I had a great movie-going day yesterday. Two great movies, both expertly presented in their best available format.
I started the morning at the Camera 7 Pruneyard, south of San Jose, for a special press screening of Super 8 (I’ve just added Camera Cinemas to Bayflicks’ list of theaters). Theater manager Alejandro Adams organized the screening to show us a few things about modern digital projection. (If the name sounds familiar, he’s also a filmmaker. He made the excellent Around the Bay.)
First, he wanted us to see (and more importantly, feel), D-Box, which adds the sense of touch to the movie-going experience. The special chairs shake, slide, and roll to cues built into the movie. This isn’t a new concept. Aldous Huxley described something like this in Brave New World. Way back in 1959, William Castle tried a crude variation for his B picture The Tingler.
At the Camera 7, you pay $8 extra to sit in one of the 22 special D-Box seats in an otherwise normal theater.
Super 8 used the gimmick sparingly and intelligently. My seat vibrated lightly the first time when a car started up and drove away, really making me feel like I was in that car. The second time was the big train wreck sequence (both movies I saw yesterday had big train wrecks). For this, it really went to town, adding to an already impressive action sequence. Because Super 8 kept the shaking to a minimum, it worked nicely. But I could see how, if overused, it would become a big pain in the ass.
One problem: The two rows of D-Box seats are more than half-way back—an odd location for something that’s supposed to enhance the immersive experience. We were told they were placed in the theater’s sweet spot, but that’s a matter of opinion. I might consider paying for D-Box, if some of the seats are down in the front.
Adams, and Camera Cinemas district manager and technical director Dominic Espinosa, also talked about the recent controversy over Sony’s 4K digital projectors. In case you haven’t heard, many theaters aren’t bothering to change the hardware between 3D and 2D presentations, resulting in underlit, dark 2D movies. Much of the blame goes to the theaters, and much to Sony, which has apparently made swapping out the lenses a complex and time-intensive chore. The controversy started with this boston.com article. Then Roger Ebert chimed in. Then a projectionist added an interesting explanation. For some people, the message of these articles is simple: If you’re watching digital projection, and you turn around and see two light sources—one on top of the other—emanating from the booth, you’re being screwed and should demand your money back.
But we saw Super 8 projected from a Sony 4K projector. I turned around, and sure enough, two light sources, stacked vertically, meaning it was projected through the evil 3D lens. But it looked fine. In fact, it looked fantastic.
The projectionist explained it to us. The major problem isn’t with the difficult-to-remove 3D lens, but with the extremely-easy-to-remove 3D filters. Those take seconds to remove and put back. If a theater is failing to do that, the people in charge either don’t know or don’t care.
Even the lens isn’t that difficult to remove, provided the booth is sufficiently roomy. With moderate training, he insisted, it can be done in seven minutes.
It all comes down to my first rule of cinematic presentation: It’s the people that matter. No matter the technology, you can’t have good projection without a good projectionist.
And what about Super-8 as a movie? I’d give an A to this excellent example of a small film hidden inside a big Hollywood movie. It’s really about a bunch of middle school kids in 1979, trying to make a short, amateur zombie movie, and struggling with all the garbage of early adolescence, while a strange crisis and a military invasion ravages their small town. Writer/director J.J. Abrams provides a handful of spectacular action sequences, filled with explosions and special effects, but they always take a back seat to the kids’ more normal problems. The movie looks so much like something Steven Spielberg would have made around 1979 that I’m sure it was intended as an homage. Spielberg helped launch Abrams’ career, and executive-produced this movie.
Next: Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm.
Note: This post was altered a few hours after it was posted. I inserted Espinosa’s name and title.