Turkey Movies

After stuffing ourselves with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pecan and pumpkin pie—a la mode for me—my wife and I took in a couple of movies over the long holiday weekend. As it happened, the experience clearly demonstrated the differences between film and digital projection.

First up was Australia, Baz Luhrmann's ambitious tale of cut-throat cattle ranching in the land down under just before the start of World War II. The scenery is spectacular, and Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman have great chemistry as the aristocratic widow who inherits a cattle ranch and the drover who helps defend her property from a ruthless cattle baron and his henchman who want to monopolize the Australian meat business. Otherwise, however, the three-hour movie doesn't live up to its epic scope, with uneven pacing and predictable outcomes.

It didn't help that we got to the theater just before show time and had to sit in the second row. Aside from inducing a slight headache, this vantage point emphasized the flaws of film projection, including gate judder (slight but constant jittering in the image as the film is stopped and started through the projector for each frame) and scratches and dirt on the film print. Granted, we were way closer than we should have been for an ideal viewing experience, but I clearly see these things (as well as reel-change markers in the upper right corner of the screen) even at the proper distance.

A couple of days later, we saw Milk, a moving biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with mayor George Moscone in 1978 by Dan White, a disgruntled, conservative ex-supervisor who left his job only to unsuccessfully ask for reinstatement. Sean Penn is brilliant as Milk—an Oscar-worthy performance, for sure—and the rest of the cast deftly portrays real-life characters from the episode.

For this flick, we bought tickets online for a theater with reserved seating, so we were able to sit at a more reasonable distance from the screen. And it was a digital presentation to boot. I didn't know that going in, but from the moment the movie started, it was obvious in the rock-steady image and complete absence of dirt and scratches (except in the archival footage). The black level wasn't quite as deep as film's, and the shadow detail was perhaps a bit lost, but I'll take those limitations over herky-jerky film any day.

Many cinephiles still cling to film as the ultimate movie medium, just as many videophiles insist that CRT is the best video-display technology. I understand the argument for CRT, but it's quickly becoming extinct because of the cost, bulk, and high maintenance requirements. Also, the various digital technologies are starting to match CRT's performance characteristics.

On the other hand, I have no love for film when compared with digital projection. Yes, film still has better blacks and shadow detail, but its drawbacks far outweigh these advantages for me. Just as I prefer to watch almost anything in high-definition before I'll choose something in standard-def, I will always seek out digital cinema over film. But that's me—where do you stand on this issue?

If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to scott.wilkinson@sourceinterlink.com.

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David Vaughn's picture

Scott, I prefer Blu-ray in the comfort of my own home. I always get the best seat, the popcorn is better, and I can pause the film to go to the bathroom. Does it get any better than that?

Ron Johnson's picture

I've preferred DLP Cinema projection over film for years. But the multiplexes near me have at most ONE digital screen. That screen usually has films I don't care to see. So it takes a rather special movie to get me to the theater for a film presentation. In most cases, I'd just as soon wait for the Blu-ray. What I have been going to the theater to see is the Metropolitan Opera. But the theaters near me use LCD pre-show projectors. In this case, it's not certain that a Blu-ray will be issued anytime soon, or that my PBS station will show them. The Blu-ray opera discs or the PBS broadcasts look better on my modest DLP projector than at the theater.

Eric's picture

I never really noticed the problems with film until I got a 60" 1080p display and Blu-ray. I knew they were there but it didn't bother me. Now that I have a great HT, I rarely go to the theaters except for those rare times when movies like Dark Knight come out. I've only seen film in theaters and my theater has less than stellar sound so I always go home wondering how much more awesome the movie will look and sound when I get it home. I can't wait till xmas when Dark Knight is under the tree. I think from now on it is IMAX or HT for me.

David Vaughn's picture

Eric, I'll have my review of The Dark Knight completed this weekend. The audio soundtrack is amazing (prepare your home for some REALLY deep bass) and the video varies from amazing to average, depending on the scene. It's a must buy though and you will certainly be pleased. The last movie I saw at the theater this year was Wall-E...pretty sad, eh? David

Rick's picture

The first movie I saw in digital projection, Star Wars Episode II, had noticeable screen door effect. I think now they have increased the number of micromirrors in the DLP projectors to the point where it isn't an issue as long as you are sitting far enough back. And they've rotated the mirrors 45 degrees, which lessens the SDE. The same people who are clinging to their vinyl will continue to cling to film though.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Yes, the first digital-cinema projectors were "1K"

David's picture

Color-point adjustment is becoming more common, and Toshiba's version is called ColorMaster. This lets you tweak the hue, saturation, and brightness of each primary (red, green, blue) and secondary (yellow, cyan, magenta) color, effectively moving the color points as needed. This is a potentially great feature, but it should not be attempted without the requisite tools and training. This was in your review of the Toshiba flat panel. where would one go to get the tools and training that you speak of?

Ron W's picture

I was able to get a Blu-Ray copy of Dark Knight two weeks prior to the street date and for those they will see a first in any DVD presentation of which I have ever been aware. A mix of the "IMAX" full screen 16 x 9 version with the predominately 2:35 X 1 regular theatrical version so on occasion the black bars will disappear before your eyes. I am not exactly sure why they did this but after I thought about it I wished they would have just left the "full-screen" IMAX version intact and forgot about the black bars. The sound and picture are outstanding.

Colin Robertson's picture

Ron, they did that because that's sort of how it worked when you saw The Dark Knight in IMAX. Certain scenes were shot in the IMAX of which the native aspect ratio is 1.33:1. The rest of the film was done in 2.35:1 35mm. It was an incredible effect in IMAX as the scenes shot on the format nicely framed the taller aspect ratio, ie: tall buildings. Technically, the blu-ray has the "incorrect" aspect ratio (going into 1.78:1 for the IMAX scenes instead of 1.33:1), but I definitely think they made the right move do do that way as it would be pretty obnoxious to have your widescreen TV go into 4:3 during a big-budget movie viewing. I do wish they had given the option to view the whole movie in 2.35:1 however. I would be pretty pissed if I owned a home theater equipped with an anamorphic lens right now! I'm all for creative use of aspect ratios and framing though; it keeps things interesting! For an even crazier use of aspect ratio, check out the blu ray of 'How the West Was Won in &qu

Colin Robertson's picture

"Now that I have a great HT, I rarely go to the theaters except for those rare times when movies like Dark Knight come out." When I hear comments like this, I feel like a high quality presentation ends up taking priority over the CONTENT, which is what makes this hobby so great in the first place! Great movies don't always come out in the biggest and best theaters, nor do they always come out on blu-ray; why would you want to miss out on that stuff? Get your noses out of the air, and get your priorities straight.

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