The movies are undergoing another massive change right now, though the effects might not be as immediate to the eyes and ears of the patrons. Projected film is going away, as the last holdouts begrudgingly slink to the digital projection format. It has to be, because the studios are no longer “striking prints” and therefore, even if they wanted to stick with film, auditoriums can only play what providers provide. It is the last phase of the digitization of the entire medium, in both presentation and production. There are still holdouts, but they are few and far between. Steven Spielberg has been adamant about shooting on film all these years. In spite of George Lucas’ digital innovations, J.J. Abrams is shooting Star Wars 7 on film, and so on. Even so, the effects in these movies will be CGI. The audio will be digital. And they will be shown on massive, sharp projection TVs.
So here are some things that will disappear from the previous movie-going experience, and have been disappearing for some time.
5. Overt Objections To Piracy
Let’s just face it. If you’re going to the movie theater today, tomorrow, or any time in the near forever, you’re going to have to put up with some ass talking on their cellphone. Now, beyond just being rude and charmless (and I don’t care who he’s fighting with on the phone; his behavior proves he deserves whatever he gets), these people are getting away with something technically no one is allowed to do — bring video cameras into screening areas.
A brief surf through YouTube will reveal all kinds of scenes from brand-new movies, in theaters right now, right on your computer screen. They look terrible; better than the bootlegs they used to sell on street corners in Manhattan…but that’s not the point. The point is that for every one person who decided they would be heralded an Internet god for all of half a millisecond for posting clips from new movies, there was a room full of people who just wanted to see the show and had to deal with this butt-clown waving their iPhone in the air. Funny how that same bravado doesn’t translate when ushers open the doors to inspect whether the audience is getting along.
Boom mikes in shot? Reflections in glass and mirrors of cameramen? How about camera dolly tracks at the bottom of the frame, or supporting rods for effects props from the top? There are numerous excuses for why things that shouldn’t be in the camera shot get in anyway. Some of the very worst were never seen in the theater, and here’s the reason why. Large-format cameras like Panavision Cinemascope (using anamorphic lenses) are expensive. There was a time when the first way to chop some of your budget expenses out was to use the square, TV ratio cameras, but how would you justify that image in a theater with 1:85-to-1 screens or higher?
Frame the image in the center of the square as you would with the more rectangular aspect ratio cameras, then matte the image with the black bars at top and bottom. For many years this caused great confusion among the cineastes because some cameras naturally were 1:85-to-1 and no image information was lost at top or bottom. However, when other movie makers used the matted letterboxing, a lot of image was lost, but often it was image the director never intended for you to see.
And all this would have been fine if the home video market had put out the films in the same matted format, but instead they opted for the full TV ratio without the slapped-on black bars. Nowhere is this more evident that with the VHS version of Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. In the scene where Pee Wee is extracting an impossibly long bike chain from a bike storage compartment, the chain is clearly viewed as coming from a hole in the bottom of that compartment. In the scene where the car is driving a desolate road at night, road signs are shown on tracking dollies, rolling by the parked car on the soundstage. Remember, because of the matting, none of this was seen in theaters.
So what does this have to do with modern movies? Well, because nearly everything is shot digitally, color is graded (sometimes degraded), fake film grain added over the image to “look more natural”, and each frame is generally futzed with, these bloopers are magically painted out. And because of the advent of widescreen ratios for home video, and that they roughly translate to the movie theaters as well, gags like the bike chain trick are always framed correctly.
So, in that rare instance where you do see a prop stick or an arm at the bottom of a puppet, know that it is their either as a meta-joke or gross incompetence.
The symbol for “time to change the film reels” has been for generations the Cue Mark, a burned-in dot at either the top left or right of the screen, letting the projectionist know it was time to cue up the next reel for a seamless transition. With digital files, the movie can run continuously with no reels, so no reel changes, so no need for the burn-in dot, unless it is there for some perverse nostalgia. You also lose the audio “pop” that occurs when one reel ends and the next kicks in, but I doubt anyone is nostalgic over losing that.
This goes to physical prints as well, because film emulsion is never the same from batch to batch. You might be using the same stock to run your distribution prints, but there can be subtle, and not-so-subtle, variations as these are mass produced. That is why clever filmmakers tried to end reels of a film with a complete scene cut, as a shift in location, or from outdoor to indoor, can help mask these visual changes. Yet pinning down exactly where a reel should end is an inexact science, and sometimes reels would end midway through a scene, meaning the bright blue sky at one point could go hazy periwinkle the next. Or, as had been witnessed in many movies from the 1970s, saturation and contrast could go down a step, so those ugly brown and orange combinations with faux-wood paneling on the walls would look browner, orangier, and faux-woodier. The ’70s really were an atrocious time visually, weren’t they?
This one reminds us that a film print once resided at a theater for weeks, sometimes months. In it’s first run in movie houses, Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in May of 1982 and stayed until October. Now, that meant that a theater probably had to replace the print a couple times during the run, but in-between, that filmstrip was getting scratched, warped with projector heat, bleached, and would occasionally snap or melt. No problem. Get the projectionist up there to slap a mend on that bad boy, thread the projector up again, and off we go. The upshot of this is that these movies didn’t look very appealing after a few weeks in a run, what with sudden cuts and visual barf wrecking the individual frames of the celluloid strip. By the mid-80s, even as flawed a medium as VHS video was, the image could very well be superior to that of a movie at the theater, only because of the intense abuse the physical medium was taking.
And don’t forget: the film strips also had the optical audio track attached to it, so if the picture looked crappy due to scratches, you better believe the sound was rotten too.
Does It Matter? Not really. In almost every situation here, what we were watching on those screens were errors, flaws, and compromises we lived with because that was just the state of technology at the time. We’re bound to have new errors that supplant the old, from dead pixels on bigger screens, calling more attention to themselves; to media freezes; to equipment failures we have never experienced before and can only speculate upon at this moment. What it all boils down to is whether the storytelling taking place is interesting or compelling enough to make us forget all we’re doing is sitting in a chair and staring at a wall. When the story is right, all the rest fades away. When it’s not right, anything is more interesting, including the guy trying to upload scenes he just shot with his Samsung.