Digital Projection of "The Phantom Menace" - June 99
From June 18th (probably for a month) "Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace" is being shown in two different digital projection formats. Below is Blake Middleton's review of the two systems, with an attached review of one of the systems as seen in Vegas a few months ago.From: Blake Middleton To: Otto Kitsinger / Movieville Subject: Phantom Menace Digital Projection Date: Wed, 23 Jun 1999 17:32:39 -0700 Well, I've seen now seen both of the two video presentations of "Phantom Menace" -- last weekend I saw the Texas Instruments system at the Burbank AMC 14, and Monday night I caught the late show of the Hughes-JVC system at Pacific's Winnetka 20. One thing I have to say about both systems: They both sound GREAT. Both are using full 24-bit uncompressed audio for their sound, which allows them to achieve a level of sound clarity like six-track mag. But onto the picture: My impression of the Hughes-JVC was almost identical to the one I had at NAB, with "Shakespeare in Love". (For those who haven't read my review of that presentation, I've attached it to the bottom of this file.) The only thing they did right this time was to get the brightness right. Despite being over 2,000 pixels wide, the image I saw was fuzzy, and a lot of the detail was lost. Again, I felt the loss of detail was due mostly to the lack of color depth, because the colors were terribly muted and lacked subtlety. Obi-wan's lightsaber looked purple. Again I saw strange strobing effects whenever something moved onscreen, and again I saw wavy lines every time the camera panned up (which fortunately didn't happen very often in the film). In short, every one of the problems I saw at NAB were still there, plus a few new ones. I'm not sure why the colors looked so bad -- based on the size of their file server, compression ratio, and screen resolution, some quick arithmetic tells me they should have had room for at least 10 bits per component (over 40 bits per pixel). After the film was over, I heard a guy sitting behind me say to one of his friends, "I actually liked it better the old way. The colors were brighter, the picture was a lot clearer. Everything just looked better. This just looked like TV." I felt relieved that I wasn't the only person in the world who couldn't see the Emperor's new clothes. Walking out the theatre, I noticed the showtimes listing board for all the films hanging in the box office. Next to the film house showtimes for "Phantom Menace" was a backlit piece of printed color artwork with film's logo on it. Next to the digital house times was a black-and-white Xerox of the same piece of artwork, which I thought summed the situation up perfectly. The Texas Instruments system I saw at Burbank was a completely different experience. The Monday before the digital house opened, I'd gone to see a release print of the film in the very same house, so that I could compare the two formats directly (Hughes-JVC, alas, closed down House 19 at the Winnetka a week early, so I couldn't do the same there.) Bottom line, it looked good. Very good. None of the motion artifacts I saw with the Hughes-JVC were present -- no wavy lines, no strobing motion, just the usual artifacts already present with 35mm film. In fact, rapid camera pans actually looked a little smoother, probably because the image stays on screen for the entire 24th of a second, rather than flashing twice like film does. But best of all was the color, which was simply amazing. Far better than the release print I'd seen the previous week, it looked almost as good as the show print I'd seen at the Village. The brightness was also dead on, with a perfectly natural roll-off to the edges. There were still a lot of problems. The pixels were quite large, and plainly visible from where I was sitting. Also, I noticed that when there was a lot of brightness on screen, the image seemed to blow out and go completely white. Nevertheless, the image clarity was almost as good as the release print I'd seen, and in a couple places I found I could resolve MORE detail in the digital version. After the film was over, I talked to one of tech guys from TI to find out why it looked so good. First, they were running it at 24 fps, and their system eliminates interlacing artifacts by displaying an entire frame at once. They only had about 1200 pixels across, but with 10 bits per component in the original transfer, and 14 bits per component in the projector, they had all the color depth they needed. He also explained that the blowing out of white areas was an artifact of the film to tape transfer system they were using, and was obviously a problem they needed to address. Which brings me to another thing I really liked about the TI folks: they were aware of all the problems with their system and actively working to fix them. Their consultants and advisers are all film people and cinematographers, and their goal is match 35mm film, not to achieve the greatest video the world has ever seen. If I'd been sitting in the back of the house, their system just might have fooled me. (By contrast, you'd have to hand me a crack pipe and blindfold me to convince me that the Hughes-JVC system was real film.) In short, they're not quite there yet, but give them a few years and they'll really be able to give 35mm a run for its money. ____________________________________________________________ Here are my impressions from NAB: I just got back from NAB, where I got to see one of the first ever public exhibitions of a feature-length film using the Hughes-JVC video projection system. They ran two feature films in their entirety -- "Shakespeare in Love" and "Life is Beautiful". I only got to see "Shakespeare in Love" (which ran Monday night) because I had to get back to LA by Tuesday for scene night auditions. On the plus side, I caught "Shakespeare in Love" in 35mm at the UA Tuesday night, so that I could compare the two while the video was still fresh in my mind. I also got to see a sizable clip from "Life is Beautiful" while I was there. In case you haven't heard, the Hughes-JVC system is one of the two video systems chosen by Lucas play "The Phantom Menace". Starting June 18, "The Phantom Menace" will play in New York and LA (and two other cities as well) using the Hughes-JVC machine I saw, and run for about a month. For those of you not interested in this technology and its potential impact on the industry... well, you can just skip the rest of this message, because I'm about to launch into a long and rather detailed description of how this format compares with traditional 35mm film projection. The screening room was a smallish affair, with several rows of chairs set up on tiered platform in front of about a fifteen foot screen. They ran the show off D5 tape, and needed to stop the show twice for "reel changes" (after reels three and six, I believe) because the tape couldn't hold the entire show. They served popcorn and soda in the next room, where they were demoing one of their smaller systems with the Star Wars trailer. Every once in a while you could hear the trailer bleed through the thin walls, which along with the smell of burning popcorn really helped create the illusion that you were sitting in a crummy multiplex. I'll start with some positive notes on what I saw. I really have to hand it to them for having the guts to demo this system with these two films. Both were Best Picture nominees and won multiple Academy Awards, so there was a good chance a lot of their audience had seen these two films in a theatre already. Both films were visually stunning (remember Sandy Powell's intricate costumes for "Shakespeare in Love"?) and featured beautiful cinematography with plenty of low-light photography, which has always been a problem for video. "Elizabeth" is about the only film this year which could have been a tougher test. Second, the resolution wasn't half bad. With 2000 pixels across you get a fairly respectable 1000 lines of horizontal resolution, which is still nowhere near that of 35mm film at its best, but nothing to sneeze at either. If they could double or triple the number of pixels across, they might just be able to give film a run for its money. The picture was also steady as a rock, and focus was constant across entire the image plane. And of course there were no scratches, shutter ghost, or color inconsistencies. I didn't notice any apparent flaring of the image near its edges, a problem a lot of video systems have had. I found out later this was because they were running the projector with a brightness roll-off from the center, like real film projectors do naturally. The light gradient helps maintain an illusion of even brightness, since the human eye has a tendency to see the edges of the screen as brighter than the rest because of their close proximity to the dark masking around the screen. Overall, the brightness looked fine, and was evenly distributed across the screen. In fact, the damn thing was simply TOO bright. I guess I need to say a word or two about brightness here. Brightness has always been a sore point for the video projection industry, because traditionally the biggest criticism of video systems in the past has been that video simply could not obtain the same levels of light that film projection could. Well, they've solved that problem now, and really overcompensated for it. It's as though they're out to prove to the world with no ambiguity that they've solved the brightness issue once and for all. One of the tech guys I talked to afterwards said that he was well aware he was running the show too bright, but felt it was necessary to bring out the details in the dark scenes. Now on to the problems: The biggest problems I had were the motion artifacts -- an annoying strobing effect whenever something on the screen moved quickly, and a strange horizontal wave pattern which appeared whenever the camera panned up. The strobing effect was more apparent in images with high contrast, and it was particularly distracting in the "Life is Beautiful" clips. I presume this effect was caused by addition of extra, repeated frames in the video transfer, since they were running the show at 30 frames per second, rather than 24. As far as the wave effect associated with vertical pans, the only thing I can guess is that this was a bizarre artifact caused by scan line interpolation of the interlaced signal. Also, resolution of details was a problem. Most of the borders were fuzzy and indistinct, and the effect got worse as the contrast increased. The opening and closing credits looked just awful, and trees against sky were a real problem, too. The resolution became a real problem with some of the wide shots, like when Viola first auditions as Thomas Kent, or the balcony scene between Viola and Will Shakespeare. By far the biggest problem was the color depth. I found out later that this was only a 10 bit transfer, which explains a lot. You really need a minimum of 24 bits to capture film color somewhat realistically. I noticed this problem almost immediately, when the Universal Logo appeared, and the Earth's oceans had a strange unevenness in the shading. I was sure the logo hadn't looked like that before, and when I saw "Shakespeare in Love" at the UA, sure enough the ocean colors were even and continuous. The color problem revealed itself in other ways, too. Skin tones were very even and flat, and the leaves on trees were almost uniformly the same shade of green. A lot of the colors -- especially the reds -- seemed to pop out of the screen with stunning vibrancy in ways they shouldn't have done. This may have been due in part to the excessive brightness, but I think it was mostly do to the lack of detail within the colored area, making it one gigantic smear of monochromatic intensity. I've heard a lot of people say that video projection looks "flat", and I have to agree. It's very difficult to judge depth in a particular scene, and the entire image appears to be compressed into a single plane. I'm convinced this is due to the loss of color depth, which washes out all of the subtleties in shading and hue which give the brain cues to perceive depth. It's exactly the same problem I've seen with video formats for TV. There was also a very big problem with contrast in the darkly lit scenes. Whether this was due to those same color depth problems or simply a poor film to tape transfer I can't be sure. As I said earlier, I saw "Shakespeare in Love" at the UA here in Westwood the very next evening, so that I could compare them back to back. It happened to be in the little house there, which has a screen comparable in size to the one I saw at NAB, and I sat where the image would appear about the same size it had at NAB. And, like at NAB, I could hear the Star Wars trailer playing in the next room, this time from a large multi-screen video display in the UA's lobby. I wasn't very impressed with what I got at the UA that evening. The presentation was even worse than I'd seen at the AMC 7 at the Third Street Promenade, although the sound was far superior. To begin with, the focus was a little soft, resulting in a image with limited resolution. I thought for a moment about going to the lobby and complaining, but I thought it might be more interesting to test the film in a more real-world setting with the sort of typical handicaps film faces. The film also wasn't a show print -- the image crapped out a couple of times near the end of one of the reels, the color timing was off between reels, and the print itself was a little grainy. The print had taken some abuse, too -- there were a few scratches here and there, but no major breaks or cuts. The projector also had a bit of weave and bounce. With the focus and steadiness problems the film had, I'd say the image resolution wasn't much better than what I saw at NAB -- maybe 1200 to 1500 lines of resolution horizontally, as opposed to the Hughes-JVC's 1000 lines. Despite all of these problems, however, the film looked a hell of a lot better at the UA. Although the image resolution wasn't much better, I found that I could visually resolve a lot more detail than I could with the Hughes-JVC. I think this was mostly due to the color depth, because a lot of what I was seeing were fine details involving subtle variation in color -- the texture of a piece of paper of or fabric, delicate patterns in skin tone, and differences in shading in the leaves on a tree. Also, those annoying artifacts weren't there to continually remind me I was watching an artificial medium. The few film artifacts I saw (the occasional color shift, scratch) were transitory and quickly forgotten. Overall the film was much easier to watch, although I did enjoy seeing "Shakespeare in Love" quite a bit more at NAB because I saw it there in a full house with people who'd never seen it before, while the UA had only three other people in the audience. Which brings me to another point -- they're really demoing this technology for the wrong crowd if they want constructive feedback. NAB is convention of broadcasters -- people who work with video for a living, look at video all day long, and think Hi Def is the greatest thing to come to along since color TV. "Shakespeare in Love" won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and I'd say less then half the audience I saw it with had seen the picture before. These people are not cinemaphiles; they don't see a lot of movies. Of course they're going to be impressed. To sum everything up (you're still reading this? Wow.), I have to say it was the best video I've ever seen, but it was still just video. As far as the projector technology goes, it's getting very close. Aside from the resolution issue, this machine does everything it needs to do. The problem is the source video, which still looks nothing like film because of simple bandwidth considerations. From what I saw, they'd need about ten to a hundred times more data to realistically simulate 35mm film. They could probably get away with using this projector on small multiplex screen (say 20 ft, max) IF they did the following: 1) Run the video at 24 fps. 2) Use a non-interlaced signal source. 3) Go to at least 24-bit color. Otherwise, it's just a really big TV.