Digital projection | A consumer guide
Digital creates new challenges for consumers seeking the best movie-theater experiences.
The man working the concessions at Landmark couldn’t explain it, but he confirmed what I suspected: The Master looked better in theater No. 7 than it did in No. 4. For the same admission, I saw a perceptibly sharper presentation. As it turns out, No. 7 had a higher-end projector.
With the number of American screens using digital projection now exceeding 80 percent, movies look significantly different than they did even five years ago, when 35mm was the norm. The new projection world brings new issues consumers looking for the best presentations should keep in mind.
Talking to projectionists is like talking to Talmudic scholars: Each rule comes with a counterfactual, plus a warning that every space is unique. But in theory, all digital projection should be equal. In 2002, studios formed the Digital Cinema Initiative, a consortium tasked with creating uniform technical specs. “If a digital cinema system is set up according to DCI specifications,” says Boston Light & Sound’s Chapin Cutler, “you should be unable to tell the difference in any way in terms of color, luminosity—any of the things that you would normally recognize.”
There are two basic kinds of digital projectors: 2K and 4K. The latter, approximating 35mm, offers four times the resolution of the former, which is just one notch up from Blu-ray. Still, on a tiny 20-foot screen, Cutler says, the disparity shouldn’t be discernible except from the very front. Also, 4K projector or no, most movies are mastered at 2K, further diminishing the gap. But with technologically advanced titles like The Hobbit opening soon, studios are starting to ship true-4K packages. Lake Street Screening Room’s Steve Kraus cites Argo, Lincoln and Skyfall as recent examples. It’s likely the 4K projector in No. 7 was showing a 4K version of The Master.
Discrepancies are nothing new, notes Kyle Westphal of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, pointing to vast gulfs in sound quality that existed with 35mm. And extracting info from a theater can be a fool’s errand. When I called Showplace ICON in September, I was told their projectionist—singular—was on vacation.
Is there any advice experts can give? “If you’re not seeing a 3-D movie, don’t see it in a theater that’s set up for 3-D,” Cutler says, adding that in many cases, those are the house’s largest auditoriums. To maintain the polarization effect, new 3-D systems require silver screens, as opposed to white ones. When a 2-D movie is projected on silver, you’ll see “hot spots”—areas significantly brighter than the rest. And while Cutler generally favors big screens, it might be prudent to avoid those larger than 50 feet. “Many theaters are not equipping their theaters with projectors big enough to fill a 50-foot screen,” he says.
Then there are premium services, like “the IMAX experience” (which, in multiplexes, has nothing to do with real, Navy Pier–style IMAX apart from a brand) and RPX at Regal Cinemas. Both Kraus and Cutler speak well of the fake IMAX, which uses two synchronized projectors to yield a brighter image. When I saw Skyfall in that format, it struck me as superior to regular 4K-on-4K. “I dislike that they call it IMAX without any differentiation,” Kraus says. “People are expecting giant screens. But having said that, I’m all in favor of an enhanced experience type of thing.”
Kraus emphasizes the subjective factor. “Try [a system] out, and don’t go back if you don’t find it worth it,” he says. “The best thing people can do is to find theaters where people take care to do a good job.”