Movies May 12, 2011 at 4:00 am

Will Digital Projection Kill Portland's Independent Movie Theaters?


Great piece. The death of the 35 mm film projector is a travesty - nothing can replicate the look of light projecting a perfectly struck print onto a screen - but it's been coming for awhile. economics dictate and all, but still, it stinks.

one point, one of those interviewed suggested that for cost reasons some independent filmmakers had to shoot digitally and that this somehow contributes to the availability of a 35 mm print but a film can be shot on digital and projected on 35 mm or it can be shot on film and projected digitally. the format used to make the film is immaterial to the final exhibition. The issue is whether the studio/distributor is willing to pay to strike and ship prints. And by extension, whether there's a lab in existence to strike the prints. The death of the Technicolor lab is not a good sign.
Digital theater projectors can cost upwards of 100K and they only have a life span of 5 years. A film projector can last 50 years. Shooting on film is still the main choice for big budget films. The camera negatives are digitized, edited digitally, then printed back to a positive print theater release. Digital projection will still be showing a film original, like watching a DVD. But the class of high end digital projection that meets the same quality of a print costs a lot of money. Not good for indi theaters for sure. Digital has been slowley making everything cheap, easy, convenient, and really fucking boring at the same time. I bet my first digital blow job will be really lame.
Uhhhhh... at no point did you actually say why 35mm is worth saving, besides quite obliquely at "There's definitely an aesthetic to it that I think some people will still seek out."
@ Ten Red:
The "class of high end digital projection that meets the same quality of a print" does not exist, unless the print in question was 8mm or 16mm. Technically 1080p cannot compare to 35mm. And (as discussed in an I, Anon last year) any theater that shows a "film" at 480p (DVD), especially without advertising it in advance, should be ashamed.
Certainly for repertory film, digital really does seem to be the way things are headed because restorations are increasingly done digitally and because of the expense involved in striking prints and then storing and shipping them. The really serious arthouse theaters will probably continue to show a combination of celluloid and digital for the foreseeable future.
I'll certainly miss 35mm projection, but it's so poor in Portland, both at the big chain cinemas and the independents, that I usually only pay to see a digital presentation. I got fed up with going to theaters and paying to see a picture that was blurred on one side, subtitles that crept lower and lower with each reel change (when they were even in focus), ghosting from improperly timed shutters, dim pictures because the lamp was past replacement or the reflector was filthy, and on and on and on. Yes, 35mm projectors last for 50 years. They need servicing in those 50 years, which both the chains and the indies neglect, due to cost factors or ignorance. And I got the same brush-off attitude from both the Regal staff and the indie staff when I brought these problems to their attention (I ran projectors for 10 years so I knew what I was talking about). And while it certainly sucks to pay full evening admission and listen to some moron yammer on his cell phone at a Regal theater, it sucks just as much to try to sit through a classic movie at the Laurelhurst or Cinema 21 while people swill beer and laugh at the screen because, hey, since it's an old movie it must be campy!
Solid exploration of changes in screen cinema - thanks!. Believe it or not, our Portland, Oregon is a center in brains of color, eye science, 3d and projection. PM...
I saw the digital transfer of Dr Strangelove at the Roseway last month. It looked LEAGUES better than any other print or transfer I've ever seen. I don't see why 35mm is a superior format. What benefits does it bring that digital is unable to provide? I get the feeling this going to turn into one of those audiophile debates where someone trys to convince me that turntable sound "warmer".
Colin and Graham... I recall reading something about how 35mm comes across to the eye somewhere...something about how the spaces between the frames allow for....???
I've forgotten the thinking / reasoning exactly.
But I have also read that Tarintino refuses to go digital, and I would hope that his reason is just not simply to be obstinate of change.
So, perhaps to some eyes there is a subtle difference?
Also, higher pixel count doesn't always mean a better picture.
Good article.
I think digital could come close to *well-projected* 35mm someday (kinomole, I feel your pain, theaters that don't focus properly or have other faults with their equipment drive me up a soundproofed wall) but I'm not convinced that that day has arrived. Maybe some theaters are doing it right...I don't pretend to know. But charging to watch a projected DVD should almost be a crime.
I knew the guy who invented 3-D digital projection, originally invented for hospitals to aid surgeons to do micro-neural surgery. The 3-D allowed them to find individual broken nerve ends out of a spaghetti-like mass of nerves and connect them, one by one. They were gonna use it on Christopher Reeve, but Reeve never got strong enough to survive the surgery.

The inventor was Linwood G. Dunn, working with some Japanese engineers.

Dunn had been a special effects man since the 1920s, working at RKO for decades, then for Howard Hughes, then Lucy and Desi, then independently, eventually specializing in multi-media systems for world's fairs and large film formats. Dunn worked on the original KONG KONG, CITIZEN KANE, and hundreds of other movies, and shot the big 12-foot ship for the original "STAR TREK" TV series. His "Film Effects of Hollywood" facility was one of the four optical houses that did the EFX for that series. He refined the development of the optical printer several times to make it more practical and precise for use in thousands of films, and found a way to successfully blew up 16mm film to 70mm for George Harrison's CONCERT FOR BANGLEDESH in 1971. He was highly active in the ASC and AMPAS, and won several Oscars for his technical innovations. He died in the late 90s, in his 90s, and now a Los Angeles movie theater is named after him.

I knew him since 1975 when I met him at an appearance at the University of Oregon. I and a friend went down and visited him at his home in 1992 and saw his prototype 3-D video projection system, which had also been shown to several major film directors, and I knew this was going to revolutionize and eventually replace film projection.

I can't spout out all the math, but the high-end digital video projection systems (variations of Dunn's original system) now being used in the big movie theater chains DO have a higher resolution than 35mm, far beyond the resolution of current consumer Hi-Def Hi-Rez TV sets, and some versions are being developed that equal or better 70mm and even Imax. It's just a matter of sampling rates, number of available pixels, and proper calibration and maintenance of the equipment.

Most of the digitally-presented films we're seeing in the big theaters today are on large multi-level laserdisk-sized disks, with far more technical info (visual and audio) on them than the smaller consumer DVDs and Blu-Rays we're familiar with in our homes, so you're not just watching a DVD when you go to a major movie theater, even though some smaller lower-budget Portland theaters ARE projecting standard DVDs.

Like any technology, there will be varying degrees of quality of varying models and systems, some outrageously expensive, and some far more affordable, so eventually even the INDE theaters will find one they can afford and use, although quality will always vary widely from screen to screen, just as it does now, and always has.

And on top of that, each person's mental perceptions and ability to discern fine details of technical quality can, do, and will continue to vary from person to person, some seeing advantages and problems that other people won't even notice until their brain is trained to spot (and hear) the differences, just like in audio perception. Some people can hear audio frequency response and stereo better than others. And some people can see higher resolution better than others. The varying comments to this article illustrates this point.

I literally grew up in the theater business, my dad being involved in Spokane, Washington movie theaters in the 40s and 50s, and later I used to be a movie theater projectionist (16mm and 35mm) in Portland also, and I've seen how poorly calibrated many (most) of our Portland 35mm film theaters were and many still are, compared to some amazingly well maintained systems in some Los Angeles theaters, all based on available economics, and the availability of more highly-trained and more technically educated (and usually union) personnel, which Portland and most other smaller towns and cites simply don't have access to, and so I expect the same highly variable quality-control trends to continue into the digital video projection age, because each theater owner has to work with whatever budget they have available if they wanna stay in business.

I suspect that most of our INDE theaters will find a way to adapt and survive, assuming the current owners will continue to still have the energy to run the business, because they're usually creative; they can find new niches of media entertainment to exploit exhibit and present, combining different forms of theater, maybe reviving some older ideas, adding live theater, cabaret, vaudeville, and/or live music, exhibiting rare inde films shot and projected in all kinds of varying formats, etc. There's really no limit to the creativity and potential innovation in this town to deal with any media revolution if everyone opens up their minds to the potential of it all.

Digital video, and all digital technology is, in 2011, where the original film and music industry (and communications in general) was in 1911. Just look at what's happened in the past 100 years as standards were found to make systems practical and affordable, while at the same time new technical innovations were constantly created. Who knows what new and additional technical surprises will be developed that will further change the whole theater experience for the better in general.

To me, digital projection is just the latest continuation of that on-going technical evolution, which will take us into exciting new directions of creativity, opening new avenues of expression for both mainstream and inde filmmakers (if we can continue to even use that term), and so it's all good, as long as everyone eventually gets an opportunity to get into it and takes his best shot at adapting to it.

Dan Fiebiger
Glamorous and Glitzy North Portland
I believe theater-quality digital projection is 4096p, not home-quality 1080p. At 4096p, the pixels would be about 1/10 of an inch high -- sharp enough that the quality of the optics is the limiting factor.

One advantage of the digital format is that the image doesn't degrade. The day will never come when distributors refuse to release a digital copy of "Omega Man" because they only have two copies left.

The fact that digital "prints" are cheaper than film prints should mean we get more art house movies to choose from. That could end up being a big advantage to independent theaters, if they can just get a digital projector. 3D might help there -- if the chains all replace 2D digital with 3D digital, then perhaps independent theaters could find some bargain-priced used 2D projectors?

Another advantage *should be* that if an independent theater has any digital projector at all, distributors can cheaply and easily produce a one-off digital conversion to support it.
For what its' worth... Tarintino on the film vs digital debate:
Tall Steve is right about 4096p rather than 1080p -- sorry for my error above. Still, it's generally estimated that the resolution of 35mm is far greater than 4k digital. Duplication of film creates a small loss of clarity and sharpness, and of course a print will eventually show wear after being projected half a dozen times a day, so one could factor those in as well. But there are other differences that I feel give film the advantage over 4k, but I don't want to get into another digital vs. analog argument. I can tell the differences, and many others share this preference, but it is an aesthetic one, which will probably have no effect on what are essentially financial decisions.
Digital projection is a compromise that I accept in my living room in return for the convenience of being able to watch pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. I feel that a city like Portland will lose one of its assets if we lose something like being able to go see unusual films on celluloid, particularly avant-garde filme, many of which routinely suffer from the effects of digital compression and/or were created with a film projector in mind.
@geyser, et al: The studies I was able to find seemed to indicate that the resolution of 35mm prints peaked at around 2200 vertical lines and quickly degraded in quality to less than 1000 vertical lines. So brand new virgin negatives will still rival the visual clarity of digital projection, but by the time you've made copies and ran the film a few times, they're worse than Blu-ray.……
I'd rather see 35mm than a pixelated, stuttering digital blob, and I'm sure enough people in a nerdy town like Portland feel the same way. Portland, where there are probably more record players than iPods. There's a niche market for restorations, beautiful restorations, of great films (Rialto Pictures, for instance, seems to be doing quite well). And a well-restored print is a far better experience than a digital projection. I feel like that can be said almost objectively. I have a DVD player at home and a Netflix account, I don't need to pay for a $7 ticket to see digital. I think the real threat to theaters is probably a growth in home theater technology along with a dwindling interest and understanding of cinema, and that affects multiplexes as well as indie cinema. People have video games now, they don't need Hollywood.
@Ovidius: What proof do you have that film looks better than digital? Or are you just going off of your obviously biased opinion?
My obviously biased opinion.
Most studies I've seen put the estimated "resolution" of 35mm far higher than that. Film is analog so there aren't lines of resolution, of course. Thus it's going to be an inexact thing, and I see some oversimplifications in the studies you link. For example the second one says they used film stocks and lenses "typical of those used for feature films" but I think there is considerable variation among lenses and film stocks.
From what I've read, I believe the consensus is that 35mm is still far exceeds 4k, but I don't have the time or inclination to dig up a bunch of links to try to back this up, sorry.
@geyser: The 4k-6k numbers I've seen used are all in regards to the theoretical maximum of what 35mm film is capable of. As with all analog copies, there is considerable dergradation of the content with each generation. The studies I linked to seemed to correct for a lot of the projectionist issues. Also, the 100th showing of the digital copy will look exactly like the 1st showing; something that film is obviously going to fail at.

If the studies I linked to earlier are slightly accurate, it would seem to indicate that a high-quality Blu-ray is roughly equal in visual quality to a mediocre-to-low quality film print.
@Graham: And if you don't care for film granularity, I'm sure those Blu-rays are stunning.
A good Blu-ray will preserve the look of the grain, but the big studios sometimes go overboard with DNR, creating weird, waxy-looking transfers. I read reviews before I buy any Blu-rays from Fox, Warner, etc.
All this nonsense about lines of resolution is beside the point--if you are incapable of telling the difference between celluloid and the digital, you have nothing to worry about. If you think that a well-worn piece of 40 year old celluloid falling below the crisp ideal of Blu-Ray somehow proves its inferority, than you are in luck! The rest of us, those with souls and the ability to watch something flawed but still beautiful over something perfect and sterile (when not showing its digital seams), are screwed. DA Pennebaker recently was forced to spend 15,000 bucks cleaning up a print to show for one weekend somewhere, because digital has led people to become incapable of viewing a print that has flaws. That's ridiculous. I'm the guy who has tried occasionally over the years to warn about this, and to get "film lovers" like Ranieri and Sonstein to prove it and TELL us when they are showing digital, including via that I, Anonymous piece. If you have noticed, they DON"T do that (adding to the culture of complacency with digital that hastened film's demise). What both do instead is mention only when a film is 35mm, as if they are delivering a special treat to you. This backwards-thinking advertising evasiveness is quickly becoming the approach that makes sense, since in a year or two we can safely assume that what we are seeing is digital unless told otherwise (execpt at NWFC, perhaps, which still refuses to tell us what we will be watching until you get to their front door--thanks bunches!). I have felt like a voice in the wilderness the last few years, but now that the end really is here, I am honestly shocked at how quickly and thoroughly it is coming, like a man standing with his "the End is Near" sign, going, "Really? It's TOMORROW?"
I at least appreciate that Erik did this piece, esp since he has come down so squarely on the side of digital projection in the past. At least he can appreciate the ramifications on others.
@I,A & Ovidius: So the argument in favor of film over digital is, "it looks worse, but it's always looked worse; so we shouldn't improve things"? This IS all boiling down to the same audiophile argument over why record players sound better than MP3s.

Guess what? No one but an incredibly small minority cares. Unless you can make convincing arguments as to why your whale-bone corsets are still useful, you're going to be relegated to the dump-heap of history.
@Graham: I have no idea what you're talking about. Unless you mean that film grain is some kind of visual flaw that needs to be corrected by technology, in which case I find your disinterest in this subject weirdly disproportionate with your arrogance. If you don't care about the differences between film and digital, then I don't know what accounts for your smugness and defensiveness, unless of course you just like to feel superior. I don't suppose you've given this much thought before, until the opportunity to play provocateur presented itself.
@Ovidius: What does film grain accomplish? My smugness is that no one has presented a cogent argument on why film is a better format than digital. I keep asking people to do so and here's the list of reasons why:

1. nothing can replicate the look of light projecting a perfectly struck print onto a screen (no reason given and most likely incorrect)
2. Tarantino likes film (why is this relevant?)
3. an aesthetic one (not explained in any detail)
4. avant-garde films created with a film projector in mind (legitimate, but such a small market as to be largely irrelevant)
5. a well-restored print is a far better experience than a digital projection (no reason given)
6. an argument about having soul and appreciating art (a facile argument)

I am waiting for someone to explain to me why film is better than digital. I fully understand that nostalgia is important for many people and that some movies have an artistic vision that is better rendered by film; but that's not the issue here. The issue is the other 99% of movies. Please explain why film is better.
#2.... Because he makes some kick-ass movies and I find his thinking more relavant than yours. Speilberg prefers film too, among others.

I have read too that digital films differently in low light than digital. I imagine there are many more aesthetic reasons, which are identifiable to those with a keen eye.
Preferance then.
First off, Garahm, I have probably never been at a digital screening where I couldn't at some point tell the difference. And most, although not all, of my problem concerns all the screenings that are done on something less than the highest-end digital projection. When Cinema 21 showed Metropolis digitally (something they claimed was the only option, although it did not play in NYC until they had a print) I knew instantly. Instantly. I had no reason to expect anything other than a print--otherwise I wouldn't have been there. The lines of introductory text were clearly jagged. Did anyone else know the difference? Apparently not, and if they did they judged it minimal. To me it looked horrible, so there was no point in staying. And that was a decent projection considering a lot of what's done, whether it's at PIFF or the Baghdad or Clinton St or NWFC. I've seen a lot of video projection at those places that compared to fullscreen youtube video or worse. IT just looks WORSE--like I said before, the digital seams show. I have seen projections of vastly higher quality, and those can have other issues. In those cases, the text onscreen will not be jagged but eerily clean and exact, without the soft, grainy give of film, as though the credits are being superimposed onto the image live by computer rather than integrated as one with the image. However, most of the time, credits aside, it will look like a brand new, perfectly projected print. That's great. Except when it doesn't. Usually the brighter scenes will reveal to me a sort of dull, thin flatness, especially open sky, or bright fire. There is not as much room for bright, slight detail to blend in well with the rest of the image. Digital just doesn't have that capacity. Film can never fail in that regard, because the image is just there. Digital strives to replicate. Film just is. It's not philosophical, and I'm not talking about appreciating art (nor was I before). Film always has all of it's information, digital seeks to make you think it's there. The grain and physicality of film causes the information to merge seamlessly with itself regardless of age. Digital leaves gaps. Seeing True Grit on the highest-end system was basically ruined for me. Two thirds of the movie looked great and I would have never known. One third reminded me I was watching something ersatz. Even without those flaws, I would prefer celluloid. What I was trying to say before is that film can never degrade to the point where it's flaws are anything but natural and organic in look. Digital's flaws are not. It's like the difference in snowy static being mixed in with your image in an old broadcast (if you are old enough to know what I am talking about), versus a perfect high definition image that disappears into jagged blue sputters when the reception is poor. You, Graham, like the jagged blue sputters, or more to the point, cannot see them, while we can see them and would prefer to have an image that includes a little snow mixed in with the image instead if the reception is poor. I do have a romantic notion of film, and love to see battered old prints, but that's not what this is about. If I see a digital presentation that leaves me unaware that I am not seeing film, I can live with that. But the substandard visual experience digital currently provides has not brought us to that point. You are at that point, clearly, and don't feel bad. You are not alone in not being able to distinguish the difference. But why come barging into a funeral, yelling how the smiling android of the deceased is a perfectly nice guy and we are all being silly? You can read all the studies of digital resolution you want, but the proof is there on the screen for some of us, and that's all there is about it.
Ugh, I guess I just wasted my time on a troll, having looked at Graham's other comments (sample: "What's a hipster?"). Hopefully this was useful to someone who honestly wonders what the fuss is about anyway.
hi graham, here is your answer, sort of.

while the goal of both digital and analog projection is to fool the eye into thinking that a series of still images is actually a smoothly moving single image, the technical ways in which the two formats go about doing so is quite different. film relies on a phenomena known as 'persistence of vision' - pioneered by our old friend Eadweard Muybridge. with film you are literally seeing a series of flashing still images that are each followed by a brief moment of complete darkness. our eyeballs retain the image just long enough so that during that moment of blackness the projector can advance the film one more frame and then quickly flash it before our retention of the previous image fades. if you had bionic eyes or could slow down time you would see that a movie theater's screen is actually dark for half of the entire film projection.

digital projection relies on elements known as scan and field phasing (or something like that) - where as each image is literally pushed off the screen by the next. there is never any 'dark' moments on the screen, and in fact if you had bionic eyes you could actually see weird mutant half frame images throughout the showing. actually, you don't really have to have bionic eyes to see it, you just have to be sensitive to it or know what you are looking for.

i am not here to say that film projection is better or worse than digital, but the physical interaction each has with your eyeball and they way the images get to your brain is very different. when i see top notch digital projection, my first impression is usually 'wow' but then by the end of the movie i often find my eyeballs feeling strained and i feel like i am getting a headache. and it seems like a lot of people are in that boat.
Ironically one of the major drivers for digital cinema is the press.

Films are judged by press reported opening weekend box office sales. More screens (without more expensive 35mm prints)=more opening revenue. 3d is also entirely digital, so more 3d, with higher ticket price=more revenue.

Larger opening weekend box office means more momentum, millions saw it so it must be good.
Ron--3D, yes, probably. But I was married to the assistant to the president of a major studio, and I feel safe in saying that a) it's gross ticket sales they go by (not accounting for costs of any sort), and b) they were doing this long before the press made a fetish out of it. I'd say the problem with the press is lack of interest in tracking when you are seeing a projected DVD or 35mm print or whatever inbetween. Not that doing so wouldn't pose challenges--one of which is dodgy theater owners refusing to specify to papers what the format will be (yes, that has happened in Portland).
Woah. Today I learned that people still go to movie theaters. I had suspicions.

How about upping the frames-per-second and drop the gimmicky 3d bullshit?

Please wait...

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