Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Reviewing the 2011 Summer Movie Season

August 1, 2011

The summer of 2011 has provided movie audiences with a full roster of feature film entertainment. We’ve enjoyed no less than 10 big-budget, action-packed films that, collectively, have provided entertainment for virtually all ages. Our previous blog posts about TRON Legacy and Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides have helped bring to light some of the technical considerations of modern filmmaking. But now that the blockbuster season is winding down, perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve experienced this summer to see what trends currently dominate the Hollywood production process.

We’ve had the opportunity to experience an array of different filmmaking techniques and movie styles over the past few months. Film, digital, 3D, 2D, IMAX, RealD 3D, Dolby Digital 7.1, live action, animation, super heros, westerns, action and sci-fi all graced our local cineplex screens. For the movie fan, it was a cornucopia of visual and auditory information overload. And for the cinemas, it was a profitable summer of popcorn and Coke sales. But is there anything for us film buffs to learn after laying down our hard-earned cash or running up our credit card balances to see all these films? Well, a few things may surprise you.

IMAX display for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Let’s take a look at the production details of the biggest films this summer. Following is a summary of the camera systems, aquisition formats and presentation configurations of 10 big-budget movies released during May, June and July. If the technical details of film production and presentation are of limited interest to you, we’ll summarize after the list.

Thor
Camera systems used: Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL (film), Panavision Panaflex Platinum (film), Arriflex 435 (film), Photo-Sonics 4ER (high-speed film), shot in anamorphic
Theater presentation formats: 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (via post conversion), Real-D 3D and IMAX 3D

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Camera systems used: Red Digital Cinema Red ONE (4K digital), Red Digital Cinema Red EPIC (5K digital, for pick-up shots)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (via stereo production), Real-D 3D, IMAX 3D and IMAX 3D DMR 70mm

Kung Fu Panda 2
Camera systems used: 3D Computer animation (via InTru3D)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39: aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (original production), Real-D 3D, IMAX 3D

Super 8
Camera systems used: Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL (film), Arriflex 435 (film), Arriflex 16 SR3 (16mm film), Beaulieu 4008 ZM4 (Super 8mm film), Bell & Howell Eyemo (film), Canon 1014XLS (Super 8mm film)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D, IMAX Digital

X-Men: First Class
Camera systems used: Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL (film), shot in anamorphic
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D

Green Lantern
Camera systems used: Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 (film), shot in Super 35
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (via post conversion), Real-D 3D

Cars 2
Camera systems used: 3D computer animation (2K resolution)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (original production), Real-D 3D, IMAX 3D, IMAX 3D DMR 70mm (1.44:1 aspect ratio)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Camera systems used: Panavision Panaflex Platinum (film), Arriflex 235 (film), Arri Alexa (3.5k digital), Red Digital Cinema Red ONE (4K digital), Silicon Imaging SI-2K (2k digital), Sony CineAlta F35 (1080p digital)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (mostly via stereo production with some post conversion), Real-D 3D, IMAX 3D, IMAX 3D DMR 70mm

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Camera systems used: Arricam Studio (film), Arricam Lite (film), Arriflex 235 (film), shot in Super 35
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (via post conversion), Real-D 3D, IMAX 3D, IMAX 3D DMR 70mm

Captain America: The First Avenger
Camera systems used: Panavision Genesis (1080p digital), Panaflex Millennium XL (film), Arriflex 435 (film), Arriflex 235 (film), Arri Alexa (3.5k digital), Canon EOS 5D Mark II (1080p digital – used for vehicle POV shots)
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D and 3D (via post conversion), Real-D 3D

Cowboys & Aliens
Camera systems used: Panaflex Millennium (film), Panaflex Millennium XL (film), Panavision Panaflex Platinum (film), shot in anamorphic
Theater presentation formats: 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 35mm anamorphic and D-Cinema, 2D, IMAX Digital

IMAX Digital press brochure

So, after sifting through all of that technical production and presentation information, what can be concluded? Quite a few things, it turns out.

First, note that every single film listed above was presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio (also known as Scope, Anamorphic or Widescreen). Traditionally, there are far more films released in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio than the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This is simply because 2.39:1 aspect ratio films generally result in higher production costs because of the production processes required. It’s true that action films or big-budget films are often released in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio but, for fans of widescreen presentation, it’s a welcome situation to see so many directors and cinematographers embrace the 2.39:1 aspect ratio.

Shooting a scene for Harry Potter using Arri 35mm film cameras on dolly tracks

Secondly, notice how many of the movies utilize traditional 35mm film cameras as their aquisition format. If you remove the two computer animated films from the list, only one of the remaining nine films was shot completely digitally. Every other film was completely or mostly captured using 35mm film systems. In this age of digital filmmaking (heck, digital everything, really), it’s really interesting to see how well 35mm film is represented this summer. I’d venture to guess that this summer represents the highest percentage of film-based movies we’ve had in the past 5 years. The film production vs. digital production situation will be interesting to keep track of in the coming years.

Thirdly, with 3D supposedly being all the rage right now, note how few films were produced the dual camera stereo 3D process…only two. And three of the nine live action films weren’t even offered in a 3D presentation format. Of course, the two parts of the Harry Potter finale were shot at the same time and the filmmakers only found out towards the end of principle photography that Warner Brothers decided to release the final film in 3D. Still, it would appear that Hollywood has perhaps cooled off a bit – at least for the time being – about shooting everything in 3D.

DP Matthew Libatique uses Panavision 35mm film cameras to shoot Cowboys & Aliens

While we still have a few more big-budget films scheduled for late summer, the next big movie season is the holiday season. On tap are several action films, a few animated films, some super hero films and even some remakes and re-releases. We’ll keep track of these releases and provide an update on the production and presentation trends throughout the rest of 2011.

In the mean time, we invite you to leave a comment about what you thought of the summer 2011 movie season. We’d love to hear your thoughts on 2D vs. 3D, Real-D 3D vs. IMAX 3D, 2.39:1 aspect ratio vs. 1.85:1 aspect ratio, film production vs. digital production, film projection vs. digital projection, stereo production 3D vs. post conversion 3D or any other thoughts you have on the current state of movie production and presentation.

We appreciate you taking the time to read and respond.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides…which 3D version is better?

May 28, 2011

The summer movie season is upon us and the next three months should provide lots of exciting entertainment for movie goers. Thor kicked off the season in early May and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now making its run in several 3D formats. I was invited by Disney to a press screening of Pirates on May 19, the day before its official release. The film shown at the screening was presented in RealD Cinema 3D on a medium-sized screen at the Regal Citrus Park 20 in Tampa. I saw Pirates a second time at the renowned Brenden Theaters and IMAX at The Palms in Las Vegas in the IMAX [Digital] 3D format. While I’ll leave a review of the film to other movie sites, I’d like to offer some comparisons between the two digital 3D presentations.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Theatrical One Sheet

After seeing the RealD Cinema 3D showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which was shot primarily using Red Digital Cinema RED ONE cameras with pickup shots captured on RED EPIC cameras, I was left with the impression that visually, the film was dark, somewhat dull and lacking in detail. I know cinematographer Dariusz Wolski – who  framed all three previous Pirates of the Caribbean films – would not choose to deviate from the vibrant, sharply-focused and detailed image present in the prior chapters of Jack Sparrow’s adventures, so I was a bit disappointed in this particular 3D presentation. In actuality, the RealD Cinema 3D system, which makes use of a stereoscopic projection system that utilizes a special silver screen and a lens and glasses polarization technique, is known to produce an image that’s about one-third the brightness of a standard 2D film projected on the same screen. A darker projected image means that the viewer won’t experience a picture with the level of contrast (the difference between the darkest black portions of the image and the brightest white portions of the image) expensive cinema cameras can record.  RealD 3D films are projected using a single digital projector that presents both the left eye and right eye images as alternating polarized pictures to create a three-dimensional effect. While a polarized projection system is less susceptible to distortion when a viewer moves their head about, it also halves the resolution of the recorded image since half of the total pixels are used for the left eye and half for the right eye. Thus, the RealD format is not only darker, but less detailed. On a positive note, most viewers tend to prefer the look and feel of the RealD Cinema 3D glasses over other systems.

Sample "Pirates" image at full brightness and contrast

Sample "Pirates" image at 35% brightness and contrast

The IMAX [Digital] 3D showing at the Brenden Theaters at The Palms in Las Vegas was a completely different experience. First, let me note that the Brenden chain of movie theaters, which was founded by CEO Johnny Brenden, grandson of Ted Mann, founder of Mann Theaters, is known in the industry as a theater chain that takes great care to provide their audiences with high-quality picture and sound. Most of their theaters are THX-certified and make use of the latest cinema technology. The Brenden Las Vegas is a 14-screen, all-THX cinema with auditorium 9 featuring a full IMAX screen and IMAX [Digital] projection. This is where I saw Pirates the second time. The IMAX auditorium at the Brenden Las Vegas is actually a hybrid IMAX system. The movie screen is the traditional, five-story, squarish IMAX screen – no doubt originally installed for presenting standard 70mm IMAX films – but the projection system is the new, dual projector 2K digital IMAX system. The combination actual works quite well since the huge screen allows for pristine presentation of IMAX 3D films.

Palms Casino - location of Brenden Theaters Las Vegas

Brenden Theaters box office displaying THX and Dolby Digital plaques

Brenden Theater lobby with prominent Pirates of the Caribbean display

The IMAX 3D version of Pirates was full of contrast, detail and clarity. The blacks were deep and inky and the whites were bright and clean. Colors popped in sunlit scenes and the dark, dingy locations below the decks of the ships were full of subtle detail. The close up shots of Barbossa’s face properly showcased the special, albeit gaudy, makeup treatment reserved for British officers and the tight shots of Blackbeard allowed one to count the hairs extruding from his face.

The sound system in this particular IMAX auditorium was a bit of an oddity, too. Since the screen was the traditional, large format IMAX screen, I can only assume that the sound system installed behind the screen is the traditional, multi-channel IMAX sound system used for the 70mm film presentations. However, since we were viewing a new digital IMAX presentation, which normally utilizes a different type of sound system, I’m not sure how the two sound formats were adapted to work with one another. Additionally, the theater is listed with THX and other resources as a THX-approved theater. Well, THX-approved theaters don’t include IMAX screens with IMAX sound systems. Again, I have questions as to how this traditional IMAX sound system can be listed as a THX-approved system, unless some special adaptations were made to meet the criteria of both systems. I’ve contacted both THX and IMAX about these issues; I’ll post an update should I hear anything back from either company.

Dolby also produces a digital 3D system named Dolby 3D. Although Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has been released in the Dolby 3D format, I’ve yet to have the opportunity to visit a theater showing this version of the film. I’m anxious to audition a Dolby 3D film to see how it compares to RealD Cinema 3D and IMAX [Digital] 3D. The XPAND company also manufactures a 3D cinema system as does the Master Image company. I’ve yet to see a film in either of these formats. Note that Disney Digital 3D is simply a trade name applied to Disney films released in the 3D format; Disney does not manufacture any type of 3D projection system.

So, in conclusion, be aware that not all 3D is created equal. I’ve mentioned before how impressed I’ve been with the IMAX [Digital] 3D system and this recent direct comparison between the IMAX system and the RealD Cinema system validates my initial findings. Check your local theater listings to see what version of 3D digital projection they offer; most movie listing sites like Fandango will indicate which digital projection and 3D formats are available near you. If IMAX [Digital] 3D is an option for you, I highly recommend it. And once you’ve seen a 3D presentation of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, leave a comment sharing your experiences with the presentation.

TRON Legacy Update

April 24, 2011

TRON LEGACY UPDATE:

I’ve received several messages since posting TRON Legacy…from IMAX Digital 3D to Blu-ray: is there even a difference? requesting more information about the varying aspect ratio of the TRON Legacy IMAX theatrical presentation and the home video Blu-ray presentation. This update should provide some enlightenment…

Virtually every scene in TRON Legacy was shot with the Sony F35 CineAlta digital cinema camera. This camera has a native 1.78:1 (16×9) aspect ratio and captures footage in the 1080p high-definition video format (1920×1080 pixels). The 2.39:1 aspect ratio of the TRON Legacy theatrical presentation (2.35:1 on the Blu-ray) was accomplished by matting out the top and bottom portions of the recorded image with black bars to create a letterboxed projection. Unlike The Dark Knight, which also had a changing aspect ratio because of the different camera systems used, no IMAX film cameras were used to shoot TRON Legacy.

Tron Legacy scene with 1.78:1 (16x9) "full-height" aspect ratio

The 1.78:1 (full height) aspect ratio  of some of the scenes in the TRON Legacy IMAX presentation was created by simply not including any mattes on the top and bottom of the recorded image and allowing the full native 1:78:1 recorded image to be projected. The non-IMAX digital projections and the 35mm film projections of TRON Legacy all had a fixed 2.39:1 aspect ratio throughout the entire film.

DCP-compliant digital theater projectors including ones manufactured by IMAX, Christie and Sony have a native aspect ratio of 1.9:1, which is slightly wider than the 1080p format, so a slight conversion or matte of the recorded 1080p image needs to take place.

The IMAX presentation of TRON Legacy was used as the master for the production of the Blu-ray so we see the changing aspect ratio when viewing at home, just as we did in the IMAX showings. During most of the movie, we’re presented with a letterboxed 2.35:1 image with the special “IMAX” scenes in full 1.78:1 (16×9) framing, filling our TV screens with picture image.

Tron Legacy scene with a 2.35:1 (scope) "matted" aspect ratio

The sequences from TRON Legacy presented in a 1.78:1 “full-screen” format are as follows:

“The Grid”

From the moment Sam first sees the first Recognizer upon entering the digital world of The Grid until he is going down the elevator lift on his way to the Sirens to be outfitted for the games.

“Games”

From the moment Sam enters the arena for the disc games until he is retained by Clu’s sentries and brought to Clu’s transport.

“Lightcycle Battle”

From the moment Clu’s transport leaves for the lightcycle grid until Sam and Quorra are on the elevator lift entering Flynn’s dwelling.

“Freight Train”

From the moment Sam, Flynn and Quorra leave the elevator platform to board the freight transport after escaping Castor’s (Zuse’s) club until the three of them exit the transport after it docks at Clu’s flagship. Note that the scenes of Clu and his team inside Castor’s club cut within the freight train sequence are in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

“Clu’s Toast”

From the moment Clu rises to the podium inside his flagship to address the army of programs he’s assembled until he has completed his speech to them about entering the real world. Note that the scenes of Clu’s flagship disembarking for the portal cut within the toast sequence are in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

“Air Battle”

From the moment Clu’s team leaps from the flagship to chase after Sam, Flynn and Quorra in their stolen fighter through Flynn’s sacrifice until end of the scenes inside the computer on the grid.

“End Titles”

The end credits sequence of the film is in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

Again, note that these special vertically-extended scenes, produced exclusively for viewers of the IMAX presentation (and now the Blu-ray), were simply created by removing the mattes at the top and bottom of the screen that are in place throughout most of the film to reveal the remainder of the full, native 1.78:1 recorded image.

The manner of creating a 2.39:1 aspect ratio film, sometimes referred to as scope or anamorphic, by matting a native 1.78:1 aspect ratio recording brings up some interesting discussion points. Traditionally, a wide aspect ratio film is created because a director or cinematographer wants to create an image larger in scope than what the traditional 35mm film width can provide. This wider scope can be created by using multiple cameras and projectors like the now-obsolete Cinerama system, by using a wider gauge film such as 55mm or 65mm formats or by using an anamorphic camera lens system that squeezes a wider image onto standard 35mm film by means of lens distortion. An anamorphic image on standard 35mm film is un-stretched by using a corresponding anamorphic projection lens that widens the image back out to its natural look. All of these methods provide a director with a means to create a wider image than what standard 35mm film can provide.

However, in the case of TRON Legacy and other films shot with a digital acquisition system that uses a native 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the only practical way to create a wider aspect ratio is to letterbox or matte the top and bottom of the recorded image to create a seemingly wider projected image. This matting creates a loss of image resolution as fewer vertical pixels are used for picture information. This is not an ideal situation and one that needs to be addressed for future digital cinema production.

The use of anamorphic lenses may be one solution. Using anamorphic lenses to squeeze a wider image onto a native 1.78:1 capture area will result in a wider aspect ratio without the need to waste pixels on black matte bars. Future camera systems that utilize wider aspect ratio image sensors is probably a better way to go. To gain the full benefit of a wider sensor, digital projection systems will need to be developed that can project a wider presentation than the standard 1.9:1.

Below are two images which will help illustrate the differences between various film aspect ratios:

Ratios from the standard 35mm full frame (1.33:1) to Scope (2.39:1) and beyond

Three common film aspect ratios compared

The digital cinema world is in its infancy. Digital acquisition and projection offers many advantages over traditional film systems. However, we still have a way to go before we can fully replace the tried-and-true picture quality and aesthetic of 35mm film. Figuring out how to record, edit and project a motion picture digitally was the hard part. Now we move on to the refinement. Good things are yet to come.

I hope readers will leave comments, share thoughts and ask questions. I’m glad to share the feedback from the curious, the critical and the creators.

(Screen captures courtesy of www.blu-ray.com.)

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Summer 2011 Movie Poll

April 15, 2011

The summer of 2011 will offer movie goers more potential blockbuster films than we’ve seen over a single season in a long time. With a mix of both sequel films from ongoing stories and totally new concepts, there’s sure to be something for everyone. So, we invite you to take our poll (and share with your friends) to see which of these summer movie titles are the most anticipated…

TRON Legacy…from IMAX Digital 3D to Blu-ray: is there even a difference?

April 13, 2011

One of the hottest Blu-rays around right now is Disney’s TRON Legacy. And for good reason…this 1080p, 7.1-channel version of the film offers viewers mind-blowing animated visuals and a soundtrack capable of rattling windows. For fans of the genre, the continuation of a story involving the virtual reality of living programs inside a computer network along with the ability to revisit The Grid almost 30 years after Disney’s first TRON story hit theaters adds to the excitement. I admit I’m a fan. I still own the Special Edition Laserdisc Box Set of the original TRON movie and I purchased the 4-disc 3D Blu-ray edition of TRON Legacy the morning of its release. Being produced three decades apart, there are naturally some differences in the technology used in creating 1982’s TRON and 2010’s TRON Legacy; however, in some ways, we’ve not come as far as you might imagine.

TRON Laserdisc Box Set

The original TRON was shot primarily using Super Panavision 65mm film cameras. In fact, at least one of the cameras used in the filming of TRON was previously used to film Lawrence of Arabia in the early 1960s. Most film-based movie cameras shoot on 35mm film. Because 65mm film offers over two and a half times as much picture area as 35mm film, the format can provide significantly higher resolution and picture detail over the more traditional format. Of course, it’s not just the size of the film and the type of cameras used on a production that determine the overall look of a movie. The lighting design, shooting conditions, technical and creative capabilities of the crew, post-production process, etc. all play a role in how a film looks. And the amount of processing and optical compositing a film goes through during editing plays a role in how clean the final version of the release print looks. TRON went through a heavy post-production process with lots of optical compositing and colorization of film frame blow-ups.

An amusing report by Walter Cronkite about the making of TRON provides some detail:

Because of the unique hand-animated processes and early computer graphic imagery used on TRON, it’s a wonder it ever looked as good as it did. The new Blu-ray release of TRON – which was released the same day as TRON Legacy – looks amazing considering its age and production style.

Blu-ray screenshot from TRON (1982)

Today, most films are shot digitally. But some directors still prefer to shoot on 35mm film and occasionally, as with a few scenes in the recent film Inception, 65mm film cameras are brought out of the storage closets to shoot special effects scenes. 35mm film has been the quality standard since the late 1800s. It’s a very high quality format. Even though digital cameras offer several advantages over film cameras, they’re still in their infancy when compared to the 35mm film format. It’s somewhat difficult to compare the quality of film camera images to digital camera images. Film systems use an optical process that captures pictures by exposing light to a fine silver grain embedded in a chemical emulsion. Digital systems use an electronic process that records pictures by exposing light to a sensor of a fixed resolution which saves images as pixels. In attempting to equate film grain to pixels, most cinematographers would agree that 65mm film has a minimum resolution of 8,000 vertical lines of pixels, commonly referred to as 8K. 35mm film has a minimum resolution of 4K. Most digital projectors in modern theaters, including the IMAX 3D projectors, utilize 2K projectors to present movies.

Dual 2K IMAX Digital projectors

So, if the original TRON was shot on 65mm film cameras which can provide a minimum 8K resolution, how does that compare with the latest digital cameras used to shoot TRON Legacy almost 30 years later? Well, the latest TRON film was shot using Sony F35 digital cinema cameras. These cameras are very good. They represent the latest mainstream technology for filming movies digitally. Their resolution? Less than 2K. Yes, the Sony F35, and several other competing systems, captures images using a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution imager; that’s the same number of pixels on the 1080p HDTV in your living room. Not that resolution alone, by any means, determines the quality of a digital video camera but I have a $2,000 professional Panasonic camera that shoots at the same resolution as the $200,000 Sony F35! When it comes to movie-making and the transition from film to digital, does it seem like we’re stepping backwards rather than forwards?

Sony F35 CineAlta cinema camera

Wait, there’s one more point…most of the scenes in TRON Legacy were composed and projected in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Sony F35 cameras shoot in a native 1.78:1 aspect ratio and digital projectors display a native 1.9:1 aspect ratio. So, to present a 2.35:1 film digitally, black matte bars have to be added to the film to create the wider aspect ratio, just like when a letterboxed movie is presented on your TV using black bars on the top and bottom. This means that some of the pixels of the digital camera and the digital projection are being wasted on black bars rather than picture information. To be fair, when the original TRON was released in theaters on 35mm film, a bit of the top and bottom of the 65mm picture image had to be cropped off to fit on the anamorphic 35mm film print. But there were no black bars wasting a portion of the film frame; the entire 35mm film area was used.

Matted 2.35:1 TRON Legacy frame in a 1.78:1 (16x9) HDTV format

So, it sounds like shooting on 65mm film is way better than shooting on modern digital 1080p cameras. Well, there’s more to the story. In a film-only workflow, special effects have to be composited together. A cinematographer might shoot a background scene on one reel of film and then shoot the actors in front of a blue screen on another reel of film. The special effects department might create explosions, animations or other effects as separate elements each on their own reels of film. To create the final scene, all of these separate film elements have to be optically combined by layering them on top of one another and taking a composite photograph on yet another reel of film. Once a master edit of the completed film is ready, an additional set of film reels is produced from the master for distribution to theaters. All of this compositing and creating of new film reels over and over leads to a build-up of film grain and a loss of clarity. This is why special effects-heavy film producers often use 65mm or VistaVision film cameras for shooting their special effects scenes even when the final release prints will be down-sized to 35mm or even digital formats; it gives them more initial resolution to work with knowing that they’ll lose some of that during the post production process.

Consider digital filmmaking, on the other hand. A background scene is shot on a digital camera and is loaded into the computer as an identical, pixel-for-pixel copy with no loss of resolution or clarity. The blue and green screen elements are treated the same way. Then all of the special effects, animations, color corrections and compositing are performed digitally using the computer. This means that there is no film grain build-up, no loss of picture quality or, in the case of elements that are created inside the computer and never shot by a camera, no video noise or other anomalies to deal with. So, while shooting TRON digitally doesn’t offer viewers the resolution of 65mm film, the filmmakers have eliminated many of the problems that the traditional film post production process presents and can actually create a cleaner, higher-quality picture for special effects films. Compared to a straight 65mm film negative that doesn’t undergo compositing and other post production special effects processes, as in Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music or even Baraka, the 1080p resolution still has a way to go.

Blu-ray screenshot from The Sound of Music

But we’re making progress. Red Digital Cinema Camera Company manufactures the Red One professional filmmaking camera that shoots at 4K with a Scarlet model in the works that shoots at 5K. And just this week, Sony announced a new F65 CineAlta camera said to mimic the look of 65mm film using an 8K sensor that shoots at resolutions of 4K and above. We already have 4K digital cinema projectors that bring out the detail of 35mm film; now those 4K projectors can be used to their full advantage by digital filmmakers as well.

So, back to the TRON Legacy Blu-ray. It’s getting 4.5/5 and 5/5 reviews for both picture and sound quality on just about every Blu-ray site that has reviewed it. Heck, even the sound engineers at Skywalker Sound, who managed the sound editing and mixing for the film, are stating that TRON Legacy is their new reference film for movie sound quality. Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Why, yes it is! I saw TRON Legacy in a theater with one of the new IMAX Digital 3D projection systems installed and was blown away by both the picture and sound. (Being a fan of the original film and the sci-fi/action genre in general, I enjoyed the story, as well.) The colors, contrast, clarity and realism of the visuals was more than impressive. And the soundtrack, including all of the original sound design and the Daft Punk original score, was lifelike and room-shaking. Does this experience translate to the home theater Blu-ray version? Well, that depends on the quality of your home system, of course. I have a 65″ 3D HDTV calibrated to SMPTE standards and a THX-certified home theater sound system at my disposal so I can generally enjoy the most the Blu-ray format has to offer. I can honestly say that, after 3 complete viewings over the past couple of weeks, I’m still mesmerized by the TRON Legacy Blu-ray. It’s that good.

TRON Legacy Blu-ray set

The movie-making process has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years with the advent of digital cameras, computer animation and editing and 4K 3D digital projection. Home theater technology has also come a long way from the 640 x 480 resolution of the laserdisc and 3-channel Dolby Stereo. And it will all continue to advance at a rapid pace. Televisions with 2K and eventually 4K resolutions will become a reality and 8K and even 16K cameras will be developed. And there will likely always be those who prefer to shoot on film, which is the original high definition format.

While there may not be much of a technical difference between the IMAX Digital 3D version of TRON Legacy and its Blu-ray counterpart, seeing TRON and other films in a modern theater with digital projection and a high-end sound system can be an exhilarating experience. And the ability to closely reproduce that experience with a dedicated home theater allows film fans to enjoy those experiences for years to come. The TRON Legacy Blu-ray allows you to push your home theater system to its limits; I say you owe it to yourself to own TRON Legacy on Blu-ray, even if it’s just to show off your system to your neighbors!

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Good-looking Aliens

September 14, 2010

Remember when James Cameron was simply considered a great filmmaker as opposed to a caricature of Hollywood who also uses the film industry to promote his agendas? I ask you to recall films like The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Abyss and one of my personal favorites, Aliens. Via these films, Cameron demonstrated his prowess at maximizing small budgets, advancing digital visual effects (with the support of ILM), telling compelling stories and engaging a movie-going audience. He also helped refine the validity of the Director’s Cut of a motion picture through special edition releases of most of his films. Let’s take Aliens, for example. Not only is this film this a fantastic representation of the rare occasion when a sequel film matches or even surpasses the quality of the original, but it also demonstrates a filmmaker’s respect for his predecessor by effectively extending the original storyline of the Alien universe while further developing existing and new characters and plot points. The practical special effects created for Aliens were top notch, the direction, casting and acting were spot on and the creature design (courtesy of H.R. Giger) and execution were completely believable, all culminating in an effective suspense/horror/action film. When this film was released as a special edition laserdisc box set in 1991 (along with Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien), Cameron convinced 20th Century Fox to allow him to insert almost 20 minutes of excised footage back into the film to create his preferred director’s cut. What a treat for fans of the film.

Alien and Aliens Laserdisc Box Sets

Alien and Aliens Laserdisc Box Sets

I actually saw Aliens a couple of weeks before its official release date during the summer of 1986. May father’s construction company had a contract with AMC Theaters to build multiplex movie houses throughout Florida. I worked for him during my high school summer breaks. We finished the AMC Seminole 8 at the Seminole Mall in early July and were treated to an exclusive screening of Fox’s biggest summer release as a reward for completing the project on-time and on-budget. I have vivid memories of the screening; I thought it was the best “scary” movie I had ever seen and recall it strengthening my interest in filmmaking and the burgeoning home theater market.

In 2003 Fox released an incredible  9-disc DVD box set entitled Alien Quadrillogy that represents the ultimate collection of all four Alien films along with all of the behind-the-scenes production materials available for each. This is a fantastic collection and has provided me with days and days of entertainment and enlightenment. But, like their laserdiscs counterparts became over 10 years ago, DVDs are so last decade to me.

Alien Quadrilogy DVD Box Set

Alien Quadrilogy DVD Box Set

So you can imagine my delight when I read about a complete Blu-ray collection of the films in the works. As it turns out, the box set will first be available in the UK on October 25. No doubt it will be coming to the US for the holiday buying season. But with some recent concerns about certain 20th Century Fox catalog titles receiving less-than-stellar HD digital film transfers (see my post about the Predator Blu-ray), and James Cameron’s comments about using grain-removal processes to improve the look of Aliens, some of us in the film appreciation and home theater communities had some concerns. Well, folks, there’s good news. Several home theater and multimedia Websites have published screen captures of the Aliens Blu-ray presentation and things are looking just fine. Check out the following sample 1080p stills from the Aliens Blu-ray to see for yourself. Now let’s hope that The Abyss will be getting the same star treatment soon.

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Digital Cinema Update

August 12, 2010

I’ve recently posted articles about Sony 4K Digital Projection and Dolby 7.1 Surround. Both of these technologies enhance feature film presentations by providing audiences with higher resolution imagery and more lifelike audio. And while 3D projection is all the rage right now, I personally feel that improvements to the presentation quality of a motion picture are more significant. 3D production and presentation technology may eventually end up being the standards for movies and might even make their way into our living rooms as the standard broadcasting format. But, as I’ve mentioned before, a good story and a quality presentation are the most important factors in creating an enjoyable movie experience.

Well, in the few short weeks since I first reported that the management at Channelside Cinemas in downtown Tampa upgraded to 4K projection for all of their movie screens, a new crop of Sony 4K Digital Projectors have popped up in the bay area. Taking a look at the Sony 4K Projection Theater Finder, there are no less than 10 movie theaters within the tri-county area that offer the current state-of-the-art in digital screening. The Muvico Starlight 20 in Tampa is an all-4k house and the Regal Park Place Stadium 16 now has screens with 4K projection and Dolby Surround 7.1. Progress is a good thing!

Muvico Baywalk

Now, just because your local theater may boast 4K projection or Dolby 7.1, that doesn’t automatically mean the movie you’re seeing takes advantage of these technologies. Only movies originally shot in 4K or on film then edited and finished in 4K can offer a true 4K presentation. And to experience Dolby 7.1 sound, the movie soundtrack has to be mixed and mastered in 7.1. Not every movie goes through these processes. Nevertheless, the more 4K and Dolby 7.1 installations we have, the more likely we’ll see these production methods becoming the standard. You can check which movies are currently available for 4K presentation using the Sony 4K New Release Schedule and which movies are availble for Dolby 7.1 Surround by using the Dolby 7.1 Surround Location Map.

Most theater managers don’t make it a priority to inform the general public what technologies they offer. Nor do they list on their Websites which films or which screens offer the special presentations. I frequently call theater box offices to verify which showing of the film I want to see is being presented in 4K, 2K, Dolby 7.1, Dolby Digital or THX. The clerk answering the phone rarely knows; sometimes the theater management isn’t even sure. I equate this to a car dealership having a limited edition vehicle on their lot but not knowing which one it is. If the management and staff isn’t educated, how can they educate the public? Come on, guys!

I encourage all movie fans to seek out the special presentations in their area. If the publicly-available showtime listings don’t make it clear what’s available, ask the personnel at the theater to find out and let you know. Perhaps if they realize the public has an interest in seeking out special showings they’ll do a better job at promoting them. I think you’ll find it worth the effort. You can’t do much to ensure a great story but you can ensure the best possible presentation.

Is Blu-ray the perfect film presentation format?

July 6, 2010

Blu-ray Disc is currently the highest-quality medium available to consumers for watching films at home. I’m certainly a big fan of Blu-ray and can affirmatively state that I’ve experienced films in ways never possible before Blu-ray. I’ve discovered details in Blade Runner I never knew were there and I’ve gained a new appreciation for the cinematography of North By Northwest. But is Blu-ray the perfect film presentation format? Well, yes and no, it turns out.

There’s an interesting topic of discussion currently circulating the Blu-ray and home theater Websites and discussion boards; it has to do with presenting movies originally shot on film via the digital medium of Blu-ray Discs. Specifically, the discussion revolves around the question of whether or not movie studios should attempt to remove some or all of the visible grain present in the film negative during the creation of the high definition Blu-ray video master.

Sony Blu-ray Player

Up until George Lucas began experimenting with high definition digital video during the filming of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, almost all theatrical releases were shot on 35mm film. Many still are today. Big-budget, epic productions were sometimes shot on 65mm film and many low-budget releases have been shot on 16mm or even 8mm. Film, no matter what size, contains light-sensitive grains of silver halide. These grains, upon exposure to light, create a negative picture image of what is seen through the lens. The grain structure of each individual film frame is unique. Therefore, even when shooting a motionless, unchanging scene, the resulting projection or video presentation will contain a bit of texture and a sense of realness. It’s what many refer to as the magic of film.

Video, no matter what resolution, is made up of electronic pixels arranged in a static layout. Inexpensive video cameras often produce video noise which is recorded permanently into the picture due to the camera’s poor low-light performance. This video noise sometimes looks similar to film grain, albeit with much less aesthetic appeal. Video noise is undesirable. On the other hand, professional-grade high definition video cameras designed for shooting cinema productions can record images free of video noise and generally produce very clean and accurate pictures. Consequently, shooting a motionless, unchanging image can result in what looks like the projection of a photograph or painting with no texture or life. This is why you’ll sometimes hear directors and cinematographers say that high definition video has no magic and looks too digital.

So, we now introduce digital noise reduction or DNR. DNR is a remarkable computer technology that analyzes the noise of an image and attempts to remove that noise without degrading the quality of the original image. It can be an extremely helpful tool when working to remaster, clean up or otherwise improve an image. But, like most any tool, it can be abused, as well. And here enters the recent Blu-ray release Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition, a home video version of the 20th Century Fox film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that was released theatrically in 1987.

Predator Blu-ray cover

Predator was first released on Blu-ray in April of 2008 and, despite some compression artifacts related to early Blu-ray development, represented a pretty close approximation of the theatrical presentation, which was somewhat grainy and undersaturated. When directors and cinematographers shoot a film, they have many different types of film stocks to chose from. Some stocks are formulated for daylight, some are formulated for studio lighting, some have a smaller grain structure to bring out more detail and some have a larger grain structure to allow for better shooting in low-light conditions. The Predator production crew likely used a film stock with a larger grain structure because the grain is clearly visible on the film negative and resulting theatrical presentation and home video versions. While some may object to seeing such heavy grain, this is the choice the filmmakers made and how they wished their film to been seen.

Predator Ultimate Hunt Edition Blu-ray cover

Predator has since been re-released on Blu-ray with a brand new digital film-to-video transfer. This time, heavy DNR was used to reduce the appearance of film grain. Well, the technicians must have “cranked it up to 11” on the DNR setting because virtually no film grain is present in this new version of the film. And herein lies the debate: are those responsible for preparing a film for release on Blu-ray (or any other home video format) obligated to accurately preserve the original look of the film or are they justified in attempting to “improve” or “update” the film for an audience not familiar with the technical or creative choices of the filmmakers?

I’m a bit of a purist. In general, I believe that the look of a film, especially one created with a studio budget, is created intentionally. Filmmakers have a vast collection of tools at their disposal for creating a specific look or visual aesthetic. If a film is bright and over-saturated, it’s because the filmmakers wanted it that way. If a film is grainy and dull, that’s intentional, too. Different looks create different moods. Colors, lighting, film stock and many other creative tools are used to help tell a story.

Does this mean we should never use technologies like DNR when remastering a film? Not at all. Some films simply age poorly and don’t look as they once did; DNR can help bring them back to life. Sometimes, a filmmaker is limited in what equipment or devices he or she has access to and is forced to make compromises during production. And, believe it or not, occasionally original film negatives and the inter-positives used as masters get damaged or lost, leaving only worn-out release prints for creating home videos. These reasons, among others, justify the use of tools like DNR and digital enhancement.

But with Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition, I think we have a case of abuse. Click on the following link to view a frame from the original Blu-ray release of Predator, courtesy of The Digital Bits

http://www.digitalmediaservicesflorida.com/files/images/predator_blu-ray_original.png

This image demonstrates good detail, especially in Arnold’s face wrinkles and facial hair, but also preserves the presence of film grain, especially in the out-of-focus background area.

Now take a look at the same film frame from the new Ultimate Hunt Edition Blu-ray release of Predator…

http://www.digitalmediaservicesflorida.com/files/images/predator_blu-ray_ultimate.png

It looks like we’ve entered plastic land! The film grain has been almost entirely removed, which was the intended result, but so has much of the texture and fine detail. Many of Arnold’s subtle wrinkles and facial hair details are now gone. And his shirt looks like it was made of spandex. Even if you prefer the look of this edition to the previous one, you have to admit that it’s not accurate in comparison to the theatrical release. I suggest you download each image to your computer and open them both in your preferred image viewer so you can compare them directly.

So, I propose the question again: are those responsible for preparing a film for Blu-ray obligated to accurately preserve the original look of the film or are they justified in attempting to “improve” the film?

Another way to evaluate this question is by considering color vs black & white. The advent of color film stock certainly was an improvement to the filmmaking process. Using color not only more accurately portrays the world in which the characters of the film interact but also adds a new aesthetic in creating a mood, feeling or reaction. However, concluding that all black & white films should be remastered in color would be ridiculous. We should preserve those black & white films as they were originally created, right?

Well, if a film was created to be grainy, dark or off-color, shouldn’t we keep it that way on Blu-ray? Shouldn’t we reserve digital noise reduction, edge enhancement and other so-called improvements for addressing only those scenes in which a filmmaker had to make a compromise or scenes that otherwise need to be altered in order to bring them back to their original look? My vote is yes, we should keep the look of a film intact and reject Blu-ray releases like Predator: Ultimate Hunt Edition. I’m curious to hear your feedback and opinions.

Tampa’s Channelside Cinemas go all-4K

June 22, 2010

The movie theater industry has historically been plagued by periodic cycles of prosperity and hardship. After the initial boom of grandiose theaters in the 1920’s, which gave us fabulous movie houses like Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (1927), the Paradise Theater in Chicago (1928) and the Tampa Theater in downtown Tampa (1926), the depression hit and, like it did to so many other segments of the economy, created a dramatic decline in revenue for theater owners. The adoption of the widescreen film format helped things slowly improve for the movie theater business until the advent of color television in the mid-1950s, which influenced more families to stay home to watch the talkies. Another movie boom came in the mid-to-late 1970s when revolutionary films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) sent patrons back to the theaters in droves. For the next decade or so, theater owners rested on their laurels and allowed their movie houses to become outdated and, in many cases, in a state of disrepair. Consequently, many theater owners again found their businesses in jeopardy. THX certification, digital sound formats and improved architectural and aesthetic designs improved things for movie theaters in the mid-1980s and 1990s.

In the 21st century, we now have 3D presentations, Dolby Surround 7.1, IMAX screens and 4K digital projection. In looking back, it’s easy to conclude that it’s generally been two things that have continually saved movie theaters from going under – a quality story and a quality presentation. Sure, the fancy coffee machines are nice and the self-serve butter dispensers are a welcome enhancement, but what is it that you really remember about going to see a movie? Undoubtedly it’s whether or not you enjoyed the film. Everything else is either a small enhancement or a small nusance. And this brings us to Channelside Cinemas in Tampa installing Sony 4K digital projectors for all of their screens.

First, let’s clarify all this 4K projection talk. 4K is simply a description of the resolution these new theater projectors can display. If you have an 1080p HDTV and a Blu-ray player at home, you can enjoy presentations at a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution. This provides you with 1920 horizontal pixels representing a slightly-less-than-2K display. Sony 4K digital projectors display images at up to 4096 x 2160 pixels or just beyond 4K, which is over 4 times what your 1080p display is giving you. And you thought Blu-ray was nice! For reference, not quite half of the movie theaters in the U.S. have made the transition from film projection to digital projection. And those that have are mainly using 2K projectors.

Most successful theater owners are able to recognize trends and advancements in theater presentation and periodically make investments to their facilities to keep up with current standards. I’ve found that most theater owners are strictly interested in generating revenue and making improvements to their theaters is mainly for marketing purposes. Unfortunately, very few theater owners and managers actually care about the quality of the presentation and make improvements for the sake of providing better quality picture and sound. Back in the mid-1990s, I had lengthy conversations with the theater managers at AMC Crossroads 8 in St. Petersburg and AMC Hyde Park 7 in Tampa about why they didn’t actively promote the fact that each of them offered two THX-certified screens at their locations – the only locations in the area at the time that offered the improved quality of THX. One of them didn’t even really know what THX was and the other, while more familiar with film presentation quality standards, seemed more interested in informing customers about the new selection of flavored popcorns they offered than why those looking to see a film exactly as the directors intended should seek out their THX screens.

So, back to Channelside Cinemas installing these Sony 4K digital projectors in all their screens. Whether the theater owners and managers at Channelside installed the upgraded projectors for marketing purposes, quality improvement purposes or both, there is no doubt a benefit to the patron. At Channelside, 4K is no longer reserved for blockbusters or special screenings. Regardless of what you decide to see at Channelside, you can be guaranteed that you’ll be seeing it in the highest resolution currently available, provided the movie studio whose film you’re seeing decided to release the film in 4K digital, which is a whole other story!

I applaude Channelside Cinemas for taking a proactive approach to enhancing their facilities and offering the best presentation for moviegoers. Now, the next step is to educate the customer and promote the fact that you’re the only all-4K theater in the area! The “if you build it, they will come” approach doesn’t always work – you have to tell people why they should come to your place. Otherwise, you may end up like AMC Crossroads 8 (razed and replaced with a KFC and a Japanese steakhouse).