Digital Projection & Classic Movies

Twice this month I saw, projected digitally, an older, arguably classic film, originally intended to be screened in 35mm. One was a major disappointment—technically, at least. The other was perfectly acceptable.

Both films were new “director’s cut” versions. I’m guessing that the owners of these films chose not to spend money on a 35mm print, although I have not checked with the distributers to confirm this.

The disappointing experience was with Ride with the Devil, screened at the Kabuki as ridewithdevilpart of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s tribute to James Schamus. (I’m not sure if Ride qualifies as a classic, as it’s only 11 years old and hasn’t been seen enough to earn the reputation that, IMHO, it deserves.)

Ride with the Devil was shot in anamorphic 35mm, with a 2.35×1 aspect ratio. Instead of using the full width of the Kabuki’s Theater 1 screen, it was letterboxed within a 1.85×1 frame, making it smaller than it should have been. While close-ups looked fine, long-shots in this period action film, shot mostly out of doors, looked washed out and lacked detail.

According to Festival Technical Director Jeremy Stevermer, Devil was screened off of HDCAM SR media with a 1920×1280 resolution. By comparison, Blu-ray is 1920×1080. However, since the image was letterboxed, we can safely assume that the effective resolution was the same as a Blu-ray disc.

I had a farmetropolis more satisfying experience with Metropolis at New York’s Film Forum. Much of the film, especially the newly-restored scenes, looked horrible, but it was film horrible—grain and scratches—not digital or video horrible. The scenes that came from good sources looked fantastic—as good as anything I’ve ever seen off of a silent film.

I don’t know the technical details of the presentation. The ads simply stated that it was presented in “HD.”

I also don’t know why the experiences were so different. But I have my theories:

  1. The Kabuki’s Theater 1 doesn’t normally do digital projection, and the Festival rented an HD projector for this and other non-film presentations. Either the installation or the projector itself may not have been as good as a permanent one.
  2. A color, widescreen movie may have made greater demands on the image-processing capabilities than a narrow-screen, black and white film shot more than 80 years ago.
  3. The Film Forum has pretty small screens, making it easier for an image to look good.

The new Metropolis restoration gets its San Francisco premiere at the Silent Film Festival in July. They will be projecting it digitally—I believe a first for that festival. Then we’ll see how the digital version looks on a really large screen.

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