Digital cinema is the future ... or is it?

“Welcome to the Future of Cinema,” the posters proclaim outside the AMC Burbank 14 Theaters, where “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is showing in one of the two digital cinema presentations now being previewed in the San Fernando Valley and New Jersey. Newsweek flatly proclaimed a couple of weeks ago that all theaters will soon be projecting motion pictures via digital means.

Perhaps this is, indeed, the way “films’ will commonly be seen in a few years’ time, when digital projection is sufficiently perfected to make celluloid with sprocket holes and gear-driven projectors go the way of vinyl and turntables. But the way in which the industry and the public is already and eagerly swallowing this major change as a fait accompli, without even the slightest questioning of its many implications, is troubling; it’s as if it must be good if George Lucas and the financial interests behind the technology tell us it is.

Earlier this week I went to see both “Star Wars” digital presentations, as well as “An Ideal Husband” in digital. Two weeks ago, I saw a demonstration of the prototype for MaxiVision 48, a new 48-frames-per-second film projection system that Roger Ebert and I discussed on “Siskel & Ebert” last weekend. Although I’m far from being a technical expert, exposure to these various new technologies has provoked a few ideas about what all this activity might mean.

There can be little question that the wind is blowing in the direction of digital, and the way the public and the press is blindly embracing the p.r., the revolution seems inevitable. Clearly, there is a financial imperative involved here, and Lucas’ imprimateur has provided the digital juggernaut with a force that would seem to be as imperturbable as “The Phantom Menace’s” Trade Federation. To voice concerns about digital is to automatically be branded as some sort of Luddite.

My worst suspicions about digital projection were confirmed at Pacific’s Winnetka Stadium 21 in Chatsworth, where CineComm used a JVC/Hughes projector from which a trio of red, green and blue beams emanated from the booth. The imprecision of the system was woefully apparent the moment the “Star Wars” scene-setting backstory scrolled up the screen — pixilation was readily visible in the letters, which weren’t well defined. In the film proper, the darker areas of the frames were murky, colors were flat, there were noticeable blurs in some movements and a general softness was prevalent in the images. Overall effect was akin to a so-so color photocopy.

I was therefore surprised and disarmed later the same day by the exceedingly sharp, bright and pleasing images to be found on the screen in Burbank. Many people have reportedly been fooled as to which is which in side-by-side demonstrations of 35mm and Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema technology, which uses a single projector lens. Process has a cool, clear, hard-edged look that is perhaps ideally suited to a high-tech film like “Star Wars,” and it was the neutral-colored metal and plastic sets and space ships that looked their gleaming best in the process. Scenes dealing in extremes of lighting that had looked particularly bad in Chatsworth, such as those involving the illuminated underwater city or the parched vistas of the Tatooine desert, looked great here. I could only detect shortcomings in the slightly washed-out quality of the skin tones, and the occasional fuzziness of human movements and faces in closeups.

Curiously, the JVC/Hughes system came off better showing the conspicuously low-tech “An Ideal Husband” at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood than it did with “Star Wars.” In this period piece dominated by actors’ faces and elegant costumes, the skin tones were effectively diffferentiated, with even the rouge of the women and Julianne Moore’s freckles coming through very naturalistically. The problem, however, was once again with body movements, which often looked jerky and false and in dark surfaces losing their definition.Judging from the Burbank screening of “Star Wars,” digital projection will have no trouble matching the visual quality of state-of-the-art 35mm theatrical presentation. What it will have more trouble matching is the extraordinary quality of the images offered up by MaxiVision 48, a system currently viewable only at the engineering workshop of Trust Automation in San Luis Obispo. By eliminating the analog sound track and significantly reducing the wide gap between frames found on conventional film while using a three-perforations rather than four perfs per frame, MaxiVision captures a great deal more visual information per 35mm image. Combine this with projection at double the normal rate and you get a picture with more than twice the usual clarity, sharpness and impact, a tremendous looking image by any standard.

Anyone who loves seeing film on film could see that the adoption of this system would vastly enhance the normal theatrical filmgoing experience.

However, executives have already stated that costs mitigate against implementing a two-tier projection program, that it’s got to be one or the other. The clear implication is that digital is in and film prints are out, but beyond the argument that digital projection isn’t quite up to speed yet, there are other issues. Some are largely technical matters, such as guaranteed satellite transmission of movies to diverse international locations regardless of weather conditions, and issues of piracy.

Then there is the question of preservation and long-term playability. How will a film, which is presumably transmitted or beamed from a single corporate source, be showable months or years later, especially if formats keep changing? Computer programmers and engineers point out that systems designed years ago simply cannot be retrieved or re-created today because of obsolete equipment and lack of means, and the same principle applies in the audio-visual world. Since I started shooting homevideos a decade or more ago, I’ve gone through three entirely different camera and tape systems, andif my daughter, in 20 years, wants to watch videos from different stages in her early life, I doubt if she’ll be able to do it. Worse chaos could hit feature films unless careful plans are laid in the digital era.

Possibly the most important yet least quantifiable point that concerns film lovers is primarily emotional. Roger Ebert, the film critic I know who seems to have given all this the most thought, was telling anyone in Cannes who would listen that, although there is only sketchy science to back him up, film and electronic images reach different parts of the brain and therefore affect human beings in different ways. Very roughly speaking, film creates an alpha state of reverie due to its imperceptible flickering, therefore creating a more emotional and intense reaction Television, by contrast, creates a beta state that is constant and more hypnotic, which is why people can sit in front of the TV screen for hours at a stretch.

The hidden danger to the industry, therefore, is that, while digital projection will soon look just as rich and sharp and beautiful as 35mm film, its emotional and imaginative impact over the long term will not be the same. I am very aware that, whenever there has been a perceived threat to the theatrical motion picture business, the doomsayers have been proven wrong and that audiences have always demonstrated their need to share a communal entertainment experience with strangers. The difference this time is that, without even knowing what’s happening, audiences might gradually absorb that the digital images they’re watching in theaters are no different than what they see at home, that they’re actually just watching TV with more people. And that could be the end of movies as we know them.

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