Last night, Cave of Forgotten Dreams became the first film I’ve seen digitally projected in two different theaters. The experience taught me something important: The difference between people who love digital projection and people who hate it may be the difference between the theaters they patronize.
That the film was in 3D both times accentuated the differences. I saw digital projection and 3D done well and done badly.
Just to clarify things: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still far and away the best 3D movie I have ever seen. It’s the only one I can wholeheartedly recommend and insist that people see it in 3D. This is, and should be, the film that is taking 3D to the art houses. Unfortunately, the art houses may not have the money to do 3D right.
I first saw Caves in the Kabuki’s large theater 1, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was everything I could want a digital 3D presentation to be. The image was sharp, clear, colorful, and—most difficult to achieve in 3D—bright. The Dolby 3D glasses, which aren’t polarized and therefore aren’t dark, helped.
How was this done, and only a year after finding that very theater’s digital capabilities lacking?
Jeremy Stevermer, Technical Director of the San Francisco Film Society, informed me after this year’s festival that the Kabuki added a permanent Barco Digital Projector this year (last year the festival rented a projector). The new projector, tied into the theater’s Dolby system, requires a brighter bulb for 3D projection.
My second viewing, last night, was at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. They installed 3D digital projection specifically for Caves. They will, of course, use it for other films, and showed a 3D trailer for Cars 2.
My disappointment set in before we needed the 3D glasses. Even in the 2D commercials and trailers, the colors looked muted and dull. The polarized 3D glasses made them look dark and almost black and white. For a documentary shot under low-light conditions in a cave, this was a serious handicap. Herzog’s beautiful study of early human art became muddied in the process.
The projection had another serious problem, although one that I’ve observed in that theater before it went digital. The frame is cropped way too much vertically, producing a much wider aspect ratio than Herzog intended. So much information was lost at the top and bottom of the frame that onscreen text was often unreadable. (In my review, I criticized the film’s lack of subtitles; in this theater, they would have been a disaster.)
It’s too bad. The Shattuck is conveniently located for me, and they’ve recently upgraded their seats for exceptional comfort. But their technical upgrades leave a lot to be desired.
In not totally unrelated news, last week saw a number of articles on brightness issues with Sony digital projectors showing 2D movies. It started with this boston.com article. Then Roger Ebert chimed in. Then a projectionist added an interesting explanation.