In Praise of Digital Projection

I’m a cinema purist. I want my films shown in the correct aspect ratio. I don’t approve of colorization, adding new and “improved” special effects, or 2D-to-3D conversions. I’m offended when the DVD or Blu-ray disc of a classic doesn’t include the original mono soundtrack.

Yet, in terms of the esthetic cinematic experience, I wouldn’t shed a tear if film completely disappeared as a presentation medium, and was replaced entirely by digital projection. (I have other, non-esthetic problems with digital projection, which I discuss below.)

I have now seen several movies played off a hard drive using in the DCP standard. When done properly, they look as good as a mint-condition 35mm print run through a first-class projector. They have as much color, as much detail, and yes, as much warmth. They look better, actually, because they lack film’s slight vibration.

Poor projection can hurt the experience, of course, but that’s the case with film, as well. With digital, a bad projectionist can ruin the screening. With film, he or she can ruin every subsequent screening of that particular print. Digital not only removes the vibration, but also eliminates the scratches and dirt.

And what do you lose? Nothing except the knowledge that a clear piece of acetate is moving through a projector at a rate of 90 feet a minute.

The first time I saw 2K digital projection, more than five years ago, my immediate response was  “What a great print!” I have yet to experience a 4K presentation that made full use of that resolution’s capabilities, but I’ve read reports that call it as good or better than 70mm.

But how can I say that 2K is equivalent to 35mm when restoration experts insists on scanning 35mm sources at 4K or higher? And scanning 65 or 70mm at 8K? Film loses a tremendous amount of detail between the camera negative and the projected image. You need 4K (or more) to capture all of the information available on a 35mm negative, but 2K can reproduce as much as you actually see on a projected 35mm print. And with digital as with analog, oversampling improves the quality of the resulting image.

Digital projection is greener, as well. Distributers don’t have to ship thousands of feet of chemical-drenched acetate to every theater that’s showing the movie.

So what are the problems with digital projection?

One is archival. Film rots over the decades, but we know to handle and store film to minimize the . It will be a long time before we know how best to preserve a digital motion picture. But archives and studios can work out solutions now, including preserving many copies, writing the bits to multiple digital formats, and keeping film elements, as well.

The other problem is money. Digital projection, a big money saver for distributers, is a big investment for theaters. Major chains can afford to go all digital—and more and more of them are. But many smaller, independent cinemas, including many that I cover here at Bayflicks, can’t afford the big, expensive digital projectors.

If there’s a solution, I don’t know what it is. Many of these theaters have prosumer-level HD projectors that can produce a very good image on their moderate-sized screens. Perhaps there’s a way to make these work with DCP.

I know that many purists disapprove of digital projection, insisting that something shot for film presentation should be presented on film. To my mind, that’s taking purity too far. Hamlet was written for a particular actor—Richard Burbage. No one has seen him perform for nearly 400 years. It’s still a great play.

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