The Best in Digital Projection

I’ve finally seen 4K digital projection–the cutting edge of image reproduction without film. I’m talking about an image with more than four times the resolution of the best HDTV; the technology that Imax may use to replace Imax.

And my verdict: it’s okay, but it didn’t wow me.

On Monday night I attended a special screening of William Friedkin’s 1980 Cruising at the Castro. Warner Brothers has just given the movie a 4K digital restoration, and rather than running off new 35mm prints, they’ve made it available to theaters digitally. The Castro is renting a Sony 4K projector for the film’s one-week run, opening September 7.

In this post I’ll stick to my impressions of the technical presentation. For my thoughts on Cruising, click here.

In order to study the image as closely as possible, I sat in the front row (pretty common for me). The screen filled almost my entire field of vision. If there were digital artifacts to be seen–pixilation, flattened colors, details dropping off in the darkest or lightest areas of the frame–I would have noticed them.

And I didn’t. What I saw could very easily have passed for film.

But it didn’t look great. Long shots, and even medium long shots, looked soft, and even close-ups lacked detail. Bright colors (and there aren’t many in this film) popped in an unnatural way. The image was very grainy, although it looked like film grain, not the digital variety.

And therein lies the problem: I don’t know if those problems came from the digital transfer and projection, or the original film source materials. In fact, I’m not even sure they’re problems and not artistic choices. There was a certain gritty look to New York-based crime dramas of the 1970s, and that look may not be the best way to show off 4k projection.

The presentation pleased Friedkin–or so he said. He came on stage to talk and answer questions before the movie (yes, the Q&A stupidly came before the movie). He made an interesting slip of the tongue when praising the presentation we were about to see. “You’re gonna love this print,” he promised, forgetting that there was no actual print involved. This was, to his mind, the best possible way to show Cruising.

One more thing: Friedkin took time out during Q&A to criticize studio heads who allow old films to rot, and praise lab technicians who preserve and restore them. He reported that the expert who scanned Cruising told him that he’d only seen one negative in worse condition. The Godfather.

Now that’s scary.