Movies | Event Report

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.

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I can remember a time when where we went to the movies was just as important as the movies we went to see .... From the moment moviegoers arrived to buy their tickets, there was a sense of something special, a feeling that to step inside was to enter another time and place. - Gene Kelly