Sunday, November 13, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About -D

Last night my daughter and I went to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50—a movie I'd been mildly interested in seeing but had resisted because of my natural disinclination to exploring the antic possibilities of cancer.  As it happens my daughter and I both loved the movie and I'd urge anyone—with the exception perhaps of those who've experienced cancer firsthand and don't need the refresher—to see it.  To my mind some of Seth Rogen's laugh lines are a bit raw for a young teen's ears but Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a direct, wrenching, wonderfully understated performance.

But I'm not writing a movie review.  I'm here to talk about -D.

At the multiplex my 14-year-old and I waited to buy tickets in one of those maze-like lines defined by black woven nylon bands attached to waist-high standards, and there were enough people ahead of us that I had a chance to study the multicolored movie board above the ticket sellers.  It displayed all the movie titles and remaining show times and I noticed some of the movies—including 50/50—had a -D next to them.  I wondered out loud what this notation meant; my daughter had no idea either.

I paid the $26 for two adult tickets (the ticket seller asked if I wanted one adult and one child, but I spotted my daughter the extra 3 and a half bucks for an adult ticket to spare her further humiliation with the employee at the bottom of the escalator who was about to tear our tickets), we bought another $15 worth of popcorn and sodas, settled into our seats, endured over 40 minutes of visual pap before the feature started (advertised start time: 8:40; actual start time: just after 9 PM), and finally began enjoying the movie we'd come to see.

But We Weren't Watching a Movie

I'm not sure when or why I noticed it, but well into the story I realized we weren't watching a movie; we were watching a video.  By that I mean, of course, that however the movie was shot—on celluloid stock or recorded to a binary file—it was being shown with a digital projector.

Luckily, the digital artifacts were rare and fleeting.  I doubt anyone in the theater noticed them, nor do I think old-fashioned moviegoers like my wife or mother-in-law would have detected them.  Which is to say that digital projection is functionally equivalent to film projection.

It wasn't until the movie was over and we were heading back downstairs that I made the obvious connection between the odd -D insignia next to the movie title on the multiplex's movie board and the digital means by which the movie was shown.  And it's been puzzling me a bit ever since.

Explaining the -D Tags

On the face of it, those -D tags suggest the theater chain wants you to know that some of the movies it shows are analog and some are digital.  It suggests the chain is providing you with important information it feels you may need to decide if you'd prefer not to see something shown with a digital projector instead of a film projector.  Is there any other explanation?

On the other hand, that -D is pretty cryptic.  Space is probably at a premium on those movie boards, so flagging these movies with the far more helpful (Digital) or (Digital Projection) may not be possible.

But on the third hand, who cares?  For whose benefit is that -D posted?

For the benefit of old duffers like me?  For people who remember movies that spooled through the noisy and elaborate mechanical pathways of enormous film projectors?  Movies that were occasionally shown out of focus, that developed scratches and attracted lint after being shown for less than a week, and that were spliced onto twenty-minute reels that required the theater to own two side-by-side projectors to allow one projector to start the second twenty-minute reel the moment the first ended (and to alternate until all twenty-minute reels had been projected in order, which usually but didn't always happen)?  In short, movies recorded on a perishable, deeply imperfect medium that began to degrade the moment it was run through this implausible Rube Goldberg contraption of motorized sprockets ... and that required the kind of loving attention not all theaters were inclined to bestow on it?

Because I don't miss those analog films at all.  And I question the honesty of anyone who says he does.

Which isn't to say I don't miss anything about film; it was the original HD film technology for nearly a century, and if it hadn't been those 20 foot high moving images would have been a blurry unwatchable pointillist mess.  Just the same, HD video is an extraordinary technology whose versatility allows it to mimic film with 99.9% perfection.  (Even software as prosaic as Google's Picasa photo editor offers a decent effect it calls "film grain".) And given the cost of everything these days, it seems almost irresponsible to suggest that movie producers buy film stock and then pay to have it developed with toxic chemicals, digitized for editing, and then struck as 2,000 or 3,000 or more fragile celluloid prints for maybe 6 weeks of theater showings.

So under the circumstances it's somehow quaint that a theater chain should bother, however obliquely, to notify its patrons they're about to watch a digital movie instead of a film one.

Still, there's a lingering mystery surrounding a movie like 50/50 that not even the chain's -D can clear up.  We know how the movie was projected, but how was it shot?

It Became Bits—and Bits Is What We Saw

You may think I'm splitting hairs.  Who cares how it was shot?  In the end it became bits and bits is what you saw.

I suppose I'm veering into preciousness here ... like when an audiophile (and they tend to be old duffers too) bores you with details about the "warmth" of analog recording versus the cold precision of digital.  And then divulges that his LP turntable, tone arm, cartridge, and needle cost what you make in a month because they're needed to capture this warmth with exacting fidelity.

But for me it's simple.  It's like that infamous wounded robber in Dirty Harry who's confronted with Clint Eastwood’s largely emptied .44 Magnum and, though he’s surrendered, wants to be sure the odds were against him—that giving up was the right way to go.  So as Eastwood strolls away he's itching to find out if that revolver really is empty:

“Hey!” he says.  “I gots to know.”

That's the way it is for me.  Has the movie been shot with film cameras or with video cameras?  I gots to know.

Last Summer my wife and I went to see Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits.  We were in an old theater in upstate New York and it never occurred to me the place might be equipped with digital projectors.  But there was a moment in the movie—when Woody Harrelson leapt into his speedboat and began his cute commute home via the Hudson river—that I noticed an unfilmlike smear of sunlight streaming off the speedboat's windshield.  On film it would have been a bright, diamond-hard glint.  On video it was a soft, hot, undulating blob.

It was probably an hour into the movie and I'd only just noticed this video artifact.  Since the theater was anything but state of the art I concluded we were watching a projected film that was originally shot on video.

It bothers me that this dual life that films now lead has become a source of secrecy.  It doesn't matter to me—and I certainly doubt it mattered to Friends with Benefits' target audience—whether the movie was shot with film cameras or video cameras.  And perhaps it's less secrecy than indifference that keeps Hollywood from bothering to alert moviegoers which medium they're watching.

But either way, I gots to know.  And frankly I suspect that Hollywood is old-fashioned enough to want to keep these distinctions under wraps.  Mainstream movies featuring glamorous stars aren't supposed to be budget-conscious vehicles where film stock has been labeled a costly extravagance.

Not that budget need have anything to do with digital where effects are concerned.  Before my wife, daughter, and I saw the lavish popcorn thriller Super 8 I'd read about its puzzling overuse of lens flares.  I'd never thought anyone might deliberately try to distract an audience with horizontal streaks of bright light marring shots, but then it became apparent this effect didn't result from optical or lighting goofs: most had been carefully computer generated.

A bid for some kind of '70s era filmic authenticity to complement the movie's period setting.

Is It Cool to Fake a Lens Flare as a Digital Effect?

It's hard to know whether this kind of obscure attention to detail means anything to younger audiences.  Is it cool to fake a lens flare as a digital effect?  It was a wonder to me, but as someone who actually made Super 8 movies in the '70s my perspective is a little different from my 14-year-old daughter's.  (After watching the movie she sized it up concisely with an expression I'd never before heard her use: over the top.)

Of course, in the long run digitization is like death and taxes.  It's coming and there ain't nothing nobody can do about it.  It's only a matter of time before movie stock goes the way of Kodachrome and only museums in big cities will have theaters equipped with film projectors showing movies on celluloid.

Going to see them will be yet another baroque urban affectation—like listening to LPs or collecting 3D postcards for your 19th-century stereopticon.

But analog's long artistic shadow will inevitably leave a few disaffected duffers wondering about provenance.  Is this movie -D or -A?  Was it shot in -A and converted to -D?  You mean it was shot in -A and we're watching it in -A?  Far out!

As the world goes to bits, this core distinction between analog and digital will melt away.  But to me, it’s still a vivid divide that separates the tactile, the immediate, the comprehensible from the abstract, the opaque, the hexadecimally inaccessible.

Which do I get to see in that darkened theater?  And how did it start out its life?  Tell me, Clint: I really do gotta know.

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