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» Film-Tech Forum   » Operations   » Digital Cinema Forum   » "Solo" projection problems leave movie fans in the dark (Page 1)

 
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Author Topic: "Solo" projection problems leave movie fans in the dark
Mike Blakesley
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 - posted 05-31-2018 10:58 PM      Profile for Mike Blakesley   Author's Homepage   Email Mike Blakesley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
This article raises some good concerns but there is also a lot of stupidity in it, so read on for some laughs and/or prepare to cringe.

SOLO projection problems leave movie fans in the dark

While much of the coverage of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” focuses on its subpar box office performance, many fans and critics have expressed disappointment with a more immediate problem: The movie is hard to see. The “Solo” Reddit thread is packed with opening-weekend moviegoers complaining the film was so dark they had trouble making out characters’ faces or details in the film’s expansive galactic settings.

They weren’t alone. The visibility of “Solo” was dependent on the projection standards at individual theaters, and many of them weren’t up to par.

“I was so upset with my screening of ‘Solo,'” said Boston Light & Sound co-founder Chapin Cutler. Cutler, viewed as one of the industry’s leading consultants on proper projection and theater construction, oversaw the rehabilitation and installation of over 100 70mm projectors for the “Hateful Eight” and “Dunkirk” roadshows.

“The theater I went to was one of those with wonderful reclining seats where you can get food brought to you,” he said. “I went to the manager and told him I came here and spent $30 to get a fabulous presentation, and what you are showing me is dim, dark, and fuzzy.” (He declined to specify the theater, expressing a preference for bringing his complaint to his colleague, the theater chain’s tech director.)

At the heart of this controversy is a disconnect between lax projection standards and a very specific creative agenda — namely, the work of “Solo” cinematographer Bradford Young, who is known for experimenting with low-light cinematography.

In a recent interview with IndieWire for “Where Is Kyra?,” Young talked about how his increasingly dark images are partially an artistic response to the dark times facing the world today. He also discussed how digital cinematography has allowed him to take risks because of the ability to see in the on-set monitor exactly what he was getting in the lower end (or the “toe”) of the exposure.

“I’ve definitely become a stronger painter with digital, [which has] made me stronger because I’ve been able to flex different muscles in the digital world, meaning using very little light, in order to create a look,” he said. “There’s no question about it, digital is better in the toe.”

However, Cutler rejected the notion that Young was to blame for visibility issues at “Solo” screenings. Instead, the fault lies with the poor state of theater projection in 2018. Cutler pointed to the work of Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), whose radical low-light cinematography in his seventies-era productions revealed how much detail can be seen in the shadows. Today, he’s one the most celebrated cinematographers in film history.

“The problem is with one of these masters of low light is if the projector’s brightness is off even just 10 percent, you lose all that detail,” said Cutler. “That’s why, every step along the way there are standards from when the image is captured in the camera to the creation of the DCP to projection itself. The standards for light level basically haven’t changed in 100 years of cinema.”

IndieWire contacted two top Digital Imaging Technicians – the on-set video engineers who work with the cinematographer to maintain quality control along with color correction and monitor calibration, to reflect how the final image will look. Both said that every cinematographer working in Hollywood lights and exposes their digital images for optimal, standardized screening conditions.

“It doesn’t matter if you are like Bradford, working down in the toe, relying on all that information underneath the image you know you can pull out from a digital RAW file, or someone more traditional shooting digital like they would film,” said one DIT, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his working relationships to several major cinematographers. “You can’t account for the fact someone is going to watch your movie on an iPhone or a crappy theater. You don’t create a washed-out look or images that are too bright to accommodate the lowest common denominator. That lowers the quality of the work.”

Greg Sherman, head projectionist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, hasn’t seen “Solo” — but he also dismissed the idea that the problem is cinematographers working with low light. Sherman said one of the great joys of seeing movies in theaters is seeing the work of great cinematographers pushing the boundaries of working with unorthodox lighting standards.

“The texture in the black, the movements you see in the shadow when shot correctly, is incredibly beautiful, but it is so often lost when the image is compressed for streaming,” said Sherman. “Go to a chain movie theater, you also lose depth in texture, the gradations in the shadow.”

He added that the issue stemmed from digital projection issues. “The problem is digital cinema brought automation, and there’s no longer a trained technician checking that a film is projected correctly,” he said. “These machines drift, bulbs dim, and they need constant adjustments. You can save a lot of money, but the problem is if we aren’t showing movies the way they are meant to be seen we are giving people yet another reason not to come to the movie theater.”

A spokesperson for AMC Theaters, the largest theater chain in the U.S., said that in recent years the creation of a Digital Cinema Manager role has resulted in a noticeable drop in its customers complaining on a dim picture – only .002 percent of 11.8 million showtimes in 2017.

“Digital Cinema Managers are stationed at our larger, marquee theatres around the country and their specific responsibility is to monitor, oversee, and execute all aspects of the presentation on screen,” wrote the AMC spokesperson. “Essentially, they make sure the image on screen is just as the filmmaker intended. Additionally, when issues arise beyond the capabilities of the Digital Cinema Managers, or at locations that do not have a DCM, we have regional technical support within AMC, as well as great partnerships with our projection partners to assist when necessary.”

Representatives for Regal Cinemas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. While visiting its Court Street location in Brooklyn — which charges over $16 for a ticket for a standard 2D screening and over $22 for premium viewing experience — this reporter was unable to locate someone on site who was responsible the image quality. Instead, the manager provided the number for a national customer service line.

According to Cutler, multiple factors result in the pervasive issue of dark projection. A dirty window in front of the projection can result in a 20 percent reduction of light. At the premium theater where he saw “Solo,” he walked to the back row and saw a double light source, which he said signaled that optics for 3D screening were still on the projector for a 2D screening of “Solo.” Cutler added that if 3D optics aren’t perfectly calibrated, they will result in the loss of a tremendous amount of light and an out-of-focus 2D image.

“Leaving the 3D optics on happens more often than theaters would like us to think,” said Cutler. “Most theaters load their projectors on Thursday night and the timed projectors take care of themselves. If a theater runs 2-D screenings in the afternoon and 3-D screening at night, rarely is there someone there to make the adjustments.”

When asked about 2D movies playing through a 3D-enabled projector, AMC said it had mandatory procedures in place at every theatre that prohibits 2D movies playing through a 3D lens.

Cutler said the projector manufacturers are also part of the larger problem. “Manufacturers overstate how much light their machines put out, so theaters are buying less expensive machines that don’t put out enough light,” said Cutler. “Also, these numbers are based on the first hour of a projector bulb’s life. It’s not an exact science, but as a rough rule of thumb a projector bulb loses 10 percent of its brightness every 100 hours of use. Get to 750 hours on a bulb and you’ve lost approximately 75 percent.”

Cutler said the expense of getting a proper machine, or increasing the intensity of bulbs (which shortens the bulb’s lifespan) are significant, but low when compared to the money being spent on other common renovations.

“If you have a giant screen that requires a high-intensity, high-brightness laser projector — versus the brightest of the xenon projectors — that cost can be substantial, $100,000 or more,” said Cutler. “[In the normal range] the ability to use different projectors with different light output, the cost in comparison to putting in stadium seating, putting in reclining chairs or putting in a super deluxe concession stand and decorating the lobby, the cost is really pretty minor.”

“I had one theater owner once tell me that a movie theater wasn’t a place to go to the movies, it was a place people came to eat and that the movie was just there to pull people past the concession stand,” said Cutler. “That happens to be, from my viewpoint, a particularly pessimistic way of looking at it, but if the theater experience is to the point you can’t understand the dialogue and the picture is so dark you can’t see what’s going on, it is going to be a perceptively ugly image and unpleasant experience. How is it going to compete with people inviting 10 friends over to watch something on their big-screen TV?”

Indiewire article

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Adam Martin
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 - posted 05-31-2018 11:14 PM      Profile for Adam Martin   Author's Homepage   Email Adam Martin       Edit/Delete Post 
Chapin goes to a show. Wackiness ensues.

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Leo Enticknap
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quote: Article
However, Cutler rejected the notion that Young was to blame for visibility issues at “Solo” screenings. Instead, the fault lies with the poor state of theater projection in 2018. Cutler pointed to the work of Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), whose radical low-light cinematography in his seventies-era productions revealed how much detail can be seen in the shadows. Today, he’s one the most celebrated cinematographers in film history.

“The problem is with one of these masters of low light is if the projector’s brightness is off even just 10 percent, you lose all that detail,” said Cutler. “That’s why, every step along the way there are standards from when the image is captured in the camera to the creation of the DCP to projection itself. The standards for light level basically haven’t changed in 100 years of cinema.”

That's an interesting question.

Were you to drive along the 10 freeway scrupulously obeying the speed limit, you would be creating danger and the heightened risk of an accident, because almost everyone else would be trying to barge their way past you. You could therefore take the moral high ground and say that speeding and tailgating drivers are the cause of all the danger on our roads, analogous to Chapin's claim that theaters that fail to obey the screen brightness law are responsible for the work of cinematographers who use chiaroscuro (as high fallutin' film professors call it) looking shite.

Alternatively, you could drive at a speed that keeps up with the traffic around you, without either holding it up or pushing your way through it. You would be breaking the law for most of your journey if you did so. Likewise, studios and cinematographers could adapt to the real world conditions in 99.9% of theaters, and grade their shots (both in origination and post) to try to make them look acceptable in your typical mall multiplex.

My working life now consists largely of servicing projectors in these mall multiplexes, and I agree with Chapin's description of what happens in them. The bulbs are installed, with the CLO set to give you 14 at the outset. As the bulb ages, the CLO cranks up the amps until finally it maxes the bulb out. The light output then gradually declines until the bulb reaches warranty hours and is swapped out. At that point, you're doing well if you're getting 8-9 on a peak white. It's not ideal, but the theater operating on razor thin margins can't afford what it would cost to keep that screen at 14 all the time.

What do you do - get preachy about enforcing technical standards that a lot of the industry can't afford to operate to, or master your content to look as good as it can in an imperfect world?

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Steve Guttag
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I think a contributing MAJOR problem of dim images is the use of "gain screens." If you are using a screen with a gain above 1.3, and you set up your center brightness to 14fL, you are putting out a dark picture. The 14fL spec ONLY APPLIES if you follow the rest of the spec which requires that the sides and corners be at 70% (9.8fL) to 90% (12.6fL) if you are an average cinema. In review (screening rooms), it is to be 80-90%. If your screen is flat and at 1.4 or higher, you won't make it. The net result WILL be a darker picture.

Gain screens don't make light, they concentrate it. Typically, they concentrate it in the middle (hot spot).

The higher the gain (e.g. silver screens), the worse the problem is.

I watched this industry retire silver and high gain screens in favor of matte-white. And that continued until 3D reared its ugly head and bam...high-gain screens. And, due to the high cost of projectors and screen manufacturers that want to sell you screens, the 1.4, 1.5 and 1.8 gain screens (and now the stupid 2.2 white screens) are going in with the lie that they lower costs. No, they lower light.

And Leo, you design the system right, tell your customer's the truth and put in proper systems. It isn't hard or significantly more expensive than doing it wrong. I'm not having too much trouble doing that.

I don't have a problem, as a rule, having theatres meet SMPTE/DCI specs for the life of the lamp.

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Justin Hamaker
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The studios share some blame for this issue by not allowing adequate for QC screenings prior to the film opening. If keys were valid 48 hours before the first show, it would allow theatres enough time to plan QC screenings and take care of any maintenance issues discovered.

It would also be helpful for them to give time markers for scenes which are especially sensitive to lighting.

I'm not arguing against the idea theatres are ultimately responsible for the quality of the picture they put on screen. I'm just making the point that studios could make life much easier with just a few minor changes.

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Mark Ogden
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quote: Mike Blakesley
AMC said it had mandatory procedures in place at every theatre that prohibits 2D movies playing through a 3D lens.
If this is true, then nobody, and I mean NOBODY in the tri-state region is following them.

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Steve Guttag
We forgot the crackers Gromit!!!

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Justin, if a theatre follows SMPTE/DCI specs, it shouldn't matter what movie you are showing. There shouldn't need to be any special setup/QC. Just run the movie.

I done countless studio screenings and I can't remember EVER being handed a sheet specific to a title where I had to set the light level differently from SMPTE standards. I just did one last week, set to SMPTE standards on a matte-white screen...happy studio.

The problem, primarily, is value engineering a system that can't meet specs and, in the case of a 3D theatre, rationalizing why it is okay to present movies out of spec (in 2D or 3D). With 3D and silver screens, 3D has been dark (except for the Dolby Vision theatres, but who can afford that?) and 2D gets to be uneven and often dark (depending on how one deals with, or not, what the center brightness should be).

The problem is exhibitors, and in the case of 3D, contributed by the studios.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you sucked as a film theatre (with respect to presentation), you'll suck as a digital theatre too. Conversely, if you were good as a film theatre, you'll likely be good as a digital theatre. Either you are one that adheres to standards or that doesn't.

Note, I'm not saying that there isn't a place for QCing a movie (I do it for EVERY studio screening and talk about your short key life!!!!!). You'll catch defects but light levels has never been one of them for me. I've caught lip-sync issues even when the system was spot on for test materials (and sometimes that can be a scene-by-scene thing).

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Leo Enticknap
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quote: Steve Guttag
And Leo, you design the system right, tell your customer's the truth and put in proper systems. It isn't hard or significantly more expensive than doing it wrong. I'm not having too much trouble doing that.
We do tell our customers the truth, and some of them are willing to pay for a system that meets all the applicable technical standards. We also maintain a lot of systems that we did not design or install, which do not and/or cannot.

Technical standards in any industry only gain widespread acceptance if the businesses in that industry perceive an economic benefit to using them, or if they are forced to use them by effective regulation. In the case of 14ft-l screen brightness, few would dispute that there is a strong artistic/cultural case for using that standard, but many movie theater operators do not believe that the business case for it is strong enough to take that standard seriously. Unlike, say, food hygiene or fire alarm maintenance, it is not effectively enforced. The bottom line is that many theater managers know that difficulty in finding a parking spot or dirty bathrooms will cause many of their customers to look for another theater, or see their next movie on Netflix. A picture that is a bit too dim will not.

I have also worked in situations (e.g. high profile festivals, or Bel-Air Circuit residence installations), where the quality of the technical presentation is of primary importance, and the end customer has the budget to achieve it. But that's not the business environment your typical mall multiplex operates in.

As a content creator, you have two options. Either you can create content that will only look and sound acceptable on ideally designed playback systems that are maintained in perfect condition, or you can create content that is optimized for the majority of playback systems that actually exist in the real world.

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Scott Norwood
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quote: Leo Enticknap
you can create content that is optimized for the majority of playback systems that actually exist in the real world.


So, basically, this would be like Dynagroove for movies.

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Leo Enticknap
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Sort of. Audiophiles hated Dynagroove, because the aggressive compression it applied in varying the groove pitch was clearly audible when the record was played on high end systems. But on the equipment found in most living rooms, it sounded (subjectively, and to untrained ears) better than the first generation of Living Stereo LPs.

A better analogy with this movie would be with the early, pre-Dynagroove, Living Stereo LPs. Geeky collectors will pay very serious money for surviving examples in good condition, and the iconic ones are being reissued. But you won't hear the benefit of them using a $200 turntable, and no way would a casual music listener be willing or able to make the investment necessary to do so (let alone pay $55 for a record).

It seems to me that the new Star Wars movie - visually, at any rate - is the equivalent of one of these audiophile records: you need a high end theater projection system, well maintained, to see it properly. A lot of, if not most, commercial theaters, are not providing that. Is it possible to change the mindset of those theater owners (there have been many attempts to do so, going back at least as far as Kodak Screencheck), or do you accept that you're not going to be able to do so, and make "Dynagroove" DCPs?

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Tony Bandiera Jr
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Nine words sum this up:

The studios don't give a f**k about the exhibitors.

Been that way since the 80's and it's only gotten worse.

So, the trickle-down theory then takes hold...if the studios don't care, why should the large chains (who write off any lost shows anyway) and the smaller exhibs feel that they have no recourse, so why bother?

Mark my words, within the next 10-15 years cinemas are going to be dead, except for a few specialty venues.

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Steve Guttag
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quote: Leo Enticknap
A picture that is a bit too dim will not.
See, that statement is just plain wrong and the subject of the article. Because the exhibitor didn't adhere to well/long established standards, their show looked bad. Having it look bad reduces attendance.

14fL is not a pie-in-the-sky sort of thing. It is actually pretty easy in the vast majority of cinemas (in some really large screens, yes it can be a struggle). Furthermore, it has a very liberal range (11-17fL). If you don't meet it, it is truly because you suck and no rationalization will overcome that.

quote: Leo Enticknap
or you can create content that is optimized for the majority of playback systems that actually exist in the real world.
Wow, way to advocate for mediocrity. But seriously, what are the "real world" light levels? Have you compiled what the average real-world light level actually is? If not, how do you even create content for it?

Better yet, why not change the gamma of the projector in these crappy theatres to crush the range to fit in their limited display? But you know, you still can't make white, brighter with anything other than more light. Personally, I'd advocate doing that for Drive-Ins where yes, getting light levels on 120-foot wide "screens" made of metal siding/wood with rained and pooped upon white paint is not only a lesson in futility but also can have detrimental effects of showing the screen construction that is normally hidden in the cloud of darkness.

I just don't accept that for the vast majority of indoor theatres hitting 14fL is a difficult task and not hitting it will have detrimental aspects to our industry. They don't have problem hitting light levels at home. Stop making the home experience the better one (he says as he makes his own home-theatre).

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Mike Blakesley
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 - posted 06-01-2018 12:29 PM      Profile for Mike Blakesley   Author's Homepage   Email Mike Blakesley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
quote:
He also discussed how digital cinematography has allowed him to take risks because of the ability to see in the on-set monitor exactly what he was getting in the lower end (or the “toe”) of the exposure.

“I’ve definitely become a stronger painter with digital, [which has] made me stronger because I’ve been able to flex different muscles in the digital world, meaning using very little light, in order to create a look,” he said. “There’s no question about it, digital is better in the toe.”

The part I bolded is what the problem with this particular filmmaker is. He should try viewing the images in an actual movie theater, as opposed to "in the monitor." I wonder if he would be appalled at the difference.

I did notice that Solo has a dark picture (especially in the opening scenes) but I didn't have any trouble following the goings-on.

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Andrew Thomas
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quote: Mike Blakesley
The part I bolded is what the problem with this particular filmmaker is. He should try viewing the images in an actual movie theater, as opposed to "in the monitor." I wonder if he would be appalled at the difference.
That quote is talking about on-set...

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Mike Blakesley
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I realize that, but I wonder if he ever really sees the finished product in a movie theater. It might change his perspective.

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