handles, repairs, and projects film, she also deals with the maintenance and care of the machinery and supplies.

CP: What do you like most about working in the projection booth?

LL: My absolute favorite part of the job is handling and repairing film I never thought I would ever touch, let alone see in person. Huge pieces of history. Learning from what I handle, whether it be the technicalities of film like stocks, fades, conditions, quirks, you name it. It’s like being part of it all. It brings me extreme happiness. It’s also the sort of job where I can learn and improve my practice daily.

Another aspect would be gaining knowledge from others who have done this work in different places, institutions, or in situations for far longer than I have. I strive to hold onto the knowledge and pass it on. I feel a duty to continue the legacy as it is such a specific trade and I had trouble finding mentors for a very long time. I am forever grateful for all that I learn from these folks.

CP: What’s a typical night like in the booth?

LL: My days are never the same. However, I always start by doing some test runs and then getting my shows ready to roll: threading up and cleaning. I do this whether I’m in one hour before a show or four hours before a show. I do it mainly because I can get carried away with organizing and planning but also inspecting. I am constantly working on the bench while I run film. But I pride myself in still managing to maintain a great image for the audience. I’m all over the place, a crazy film woman if you can imagine.

CP: Can you describe a favorite reaction from the audience when you were projecting a film?

LL: I cannot think of a certain instance, but I always love projecting when friends or family are in the audience. I suppose because they know I’m up there! There are occasions where people I do not know in the audience ask to speak to me after the film and I come downstairs slightly confused. They usually thank me and tell me the show was great. These are always individuals who work with film or were projectionists at one point and really appreciate it all.

Image Courtesy of Lindsay Laven

CP: And finally, other than film, what’s your favorite instrument of memory?

LL: Writing would have to be my favorite instrument of memory. At first, I answered photos but changed my answer quickly. Writing has a lot more intense emotion. When I read old writings, depending on what was happening at the time, my body will physically feel as it did back at that time. I’ve felt nauseous, physically gotten a red face from embarrassment, felt overcome with real anger, etc. It always amazes me how that happens.

Lindsay Laven attended the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) to pursue a career in film where she studied under cult filmmaker George Kuchar. During this period Laven began shooting, processing, and projecting her own 16mm and Super 8mm films. While studying at SFAI she also worked in the film processing lab as the supervisor and in the film check out department. Between 2010-2011 she interned at Canyon Cinema where she specialized in archival work. Laven has worked for different theaters in California including The California Theatre in Berkeley and the Nuart in Los Angeles, both Landmark Theaters. She is currently the booth manager at the New Beverly Cinema.

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