POSTED ON AUGUST 24, 2011:
LIGHTS! CAMERA! TAKE ACTION!
Theatergoers: forget flickering films and demand projection excellence from the advanced technology
Everyone probably remembers their first trip to the movie theater (Star Wars here; shocking, I know). Halcyon memories of waiting in lines running out the door and sometimes around the corner to get in and see the latest bit of cinematic excitement; vying to find a good seat amongst the crowd; savoring the buttery air as the house lights went down and the screen swelled with a light prism of dancing geometric beams splitting the darkness to paint a picture on a blank canvas; and the projector's lulling click rivaling the ambience of crickets in the night.
Chances are you remember those details. You remember the movies you've seen. You even remember if they were good -- or not.
But you probably don't remember what they actually looked like.
You don't remember if the print was really scratched or if the bulb was dim. You don't remember the bad splice that excised a few seconds of a scene or if the film was improperly threaded. Was the sound awesome? Was one of the stereo channels farting like a vegan? Nobody remembers that stuff. And you probably didn't get up to complain about it, either.
Don't remember when 3-D was an annoying fad? A cheap gimmick to sell tickets to otherwise (but sometimes wonderfully) inept films that would throw everything at the camera in the way a kid takes a new toy and tries to hit you over the head with it?
Of course now, 3-D is the pseudo-savior of the box office, the next salvo in the endless war with television, home theaters (at least until 3-D TV takes hold) and piracy. While the technology has certainly gotten better from the days of red and green cardboard glasses which would give you a headache within twenty minutes, the savior still doesn't redeem a bad movie no matter how many dimensions it's shot it in.
And because of this "innovation" in the medium you've now grown accustomed to state-of-the-art, quality film presentation.
Or have you?
You've certainly grown accustomed to the price of a night at the movies. Even a modest family outing to a regular old 2-D film can amount to well over fifty bucks after concessions. Make it a 3-D extravaganza and you can add a few more dollars per head -- in IMAX even more.
Depressingly, you often don't get your money's worth regardless of whether or not the movie sucked. Dim projection and soft focus can mar both digital 3-D and analog presentations and with film there's the additional possibility of a print being improperly threaded (known as "brain wrap") by an inexperienced projectionist; a headache inducing annoyance
which renders flickery images and damages the film itself.
And that's before factoring in the people in the crowd around you. I've dealt with everything from screaming babies at R-rated
horror films to chattering, texting tweens at Robert Pattinson flicks, an entire swath of civilization who can't compute that turning off their cell phones is what Sprint is telling them to do, and a dude who almost vomited on my shoulder during Jackass 3-D. During Rise of the Planet of the Apes a patron two rows behind me was snoring like a drunken lumberjack through one of the loudest DTS sound presentations I've ever heard (props to Eton Square). He might as well have slept through an earthquake.
With that in mind, theatrical presentation should be of paramount importance since -- due to the number of theaters in the average multiplex and the thin profit exhibitors reap from concessions -- the days of ushers booting out annoying patrons are long gone.
So on one recent night I attended a screening of Captain America: The First Avenger at the AMC Southroads multiplex, auditorium One, their largest space barring its new IMAX Theater and outfitted with a top-of-the-line Sony 4K model digital projector. The image was dim and slightly soft. The colors didn't pop. It was as though half the light were reaching the screen.
How did I know it was a Sony 4K? Well, you can see it through the projection booth window if you look; but also a recent dust up on the interwebs brought the issue of under-lit projection of 2-D films through Sony 3-D projectors (ahem) to light.
Ty Burr's Boston Globe article "A Movie Lover's Plea: Let There Be Light" raised the issue with the Sony projectors, which was summarily blogged by Roger Ebert and went viral.
"If you see two beams of light, one stacked on top of the other, that's a Sony with the 3-D lens still in place," Burr writes. "If there's a single beam, it's either a Sony with the 3-D lens removed or a different brand of digital projector, such as Christie or Barco."
AMC Southroads is equipped with both Christie and Sony 4K projectors in its digital theaters. The main difference between the two is that Sony requires a special lens fitting, the removal of which is technically and logistically cumbersome, to achieve the dual beam effect. The Christie projectors are stackable, essentially using two tandem units to create the same dual beam effect with a polarizing filter that can be simply removed. That can make all of the difference when exhibiting both 2-D and 3-D films in high quality, within the same auditorium.
If there is a moral here it's this: know your projectors.
Or even better know your projectionist.
Meet Frank Michaels
Proper film projection is a craft -- both industrial and artistic. Producing rolls of celluloid shipped in cases to points across the globe is an industry in itself, requiring a set of standards that juxtapose technology and the filmmaker's vision. A film's exhibition should look as its makers intended, consistently.
Watch a good projectionist thread a film. It's like watching a jazz dancer navigate an Escher-eqsue labyrinth of mechanisms, cogs and rollers, powered by a near combustible, oil-lathered machine that sends a thread of film hurtling past a blisteringly bright xenon bulb at 24 frames per second.
Add in all the variables of the optimum sound, light and aspect ratios for any given presentation and excellent film projection becomes a vocation, one that Frank Michaels currently enjoys practicing at the Circle Cinema.
Michaels, a former Technical Service Engineer at AMC, left a year and a half after they began their digital conversion, where he became a projectionist in the classical sense. He loves the tradition. "I will miss film when it is gone, yeah." Michaels said.
"But, I actually really enjoy the technology of digital. I didn't think I would."
Michaels confirmed the light dampening issue with the Sony 3-D lenses but also revealed that steps are finally being taken to correct it, perhaps due to recent media attention.
"It used to be you couldn't pop them off the Sonys but I just asked and the [AMC Technical Service Engineer] got a memo that they have to remove them because they were cutting the light."
The problem arises when the Sony 4Ks are used to exhibit 2-D films. Without removing the polarizing lens required for a 3-D presentation upwards of fifty to eighty percent of the projectors light gets absorbed by the polarizing filters. This results in muddy, under lit images just like the aforementioned screening of Captain America.
It's a problem to the point that digital 3-D prints of Transformers: Dark of the Moon were re-mastered for enhanced brightness at the behest of its director, Michael Bay.
"As a booth operator, you noticed it. For the 3-D presentations we were supposed to change [the bulb] out to a 6K bulb for the Sonys." Michaels said. "With the Christies and the Sonys we just left the 6Ks in there for better light. It's too much of a process to focus the bulb [only] to have to pull the bulb out [again]."
The difficulties stem from Hollywood's efforts to cut off piracy at the source. The Sony projectors are outfitted with multiple security systems ("I still remember the password." Michaels said with a laugh) and accessing any part of the unit--including removal of the 3-D lens -- without the proper training can cause a shutdown that might last until the projector is unlocked from on high. It speaks to a zeal that seems more concerned with security and cost reduction at the expense of the filmgoer, if the presentation suffers due to the end user unfriendliness of its design.
"They won't let any staff members touch the projectors," Michaels said. "[They have] an alarm system that's networked to [the] home office. They'll know if you ever tampered with it. Eventually everything will be networked to their home office."
Suddenly, threading a projector sounds a whole lot simpler and far less dystopian.
The Death of Film?
Regardless, digital (and to a lesser extent 3-D) is the future and Michaels is a convert.
"You don't have 'brain wraps', you don't have scratches," Michaels said of digital presentation as opposed to film. Aside from the aforementioned issues, "We didn't have any problems with digital at all."
And digital is certainly the future for big theater chains. According to Michaels, AMC -- the second largest chain in the world -- has thus far invested over $315 million with Sony in an effort to have all their theaters converted to digital and 3-D readiness by 2012. They are hardly alone. The two Cinemark locations, IMAX on 71st and the new multiplex in Broken Arrow, boast digital theaters which employ the same Sony projectors (Harry Potter in theater Five of the 71st location looked dim even without the sunglasses) though an inspection of each auditorium at both theaters generally revealed fine, if not excellent projection.
In due course, it will be indie owned and operated theaters that still run films somewhat exclusively. Eton Square, Riverwalk, Circle Cinema and (eventually) Admiral Twin might soon be among the only places, aside from second-run cinemas, left to enjoy a more nostalgic theater experience, or that even exhibit 2-D movies on film at all.
Notably, the Hollywood theater at Promenade is the only national outlet that seems to have stuck with film.
And that's disconcerting. While AMC is a massive theater chain hurling headlong into purely digital exhibition its Southroads location has done an admirable job of programming smaller indie and foreign fare alongside their big screen digital and 3-D blockbusters; films that, more often than not, are shot on film and that might not get exhibited in Tulsa but for the analog screens AMC offers. What effect the extinction of traditional film projectors amongst the national chains will have on the prevalence and exhibition of traditionally shot movies is still unknown. But it sounds coldly totalitarian.
"Everything is going to be put on a hard drive and shipped to 'em, I guarantee it," Michaels said. "They're gonna have the capability to run all the projectors, start 'em up without an operator...all he has to do is walk [in] and make sure that the bulbs ignite."
And ultimately, the vocation of film projectionist in the classical sense will wither to novelty.
And What Does This Mean To You?
A movie can be great or awful but when you lay down your hard earned cash and the additional effort to get to a theater that grows more expensive by the innovation, you are owed a professional presentation. Be it film or digital or 3-D (especially in 3-D, owing to the premium ticket price) you should be seeing bright, crisp and saturated images that pop on screen. Less sophisticated filmgoers may not be able to discern the difference between good or bad 3-D or even really care. But with the costs of a night in the theater rising in the wake of so many cannibalistically cheap alternatives -- Redbox, streaming options, video-on-demand and eventually 3-D TV in the home -- theaters should be fearful of cutting corners on presentation and be mindful of its quality, particularly with 3-D films.
"That's another thing with the [3-D] projectors. They've got two images on the screen." Michaels said "If one of 'em is a hair bit out of focus you'll walk out of there with the biggest headache you've ever had."
$13.50 per head and a reason to buy the family-sized bottle of Advil are asking a lot of cash-strapped film goers looking for the next Avatar. And it appears to be wearing thin already. The last Pirates of the Caribbean film saw higher 2-D grosses despite being rolled out in more 3-D theaters. The 3-D boost was less of a factor than the film's studio, Disney, had hoped for.
More tellingly, a recent article in the British paper, The Guardian reported on a study of 400 filmgoers at the California State University which found that "3-D movies do not allow viewers to experience more intense emotional reactions, are no more immersive, and do not offer any advantage over their 2-D counterparts in terms of enhancing the ability to recall a film's details." The study went on to suggest that "watching films in stereoscope increased threefold the risk of eyestrain, headache or trouble with vision."
Regardless, whichever way you take in your films, every now and then you will find yourself cozied up, popcorn in hand, ready for a bit of celluloid escapism only to find some part of the presentation lacking. It's bound to happen. Be it a troublesome 3-D lens cover mucking up a 2-D film, a less than bright projector lamp or some idiot who thinks their cell phone conversations and texts aren't an annoyance inducing distraction to everyone around them.
When that becomes the case? Complain. Find a manager. Report the issue (or the idiot). If they refuse to take action, demand a refund. That's the only way to ensure that you (and ultimately the rest of us) will assuredly get our money's worth, and a return to wonder, when we cross under that sparkly, beckoning marquee some summer night.
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