The Martian and Dolby 3D

I attended another press screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night, and once again, it was all about a man left for dead in inhospitable territory. Only this time, instead of The Revenant, I saw The Martian.

And just like last week, I’ll tell you about the movie, then a bit about the technology.

As you probably know, Matt Damon plays the title character, but he is not a native-born Martian. He’s an astronaut who’s left behind, assumed dead, when his companions are forced to abandon the mission and get back to Earth. The film’s running time is split about equally between his struggles to survive on Mars and everyone else’s struggles to save him (once they discover that he’s alive).

Unlike The Revenant, the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to turn The Martian into a revenge story. The marooned astronaut doesn’t blame those who abandoned him. The villain here is outer space–and Mars. These aren’t survivable environments for human beings.

The Martian drips with science, and as far as I can tell, it’s pretty accurate. Damon’s character experiments and finds ways to make water, grow potatoes, and make contact with NASA (the air issue is dealt with quickly and not totally satisfactorily). Those on Earth and returning to it have to figure out the best way to rescue the poor guy.

For all its suspense and realism, The Martian has a light touch. Damon’s character jokes to relieve his tension (“I’m the best botanist on this planet!”) and complains about his captain’s choice in music (disco). Back on earth, Donald Glover has a fun turn as an asocial and unhygienic science geek.

Speaking of Earth, there’s one artistic choice that bothered me. We’re decades away from sending people to Mars and bringing them back alive–and the scenes on Mars and in the spaceship show advanced technologies we don’t yet have. But the scenes on Earth make no attempt to look futuristic. The phones, cars, fashions, and so on all set this film in 2015. Perhaps director Ridley Scott didn’t want to distract people.

This was my second movie in Dolby Atmos (after The Revenant), and I liked this mix much better. It didn’t overdo the surrounds, and I could hear what people were saying.

This wasn’t my first experience with Dolby 3D, but I had a conversation with a Dolby employee about the technology before the movie.

Unlike other theatrical 3D systems, Dolby 3D doesn’t use polarized lenses (the differences are all in the projection; the DCPs are the same either way). And that means the theaters don’t have to use special, polarized screens.

Like the earliest versions of projected 3D, Dolby 3D uses colored lenses to control what light reaches what eye. (The technical term is anaglyph.) If you look at Dolby 3D glasses from the right angle, you can see the magenta and green in the lenses.

But Dolby 3D doesn’t have the awful look of anaglyph. Thanks to some 50 layers of filtering in the glasses, plus color correction in the digital server, the colors look accurate. At least they do if you keep both eyes open. Close one eye, and you’ll see a color cast. But only a geek like me would close an eye while watching a 3D movie.

I do have one problem with Dolby 3D, and it’s probably not an issue with people who don’t like the front row. Everything gets distorted on the periphery of your vision. Sitting very close with a really big screen (not possible in Dolby’s theater) could be a real problem.

The Revenant and Dolby Atmos

I attended a special screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night of The Revenant, where the movie’s Oscar-nominated audio mix could be played back in the full glory of Dolby Atmos. I’ll tell you about The Revenant, and also about Atmos.

In that difficult-to-find point where cinema technology merges into cinema art, The Revenant feels like a masterpiece. Emmanuel Lubezki’s outdoor cinematography, augmented by a team of CGI specialists, goes beyond spectacular. The natural landscapes inspire not only with their beauty, but with their cruel indifference to the tiny humans trying to survive them. The many action sequences are staged are executed to horrific and suspenseful perfection. The film is gruesome, but appropriately so.

By the way, The Revenant was shot digitally. Considering how good it looks, the arguments for shooting on film are getting weaker and weaker.

But the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel) has serious problems. It emphasizes revenge too much. Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist experiences so many unpleasant and potentially lethal disasters that I found myself thinking “Not again” at least twice (which wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t so serious). And the final fight with the main bad guy (Tom Hardy) goes on too long.

DiCaprio plays early 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (a real person; the screenplay is loosely based on a Michael Punke novel which was based on actual events). A bear attack leaves him all but dead. His companions figure that they can’t take him with them or safely wait for him to die, so they desert him. Glass crawls, limps, walks, rides, and fights his way back to the fort that’s as close as they get to civilization.

Of course there has to be a villain. Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is mean, cruel, greedy, cowardly, and racist. He murders Glass’ half-breed son while a helpless Glass watches. Fitzgerald lies to others so that they leave Glass unattended. Now our hero doesn’t just want to survive; he wants revenge. (None of this is in the historical record.)

The scene with the bear, which is done with long takes rather than the usual quick cutting, works about as well as it possibly could without letting a real bear maul a real Leonardo DiCaprio. The bear is CGI, of course, but the result is far more believable and effective than the traditional method of quick cutting between a real bear and an actor fighting a puppet.

Scene by scene, with few exceptions, The Revenant works beautifully. But as a whole, it’s not quite right. I give it a B+.

Dolby Atmos technology provides an exceptionally immersive audio experience where a sound can come from pretty much anywhere. I describe it in more detail in this TechHive article.

According to Dolby, only five commercial Bay Area screens have Atmos, and none of them are near me. I’ve experienced it only as invited press at Dolby Labs. And up until Thursday, I’d only experienced it in brief demos. This was my first time listening to Atmos with a complete feature film.

It performed as advertised. I heard sounds from all over the place, without any sense that they were coming from this or that wall-mounted speaker. On more than one occasion, I thought I heard someone talking or coughing in the audience, only to realize that it was part of the soundtrack.

But the thickly-layered sound mix tended to get in the way of the story. It was distracting, and sometimes made dialog difficult to understand (especially from Tom Hardy). Maybe it was just this mix. Perhaps someone was overusing this new toy. Or maybe I just need to get used to a new gimmick before I can adjust to it and get lost in the movie. Immersive sound can be great, but at some point, the audience needs to concentrate on the screen in front of them.

Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2015 Edition

How many theatrical features are still shot on old-fashioned film? More than you might expect. According to my very casual survey, about 29 percent of this year’s films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. That’s actually more than the last time I did this survey, back in March.

When I first surveyed film vs. digital production late in 2012, 48 percent of the films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. A year later, in 2013, the ratio dropped to 40 percent. I forgot to do the survey in 2014, and I didn’t get to it until March. Many of the films I surveyed last spring actually came out in 2014, so I’ll consider it the 2014-15 edition. Maybe it was the difference between December and March, but the drop that time was huge–only 18 percent of the movies were shot on film. It bounced back up to 29 percent this year.

Shot digitally

Shot on film

% on film

2012

14

13

43%

2013

15

10

40%

2014/15

27

6

18%

2015

20

8

29%

How do I survey a selection of current films? I use the Internet Movie Database‘s Showtimes and Tickets feature, which lists all of the movies showing in my area. When I did the survey Sunday afternoon, 48 movies were listed.

But I didn’t include all of them. I skipped animated movies and documentaries, because I could not reasonably expect them to be shot on film. I would have disqualified mockumentaries for the same reason, except that there were no mockumentaries to disqualify.

In the past, I also disqualified 3D movies, since today’s Hollywood considers it impossible to shoot a 3D movie on film–a common practice in 1953. But these days, movies shot in 2D can be converted to 3D after the fact, so I decided to count 3D movies.

For what it’s worth, only two 3D movies turned up on the list, and one of them was shot on film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The other, shot digitally, is The Martian.

Since this is a survey of 2015 movies, I skipped anything from a previous year, such as The King and I.

To find out how a film was shot, I visited its Technical Specs page on IMDB. A few films didn’t give me enough information. I disqualified those, as well.

Three films were shot partially on film and partially digitally. One of these, Spectre, I counted as being shot on film; I had read elsewhere that it was shot almost entirely on film. I disqualified the other two, Steve Jobs and Suffragette, because I just couldn’t be sure.

And so the list of 48 films got whittled down to 28. The others were either too old, too unlikely to be shot on film, or didn’t give me enough information. And out of those 28, only 8 were shot on film.

I don’t have any strong feelings about how a motion picture should be shot–unless it’s shot in something special like Ultra Panavision 70. Shooting on 35mm film provides only a slight visual advantage over digital photography, and I can’t blame anyone for choosing the clearly more practical modern alternative. Digital cameras keep getting better, and I don’t think it will be long before digital photography will look better than film. When it comes to image quality in projection, digital surpassed 35mm years ago.

My favorite new film of this year, Tangerine, was shot on iPhones. Shooting it on film would probably not have been possible.

The Hateful Eight and the Return of Ultra Panavision 70

I really don’t know what to do about Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, The Hateful Eight. On one hand, I’m a total geek over historic film formats, so I can’t help but be excited about the first film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 in nearly 50 years.

On the other hand, it’s a film by Quentin Tarantino. I loved Pulp Fiction, but lately he’s disappointed me. Although I moderately enjoyed his last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, I couldn’t get really excited about them. I found his B picture approach to very real crimes against humanity fundamentally offensive.

So I’ll forget about Tarantino, and tell you about Ultra Panavision 70–also known as MGM Camera 65.

Much of the information here, and most of the images, come from The American Widescreen Museum, a website that’s absolutely invaluable for historical film technology geeks like myself (I’ve altered some of them). In70mm is another excellent reference, with even more information but not as fun to read.

By the mid-1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–then in the process of losing its status as the world’s greatest movie studio–decided they needed their own, spectacular wide-screen format. They wanted it to be big and wide, and compatible with all the other big and wide formats springing up at that time. So they contracted Panavision, then little more than a promising startup, to come up with something amazing–but not too different from everything else.

And there were a lot of widescreen formats in those days. It all started with Cinerama, which used three strips of standard 35mm film to create the most spectacular and immersive images of them all.

But Cinerama was impractical, and at this point had failed to leap from travelogues to Hollywood features. CinemaScope was far more practical, using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the image horizontally to half its width, and thus fitting a very wide image into a standard 35mm frame. A complimentary lens on the projector spread the image out again.

Todd-AO compromised between Cinerama’s magnificence and CinemaScope’s practicality by using 65mm film in the camera and 70mm film for projection (the additional 5mm were for sound).

These all had different aspect ratios. Cinerama’s was 2.59:1. CinemaScope started at 2.55:1, but had changed by 1957 to 2.35:1. Todd-AO was a relatively narrow 2.20:1. There were other formats, as well, but I need not discuss them here.

Panavision figured that to be compatible will all of these, the new format had to be wider than any of them. So the company cloned Todd-AO, and added a modestly anamorphic lens that widened the image by 25 percent. The new aspect ratio, 2.76:1, was the widest ever used in Hollywood.

The studio, proving how much it had lost its sense of showmanship, called the new process MGM Camera 65.

The first film shot in it was the largely-forgotten Raintree Country (1957). It was released only in CinemaScope-compatible, 2.35:1, 35mm prints.

But the second film was Ben-Hur (1959), one of the biggest spectacles of the era–and one of the best. MGM, knowing it had something special, gave Ben-Hur the big treatment. It first opened in anamorphic 70mm prints. Theaters had to acquire special lenses and figure out how to project that very wide image (or, more likely, crop it). Even when it was released in regular theaters, the CinemaScope-compatible 35mm prints were letterboxed to about 2.50:1.

But before Metro’s third Camera 65 film opened in theaters in 1962, the company sold the process back to Panavision. Thus, Mutiny on the Bounty became not the third film shot in Camera 65, but the first in Ultra Panavision 70. (This should not be confused with plain old Panavision 70–Panavision’s non-anamorphic Todd-AO clone–nor with Super Panavision 70, which is Panavision 70 with the word Super in front of it.)

Like Ben-Hur, Mutiny was originally released in anamorphic 70mm.

Meanwhile, the Cinerama company decided they wanted to drop their cumbersome technology without losing their huge, deeply-curved screens or the power of their brand name. So they turned to Ultra Panavision 70. When you project a single strip of film onto a deeply-curved screen, the edges stretch horizontally. To fix that problem, Cinerama made special 70mm prints from an Ultra Panavision negative, removing the anamorphic squeeze from the middle of the frame, and increasing it slowly towards the sides.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first non-MGM film shot in Ultra Panavision 70, and the first released in this faux Cinerama. As a child, I saw it that way at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, and I think that started my fascination with big, immersive cinema. For a few years of pre-adolescence, Mad World was my all-time favorite movie. I don’t care for it much, anymore.

Between Mad World and Hateful Eight, only five films were shot in Ultra Panavision 70. One of them, The Fall of the Roman Empire was projected anamorphically–like Ben-Hur and Bounty. The others–The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, The Battle of the Bulge, and Kartoum, were released in Cinerama.

And now we’ve got The Hateful Eight. Let’s hope it’s one of the better ones.

Big, roadshow musical movies coming to the Bay Area

A particular kind of movie musical will soon get a lot of exposure in the Bay Area–the large-format roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. These were almost always close adaptations of popular Broadway stage musicals. They were often shot and projected in large, high-definition, film formats such as Todd-AO or Super Panavision 70. And they opened as what the industry called roadshows–playing in one large theater per major city, with expensive tickets, reserved seats, and an intermission.

In my opinion, not one of these films stands up against such great musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, The Band Wagon, and A Hard Day’s Night. But they have their pleasures. Besides, I have a fascination with the large-format roadshow movies of that period–even the bad ones.

The Stanford devotes the next five weeks to these musicals in their Rodgers and Hammerstein series. Every weekend through November 8, they will screen a large-format roadshow adaptation of an R&H stage musical. They start this weekend with the show that set the template for roadshow musicals: Oklahoma!. In fact, as the first film shot in Todd-AO, it set the template for all of the large-format roadshows–even ones like Ben-Hur where no one broke out into song.

The Stanford series will close four weeks later with the biggest commercial success of the genre, The Sound of Music.

The Stanford press release trumpets that the films will all be shown “in glorious 35mm!” That’s an odd brag since 35mm is a considerable step down from the way most of these films were shot and screened. I’m probably going to get people angry here, but a good DCP transfer can better simulate the glories of Todd-AO than can a 35mm print.

The other theaters will screen these movies digitally off of DCPs.

My Fair Lady, which was not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, will be screened in at least four Bay Area theaters this month:

  • The Alameda will screen it next week on October 13 and 14.
  • The Castro has it on Sunday, October 18, on a very strange double bill with Steve Martin’s The Jerk.
  • The Elmwood will also screen it on 18th, and again on the 19th.
  • Finally, the Cerrito will have a special, 10:00am screening on Saturday, October 24.

The Cerrito and Elmwood will also screen Oklahoma! in November. The Elwood on November 1 and 2. The Cerrito on Saturday, November 7, again at 10:00am.

But the version of Oklahoma! at
the Elmwood and the Cerrito will not be the same as the one now playing at the Stanford. Early Todd-AO was shot and projected at 30 frames per second, rather than the standard 24fps, making it impossible to screen in all but a few theaters. So the film was shot twice: in 30fps Todd-AO for the 70mm roadshow, and in plain old, 35mm, 24fps CinemaScope for the eventual wide release.

I’ve only seen the Oklahoma! movie on Laserdisc (I’ve also seen the live show), and it was transferred from the 35mm version. From what I’ve read, the performances are considerably different.

Since the Stanford will screen Oklahoma! in 35mm, it will be the CinemaScope version. But the Cerrito and Elmwood will screen DCPs from the recent digital restoration, made from the Todd-AO negative. Digital projection can handle 30fps just fine.

I’m looking forward to catching that one…and maybe My Fair Lady, as well.

Technicolor experiences at the Pacific Film Archive

Over the last few days, I’ve attended two separate three-strip Technicolor screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, each projected in a very different way. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it in 1951. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, was presented in a way only possible in the 21st century.

I liked both films very much. And I loved both forms of projection. I’ll talk about how the films looked and why, then tell you what I thought about the movies–neither of which I’d seen before last week.

Technicolor’s three-strip format dominated commercial color filmmaking from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. A special camera recorded each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From The History and Science of Color Fi 1 From Filmmaker IQ

The prints made from these tree negatives were prints in a pre-photography sense of the word–as in a printing press. From each negative, Technicolor would make a special intermediate relief print that would be thick and thin instead of black and white. They would use these to stamp the color dyes onto the release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) had a beauty all their own, with gorgeous saturation and reds that really popped. The dyes used were extremely stable; even the oldest existing dye-transfer prints look gorgeous today.

Both films were released in 1951, near the end of the three-strip period, and arguably when the technology, and the artistic use of that technology, was at its zenith.

The PFA screened The River in an archival dye-transfer print made in 1952. And yes, the colors were amazing–beautiful in a way that you simply don’t find in today’s digital projection. Or for that matter, in yesterday’s conventionally-processed color film prints. On the other hand, focus was often unreliable and soft. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the printing, the print’s age, or a flaw in the film itself.

But the colors they had were always beautiful. Such dye-transfer prints will get rarer over the years, so you should never miss the chance to see one (unless you really hate the movie, of course).

The Tales of Hoffmann, on the other hand, has just gone through a full digital restoration. So it was projected digitally from a 4K DCP. The look was cleaner, brighter, and sharper than The River’s dye-transfer print. And while the gorgeous, highly-saturated colors certainly popped, they didn’t pop in the same way as dye-transfer print.

Film shrinks over time, and you can’t expect three separate reels to shrink in exactly the same way. So restoring three-strip Technicolor is an art in itself. You scan the original black-and-white negatives (assuming they survived) at a high resolution. Edge recognition software and human eyes resize the three images so that they match.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, the results were beautiful. The images were sharp (except when they shouldn’t be), and textured. And the color was just gorgeous.

So which was best? The dye-transfer print had a special excitement all its own. You watch it the way you read a first edition copy of a classic book–with awe. You’re experiencing a rare treat and you know it.

Digital projection isn’t a rare treat. But it provides a beautiful way to present these films, sharp and clean. And while the colors may not be as good as dye transfer, they’re still an improvement over conventional color film prints.

And before you talk about “How the film was intended to be seen,” consider this: IB prints were notoriously irregular. No two prints would have the exact same colors.

So what about the movies?

B+ The River

The clash of civilizations appears as a friendly melting pot in this coming of age story set in British India. A happy English family begins to get unglued when the two oldest daughters both develop crushes on the same American veteran–who just moved in with their next-door neighbor. There’s tragedy and near-tragedy, and gentle comedy, and the warm envelope of people who love each other, even when they’re angry. Renoir paints (an appropriate term for Technicolor) an idealized version of British India, where everyone gets along, no one rejects a mixed-race girl, and western and eastern ways of life merge happily.

A- The Tales of Hoffmann

The Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film of Jacques Offenbach’s episodic opera (with the libretto translated into English) merge stage and cinema like nothing else I’ve ever seen–at least at feature length. On one level, there’s no attempt at cinema realism. The sets, costumes, and makeup have all the expressionism of the live stage. But, like the great dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, it could only be created in a movie studio. The three stories (four if you count the framing device) are the simplest of fairy tales. But the dramatic use of music, dance, light, and acting makes it all (well, almost all) amazing.

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