Would You Buy a Digital Camera from This Man?

Gatsby 4
Okay. Digital production, digital projection are now pretty much the norm. Most everything I’ve seen in a theatre lately, except for revival theatres, is presented in one digital format or another. While the quality is mostly good, I have to say I’m still not a total convert. But to be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing.

First, let’s talk about The Great Gatsby, which I have to say I loved. Not sure why the critics had such a hard time with it. Fitzgerald is my favorite author, and I thought Luhrmann, DiCaprio and all the rest did an amazing job of bringing his vision to the screen. Anyway, to get back to the digital thing, I saw the film twice. The first time was at the Arclight, Sherman Oaks, and I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. It was one of those times where the images and the sound just washed over me and I was enthralled. I didn’t notice any problems with the image. I was just swept off my feet.

The second time, however, was a little different. Part of the reason I went back again was to pay more attention to the quality of the digital projection. This time I saw it at the Arclight, Hollywood. I still loved the movie, but watching it a second time I had some problems with the image. In the first place, it seemed just slightly fuzzy, as though the resolution was not quite adequate. I also felt that the colors were a little too soft, which I’ve noticed in other cases with films shot and projected in digital. It didn’t seem to have the richness or depth of color that you’d get with film. The blacks just weren’t black enough, and the image in general looked faintly washed out.

I went to IMDB, where I found that the film was shot with Red Epic cameras using Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. Under “Cinematographic Process”, it said the master format was digital intermediate (2K), and the source format was Redcode RAW (5K) (dual-strip 3-D). I won’t pretend this all makes sense to me. In the reading I’ve done about digital, I understand that even though there’s a lot of talk about 4K, most films we see are not coming from 4K masters. And I’m wondering why the master format for Gatsby was digital intermediate.

Not long after Gatsby I saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell at the Laemmle, North Hollywood. Just briefly I’ll say that it knocked me out, and I recommend it highly. As opposed to a big budget commercial feature like Gatsby, this is a small scale documentary. My guess is that it probably cost a few million to make. Like Gatsby, it was shot on digital, though the equipment and process were different. It’s important to say, too, that the finished film is a mix of processes, assembled from both digital footage and Super 8. But I thought it looked great. Where there is a deliberately bleached, grainy quality to the Super 8 work, the interviews (shot with a Sony CineAlta HDW-F900R) look crisp and there is a richness and texture to the image that seemed to me superior to Gatsby.

There could be a number of reasons for the difference in image quality in the two movies. It could be the cameras that were used in shooting. It could be the type of files that the content was transferred to. It could be the projectors. And I wonder if the size of the screen could be a factor, since the screens at the Laemmle are much smaller than those at the Arclight. Also, in reading about 2K and 4K, I’m learning that often people on the exhibition end don’t worry too much about the difference. Films can be shot in 4K, but then distributed as 2K files. Apparently it’s not uncommon for a film to be shot in 4K, distributed in 4K, but shown in 2K, since some projectors need to be switched over manually, and some projectionists don’t give a damn.

As you can probably tell, I’m confused. I know that with any new technology there’s going to be a certain amount of chaos, since you’ve got different companies with different technologies competing for a share of the market. But with digital I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing. If there’s anybody out there who can make this clearer, please feel free post a comment. I need help.

Posted on July 12, 2013, in Digital Cinema, Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think you’re right that the theaters often times don’t care. I imagine any problems with the contrast, the washed out image, were mostly on the theater’s end. Especially for digital film, they have so many image processing tools that they can employ to get the perfect contrast, and the guys making the film are the ones who actually care. You hope that the theaters do a good job setting everything up, but it’s not always perfect. If you check out Great Gatsby in blu-ray on a nice large TV, I’m sure it’ll look pretty good.

    As far as the resolution goes, with some rough math… according to http://www.thx.com/professional/cinema-certification/thx-certified-cinema-screen-placement/ the furthest screen should be no less than 36deg horizontal field of view for the viewer. Photoshopping the diagram shows that 90deg horizontal field of view is about the third row back. Let’s use that since it’s an easy number, and probably the worst case for normal viewers since most people sit at least the far back. A 2K screen has 2048 horizontal pixels, which comes out to about 23 pixels per degree, whereas 4K is twice that at 45 (I’m rounding). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retina_Display gives about 53 PPD as the minimum for a “retina” display, and though that’s perhaps not a great metric it’s a good ballpark (human eyes being the weird things they are, I’ve been researching optics a lot since the arrival of my head-mounted display…) So a 4K screen approaches what you’d see when you hold a newer iPhone out in front of you: it’ll be hard to distinguish the pixels. 23 is DEFINITELY something you could detect. Especially if they defocus the projector slightly to compensate, I imagine it would look considerably less crisp than the 4K.

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