August 10, 2010

A Bright Future (Measured in Lumens)

by Vadim Rizov

Projections about projection?

When permanent technological changes are predicted to rev from 0 to 60mph in the next five years, it's best not to hold your breath. With digital projection, things haven't just progressed but apexed in record time. In 2005, early adopter theaters would tout their brand-new digital projectors as a special attraction. Now, seeing a movie in 35mm in Manhattan—if you want to be a super-purist—requires considerable cunning and advance planning for mainstream films, and may not even be possible. (That goes double for 3D movies: if you don't want to pay extra and want to watch the flat version, you had better act fast.) The rest of the country hasn't quite upgraded yet (and the arthouses are even slower), but just wait: the digital revolution, after years of excitable hype, is finally on the ground, with 16,000 screens worldwide (15% and counting, but far more noticeable in metropolitan areas).

Projections about projection?For the most part, this is a welcome development since technological process—for once—hasn't been a bummer fraught with complications. This is the first year digital projection has not just been up to speed, but ahead of the game. If, for example, you were interested in seeing Sherlock Holmes, The Informant! or any other digitally-shot movie released in 2009 by Warner Bros., you'd have been well-advised to make sure your theater was projecting it digitally: their 35mm prints, for whatever reason, have been prone to undesired artifacts (the glossily shot Sherlock Holmes became overly dark and muddy, while The Informant! lapsed into unfortunate video blotchiness). In these cases, film was an active downgrade.

BUBBLE director Steven Soderbergh You could track the evolution through Steven Soderbergh's work alone. In 2005, Bubble—an experimental, all HD-shot thriller released to theaters by Mark Cuban's Magnolia into Mark Cuban's Landmark theaters, keeping all the technology in-house—still had trouble with greys and blacks, glitching out like a defective webcast. By 2008's Che, everything was up to speed, flawless on its own, mildly plastic-looking terms. Warner Bros. may struggle, but outside the big studios, Soderbergh's work has completely resolved any early-adopter trouble.

And now digital's indistinguishable from film for all but the most expert eyes. Look at Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon for proof. Its digital black-and-white is sharper than anything film can do since labs are no longer skilled at B&W processing without looking freakish. Trying to figure out the shooting format while watching a movie is a hot new game for the geekiest of film geeks, and there are increasingly few giveaways left. Properly restored, digital projections of older films—like a recent MoMA screening of Claude Autant-Lara's Four Bags Full—come shockingly close to shimmering like nitrate rather than being an obligatory, second-best alternative.

The White RibbonThe only unreplicable thing that'll be missed about prints is an artificial imposition: the circular, changeover cues ("cigarette burns" for Fight Club fans) that used to appear in the top-right of the screen to indicate that another 12 to 16 minutes had passed and a new reel was either spliced in or ready to go on a second projector. It was a casual way of feeling how much time was passing at regular intervals, an internal clock for cinephiles that sped by almost unnoticed in good films, tediously in bad ones. It's the only analog hiccup that was unexpectedly helpful for viewers, but losing it—which becomes disorienting if you're used to it—is a minor trade-off, and sometimes the only reliable visual indicator you're not actually watching film.

The improved quality of digital projection is suddenly justifying the upgrades not merely for pragmatic reasons (cutting back on the outrageous costs of developing prints, trafficking and so forth) but aesthetic gains, too. The potential for projectionist error has greatly decreased: once the focus is set, there's little chance a film will be improperly framed ever again, microphones no longer lowering into the frame to crack up an audience. Maybe odd, hieroglyphic-looking errors will appear up top, but they're less distracting than mics and/or scratches on overused prints, macro-blocking and similar flaws pretty much being the worst to happen barring data corruption or power failure. That makes multiplex film-going a substantially less hit-or-miss proposition, leveraging the gap between different tiers of theaters. The decline of union projectionists led to all kinds of horror stories about unnatural screenings of films being run backwards or with the lights on by barely-skilled teenagers—no more.

The Dirty Dozen... in pinkAs for repertory exhibition—if it survives in more than a few token cities—tomorrow's viewers won't ever see a pink print, which is what happens when the only copy found is old and unpreserved. (The Dirty Dozen, for instance, only seems to be screenable with a pinkish hue; the DVD itself has a faint tinge, super incongruous for a Charles Bronson movie.) Once all the digital restorations become an accessible library, future generations will have exactly the same flawless viewing experience when it comes to revival screenings. It will be possible to literally watch the exact same movie decades apart without the current cycle of decay and restoration. Digital's onward march is much less grim than a future of, say, endless post-production 3D conversion: its ultimate implications have to do with permanently syncing up viewing experiences across time. It's far from a sure thing, as technology has a nasty habit of speeding up so fast that people forget to write manuals on how to use the old machinery (leaving data permanently inaccessible), but the digital future really does look sharp and clean.

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Posted by ahillis at August 10, 2010 12:20 PM


Have you seen nitrate projected, is that how you know digital can come close? I never have.

Posted by: The Siren at August 10, 2010 1:03 PM

Too bad this is the way it's going. I'd take pink and scratchy over digital junk any day. How about some reverence for the mother of all film formats?

Posted by: brian at August 10, 2010 1:44 PM

Nice piece, Vadim.

Posted by: Ray Privett at August 10, 2010 4:14 PM

Seriously? I though this was fairly hyperbolic. What are the limits of digital storage? Nobody knows for sure do they? None of this is addressed beyond picture quality and serious lack of historical perspective. You can run a 60 year old film print through a projector made 30 years ago. It might be pink and scratchy, but how will a lost classic shot and stored digitally fair against the ravages of time?

Posted by: brian at August 10, 2010 4:43 PM

here's what the guy who restored Metropolis had to say about digital projection, about 12 paragraphs down:

Posted by: brian at August 10, 2010 11:26 PM

@Brian, interesting link. There have been AV-head commenters at my place who made the same point with regard to my habit of watching DVDs, about the difference in an image created by watching light pass through film. I totally concede the point, but with a lot of rare movies I just watch what I can get in whatever way I can get it. With projected film, to be honest, I also have a certain affection for slightly flawed prints, in the same way the pops and hisses of an old jazz recording charm me.

Which reminds me of how in the early 90s, an audiophile friend of mine would play music for me (usually a string quartet or the like, to make the comparison clearer) on vinyl with his very sensitive equipment, and then on CD on his equally high-end player. And even to my not-terribly-discerning ears, there was a difference, and I preferred the warmer sound of the album. That's also why I was asking about whether Vadim has actually seen nitrate projected. I would love to, but may never get the chance.

My big question with each technological advance is whether it will benefit the more obscure old movies. It was keenly disappointing to me that when the DVD revolution hit, VHS editions of things I loved would go out of print without any DVD coming along to replace them. That's getting better, but is still an issue. If Vadim is saying there's reason to believe that digital restoration will become so cheap that rarities can be stored and preserved and shown with ease, rock on. But I know I will still miss film.

Posted by: The Siren at August 11, 2010 5:26 AM

Quickly: I've never seen nitrate projected (is there someplace to go for that still?), but my reference point is the Visions of Light moment focusing on The Third Man. The Four Full Bags projection was that shimmery; I didn't notice it wasn't film about forty minutes in, because of the lack of reel changes.

I'm similarly entranced by prints that have a little dirt on them, but that's mostly connotative. Prink pints, however, are no fun, and foreign films projected in old, scratchy prints with inadequate subtitles are just awful. That'll be the biggest boon for rep in my opinion: restorations that can be preserved perfectly and shown with new subtitles. (I don't know much about the actual technology, sadly.)

Finally, Manhattan's a bit ahead: Regal Cinemas is upgrading everything to 4k and has been since last year, and I bet that's what's getting shown in theaters here now. AMC will be all digital by 2012, which is fairly sobering.

Posted by: Vadim at August 11, 2010 10:42 AM

The suggestion that this happened overnight, in an instant, seems a little off. The "digital future is coming" demos at ShowEast, with projectors already on sale, were around for years, with theaters steadily adding digital screens, until last year. Then the numbers soared from 2-3,000 to 5,000.

Posted by: Roger in Orlando at August 11, 2010 11:27 AM

Yeah, there were digital screenings of Phantom Menace IIRC. Certainly well before 2000, which was around the time Godfrey Cheshire wrote his "End of Film" essay.

The preservation issues with digital are still ambiguous, too.

Posted by: Chuck at August 11, 2010 1:31 PM

I work in a cinema doing film programming & we are fraught with all the complicatiosn that come with digital projection. we have 2 DPs, but some distributors won't give us digital prints because we are still only 2k. Some send us hard drives that have been corrupted by their lack of reformatting after several cinemas have used them. Our DMS7 won't always ingest every format. We are an 'E' cinema, so we don't get 'D' format, etc...
Once our machine spat the dummy & had to be sent to the city to get fixed because the techies didn't know what was wrong. Some of the distributors send us films that are just above DVD quality. Rarely do we get a film of even blu-ray quality/file size. Etc...
Whereas with film our 4 projectors can handle everything despite being thrown all sorts of tuings such as rejuvenated prints, foils, crunches, splices, etc...
Mostly these are for arthouse titles. And no we don't have 3D yet. We are a rural cinema & can't afford that transition as yet. The progression of digital is happening at lightning speed & it's hard to keep up when the next year the upgrades have already happned twice over. Whereas our Italian projectors are from the 5os & are still very solid & reliable.

Posted by: jason at September 9, 2010 11:58 PM
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