Silver screens fall short of gold standard

Hot spots make for not-so-hot viewing experience

On St. Patrick’s Day I went to the premiere of Relativity’s Snow White movie, “Mirror, Mirror,” which I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to, given that I’m not now and never have been a 12-year-old girl.

But something distracted me while I was watching the picture: The movie seemed dim at the edges, but bright in the center. Remember, this is a 2D movie, and a red-carpet premiere, no less — not a place I expect to encounter projection issues. A tech-savvy publicist I know commented to me on the dark image at the afterparty, too, so it’s not just me.

I wasn’t really surprised, though. The movie was being shown on a silver screen, and that very issue of a center “hotspot” is the reason silver screens are loathed by cinematographers. France even recently moved to ban them over this issue. (Daily Variety, March 12, 2012)

A bit of synchronicity: At the very hour my eyes were throbbing at the Mann Chinese 6, crowds around the country were rushing to snap up Apple’s new iPad, with its super-sharp Retina display. iPad sales that weekend reached 3 million units, worth probably close to $2 billion.

What meaning do I draw from the coincidence of my silver-screen hotspot problem and Apple’s iPad bonanza? Movie distributors and exhibitors should do some soul searching and rethink their priorities when it comes to delivering great pictures to audiences.

To be fair, I see a lot of 3D movies and I rarely notice so obvious a hotspot as I did at “Mirror Mirror.” I didn’t notice any hotspot at a RealD screening of “Wrath of the Titans” at the Rave in Marina del Rey earlier this week.

In the demonic hierarchy of projection problems plaguing the business, silver screens are far from the most damnable. But they have inflamed passions among movie technologists for years, because they create hotspots — period — whether noticeable or not.

Silver screens are essential for 3D systems that use polarized light, including RealD, MasterImage and Imax Digital. Those companies account for the vast majority of 3D-capable screens in the U.S. and Canada. And since few movie theaters have a true stage house that lets them fly a screen in and out (as the El Capitan does), most of those auditoriums are showing every movie, 2D or 3D, on a silver screen.

Yet silver screens are expensive and hard to maintain. They don’t work well when they’re dusty, and they’re hard to clean. They show fingerprints. The aluminium powder that makes them “silver” comes off easily. And there are those hotspots, which can play havoc with both 2D and 3D movies.

So why did U.S. and Canadian exhibs end up so heavily invested in such finicky technology? Money. Distributors were willing to pay for RealD glasses, but not reusable glasses from Dolby, Xpand or any other white-screen system. RealD compounded its advantage by offering cautious theater owners a royalty arrangement that didn’t ask them to actually buy RealD gear. By going with RealD, exhibs could hedge their 3D bets.

So silver screens, at best a tradeoff and at worst an enemy of a quality movie-viewing experience, are fairly ubiquitous in the U.S., and are on about one third of 3D screens in Europe.

3D boomed in 1952 because Hollywood was desperate to reclaim auds lost to television. I think the iPad is “TV: The Next Generation.” If sharp, bright tablet screens become as ubiquitous as TV, movie attendance will probably drop off a cliff yet again. Today’s iPads deliver sharper, clearer, brighter images than most movie theaters do, and consumers love them.

Don’t get me wrong. I like 3D. If it’s bright, sharp and colorful, I think it can be a big plus — and it’s something iPads can’t match (yet). By installing silver screens, though, U.S. movie theaters have compromised image quality on all movies to get 3D on some.

It seems that by making a gorgeous picture its top priority, Apple is raking in the gold. Movie theaters are settling for silver.

Bits & Bytes:

Sony Imageworks has relinquished its lease on its Albuquerque satellite facility and will shutter it in July. The Imageworks Albuquerque office opened in 2007, in part to access New Mexico’s incentive program. With New Mexico’s incentive program curtailed that rationale for the office evaporated and it became difficult to convince artists to relocate there.

The SMPTE Forum on Emerging Media Technologies in Geneva, Switzerland, has added two speakers to its panel on cost-effectve new-media technologies: Dr. Giles Wilson, head of technology, solution area TV, for Ericsson; and Dr. Albert Heuberger, exec director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits. Forum is to be held May 13-15 at the Intercontinental Hotel.

‘Supervising sound editor Michael Benavente has joined Soundelux. Benaventes credits include “Moneyball,” which was Oscar-nommed for sound.

32Ten Studios in San Rafael will launch its Professional Workshop Series on Saturday, March 31, with “From Green Screen to Silver Screen,” on the basics of digital post-production vfx. 32Ten has announced a “Pre-College Summer Film Program” for filmmakers ages 15-18, headed by director of artist development Vince De Quattro.

Testronic Labs has joined the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) and UltraViolet. Testronic will contribute to the creation of a testing and certification protocol for UltraViolet. … Litepanels will introduce new LED lighting products at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, including a new daylight-balanced Fresnel for the Sola series and a new line of tungsten-balanced Fresnels, the Inca series.

Autodesk has announced the 2013 versions of its Digital Entertainment Creation software and suites, including 3ds Max, Maya, Softimage, Mudbox, and MotionBuilder. … e-on Software has released version 6 of its atmospheric effects plug-in, Ozone, for 3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, Softimage and LightWave. … Luxion has released KeyShot 3.1, with real-time environment editing, metallic paint with flakes, templates that allow users to assign materials to a model, and animations that can be selected and edited in the timeline.

Panasonic has introduced a new 18.5″ HD/SD LCD production monitor, the BT-LH1850. Among its selling points: It’s mercury-free and consumes only 22 watts, less than half the previous LH series monitor.

Sports Editing Sweden is using a Cinegy Archive MAM to handle production and asset management on Swedish Hockey League coverage. In Turkey, Gol Medya is using Cinegy for broadcasts of Turkish Super League soccer… Korea’s Two One Media has chosen a Cinegy Air to broadcast Baduk channel K-Baduk via satellite and IPTV. … Also using Cinegy Air is eScapes Network USA.