Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lighting at the movies

I wanted to share a few articles regarding the brightness of movies we are shown in theatres. Recently, there was an article in the Boston Globe on the topic: the lenses on the new digital projection equipment, which is usually 3D, are being misused in 2D showings. This results in underlit images that are actually worse in quality than what you can get at home! The digital copies are often being shown in much darker conditions than the analog print copies, despite the fact that even those tend to be underlit in many theatres (managers do this to prolong lightbulbs’ life). This is because Sony projectors (the leading brand across North America) are complicated to operate; removing the 3D lens is time-consuming, is expensive and requires technical knowledge that most employees do not possess. But according to one estimate, “a film projected through a Sony with the 3D lens in place and other adjustments not made can be as much as 85 percent darker than a properly projected film.” That’s huge!

Roger Ebert then wrote an article about this and gave concrete examples from the screenings he organizes himself (let’s just say those are lit properly). But underlighting happens even at professional screenings, like the industry screenings done for awards shows. If a movie shown at a state-of-the-art theater in a context that important isn’t lit properly, what does that tell you about the conditions in regular theaters? It seems your best bet is to go to screenings at theaters that do not show 3D movies, or at least have a different, more user-friendly brand than Sony. As Ebert says, “The film should have a brightness, a crispness and sparkle that makes an impact. It should look like a movie! -- not a mediocre big-screen television.”

My favorite local theater, the Alamo Drafthouse (we have two locations in San Antonio), wrote a reply here. They explain that they check the light levels on all their screens at least monthly and that they boost the light for 3D screenings. They have Sony 4K projectors (which give a better image than the industry-standard 2K ones), but changing the lens is still a huge hassle. If a screen shows only 2D movies, they make sure the 3D lens is off the projector. However, that is not possible when a screen shows both 2D and 3D movies, because it takes 1.5 hours just to change the lens, and they employ only two people with the technical know-how to do this! They do remove the polarizing filters, though, for a 2D screening. That article also goes on to correct something published in both the Boston Globe article and the Roger Ebert article: Sony 3D digital screenings project two continuous images, one in each of the lenses (as opposed to alternating images between the left eye and the right eye with a single lens system). So while Sony is still the best choice for a 3D movie when the light levels are appropriate, the issue posed by the 3D lenses is still very real.

Personally, I was unaware of the issue, because I assumed that movie theaters, which often charge so much for tickets these days, know what they are doing. I avoid 3D when I can just because I think it’s totally overrated. When movies seemed underlit, I always assumed it was just the way the movie was made. It is incredibly frustrating to realize that it may be the theater showing me an inferior product! I guess it really is up to the audience to remain vigilant and complain when necessary.

I now have one more thing to worry about for when I see Tintin (pictures here, teaser trailer here), which was made in 3D motion capture. I’m already apprehensive about the visual aspect of the characters, which can’t be quite the same as in the original albums, of course. Then there’s their voices – why is Tintin British? I know the movie is in English, so obviously he can’t speak French, but still... Now I have to worry about lighting, too? Unless I cave and see it in 3D at the Alamo Drafthouse...

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