Sunday, June 02, 2002

My thoughts on digital projection of Star Wars Episode 2. In order to see the film in digital, I saw the film in a cinema I am not familiar with (the Ritzy in Brixton) The cinema had assigned seating and when asked where I wanted to sit, I specified "Two thirds of the way back", which is about my normal preference. Of course, this preference is for modern multiplexes where the screens are large and the seats generally close to them. When I got to the cinema I discovered I was in an old style long narrow theatre. Thus while I was in by no means in a bad seat, I was watching the film from a fair way back. At this distance it looked pretty good. I thought the colours were very "hard", and the film lacked warmth, even in scenes where it didn't have to: for instance the outdoor scenes on the grass in front of the waterfalls. (I am not sure how you descibe "warmth" technically, however. When fans of vinyl records have complained the digital CDs lack warmth, I have been sceptical, but I think I now do know what they mean). Given the special effects films are never very warm anyway, it possibly doesn't matter much here, but I think when a great cinematographer attempts to make a fully digital picture, the problems will show up much worse. I never got the "Wow, this is beautiful" feeling I sometimes get watching beautiful 35mm photography, or even better from 65mm photography.

At the distance I was watching from, there were reletively few of the pixelation artifacts or visible jagged edges that have been reported by other people, but they were visible occasionally. I saw enough to suggest they would be much worse from closer up. This is a serious problem. In short the picture was good but not great. 35mm film scales wonderfully. Because the potential quality of the picture is so high, it looks great on large screens, small screens, at the front, and at the back. The present manifestation of digital does not scale so well.

My key feeling, however, is that the 1280 x 1024 resolution being used in the present system is manifestly inadequate. The best picture from this is less good (by miles) than the best picture from 35mm. In fact, it is much less than the best picture resolution (1920x1080) that you can get in your home to watch High Definition TV. (There isn't much programming being broadcast for this yet, but it does exist in the US). I go to the cinema to see films sooner than I can see them at home, but also to see better pictures than I can see at home. If it is possible for me to see better pictures at home, then this is just about the only thing that could possibly kill my cinemagoing habit (and I see a lot of films). Home pictures are getting much better. Responding to this by making cinema pictures worse seems curious.

Another thing is that 1280x1024 is a terrible resolution choice for a widescreen movie. Ideally you want to have pixels that are approximately square in shape. 1280x1024 gives pixels with an aspect ratio of 1.06:1 on a television screen, 2.31:1 on a conventional (1.85:1) widescreen movie, and 2.94:1 on a very wide (2.35:1) movie such as Star Wars. (I can't really say Cinemascope here, because that is a film based process).

I am bothered by the possibility that people will say this present technology is good enough, and that therefore it will become the standard and we will be stuck with crappy pictures forever. I doubt this will happen, as technically there should be no problem with having different picture resolutions in different cinemas and converting between them on the fly, but the danger is that cinema chains may accept the present technology because they simply do not know better. This was a problem with sound for many decades - the mono academy sound format was bad but was used everywhere because it was a standard. (That said, the invention of digital seems to have aided the improvement in sound rather than hindered it. It could conceivably do the same for pictures, but that is a way off. One advantage of digital is that converting from one digital format to another is as simple as getting the right software. Not true for analogue).

I am not against digital projection in the long run. While film does give beautiful pictures, its problem is that it can be easily damaged and it deteriorates. I think it is a catastrophe that 100 years of cinema is sitting in studio vaults decaying, and films made and stored in digital will never do this. (The scale of his problem is just terrible. There are Academy award winning films from 25 years ago for which no clean prints exist). In addition, a badly scratched print with lots of splices in it can be really trying to watch. (This is especially a problem with repertory, where prints of great movies tend to be ten years old, have been screened vast numbers of times, and have been transported from cinema to cinema to cinema).With digital this will not be a problem. If the libraries of the studios are eventually all transferred to a high quality digital format, then cinemas may finally be able to show whatever they want whenever they want, and the cost of obtaining prints will be eliminated. Whether, with all their fears about piracy, studios will ever allow this to happen, is another question, but the potential is there.

One point to be taken from the transition from vinyl records to CDs is that when the CD was invented, it was a new form, and sound engineers weren't used to its characteristics, whereas they had decades of experience with records. On top of this, many early CDs were of recordings made for vinyl, and later transferred to CDs. It took a while for people to learn just what was the best way to record for CDs. When they did this, quality improved, and recordings were made in such a way that they avoided the weaknesses of the format. The same may happen for digital cinema. What George Lucas is doing is good in terms of getting the technology to work properly and training people to use it properly. However, we are not quite there yet.

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