In this episode, David and Scott are joined by Jake Bart to discuss this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.
Street Scene was incredible! And I couldn’t agree more about Black Narcissus. First time seeing it and I thought it was fine, but can see it getting better with more viewings.
Regarding digital vs. film, I want to defend Jake and Scott a little, not that David was giving them anything like grief – his issues are honest ones, but it is a source of tiffs in the film community. As 4K moves into homes, an argument I see on some websites is that it’s not even a visible difference unless the screen is of a certain, usually abnormally large, size, because the human eye cannot even perceive X size pixels when they’re X far away and so small. But we process sight in a way that corresponds with the reasons many films are scanned at 4K, then released on a blu-ray at basically 2K. Or why the special effects team filmed and compiled the process shots for the effects in Star Wars using 65mm film, then converted them down to 35mm with the rest of the movie. Image processing works better with more detailed information.
I saw this work out at a human level myself. A friend of mine has macular degeneration, a version of the disease which slowly blinds from the center of vision outward. She can only see in the periphery, where detail is lacking. When HD televisions were new, we passed a couple of large TV displays, both of the same size, one SD and one HD. Both had far more resolution than her eyes could ever catch. We passed the SD TV, playing a football game, and she looked at it, looking a little to the side, as she would. Then I asked her to look at the same game on the other television, and she was genuinely stunned at how much more she could make out. It really moved her. Rather than just seeing the small figures, she could almost tell what they were doing, whether running or walking, for instance. Again, in the most technical sense, she could not make out the pixels, even on the SD, let alone the HD, yet the difference still greatly affected her perception.
Another response given to dismiss a new technology sounds like this, “After a few minutes, I didn’t notice it anymore.” The implication here is that because the viewer lost conscious awareness of whatever it was, surround sound, Technicolor, 3D, widescreen, HD vs. SD at home, 4K in a theater, that it no longer really mattered, as if it only has value if one is aware of it as a gimmick, or is being constantly amazed by it. But all of these are like the music, or excellent lighting, things we may notice here and there during a given film, but generally stop paying attention to. They’re still working though, in those cases still necessary, just as the richness of the sound, or the dynamism of the image presented to us, continues working, whether we keep paying attention to a certain element of presentation or not.
So what I’m getting to is that our nitrate loving friends are not, I think, merely nostalgaising about seeing film vs. a digital image. There is a salient difference between the two that affects what we’re seeing. It does so for me consciously, as I am blessed with sharp, detailed vision. I no longer go to theaters to see films I expect to really enjoy.
It’s the resolution. What we are watching is a serious downgrade from what we watched only 7-ish years ago in the resolution department. The contrast is a bit low too. I do think we’ve already gotten a boost in the color area, besting anything we’ve had since we both shot and printed some films with Technicolor, but the rest has been stepped down. In 2013, when The Great Conversion happened, the majority of the screens were converted to 2K digital projectors, even though 4K had been around since 2007. Now, you’ll find articles saying that in sharpness, 2K = 35mm, and some saying that 4K = 35mm in resolution, but here are the numbers. (The ‘k’ part always refers to the horizontal count, with the vertical count altering according to aspect ratio differences. Where there are parentheses, I’ve just done the math, since the source only gave the horizontal, and I like consistency.)
First, here’s what most of us watch most of the time, whether at home or out at the movies:
1920 × 1080 – 2K at home (Blu-ray, HD screens in general)
1998 x 1080 – 2K in movie theaters
2048 × 1080 – 2K in movie theaters as well
2900 x (2028) – Digital IMAX
The IMAX is a ‘perceived resolution’, created by overlapping two 2K projectors by a half a pixelwidth. So basically, most theatrically presented movies are just a hair sharper than would be a blu-ray, but they’re being blown up 10’s of times larger than our home screens. We’ve got the visual equivalent of a jpeg which has been zoomed into too much. The amount of gain for digital IMAX probably matches the screen size increase, if it’s one of the new, fake IMAXes, but if you’re at a real one that used to run 65mm, one wiht a really huge screen, then this issue is worse. Bigger is no longer better with movies.
Now, when I go to the movies, I see the pixels. Most don’t, but I do. I lose track of them while the film is going, but the effect is still there, such that even If I sit in the very back, and have waited a few weeks so the movie is on a smaller screen, I find myself rubbing my eyes, as if I’m not focusing well. When I took my father to see Raiders of the Lost Ark projected at an IMAX, he said that he could tell it wasn’t out of focus, but why did it feel like it was. This is why I watch movies I hope to really enjoy once they hit the home market. Effectively, that’s what they’re now being made for, our TVs.
Moving up, these are the resolutions related to 4K, or roughly 4000 horizontal pixels:
3840 x 2160 – 4K UHDTV at home
4096 × 2160 – 4K in movie theaters
5800 x (4055) – Laser IMAX (perceived reslution again, now overlapping two 4K projectors)
It would have been great if the industry had just taken this step up in 2013, because it’s a fourfold increase in the sharpness of the picture, and was the best we had. I believe there were also upgrades in color and contrast, as there are in the home versions of 4K. Now, this is a pretty good resolution for many small to medium sized movie screens, but most of us aren’t seeing it. Very few films a year are even released in 4K, and then their placements are determined by seat count, not by a particular auditorium’s tech (most theaters only have 1-3 screens 4K capable, if they have any).
But this is still not quite to the level of 35mm film, though the laser IMAX comes pretty close.
6144 x 4668 – 35mm film negative *, ** (sourced below)
Now that’s likely for film of a high quality (or ‘slow film speed’, for any older photographers), and it’s for the negative. Some resolution would be lost in making a projection print, but not 2/3 of the resolution, nor even 1/3 (to get us down to 4K). So whether you are catching the specific pixel issue like I am or not, your eyes are usually being shown, on a huge screen, an image that is at times about 1/13th as sharp as what we used to look at.
It doesn’t consciously feel like that because we get used to things. We get used to the fact that surround sound isn’t there as easily as we do that it is. We get used to a less detailed picture as easily as we do a more detailed one. But it still matters. In The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand was beautiful every time I decided to look at it in the background of some conversation. In The Hobbit, it was… sort of beautiful. I specifically noted one shot where Gandalf was talking, and I looked beside his close-up at the mountains behind him. They became no clearer or sharper in my eye. They were sharp enough to be enjoyed along side my center of focus, but if I looked right at them, they were certainly in focus, but remained undetailed, like signs clearly seen, but still too far to be read.
So your fellows who enjoy the film experience really are seeing a difference, an actual, mathematical, experiential difference in the picture, and that’s happening even if they would be incapable of isolating visible pixels, or visible film grain.
If you don’t see pixels, or have my issues, then all of this is good for you. It’s good now because you are used to, or even fine with, a blown up blu-ray. It works. You have a good time. When it improves, you’ll notice it, and your eyes will love it, probably as much as you noticed your upgrade from SD to HD at home, even though the televisions we grew up on never seemed to be lacking. It was just TV. Then HD was amazing, and now HD is just TV. But most of us wouldn’t go back to SD tvs, even if it became the norm. If we were forced to, if all broadcasters and blu-ray mastereres suddenly just switched to lower resolutions, especially if they talked about it like it was actually an upgrade, we would go along, and get used to it. It’s still a downgrade though. This is what 2K cinemas are, a very real downgrade in image quality. I would indeed rather put up with scratches here and there on a sharper image than the constancy of a picture being just ever so hazy for the full run of the film, of it lacking the textures and visual depth it could have, and used to have.
In the future, digital will exceed film in most ways, if not all – color, already great, will continue to improve, contrast will catch up (they really do look a little washed out now, most movies), and the resolution will bypass film. For 35mm, this will happen in an iron clad way when we get this:
7680 x 4320 – 8K UHDTV
The real IMAX, or 70mm (65mm) experience has much further to go, so if you can see a 70mm print of something, run, don’t walk – especially if the screen is normal sized, not huge. A friend saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at The Music Box in Chicago on a normal screen, and he couldn’t believe how sharp it looked. He said it was close to 3D, and was so sharp it was like watching it afresh. Here are the numbers:
12000 x (8390) – 65mm film, or traditional IMAX on the camera negative *
That will finally be presented in all of its visual splendor when we hit:
15360 x 8640 – 16K Digital Cinema (the necessary future!)
By the way, no one has to like Preston Sturges, or Frank Capra, or even Billy Wilder. Or Kubrick, or Buster Keaton (…yikes, that’s hard to say). Appreciating the academically popular is not a requirement of cinephiles, nor does it dock your Movie Guy Card. Anyone who says it does, or that it should, has his head buried too far up his smugness, and that may be the only valid card losing move.
Great show. I love hearing classics discussed.
First off, this is the greatest comment in the history of BP.
Everything you said above is correct but where you differ from me is that your argument assumes an equal level of image quality between the film and digital example. I’m well aware of how less resolution 2K has than 35mm film (I have to know this sort of thing for the job I have but refuse to discuss). But a new 2K DCP is going to have more consistency than a 60-75 year old print that’s been run through God knows how many projectors over its life. I mean, back in the days where all first run movies were on 35, you could even tell a difference between week one and week three of a theatrical run.
I am already looking forward to the days of regular theatrical use of 8K and beyond. I saw a number of 8K demonstrations at last year’s NAB convention (again, work, shhhhh) and it’s terrific. In the meantime, though, I’ll take consistency in presentation over what I still see as the fetishization of old-timey imperfections.
Thanks again for all of this information!
PS. Now if we’re talking about archival formats as opposed to theatrical display, that’s a whole different story. Celluloid all the way, man.
Which archive do you work at, David?
Yes, I think where we differ, and what makes you much more representative of the norm as well, is in the issue of the quality of the print itself. On one hand, my experience with actual repertory prints has been very good, with the physical infractions being rarities rather than usualities. We have some quality projectionists here, allowed to run prints others may not touch, and running reel to reel, rather than on platters, you get a better quality of film. We get good stuff in this town, so yes, I probably do err in that direction. Heck, when I ran In America myself, you *couldn’t* tell on the 12th week that it wasn’t the first week. We were meticulous. Most prints left me in better shape than they’d arrived.
On the other hand, I also just have a dense retina, me personally. It took a while to realize this. I was always able to read street signs long before my friends could, as we drove up to them. I can read fine print well, and was the focus man at my theater, most easily finding the perfect focus ring setting across our 96 foot throw. So for me, though not others, the 2K projection on a movie screen is like a constant error, a constant … well, it’s *not* out of focus, but it’s closest to a focus error, the picture being not sharp enough for a big screen. So for me, 2K is the guaranteed inconsistency. It’s always there, while the locally run print of… last week’s Tim Burton festival, the forthcoming Big Lebowski, To Kill a Mockingbird and Wizard of Oz over the next month, those are very likely to be great prints, in focus, sharper than 2K, and with only minor audio crackling at reel changes, if there is any issue at all.
It’s clearly not that way for you, no 2K ‘blur’, so that’s a non-issue, and frequent messed up prints – an annoyance. You’re left with good print/bad print, and the winner is clear there, see the good (digital) print. It’s got to be that way for most people.
But I also say that if you saw a great print of Vertigo or 2001 (and those still exist) followed by a 2k projection of the same, while the 2k might match or best it in color, you’d otherwise notice the change going down in detail to the 2K, or perhaps going up in it to film. I”m sure there’s some cultishness about film, but some of the 35mm promotion is honestly about better pictures, sharper pictures. It is for me. Some is indeed hype, and hype really is a terrible reason to do something. But I say it’s a worse reason to dismiss doing something. Whichever looks better, see that. Whichever it is. Don’t let fetishizers take something away from you. THAT’S HOW THEY WIN . . . [whispers] That’s how they get you…
8K projection will indeed end this issue, for whichever side offends the particular eyes. I hope it doesn’t take Rian Johnson saying that for the first four weeks of release, only 8K projectors may have The Last Jedi, but honestly, that has been the engine of positive change in the past. Lucas did it with his Special Editions, and a few years later, digital sound in every house, in every theater, was the norm. Before that it wasn’t even the norm to have one such auditorium in every city.
Thanks for the compliment too, really. One never knows when one might come off as, I dunno, a stalker? I mean, *I* know I don’t want to date you, or hunt you down and bury you in a cave full of pale scorpions in a western Nevada off road desert, but who knows how a big message is being taken on the receiving end? I appreciate the affirmation.
Does David get the same enjoyment looking at a JPEG of a painting online as he does by seeing the actual physical object in a museum? I’m trying to wrap my mind around his praise for The Love Witch units 35mm exhibition format, and simultaneous dismissal of exhibited archival nitrate prints as mere fetish objects.
* The Love Witch in its 35mm exhibition format
“I’m well aware of how less resolution 2K has than 35mm film… But a new 2K DCP is going to have more consistency than a 60-75 year old print that’s been run through God knows how many projectors over its life. I mean, back in the days where all first run movies were on 35, you could even tell a difference between week one and week three of a theatrical run.”
What??! David, have you been to any 35mm rep screenings? Do you know of the care archivists put into inspecting vintage film prints so they can be screened for paying audiences? True, not every print screened is in pristine condition (I’ve seen my fair share of faded, scratched, even distractingly foreign subtitled prints), but part of the point of screening a movie on the format it was made to be seen on is that you take the “good” with the “bad”. Even if it isn’t “he intended” cinema-going experience, it’s part of YOUR experience.
You’re whole “week three” argument is as absurd as you argument on the show about different labs processing prints differently was valid (see, I’m kind of on your side too, right?). The point being that not every theater/projector/projectionist was uniformly rough as the others. There are plenty of prints of films we now consider classics that have excellent prints in existence simply because they were not popular at the time of their release and therefore didn’t get screened as much. There are also plenty of beautiful (whats that word… restorations???) of movies on film that look gorgeous… on film.
Finally, please, try and understand this: If someone told you they’d seen The Wizard of Oz and they LOVED it, but they’d only ever seen it on a black and white TV, what would your reaction be? Would you say they’d seen the movie, and should just leave it at that? They don’t… necessarily need to see The Wizard of Oz again, do they? But then, part of the beauty of that film is its use of color. Now I’m not going to chide someone for not having seen every single movie in the original format it was made to be seen on, but it’s a similar concept. I wouldn’t say you hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz if you’d only ever watched it on a black and white TV, but I’d say you were missing a crucial element to that movie. I wouldn’t say you hadn’t really seen Interstellar if you didn’t see it in 70mm IMAX. I watch plenty of things on DVD, VHS, fuck, even Laserdisc. It’s part of living in the time we’re in – and it’s pretty awesome, this access. Please, stop it with this “fetishizing the imperfections” nonsense. It isn’t just about that.
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