Posts Tagged ‘thx’

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.

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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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