A Bright Future (Measured in Lumens)
by Vadim Rizov
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).
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.
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 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.
As 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.
Posted by ahillis at August 10, 2010 12:20 PM