Projection v. 35mm Projection
by Jon Waterman
Recently, you may have heard of the battle to bring digital projectors
into theatres, thus replacing 35mm analog projectors. Lately, press has
focused on George Lucas and his new film Star Wars: Episode II
Attack of the Clones. Lucas has publicly expressed his disappointment
in how slow the digital conversion is going and how few digital projectors
there are in the United States.
He has a right to be upset. Switching to digital is going much slower
than originally planned. There are currently only around 60 screens
in the US showing digital. Thats about 140 fewer than expected.
The main reason its taking so long is because NATO (National Association
of Theatre Owners) are trying to arrange for uniform standards for technology,
exhibition, maintenance, and financing. In other words, NATO is
playing it smart.
First, lets talk about technology. How does digital projection
work? Well, movies and other content (we could possibly start seeing
such events as the Super Bowl or the Oscars playing in theatres) are stored
in computers. Then through either broadband phone-lines (think high-speed
internet connection) or through satellite transmissions, the movie file
is sent to the theatres projector. The projector would then
decode the files information, send it through mirrors which bounce
the image through the lens and onto the screen.
Analog projection works like this: First, a print of the film is
made and then sent to each theatre in reels. The projectionist or
manager puts the reels together in a process called splicing creating
one big reel of film. In most cases, the big reel is placed on a
tray. When the time comes to project the film, the projectionist
presses the start button (once again, in most cases) and the film feeds
through the projector. The film winds its way through until it reaches
the lens. Behind the lens, there is a light that shines through
the film, thus projecting it onto the screen one frame at a time.
Once one frame is projected, the film is advanced one frame by first blocking
the light with a shutter and then pulling the film down with what is known
as a claw. This process is repeated until the film ends.
Now, for exhibition. The leaders in the digital projector pack are
currently Texas Instruments and Hughes, although TI has the clear advantage.
The main question on everyones mind is, Does digital look
better than film? The answer, quite simply, is yes and no.
Digital projectors make the picture look better in that there are fewer
artifacts and scratches and there is no color fading. However, digital
still cannot compare to film in terms of resolution. Film currently
provides 4850 lines by 4850 lines per inch of resolution. Digital
projection boasts 1280 X 1024 lines, which is
less than HDTVs 1920 X 1080. Either way you resolve it, film
is far superior.
Texas Instruments DLP projection system offers two key benefits
over film. One is that the picture never degrades in quality, even
after 4 shows a day, 7 days a week. The other is that it offers
a 35 trillion color spectrum, more than eight times the amount film can
However, there is a problem with the second advantage. Most motion
pictures are still shot on 35mm film. In order for them to be shown
digitally projected, the film needs to be transferred to a digital master.
If the movie is shot on film to begin with, no one will notice all those
extra colors, because they were never there. Also, with a film-to-digital
master, the resolution is reduced to the 1280 X 1024 level so that it
can be read by the projector. In addition, going from film to digital,
in general, lowers the quality just from the transfer itself. When
combined with the other lower
standards, most motion pictures will look worse on digital projection.
If the movie was shot digitally, as Episode II was, the movie
will actually look better. Because, just like when transferring
film to digital, a digital-to-film transfer lowers the picture quality
thanks to the transfer process. If the movie starts digital and
stays digital, then there is no degradation of quality in the picture.
With Star Wars, the digital projection alleviated many of
the problems I had with the picture. The special effects integrated
into the background better, there were no artifacts or scratches, the
blacks were richer and the colors more vibrant and full. On 35mm,
the deep shadows looked grainy and more gray and the computer graphics
(CG) characters and effects looked flat. But, on both forms of projection
there was the lower resolution. When doing a digital-to-film transfer,
the lines of resolution does increase in terms of number. However,
these lines are essentially empty. The film works with the material
it is given. So, both screens basically have the same resolution.
This lower resolution shows itself the most in bright light. When
you watch Star Wars, look at the top of the characters
head or on their shoulders when hit by harsh light. The hairs sort
of blur and the area looks over-exposed. And also, most of the time,
the deep shadows will look more muggy and grainy. Digital cameras
and their tape stock cannot capture the extremes as well as film can.
This may, and probably will change in the future, but right now digital
still produces a lower quality picture.
There is another concern that deals with the commercial end of exhibition
rather than the technical side. Say we have a theatre showing two
movies. Movie A is a big name, hyped-to-death action flick.
That ones playing on the big screen with the digital projector.
Movie B is the small indie art-house flick that has gotten the good reviews
and some buzz. This one is in the downstairs screen with the 35mm
projector. Soon, it turns out that B is getting much more business
than A. Normally, the manager would switch the screens, but movie
A is stuck in the big house, because
the file was sent to that projector for a set specific run. Also,
movie Bs distribution company didnt make a digital transfer,
because they couldnt afford to do both digital transfer and film
print. Movie A stays empty, making no profit, and movie B turns
people away at the door.
Lets talk maintenance. This is a big concern for NATO.
They want to make sure that all projectors are built to a certain set
of standards (that they set up) so that one company isnt monopolizing
the market, possibly with an inferior product. Also, with all projectors
built virtually the same, they wont have to pay more money to bring
in a specific companys specialist to fix the projector if it breaks.
Another concern is upgrading. Digital technology changes and advances
so rapidly, that many managers and owners are worried that as soon as
they adopt this new system that a new one will come out that everyone
must have. The fear of needing to replace their projectors
every two to five years, not because they break but, because theyre
obsolete is making many owners pause.
There has been talk that digital projectors will eliminate the projectionist
position. This is not true. Someone will still need to be
up there to hit the start button (in general, all thats required
of 35mm projectionists). Someone will still need to be up there
to download the file, log its use and enter the theatres access
code so that it plays. Someone will still need to be up there to
make sure the picture is focused and that everythings running smoothly.
In fact, if there is a problem in the middle of a screening, the digital
projector may take longer to fix than the 35mm due to inexperience and
if the problem can be fixed in-house.
Finance time. These things arent cheap. Owners dont
want to replace a machine every five years when each new one costs them
$110,000-$150,000 each. Right now, the highest quality 35mm projectors
are only about $30,000 and those are virtually guaranteed to last 20 years.
According to NATO, if they were to adopt the new technology now, without
any type of plan for financing worked out with the studios and manufacturers,
ticket prices would sky-rocket. Theatres would have to charge somewhere
in the ballpark of $50 per ticket. No one would go, and that would
the end of the theatre going experience.
So, of course, NATO is backing off and studying the situation carefully
before committing to anything. But there are some other factors
that movie-goers should be aware of.
The alternative. If theatre owners are going to take on a whole
new form of projection, they should look at both options. Yes, there
is digital projection, but there is also a thing called MaxiVision.
Hailed and raved about by Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese, MaxiVision
is a new, superior film projection system that presents a sharper, crisper
film image. And unlike digital projection, this new system is an
add-on. Owners arent supposed to throw the old equipment away.
The system can automatically tell if the film is MaxiVision enhanced or
not and adapt seamlessly as needed. Heres how MaxiVision film
It projects film at 48 frames per second (fps) as opposed to the standard
24fps. Twice as many images of an action increases the quality.
It also takes away the space that once was used for an optical sound track
for picture. The digital soundtrack is placed in-between sprocket
holes and along the edges of the film as it is now. The result is
31% more picture in 25% less space. At the 24fps projection rate,
the MaxiVision use of film would actually reduce distribution costs for
film. The projector add-on itself improves quality as well.
It uses a newly designed system for
advancing the film and holding it in front of the lamp. The steadier
flow adds a crisper quality to the picture
Because of this, the audience would see an image that is somewhere around
500% better than current projection. This is a far cry from the
almost as good as film digital projection that costs so much
more. MaxiVision is slated to cost owners $280 per month or $10,000
to buy. Thats one-third the price of a new 35mm projector
and less than one-tenth the price of a digital projector.
Piracy is another concern. Eventually, someone will be able to hack
into either the theatres projector or the studios computer
and steal the movies. If the hackers tap into the theatre, they
could steal the movies from the place and the owner could possibly be
left with nothing to show. Bootleg quality would improve and theatres
would lose more business. With film, the reels are heavy and a whole
movie would take one guy two trips to steal. After that, the person
would have to have some way to either copy it or project it. Its
not rational or practical to steal a film print.
The final concern to address is that of the directors vision.
When a 35mm print of a film is made, the director and cinematographer
work with the film processing lab to adjust the contrast, tint, and color
of each scene or shot. This process is called timing.
A digital projector could time the movie any way he/she desires.
All the controls are there to be manipulated.
There is now a concern as to what NATO will do with the films if and when
digital projection gets approved. Rule 8 of their standards states,
Exhibitors request the ability to select language, rating version,
etc. This simple sentence is a frightening one. Foreign
films could possibly no longer be subtitled. They would be dubbed
in English and the audience wouldnt be able to hear how the actors
really act. Theatre owners could also potentially show a censored,
PG-13 cut of a film that the director intended to be shown in R form.
Putting control over these factors into the
owners hands instead of the filmmakers is the wrong move to
make. If two theaters in two cities show different versions of the
film, which city is seeing the better version? Film critics will
have to either try to see all versions (if possible) or make specific
note of which version they saw. In any case, it could create problems.
What should theatre owners do? I think they should do what they
are doing. Weigh the options, strive for uniform standards, and
make an educated decision. Its all the movie-going public
can hope for. After all, they have control over how we watch our
For more information on NATO, please visit www.natoonline.org
For more information on MaxiVision, please visit www.maxivisioncinema.com
For more information on Texas Instruments DLP technology, please
respond to firstname.lastname@example.org