Why Movies Don't "Look Right" (Roger Ebert Explains)

SWFF

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I have to admit the DVD representation of movies look ten times better than what I see on an actual theater screen these days, 3D not withstanding. I have never had ANY desire to partake in a 3D experience, and after reading this I will continue to feel that way. Sound off, if you like.


The dying of the light
By Roger Ebert on May 24, 2011 9:46 PM

SUNTIMES.COM: Do you remember what a movie should look like? Do you notice when one doesn't look right? Do you feel the vague sense that something is missing? I do. I know in my bones how a movie should look. I have been trained by the best projection in the world, at film festivals and in expert screening rooms. When I see a film that looks wrong, I want to get up and complain to the manager and ask that the projectionist be informed. But these days the projectionist is tending a dozen digital projectors, and I will be told, "That's how it's supposed to look. It came that way from the studio."


The most common flaw is that the picture is not bright enough. I've been seeing that for a long time. In the years before digital projectors, the problem was often that tight-fisted theater owners weren't setting the Xenon bulbs in their projectors at the correct wattage, in the mistaken belief that dialing them down would extend the life of the expensive bulbs.
Not true. If you ran a 3000W bulb at 2000W, you'd extend its life by all of 2.3 percent. Yet when Martin Scorsese used people around the country to actually check theater brightness, he found most of the theaters involved were showing an underlit image. An Eastman Kodak spokesman told me in the late 1990s: "The irony is that their only real achievement is to cheat the customers."






That was then. This is now. Driven by a mania to abandon celluloid in favor of digital, increasing numbers of chains are installing 3D-ready digital projectors. As everyone can tell simply by taking off their 3D glasses, the process noticeably reduces the visible light from the screen. I got emails from readers saying the night scenes in "Pirates of the Caribbean" were so dim they were annoying.

Ah, but what if you saw the movie in 2D? As it happens, a lot of people did; Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com reported: "less than half of the Pirates weekend gross came from 3D screens, with more opting for the 2D version." He attributes that to moviegoers being "cautious with their dollars." After the weekend, David Poland of MovieCityNews.com ran the numbers and determined 60% of sales were in 2D and 40% in 3D: "Not only is this a clear rejection of 3D on a major movie, but given how distribution is currently designed, it makes you wonder whether Disney cost themselves a lot of gross by putting their film on too high a percentage of 3D screens."








There may have been a reason consumers shied away from 3D. An expertly written article by Ty Burr in the Boston Globe reports that some 3D projectors, particularly those made by Sony, produce "gloomy, underlit" images of 2D films. His article must have hit a nerve; and I've seen it posted and referred to all over the web. The newspaper found dark images on eight of the 19 screens at the high-end AMC Loews Boston Common on Tremont Street.


Burr wrote: "This particular night 'Limitless,' 'Win Win,' and 'Source Code' all seemed strikingly dim and drained of colors. 'Jane Eyre,' a film shot using candles and other available light, appeared to be playing in a crypt. A visit to the Regal Fenway two weeks later turned up similar issues: 'Water for Elephants' and 'Madea's Big Happy Family' were playing in brightly lit 35mm prints and, across the hall, in drastically darker digital versions." His observations indicated the problems centered on Sony projectors: "Digital projection can look excellent when presented correctly. Go into Theater 14 at the Common, newly outfitted with a Christie 4K projector, and you'll see a picture that is bright and crisp, if somewhat colder than celluloid."







He says there is a reason for this: "Many theater managers have made a practice of leaving the 3D lenses on the projectors when playing a 2D film." The result is explained by an anonymous projectionist: "For 3D showings a special lens is installed in front of a Sony digital projector that rapidly alternates the two polarized images needed for the 3D effect to work. When you're running a 2D film, that polarization device has to be taken out of the image path. If they're not doing that, it's crazy, because you've got a big polarizer that absorbs 50 percent of the light.''


Fifty percent! It can be worse than that. I quote: "Chapin Cutler, a cofounder of the high-end specialty projection company Boston Light & Sound, estimates that a film projected through a Sony with the 3D lens in place and other adjustments not made can be as much as 85 percent darker than a properly projected film." Your best bet is apparently to (1) find a theater that doesn't use digital at all, (2) doesn't use Sony projectors, or (3) still projects light through celluloid the traditional way.





Digital projectors have been force-fed to theaters by an industry hungry for the premium prices it can charge for 3D films. As I've been arguing for a long time, this amounts to charging you more for an inferior picture. The winners are the manufacturers of the expensive machines, and the film distributors. The hapless theaters still depend on concession sales to such a degree that a modern American theater can be described as a value-added popcorn stand.


I have an email from a Hollywood professional who writes me: "During the last awards season, I went to an Industry screening of 'The Social Network' at Sony Studios, in their James Stewart facility -- what they said was their best screening room. The movie looked dark and muddy; truly awful. Then I looked back and saw that the picture was emanating from a twin-lens rig. After the show, I complained to the projectionist about the image. He explained that the process of shifting both the lens and changing the silver screen to a white matter screen, which they were equipped to do, was too time-consuming. So he told me that his supervisor authorized showing the movie to Academy voters through the 3D lens, which looked like shit. And this is at Sony Studios. Just imagine how bad it is in the real world. It is as if the Industry is courting self-destruction."






Sony refused to comment on the Boston Globe article. At my recent Ebertfest, one seasoned director called the projection in the 90-year old Virginia Theater in Urbana-Champaign "the best I've ever seen." That's because we use two of the best projectionists in the nation, James Bond, who consults on high-level projection facilities, and Steve Kraus, of Chicago's Lake Street Screening Room.


Ty Burr writes: "So why aren't theater personnel simply removing the 3-D lenses? The answer is that it takes time, it costs money, and it requires technical know-how above the level of the average multiplex employee. James Bond, a Chicago-based projection guru who serves as technical expert for Roger Ebert's Ebertfest, said issues with the Sonys are more than mechanical. Opening the projector alone involves security clearances and Internet passwords, 'and if you don't do it right, the machine will shut down on you.' The result, in his view, is that 'often the lens change isn't made and audiences are getting shortchanged'."





The problem isn't with all digital projectors, and seems most common with the new Sony 4K projectors, which has lenses too difficult to adjust for most of the (semi-skilled) multiplex projectionists. It is possible to project a high-quality digital image, and I've often seen that done. But only if theaters insist on it, and manufacturers like Sony make changes allowing their lenses to be changed as needed.


The movie industry feels under threat these days from DVDs, cable movies on demand, a dozen streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Fandor and Mubi, and competition from video games. Decades ago, it felt a similar danger from radio (it introduced talkies) and television (it introduced wide-screen). The irony today is that it hopes to rescue itself with 3D, which is not an improvement but a step back in quality. The fact that more people wanted to see "Pirates" in 2D than 3D is stunning. The fact that 3D projectors in some theaters are producing murky and dim 2D pictures makes me very unhappy.






I began by asking if you notice, really notice, what a movie looks like. I have a feeling many people don't. They buy their ticket, they get their popcorn and they obediently watch what is shown to them. But at some level there is a difference. They feel it in their guts. The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! -- not a mediocre big-screen television.


When people don't have a good time at the movies, they're slower to come back. I can't tell you how many comments on my blog have informed me that the writers enjoy a "better picture" at home on their big-screen TVs with Blu-ray discs. This should not be true. Nobody at Ebertfest confused the experience with sitting at home and watching a video. A movie should leap out and zap you, not recede into itself and get lost in dimness.


I despair. This is a case of Hollywood selling its birthright for a message of pottage. If as much attention were paid to exhibition as to marketing, that would be an investment in the future. People would fall back in love with the movies. Short-sighted, technically illiterate penny-pinchers are wounding a great art form.





What can you personally do to be sure you see an ideal picture? Matthew Humpries at Geek.com writes:


• The title of the movie listed by the theater will have a "D" after it if it is being shown on a digital projector


• If you are in a D movie, look at the projector window when seated. If you see two stacked beams of light it is a Sony projector with the 3D lens still on.


• A single beam of light means no 3D lens, or a different make of projector that doesn't have the issue


• If you see the two beams, then get up and go complain. You paid good money to see the movie, so make a fuss until they either give you back that money or remove the lens. Seeing as that's an involved and time-consuming process, expect a refund.
Here is the Boston Globe article by Ty Burr.
Images on this page darkened for effect.
 

RobertR

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As much as I disagree with Ebert on his opinions about movies and other matters, I think he’s spot on here. I despise the industry’s fascination with 3D, and I believe it’s destructive to movie quality and making watching them more expensive. I appreciate the information he gives about what to watch for. For many years, I was of the opinion that watching a film in a movie theater was the best way to see it. I still think that, if it’s projected correctly. It seems, however, that the industry’s infatuation with 3D makes it less likely that will be the case. My desire to see movies at theaters is fading (my home theater has far better black levels and sound anyway), unless it’s one of the special showings at venues in and around Hollywood, where I know they do things right. For those of you who think 3D is the bees knees, enjoy yourselves. I’ll pass.
 

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Nowadays when I go to the theater and see a movie I'm thinking I might wanna get some day on DVD, I use the theater experience as a testing ground to see if the movie is any good, knowing it's gonna look like shit, but if I end up loving it, also knowing, the DVD is gonna look SWEET! And, when I DO get the eventual DVD, that's when I relax and REALLY enjoy the flick. Something I should also being doing in the theater, but can't because of lack of education, complicated machinery, and, apparently, laziness on the part of the studios and the projectionists.
 

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I don't think 3D is the "bees knees" but I think it has a lot to offer when properly implemented. The problem with 3D is that it's not always presented with the projection quality that any film of any type deserves, and laziness on the theater's part allows 3D equipment and filters to be used to degrade the 2D experience. I don't view this as being a problem with 3D - I view this as being a problem with theater management. Every film projected in a theater should be presented with the best quality that theater is capable of offering. I know and accept that not every theater will have the most state of the art projectors, that equipment will get old, that prints provided aren't perfect. But when theaters have it within their means to do a better job without spending any extra money (and essentially, that's what this article about keeping 3D filters on during 2D screenings is about), that to my mind is unacceptable. I don't expect absolute perfection each and every time - all I ask is that the best effort is made to make each showing as good as it can be. When theater managers choose to leave the 3D polarizer on out of what is either laziness (in that they don't care or don't notice the difference) or incompetence (that no one working in the theater knows how to take it off), that's a problem, and one I'd consider to be almost unforgivable. I personally don't think it's fair to blame the 3D medium in and of itself for this (it's not the fault of the people who invented the current technology that end-users are abusing it) -- but I think it is terrible that it seems to happen more and more these days.


All it would take would be for each movie theater - not every screen, but every movie-house - to employ one person who's job it was to do QC work each and every day. One person. At $40,000 a year or something along those lines. That they don't, that's what I find inexcusable. Most multiplexes do not have a full-time projectionist on-staff, and digital projectors have allowed theater owners to believe (mistakenly, in my opinion) that it's not necessary to have one. It's a damn shame. I would have loved to have been a projectionist if that work was still available. I would love to be placed in charge of QC for a theater - it would be a dream job for me if one of the giant multiplexes in NYC that has 10 or 15 or 25 screens were to say to me, "hey, we're gonna pay you to walk around every hour of every day we're open, make sure that everything is right, and give you the keys to go into the booth to make whatever adjustments are needed." I don't need to get rich doing that job, but it would be something I'd gladly do. It's a shame that theaters don't value the technical presentation enough to keep someone on staff who's job is just that. I don't think it's fair to blame any particular technology for that; I think the blame is solely in the corner of the theater owners and managers who continue to look for new and innovative way to cut costs and cheapen the overall experience.
 

RobertR

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Originally Posted by Josh Steinberg

The problem with 3D is that it's not always presented with the projection quality that any film of any type deserves, and laziness on the theater's part allows 3D equipment and filters to be used to degrade the 2D experience. I don't view this as being a problem with 3D - I view this as being a problem with theater management.

The apparent fact is that the laziness of theaters, which seems to be a rampant given, means that the big push for 3D has the practical result of degrading the 2D experience. Yet another reason for me to despise 3D.
 

zubidoo

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You know, lately I've been noticing that films have actually been looking worse and worse in the theater but better at home. It got to the point where I just figured "well, maybe it's supposed to look that way because the image is blown up so much". Right now there are two major drawbacks for me going to the theater - 1. 95% of the movies coming out in major theaters suck anyway and 2. they don't really look great enough to justify not waiting for the blu-ray to come out. Theaters have such a great advantage of being able to awe audiences with a professional theater experience and yet they aren't doing that, it's really pretty sad and pathetic.
 

Patrick Sun

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I'm glad my local theaters are still up to par with their theatrical presentations of both 2D and 3D films.
 

Gary Seven

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Excellent article and another reason why I don't go to theaters much. Next time I go, I will pay attention to the projection.


On a side note, one of the best projectionist is named James Bond? How cool is that and yet at the same time, probably a pain.


"Your name sir?"
"Bond, James Bond".
"Ha ha.. very funny".
"No really...".
"Sir, I don't have time for jokes..."
"No.. serioulsly..."

"SIr please..."

'No really... I'm James Bond, DAMMIT!"

"Call BellVue... we got a live one"
 

Adam Lenhardt

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Note that not all theaters mark their digital screenings. At most local theaters here, digital is now the rule rather than the exception.
 

Aaron Silverman

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When radio threatened cinemas, they (at this time, the studios owned the cinemas) responded by adding sound to films. It was years before TV arrived.


When TV threatened the cinemas, they (the studios didn't own the theaters anymore, but they were still arm-in-arm because there was not yet a home video distribution channel that bypassed the theaters) responded by creating widescreen formats. It was years before big-screen TVs arrived.


Now home theater threatens cinemas (which are much less integral to the studios than they used to be), and they respond by creating digital 3D.


But digital 3D has barely caught on, and people can already have digital 3D in their home theaters.


Is the Blu-Ray, surround-sound, 3D-capable home theater the threat that finally kills the movies as we know them?


I think the theaters that are adding other value, like onsite childcare and dinner-theater-type sit-down meal and bar experiences are the ones with the right idea. Play up the social experience.
 

Malcolm R

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Originally Posted by Adam Lenhardt

Note that not all theaters mark their digital screenings. At most local theaters here, digital is now the rule rather than the exception.


Yeah, I've never known any theater around here to specifically mark their digital presentations. Most of the larger theaters are completely digital anyway.
 

Todd Erwin

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I think Roger Ebert needs to check his facts regarding this statement:


Digital projectors have been force-fed to theaters by an industry hungry for the premium prices it can charge for 3D films.

The move by the studios to digital pre-dates the current 3D craze. The main push to digital is a cost-saving one, reducing the need for 35mm prints and the heavy freight costs associated with them. Currently, studios either ship their movies on hard drives or transmit them over an encrypted internet connection.


Yes, 3D is considered a "premium," with surcharges ranging from $2-5, depending on the theater and 3D technology being used (RealD, Dolby 3D, etc). But not all theaters with digital projectors are capable of showing 3D. Most theaters in my area have dedicated less than 1/4 of their screens as 3D capable. And RealD requires a special screen, while Dolby 3D does not.
 

Chuck Anstey

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Originally Posted by Toddwrtr

I think Roger Ebert needs to check his facts regarding this statement:



The move by the studios to digital pre-dates the current 3D craze. The main push to digital is a cost-saving one, reducing the need for 35mm prints and the heavy freight costs associated with them. Currently, studios either ship their movies on hard drives or transmit them over an encrypted internet connection.


Yes, 3D is considered a "premium," with surcharges ranging from $2-5, depending on the theater and 3D technology being used (RealD, Dolby 3D, etc). But not all theaters with digital projectors are capable of showing 3D. Most theaters in my area have dedicated less than 1/4 of their screens as 3D capable. And RealD requires a special screen, while Dolby 3D does not.
Previously there was a push to go digital but I think Ebert's point is that push has become a requirement because of 3D. I don't believe the studios are releasing 3D film prints so the theater must have a digital projector for 3D and I'm sure the studios are also demanding that the theater show it in 3D first and may have 2D showings that must be fewer in number than the 3D showings. So no digital 3D projector, no blockbuster movie for you, at least not for the first run.
 

Sam Posten

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Sony sez "Nuh-uh!"

http://www.engadget.com/2011/05/26/sony-stands-behind-its-digital-projectors-claims-the-only-thing/


http://pro.sony.com/bbsc/ssr/mkt-digitalcinema/resource.solutions.bbsccms-assets-mkt-digicinema-solutions-SonyDigitalCinema4KTheFacts.shtml
 

Josh Steinberg

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Some of the Sony facts seem right - for instance, I thought the claim that it takes hours or special passwords to remove the 3D filter from the projector was bogus. That only makes theaters unwillingness to do so that much more unforgivable. As for the light output, 85% reduction seemed extreme, although 20% seems a little on the low end. I'm willing to bet it's much more noticeable because theaters often have the bulbs turned down too low to begin with.


Basically what Sony has confirmed here is that it's sheer laziness that's keeping projection in theaters from being all that it can be. Which sounds about right to me.
 

Joel Fontenot

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To quote the Sony Press Release article...


"It takes less than 20 minutes for a trained technician to change the lens."


And just how many projectionists in any of these cineplexes are "trained technicians"? I think that right there is a telling fact.


Thank goodness the theater I frequent uses Christie DLP projectors. And I only go to the 2D versions.


Even in the very dark scenes of "Half Blood Prince" and "Deathly Hallows Part 1", I could see every detail.
 

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My local theater. as of late, is opting out on showing any 2D showings. I would have gone to see THOR and GREEN LANTERN, but they were only in 3D. And when I went to see SUPER 8, I ran into a problem that's all to frequent, any scene where there is a lot of light has a weird strobing effect. The night, and dark, scenes were fine, but if someone in the movie were to use a flashlight, the light source would strobe.
 

Chuck Anstey

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Originally Posted by SWFF

My local theater. as of late, is opting out on showing any 2D showings. I would have gone to see THOR and GREEN LANTERN, but they were only in 3D. And when I went to see SUPER 8, I ran into a problem that's all to frequent, any scene where there is a lot of light has a weird strobing effect. The night, and dark, scenes were fine, but if someone in the movie were to use a flashlight, the light source would strobe.

That is interesting. In my local area south of Atlanta, 2D showings of a new movie now equal or exceed the 3D showings (quite a change from a month ago) and if the movie has been out more than 3 weeks, it is only 2D even if that means no 3D showings of any movie in the theater when they can support 3D in at least 4 theater rooms. I guess they would rather show a 2-week 2D-only movie on their bigger screens over a 3-week old 3D movie. So in my neck of the woods, the theaters seem to be responding to patrons' preferences.
 

SWFF

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With my theater, I suspec,t it's a money thing. They're not making enough on 2D showings, so, they'll just kill some of them and replace 'em with 3D only showings. Yet, KUNG FU PANDA got 2D as well. Don't know how they pick and choose which ones to only give the 3D showings, too. Would love to see TRANSFORMERS next week, but, well, we'll see what they do. The only other theater is at the mall, 30 minutes away, and those days are gone when I'd travel a half hour just to see a movie.
 

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