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(Blurry) Pictures at an Exhibition

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Date: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Time: 5:20 p.m. screening
Film: Crimson Peak in 2D
Location: Theater 11, AMC Kent Station, Kent, WA

I would imagine that the average moviegoer either doesn’t notice or simply doesn’t complain as often as they should when the movie they have paid to see on the big screen is less vivid than what they’d see at home on their own TV.

I am not the average moviegoer. I used to be in pictures, as they say, and this technological trend toward projection compromised by the “advancements” made in 3D exhibition troubles me on behalf of both the audience, who pays its hard-earned money for a cinematic experience they can’t get at home, and the artists, who spend thousands of hours poring over every aspect of their films to make that experience meaningful.

Some evenings you gamble and are pleasantly surprised. Other evenings you just know, the moment you sit down, that the projection is going to be less than stellar.

This particular evening fell into the latter category. We could tell during the trailers that the Sony 4K projection was too dim by half, and sure enough, when I looked over my shoulder at the projection booth, I saw two projected images on the glass, one stacked atop the other. Meaning that the 2D movie we paid to see was being projected on a 3D-equipped system that had not had — or, more likely, could not have — its polarization deactivated for the advertised 2D screening.

This was all too evident during an early master shot in Crimson Peak, a daytime exterior of Victorian-era Buffalo, New York. Simply stated, a scene shot in broad daylight should be vivid with detail, but when even a scene such as this looks dingy and gray, the problem lies in the projection, and it’s only going to get worse when the action moves indoors.1

Just because Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in the Hammer Films tradition doesn’t mean everything in it is meant to be dark. Guillermo Del Toro is a craftsman who has thoughtfully and meticulously layered exquisite details into this film. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen lighted every shot in the film very specifically so that certain of those details stand out and others recede at the right moments, so that the faces of the actors can be seen, so that the work of production designers and set dressers and costumers and FX artists is spotlighted, as it were, for optimal effect from one moment to the next. All of that is lost in a badly projected screening.

We left the screening about 10 minutes into the picture, and our money was courteously refunded to us by the friendly, if not apparently knowledgeable, AMC theater staff.2 In point of fact, AMC lost money on us twice Sunday, as we had originally intended to take in a double feature of Crimson Peak and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. However, our experience with the former discouraged us from sticking around for the latter.

Instead we drove across town for a 7:40 p.m. screening of Crimson Peak at the Century Federal Way — a Cinemark theater that operates Barco projection systems and which has never failed me from a projection standpoint. The difference was as apparent as dusk versus day or, in this instance, the difference between a young girl in a dimly lit room being accosted by an indistinct black mass and that same young girl in a candlelit room being accosted by an enrobed black figure with defined facial features and clearly articulated fingers. (Incidentally, the Cinemark promo that now runs before the feature presentation literally ends with the phrase, “Illumination by Barco,” indicating that they know they are not in the business of merely projecting a moving image.)

Because of my previous experiences — now reinforced by this most recent experience — my modus operandi has long been to avoid AMC and Regal Cinemas theaters (both of which employ Sony 4K systems) until a film I want to see has been in release for at least three weeks. By that point, a film has typically been pushed out of the larger screening rooms by incoming new releases and moved “down the hall,” as it were, into a screening room more likely to have dedicated 2D projection uncomplicated by 3D polarization.

I advise everyone whose options are necessarily limited by the predominance of one of these two theater chains in their town to follow this rule of thumb. And if a Cinemark theater, with its superior Barco projection system, is within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend going out of one’s way to patronize it, particularly on the opening weekend of a new release, if one is so inclined.

I can appreciate the business model that dictates how exhibitors must operate in this new digital world. It’s just that sometimes I wish they seemed to appreciate more the business model that dictates our choices as moviegoers.
 
 
UPDATE, 10/19/15: Not 40 minutes after I tweeted my post to the three theater chains I name-check above, I received a nice tweet from AMC Guest Services (@AMCHelps) informing me that they’d follow up with the Kent theater about their filters and settings.

I sent a follow-up tweet thanking AMC and asking whether Sony has provided theaters with a workaround for retracting the polarizers on their 4K projectors. (When I last investigated this issue, Sony projectors had polarizers that were locked in place and required Sony’s intervention to remove or retract. Whether newer models are more accessible and theater staff–friendly is kind of irrelevant if exhibitors aren’t required to upgrade their equipment every few years.) AMC responded that they’d try to find out. I don’t honestly anticipate that AMC would throw a business partner under the bus by supplying that intel to some random schmuck with a blog and a Twitter account, but I’ll keep you apprised just the same.
 
 
UPDATE, 10/21/15: @AMCHelps followed up to tell me that Sony has provided no workaround that they’re aware of, but “this issue is definitely on the radar of our sight and sound teams.” As well it should be.

Ultimately, I have a bigger beef with Sony here than I do with the theater chains, because it’s Sony that developed and mass-manufactured a projector system on which only its representatives can make adjustments and corrections.

This forces Sony-equipped theater chains and their individual theater management teams to make a one-time prediction regarding how many dedicated 3D and 2D screening rooms, respectively, they require to satisfy market demands. Opt for too few 3D screens, and a multiplex might have to choose between blockbusters on particularly big release weekends; opt for too many 3D screens, and multiplexes by necessity will end up showing some of its patrons dimly projected 2D films because they can’t afford to just let a screening room sit empty and unused during one or more time slots.

Here are AMC Kent Station’s showtimes for today, Wednesday, October 21:

Bridge of Spies   1:00 4:10 7:20 10:30
Crimson Peak: The IMAX Experience   1:20 4:15 7:15 10:10
Crimson Peak * 10:45   2:30 5:20 8:10
Goosebumps 3D 12:30 3:00 5:30 8:00 10:40
Goosebumps 11:15 1:50 4:30 7:00 9:40
Pan 3D **   1:30 4:10    
Pan 11:30 2:20 5:00 7:40 10:10
The Martian 3D 11:20 12:20 3:30 6:50 10:00
The Martian   1:15 4:25 7:45  
The Walk 3D **** 11:10   4:50   10:30
The Walk ****   2:00   7:40  
Hotel Transylvania 2 12:35 2:50 5:10 7:25 9:50
The Intern 10:50 1:40 4:40 7:10 10:20
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials **       7:30 10:35
Sicario 11:00 1:45 4:45 7:50 10:45
The Visit ***   1:10      
Back to the Future I, II and III marathon ***     4:30 7:00 9:30

 
So by all appearances, AMC Kent Station’s 14 screens break down as: one IMAX, five 3D and eight 2D.

* Clearly this is Theater 11, the 3D screening room where we saw Crimson Peak in 2D.

** Pan screens twice in 3D in the afternoon, then apparently cedes its screening room to two evening showings of Maze Runner in 2D.

*** It is reasonable to assume that because The Visit is screening only once on this day, it is making room for the Back to the Future marathon to take up the subsequent three showings on that screen.

**** That leaves The Walk, which by all appearances is alternating 3D and 2D showings on the same screen.

So if we set aside the IMAX screening room as its own separate enterprise, that leaves a total of 65 possible daily showtimes spread across 13 screens, and in eight of those screenings — four of Crimson Peak and two each of The Walk and Maze Runner, or 12 percent of the theater’s exhibition day — they’re going to be giving customers an inferior 2D experience, all because they have no means of manually retracting the polarization on their own projectors.

Worst of all, unless a moviegoer can read a schedule of theater showtimes the way Rain Man can count cards in Vegas, he doesn’t know he’s getting an inferior experience until he’s already driven across town, hunted for a parking space, paid for his ticket and taken his seat. In a Sony-equipped theater, this amounts to cinematic Russian roulette.
 
 
 
 
 
1 This is, coincidentally, the second time I’ve experienced bad projection of a period drama co-starring Mia Wasikowska, the previous occasion being a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at a theater in Sacramento. That theater was screening in 35 mm, though, and either couldn’t afford to regularly replace its Xenon bulbs or, worse, was operating under the delusion that it was saving money and extending bulb life by dimming its projectors.

2 Look, I get it: These are most likely the kids who are given the keys to lock up at the end of the night — I didn’t see anyone in the front of the house who looked particularly managerial to me — and I don’t know to what extent their employers have briefed or educated them about projection, because in the new digital world, an entire week of exhibition can be scheduled on and operated by computer software, and entire days probably pass without a single human soul ever setting foot in a projection booth.

I once had a kid from the concession stand at a Regal Cinemas theater assure me that there was nothing wrong with the projection of the extremely dark screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was enduring there. It was a repeat screening for me; I had seen Hugo once before, properly illuminated, and knew how the film was supposed to look, so I had clearly been sold a 2D screening on a 3D projector. That kid is the primary reason I’m now emboldened to leave any screening I’m dissatisfied with and just ask for my money back, because there’s likely no one in-house who can just dash up to the projection booth and remove the polarizer from the projector — if it’s even a system with retractable polarization to begin with.

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Written by Shepcat

October 19, 2015 at 11:58 am

Posted in Movies

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