Movies | Event Report

Digital Projection of "Toy Story 2" - December 99

I managed to miss all of the earlier digital projection hoopla; I felt I'd seen The Phantom Menace enough and Blake's detailed report on its digital projection was good enough for me. I know Tarzan was also shown this way, but I didn't feel the need to see it again, even in the name of science.

But now Toy Story 2 is being projected digitally, and this time the stars seemed to be in alignment. First, I've heard the system is much improved from earlier tests. Disney has so much faith in it, in fact, that the film is being shown digitally at El Capitan, their top showcase, and has been since day one. (It's also at the Edwards Irvine Spectrum, and the AMC Burbank Media Center North 6.) The film is digital right from the start, giving it the best possible chance to look good or even great because it's not been converted back from film.

Plus, all that ignores the fact that Toy Story 2 is one of the best films of the year, and I'm not sure I could get tired of watching it. Since I'd already seen the film three times projected conventionally, I figured I was familiar enough with it to make a fair judgement. So when some friends decided (several weeks ago) it was time to check out this giant TV thing, it was off to Burbank with us.

I sat in the seventh row, which is a bit further back than I usually sit but still fairly close. The sound from here was great, probably better than most digital systems sound. However, since I'm usually closer, it's hard to get a fair sense of the surrounds in normal films. But regardless, it sounded great.

The picture during the film itself was astonishing. Without the telecine step, the film was full of details I'd not seen previously. The colors were unlike anything I'd ever seen projected, and it was much brighter, too, than I'm used to seeing. It might be an issue for a normal film, but for this source, it worked perfectly. It was as close to a 3D digital environment as you can get on a flat screen.

There were occasional video artifacts or motion trails, mostly in the form of jagged edges on very straight lines and title credits. But they were very minor, very rare and not really an issue at all. A film from actual film would have very few if any of these, so it's hard to imagine it being a problem in the future.

The brightness and the fact that there's no flicker (even though you don't "see" it when a movie screen is dark half the time, you do sort of "see" it) did give me a bit of eye strain over time, but it wasn't too bad. However, I don't think I'd want that as a regular feature of going to the movies.

As the film was near the end, I went down to the corner seat in the front row to look for pixels. On the corner of the screen that was only seven feet or so in front of me, I could in fact see the pixels. But the edges mostly blurred into each other, with no grid lines to make them very distinct. Long before getting to the center of the screen, I could not tell that there was pixels. Could be some better, but still getting to be quite impressive.

I realized at some point that I was really seeing one of the digital advantages: we were several weeks into the run, and there were no scratches or film breaks or anything to distract you from the experience. A nice change.

Other than that little bit of eye strain, I have nearly no complaints about how this looked. But this is from the digital source. The trailers were telecined (converted) from film sources, and while since they were trailers may not have had the best attention paid to their transfer and is duplicate negative to start with, it's all the live action footage we have to go on. And it wasn't pretty.

I'd seen the trailer for "Bicentennial Man" probably a dozen times on film, and it took no time at all to realize that in digital it looked to be really off. The interaction of film grain's slight color randomness and the digital pixel's need to be just one pixel in one size and shape did not mix well at all. Edges weren't bad, but solid colors seemed blotchy and weird. The brightness and contrast seemed off too; sort of muddy and blah. There was no snap or livelyness to the color, and this was before I had the wonder of Toy Story 2 this way to compare to.

Very simply, the level of detail and shading of color and light that film is capable of just wasn't there.

(Bicentennial Man is showing digitally in Phoenix and a few other markets; I'd love a report on it.)

While Blake concluded that unless they fix certain things, it's not much more than a giant TV, I felt that this footage I saw was far less than a giant TV, at least a good one with, say, a well-transfered DVD. However, that would be from a quality source, usually the negative, with great attention paid to the transfer process. Since that's clearly not the case with these trailers, perhaps there is hope. If they can fix the eye strain issue; I was not the only one to feel that way. I'd miss actual film, but not the stratches, tears and other problems that go with it.

- Otto Kitsinger, 31 Dec 99

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