Up for Trek

Time for a dip in the summer movie pool. My splashing around has so far been limited to Star Trek and Up, but both, in their own ways, are the best of the summer lot so far (as of early June). Yea, I know, it's not even summer yet. But don't tell Hollywood. In any case, I can hardly wait for the Blu-rays of both of these films, sure to be coming to your local video store in the fall.

I saw Trek twice. The first was in digital, at Mann Village in Westwood. The second was on film, at the Arclight in Hollywood. The Village was built in 1930 as part of the now defunct Fox chain (the imposing and distinctive tower that rises from it still carries a Fox logo); it's a beautifully preserved single-screen theater. It also offers (in my opinion) the best overall technical presentation in the LA area. The Arclight has film projection facilities second to none (it also has at least six digital-capable screens, including the Cinerama Dome). While the Village's film capabilities are every bit as good, it has gone almost exclusively digital in the past year or so.

Which did I prefer? The film image at the Arclight nosed-out the Village's digital presentation—the latter was marginally sharper but its contrast was not quite as impressive. Nevertheless, the Village won out on balance, with its better sound.

Of course, there were a lot of other variables in this uncontrolled test—we are, after all, talking about two very different theaters. And since the Arclight gets the sort of near premier-quality prints available to only a few theaters in the country, you'll probably be better off in most areas with a digital showing. Assuming of course you have a theater that offers one.

But there's digital projection and there's digital projection. Case in point: Up. I saw it in 3D at a relatively new multiplex in the San Fernando Valley: the AMC 16 in Beautiful Downtown Burbank. Burbank is the tech center of the Hollywood movie industry, so it's not surprising that this theater now has three digital screens (though it had none during the first few years of its relatively new life).

One of those Burbank digital installations is a superb new IMAX facility, seating 450. It's one of the largest digital IMAX theaters in the country.*

The other Burbank digital screens have somewhat smaller auditoriums and screens. All three rooms can do 3D, though the IMAX version uses the IMAX 3D format and two digital projectors, one for each eye-image. The two-projector technique also provides increased brightness on the large screen.

Up was not playing in the IMAX room, but was playing on the other two digital screens, each served by a single projector. I assumed that these presentations would be of equal quality, so chose the one with the most convenient starting time.

Big mistake. Pixar animated films, in digital presentations, have always been tack-sharp. But Up looked surprisingly soft. Not in a way that screamed poor focus, but rather suggesting either a deliberate artistic choice for the film itself or sub-par optical quality in the projector.

The image was also slightly dim. This is not unusual for single projector 3D presentations due to the losses caused by the polarization process (polarized glasses) used for theatrical 3D projection.

Fortunately, the timing of the presentations in the two theaters was such that I could slip into the other one for the second half of the movie.

What a difference! The image in the second theater was now as sharp as I expect from a Pixar digital presentation. The image was brighter. Even the 3D was more effective. While I was bothered by blur on rapid motion in both venues—more than I'm used to seeing in 2D digital presentations, on film, or on any home displays I've tested**—my enjoyment of the movie in the second theater was in a different league from the first.

I doubt, however, if the things that annoyed me bothered any other audience members in that first screening. Even that presentation was better than you're likely to see in most film-only theaters, with their poorly maintained projectors, mediocre lenses, overage lamps (or deliberately dimmed ones—to save on the theater's electric bills), and mass-produced (and probably scratched) prints.

But it was disappointing to confirm that not all digital presentations are created equal. Unfortunately, if you are in a locale where you only have one digital option, it's unlikely that you'll have any way of knowing if your theater is up to par. But if you go to a digital presentation of Up and can instantly see that the roughness on Carl's chin is gray stubble and not flakey skin, and the texture in the paper in the photo album (an important player in the film) is startlingly crisp, you're probably in good shape.

And if your theater of choice just happens to be that AMC 16 in Burbank, avoid theater 13 for digital presentations of this or other films. You'll want to choose theater 3—if the 3D show you want to see is not in the IMAX theater. Regardless of your feelings about IMAX digital vs. traditional IMAX, that theater has far more dynamic sound, and the 3D projection there, with its two projectors, is significantly brighter.

*Tickle an IMAX purist with this fact and he—it will almost certainly be a he—will argue with some justification that the only real IMAX theaters are analog, with the large frame film projection and more squarish aspect ratio that launched IMAX in the first place. And from various Internet message boards, it's obvious that there's a wide variation in both overall quality and screen size even in digital IMAX theaters. None of them that I'm aware of have screens as large as traditional film IMAX, and their aspect ratio is different, since they almost exclusively show conventional theatrical films.

Just be aware that as in everything else, not all IMAX theaters are equal—something I discovered years ago about THX theaters. Look before you leap. The number of seats in your neighborhood IMAX theater should roughly relate to its screen size. When in doubt, call the theater manager to get this information—or sample it once to see if it deservers your regular patronage (and the extra money that IMAX charges).

**This motion blur also bothered me with most of the 3D presentations I saw at last January's CES, particularly on sports clips (there's a lot of R&D going on to find a way to bring 3D available to the home video experience). But this was the first time I noticed this in several recent theatrical 3D experiences.