Sunday, June 12, 2011

Jason watches SUPER 8 in D-Box projected from a Sony 4K using the 3D lens even though it's 2D

Whew, sorry for the long title, I'll get to the movie in a minute, but first I have to set up the context.

The management of the Camera 7 in Campbell, CA invited me to this special screening at 8:30 am (knowing full well I was up late the night before at Holehead). The purpose of this was part of a grass-roots campaign to combat some of the negative (and misleading) press from two recent Roger Ebert articles. First, his article claiming that projecting 2D films through 3D lenses cut the light output by ~50%. Second was his acerbic article about D-Box, in which he accused it (along with 3-D) of continuing the "dismemberment of the traditional movie going experience...." (he also calls himself a "reactionary purist," which in most contexts I'd take as an insult).

So first a little context about myself, so you can understand where I'm coming from. A few years back I might have joined in the chorus insisting movies must be shown "the right way." I might have even called myself a reactionary purist. I admit I fetishize film. I love the guys at the Film on Film Foundation. I love that Noir City keeps up the increasingly difficult effort to get the studios to give up 35 mm prints for their festival. Heck, as a resident of Fremont, CA and a volunteer at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, I love being 10 minutes from the only theater in the country (world, maybe), that every week plays films as they were truly originally meant to be seen--on film, silent, with live musical accompaniment (BTW, if you could take a few minutes and vote for us by going here, we'd really appreciate it. It takes just a few minutes, you can vote once per e-mail address, and so far I haven't been spammed by them). Heck, as a volunteer at a silent film museum, I can still bear a grudge against the greedy movie houses in the teens and twenties who had the projectionists crank at a faster speed so they could squeeze another show or two in a day. This still results in silent films being shown artificially fast (especially on television).

But in the past decade or so, I my stance on the "purity" of the movie-going experience has softened. I've seen many films shot and projected on many formats, including a lot of standard definition digital films. I've been to many film festivals in the Bay Area, some that have the resources to project well, some that don't. Same with art-house/independent theaters. Contrary to Ebert's closing paragraph in the D-box article, I wouldn't recommend your average art theater if you care about the best possible projection. Too many are struggling financially. You'll find projectionists and managers who care about proper projection, sure. But you'll most likely to find that they don't have the money to upgrade and project the best possible image. I've seen many, many movies that were projected sub-optimally because that was the only venue where I could see them.

Furthermore, I've spent nearly all of the last decade seeing all these movies from the front row, because that's where I like to sit. I know it's not the "sweet spot" of the theater, and I've been told over and over again that I'm sitting "too close." I know I have to crane my neck up and look at a weird angle that distorts the picture. Tough, that's the way I like to do it. So arguably I haven't seen a single movie "the way it's supposed to be seen."

None of this truly matter. If I'm thinking about how the movie was either shot or projected, rather than the story, the movie has already failed. I can easily get "lost" in a good story that's shot and projected on shitty, under/over-exposed standard definition digital video...if it's a good story.

A few things happened in the past year that made me nearly totally reject my "purist" leanings. First, Holehead last year played the Giorgio Moroder rock and roll version of METROPOLIS: REDUX. This is a mere week after the San Francisco Silent Film Festival played the restored version of METROPOLIS, so I could do a very quick comparison. I joined in the chorus of my friends calling REDUX blasphemy (before I even saw it), and reviewed it negatively in my blog. By year's end I gave it some credit in my year-in review for Hell on Frisco Bay. I didn't put it in my top 10 repertory/revival screenings, and even then expressed the appropriate shame, hating it as a cinephile but appreciating it as a "fan of new experiences." I am now confident enough in my own opinion to say, yes, I liked it. It's not METROPOLIS as it was meant to be seen (and seeing it so close to the restored METROPOLIS is a mistake), but it is it's own unique, enjoyable experience (although I still say the colorization was distracting). And if crapping all over the "purity" of Fritz Lang's original vision can create something enjoyable, then isn't the only value of "purity" to remove enjoyably impure experiences from the world?

The other thing that happened last year was that my beloved Roxie theater finally upgraded their digital projector. Now I don't know anything about their equipment or the specs. I know it's an objectively better projection for the simple reason that the red dot is gone. That's right, for years they used a digital projector with a dead pixel in the lower right quadrant of the screen. And I saw hundreds of movies with an annoying red dot on the screen. And when they replaced it, I joked that I miss the red dot. But that joke has a bit of truth behind it. I really am, in some small way, nostalgic for a broken projector. I had many great experiences watching movies with the red dot in the corner, and it got to the point where ol' Red Dottie meant I was home. And I don't see this nostalgia as any more or less laughable than fetishizing the scratches, dots, and cigarette burns of 35 mm film.

And finally, and I hesitate to speculate on this because I'm generally averse to analyzing greater sociological trends, but I I've met plenty of young director's at film festivals who actively want the audience to interpret (and possibly subvert/contradict) their intentions with their work. Perhaps in the creative community today a "pure" vision simply isn't as valuable or interesting as sampling/modifying/re-purposing other's (and each other's) creation. Purity isn't valuable, and subverting purity is part of the new aesthetic. As I said, I should shut up, I'm not that comfortable with analyzing social or artistic trends.

Anyway, I have a new mini-manifesto, in my capacity as a star of thousands of motion picture audiences:
I shall no longer pursue the fool's errand of seeing a movie exactly as someone else thinks "it's supposed to be seen." Instead I will embrace my unique privilege of seeing a movie exactly as I see it. This is something no one else can do, and a privilege I shall cherish. I will stick to this whether the person telling me the "right way" to see it is a movie critic, a projectionist, or the director himself.
This is not to say there's no such thing as bad projection or bad distractions in a theater. I am still fully behind the "murder people who whip out their cell phones during the movie" ethos. And I have seen plenty of movies that were projected wrong. I make a huge distinction between "poorly" as in 'compromised due to lack of money, time, or expertise to buy/use the best equipment' and "wrong" as in 'I have the right equipment but set it up wrong and didn't notice.' I still remember the first time I saw GANGS OF NEW YORK I kept thinking "these shots are composed oddly, it's very unlike Scorsese to not use the space well." I couldn't put my finger on it until the end credits ran and it was clear the screen was masked wrong, and a significant chunk on each side of the screen was cut off. And I've seen plenty of other films with temporary glitches in the projection (I've usually ran out, alerted someone, and it's fixed right away). I just want it to be clear that I'm not embracing all deviations from ideal projection as a marvelously unique new experience. I'm just not chasing perfection.

Now, as for the technical meat of Ebert's two articles. I will start by explaining I'm by no means a technical expert. I'm sure I've got some this wrong, but here's what I was told by the management of the Camera 7 (to the best of my memory):

First, most accounts are probably confusing the 3-D lens with the 3-D filters. The filters polarize the light from the dual projection, and the glasses you wear lets through only light polarized a certain way, so each eye gets a different image, creating the 3-D illusion. Yes, if you leave the filters on the projector and show 2-D, that cuts down the light. Removing the filters is a 30 second operation, and at least the team at the Camera 7 do just that. If you remove the 3-D filters, the light output in 2-D is not an issue. In fact, when projecting 3-D they have to crank the lamp all the way up to get enough light through the lens, filters, off the screen, and back through the glasses. In 2-D, without switching the lens (just removing the filters), they have to crank the lamp down to keep the projection from being too bright. The measure of "too bright," "too dim," and "just right," however, is anecdotal (much like Ebert's article). They're getting a light meter in the next week to make some concrete measurements to back this up.

Oh, the other part of the whole 3-D/2-D lens controversy is the story/stories about how hard it is to change the lens. Allegedly if you screw up the whole projector shuts off. Some theaters claim it's a 90+ minute operation to change lenses. Sony claims 20 minutes to do it right. Here's the claim from Camera 7: If you're installing a new lens, including mechanically calibrating it, this can be the 90+ minute job. Once it's calibrated, the system remembers the mechanical settings and when you change lenses and set it in the proper mode, it'll move the lens to that position. This is what Sony says should be a 20 minute operation. The Camera 7 claims that they can do it in seven minutes, walking someone who has never done it before through it (then add 3 minutes to mask the screen properly, because that's still manual so they have to walk downstairs to do it). However, that is if the booth was originally built with enough room to do that easily--theirs isn't (it's an old multiplex that was retrofit for digital projection. I got to tour it after the movie, and saw exactly what they meant). Because of the difficulty of space, and because they claim it doesn't make a difference in brightness, they routinely show 2-D movies through the 3-D lens (again, with the filters removed).

Again, they have a light meter coming in soon so they'll have hard numbers that I'll be happy to report however they come out. I can tell you that using my personal organic light meter, the JW-2 HU-Man IBalls, the movie was not noticeably too bright or too dark. But perhaps my equipment is out of calibration.

Okay, now for some words on D-Box. First thing I should stress is that if D-Box doesn't sound like something that would appeal to you, or if the $8 upcharge doesn't appeal to you, all you have to do is sit in any of the hundreds of regular seats instead of the 22 D-Box seats. Second I'll point out that all the D-Box seats in the Camera 7 are in the same two rows. If you're not sitting in a D-Box seat, you also won't be sitting next to someone in a D-Box. As for the other pet peeves Ebert mentions--talking in the theater and turning on cell phone screens (both of which I'm in full agreement with Ebert)--I'd hazard to guess that the money and the added experience D-Box provides is likely to reduce such behavior, not increase it.

Finally, I'd point out that the controls are a simply"+" and "-" button, to set the motion to high, medium, low, or off. I set it to high and left it there. The important thing is, contrary to Ebert's fear, bored kids won't be "entertaining themselves with their joy sticks." Unless, of course, he was making a dirty joke, in which case I'd point out that A) kids can do that in the regular seats, too, and B) apropos of nothing, but since the D-Box seats don't fold up they're harder to clean. that I've countered Ebert's fears (and created some brand new ones for you), how was my D-Box experience? Well, let me start by saying I already have my way of immersing myself in the movie--sitting in the front row. My way of watching the movie makes it as big as possible, fills my vision, and puts absolutely nothing between me and the movie. And it's appropriate to note that most people consider this the "wrong" way to watch a movie. I say this because the main thing the D-Box seats have against them (unique to my desires) is that they're halfway up the theater, in the "sweet spot" at the front of the top section. If I were a billionaire, I'd commission the Camera 7 to install a D-Box seat in front row center with a "Reserved for Jason" sign.

So D-Box is an interesting experience. For the most part it adds something to the movie experience, although at some times it's odd noticing how they programmed it. Sometimes I wondered why they would program the motion of one car and not the other. And SUPER 8 has enough quiet moments when the seats aren't moving that I became acutely aware of waiting for the next movement. Maybe some of that is because it's my first D-Box experience, and I didn't know what to expect. I'm willing to try it again on a more kinetic 'thrill ride' kind of movie.

So how do I react to Ebert? Well, I understand him, but I suspect he's at least partly mistaken about the Sony 4K. It appears it's not the lens, it's the filters, but I'll wait for hard data for a final conclusion. At the same time, I wouldn't be surprised to find some theaters who don't know how to use it well. Camera 7 does it right.

I also understand Ebert's reaction to D-Box, and he's absolutely right...when he calls himself a reactionary purist. I can understand D-Box (or 3-D, for that matter) being an affront to his purist aesthetic. But it's not a moral affront, and it's not a worthy reason for boycotting a theater. I now know plenty of people who love it, and some of them are cinephiles who go to tons of art-house movies and attend film festivals. The proper response to your aesthetic disapproval is don't pay the $8 upcharge and sit in a regular seat.

Whew, well after all that, I suppose I should also review the film. SUPER 8 is a hell of a lot of fun. It truly is a throwback/homage/nostalgia piece for 80's kids action movies, in the mold of executive produce Steven Spielberg. Kids in small town Ohio are spending the summer making a movie on a super 8 camera. Here we've got kids playing, and young love involving the makeup/model kid and the leading lady. A night shoot is interrupted by a train crash that turns out might have been intentional, and caused by their science teacher. The train had Air Force cargo, and something has escaped and is rampaging through the town. It's a mystery, it's action, it's adventure, it's a sappy moral. It's an 80's movie. And oh yeah, if you see it on a digital projection with the sound system they used there (I think it Dolby 7.1) and you sit closer to the back than I normally do, and you listen closely during the quiet moments, you can hear the sound of a 35 mm projector coming from the booth--JJ Abrams inserted that onto the soundtrack.

Running Time: 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 239,309


Adam Villani said...

1. Man, I'm totally out of the loop these days on movies. I'd never heard of D-Box before.

2. Excellent point about lenses vs. filters. Thank you for this public service.

3. Seriously, the very front of the theater? In every theater? I like sitting farther forward than most people, but I have my limits, man.

puppymeat said...


1. There aren't a lot of D-Box equipped theaters. I think only ~50 around the country (that number might be out of date). After this one in Campbell, the next closest to me is Gilroy. No others in the Bay Area.

2. You're welcome. I'm not the only one to say this, and I'm no expert. But I find this explanation credible. I'm looking forward to the results of hard measurements.

3. Yes, front row. Especially since a lot of the old art-house theaters I frequent have stages in front, so it's a good distance. But even when the front row really is too close, it's sort of become the thing I do now.

Dan said...

I have a few questions.

1) If you were in an empty theater and you knew that no one else was allowed in the theater during the screening (i.e. one-man private screening), would you still pick Row 1, Center seat?

2) What is your opinion of 35 mm films being digitized and projected in digital?

3) Do you think most of the movie going public can recognize or appreciate the difference between 35 mm vs. digital or even a well projected vs. a poorly projected film (regardless of format)?

puppymeat said...


1) I would...and have.

2) Film on film is basically a fetish now. A fetish I enjoy in no small part because the scratches, cigarette burns, etc. remind me of the physical reality (and imperfection) of the medium. I like watching film, but I'm not morally offended by digital projection. With that said, it depends a lot on the resolution of the projector. With the highest resolution projectors the pixelation/moire patterns aren't there. I wouldn't want to see a 35 mm film digitized and projected in Standard Definition. Even 1080p HD isn't perfect. But Sony 4K is pretty indistinguishable from film, other than the lack of the physical imperfections.

An important point on this that I failed to include in my post. The studios are mandating that they will stop shipping 35 mm prints. I can't remember if the drop dead date is next year or 2013, but all theater chains will have to switch to digital projection soon. Even for retrospectives (e.g., Noir City) getting 35 mm of old films is getting tougher.

I predict that sooner than you think 35 mm will only be projected by collectors and perhaps one or two studios who remain friendly to retrospective/repertory screening houses/events.

3) Unless the poor projection is really, really egregious (I'd include showing a movie in a lower resolution digital format in that), I think not. Which is fine. As I said in my post, if I'm thinking about the projection format rather than the story, the movie has already failed (or the projection is so horrible the theater should be held accountable).

Dan said...

"I predict that sooner than you think 35 mm will only be projected by collectors and perhaps one or two studios who remain friendly to retrospective/repertory screening houses/events."

I believe this will be true for much of the country but in the SF Bay Area, I believe 35 mm projection will continue at various non-chain venues. At some point, 35 mm prints will become collector's items as the studios will no longer strike prints.

You are treating 35 mm like the switchover from floppy disks to CDs but I think albums to CDs is more appropriate. 35 mm projection will definitely become a niche experience unavailable in large parts of the country but the niche will be healthier in the Bay Area. The PFA, Stanford Theater and Niles are just three locations where the elimination of 35 mm prints will only enhance what they have to offer.

In my latest post, I talk about how there was not a 35mm projector to be found in Las Vegas earlier this month for a Chaplin film screening.

puppymeat said...


I slightly mis-wrote my last comment. I meant that:

"35 mm will only be projected [from prints provided] by collectors and perhaps one or two studios who remain friendly to retrospective/repertory screening houses/events."

And this isn't theaters switching over and saying they only want to project digital (because it's easier? Cheaper?...), it's the studios saying they'll stop shipping 35 mm.

Certainly several independent theaters will retain the ability to project 35 mm (among them, the Camera 7, which has side-by-side digital and Sony 4K for some screens). It will become impossible shortly to get new films from studios on 35 mm film. And it's already becoming near impossible (based on a brief conversation I had with Eddie Muller about the next Noir City) to get studios to ship their old films on 35 mm (which may be the only format that exists).

So yes, several houses in the Bay Area will continue to show 35 mm. Many of them (e.g., the Pacific Film Archives) have enough of a collection (and collector's network) that they'll be able to continue fairly rich programming. But for the most part they'll be limited to what private collector's have (and will loan out). And if there's an old semi-forgotten film you heard about or remember from your childhood that you want to see again, and the only copy exists in a studio vault, you're likely S.O.L.

Dadmaniac said...

And the last word...Mom and I watched Super 8 on my HD projector with surround sound in my Man Cave last night. All tech aside, it was a really fun movie. I loved it. Sweet, scary, sappy, kid heroes...what's not to like.