Seeing Stars


THE DAWN of streamed movies, in their various branded guises, and of HD television is arguably bringing back to the film fan a whole new world of cinematic splendour.

In fact, combined with the immense changes which have been occurring in the world of CGI over the past decade or so, some reckon cinema lovers have never been subjected to such a visual feast since the introduction of Cinemascope in the 1950s.

Streaming sources such as LoveFilm and Now TV et al are going out of their collective ways to present not just the usual smorgasbord of pictorial pulchritude – that’s a bit of a given.

But thanks to the combo of HD technology, digital re-mastery and other audio trickery, has the film fan in possession of all the current mods cons ever had a better choice?

Thanks to the new techno, are we actually seeing such films as no-one has truly viewed them before? It’s a moot point.

When I was ten, I was one of the many who eagerly queued for seemingly a block and a half as the Americans would say, at the local Odeon to see Star Wars.

Never mind the impact of the movie story on a febrile mind, if you were able to somehow magically transport yourself back and see the same projection, I’m sure you would be disappointed by the screened print of the movie compared to today’s cleaned up HD resolutions.

I certainly remember seeing a very muddy print of the same film at the Roxy in Ulverston (with all apologies to such) even at that precocious age; Darth was almost invisible in some scenes; a one off happenstance thankfully.

Movies in those days were shot on negative film - and then a positive made of that negative – to create the ‘rushes’ for daily screening to the movie makers, and eventually a final master print (usually 35mm).

From such compiled rushes, or work print, an edited version is made, and this edit is then matched with the original negative master; great care has to be taken here.

From such a master, various positive duplicates are made for worldwide cinematic distribution; the cumulative effect is a small but definite loss of resolution compared to the original master negative.

What hope then for the cinematic attendee to ever hope to see a movie in the form the director – presumably the viewer of the original 35mm ‘master’  -intended in any form approaching that of the original?

But, thanks to new techno, perhaps that time is now?

My ten year old self can only have seen a derivative print screened through perhaps a less than perfect projector in Leeds in 1977. And not just Star Wars, but every other film you’ve seen at the movies since.

Would George Lucas, on his first viewing of such, or even John Ford watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or even David Lean, on seeing his first screening of Lawrence of Arabia, have settled for a hairy projection in a smoky cinema?

Flick forward 30 years, and thanks to the digital re-mastery of studio releases generally, HD techno and the internet streaming etc., the change has been quite remarkable.

I happened to watch five films recently over HD streamed TV as a trial of various systems - Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood; The Bridge on the River Kwai; Jaws by Steven Spielberg ; one new one – Ender’s Game, with Harrison Ford;  and one legendary,  which I’d never seen before to my immense chagrin: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, with James Stewart and John Wayne.

I must have seen Where Eagles Dare 100 times –when I was a kid a dear pal and I used to rehearse the lines; Michael Horden’s blustery, Clint Eastwood’s gritted Schaeffer sangfroid; Richard Burton snogging Ingrid Pitt and Mary Ure before patching through a long range radio signal to some frosted schloss; Broadsword Calling Danny Boy etc; parachuting into some high Alpine pasture before infiltrating some tavern with those zig-zag style red and white Nazi shutters. There was little we didn’t know about the film.

What comes as a shock (per se) , seeing it in HD and streamed, is the clarity and colour of the production – and the same goes for Jaws, Kwai, Ender’s Game and Liberty Valence.

In fact, not only does it make you feel slightly cheated – as if you have been looking through a slightly smoky cinematic room for the past 40 years – but it also makes you wonder what Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and David Lean might have thought if they were still alive to see the very best HD example on a good widescreen 16:9 tv. The more you shrink a picture, the greater the resolution after all.

Would they have thought their first viewing of their master works was the best – or perhaps today’s techno has the edge?

Would the directorial greats have been shocked at the quality of seeing their films in HD on a large screen tv –  minus all the imperfections of the ‘analogue’ process of the 20th C? You can’t beat the silver screen they say but my goodness, the new techno is pretty darn good, with not a speck or rogue hair in sight.

It must be all down to resolution in the end.

If you go to a cinema, some of them still use projectors with their familiar beams in the old fashioned sense.

More modern digital cinemas are becoming more widespread. These use a digital file of the film.

A movie can be distributed via hard drives, the Internet, dedicated satellite links or optical disks such as DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Digital movies are projected using a digital projector instead of a conventional film projector.

Digital cinema is distinct from high-definition television and is not dependent on using television or high-definition video standards, aspect ratios, or frame rates. In digital cinema, resolutions are represented by the horizontal pixel count, usually 2K (2048×1080 or 2.2 megapixels) or 4K (4096×2160 or 8.8 megapixels). TV’s by contrast measure the vertical measurement (1080p) etc.

In March 2009 AMC Theatres announced that it closed on a $315 million deal with Sony to replace all of its movie projectors with 4K digital projectors starting in the second quarter of 2009 and completing in 2012.

By June 2010, there were close to 16,000 digital cinema screens, with over 5000 of them being stereoscopic setups.

By the end of 2012, according to Screen Digest, 91.4% of UK screens had been converted to digital.

The first movie to be exhibited digitally in 48 frames per second was The Hobbit.

To print an 80-minute feature film can cost US$1,500 to $2,500, so making thousands of prints for a wide-release movie can cost millions of dollars.

In contrast, at the maximum 250 megabit-per-second data rate (as defined by DCI for digital cinema), a feature-length movie can be stored on an off-the-shelf 300 GB hard drive for $150 and a broad release of 4000 'digital prints' might cost $600,000.

In addition, hard drives can be returned to distributors for reuse. With several hundred movies distributed every year, the industry saves billions of dollars.

Despite its now ‘analogue’ feel, 35mm film – or even 70mm – still compares pretty well to the resolution of modern formats – perhaps surprisingly.

A typical HD DVD or Blu-ray film these days has a pixel dimension of 1980 x 1080; the latter figure might be familiar as a measurement to many. (Old fashioned VHS was just 480 x 320).

‘2k’ digital cinema employs a resolution of 2048 x 1080; the increasingly fashionable ‘4k’ 4096 x 2160.

But still to come are UHDTV, at the mind blowing 7680 x 4320 res and the spectacularly large 15360 x 8640 ‘16k’ digital cinema. IMAX is about 10,000 x 7000 res.

The actual resolution of 35 mm camera original negatives is the subject of much debate.

Kodak states that 35mm film has the equivalent of 6K resolution planting it still ahead of the resolution of some digital techniques. 70mm is better still.

Which is a little comforting perhaps, given a good projector and cinema.

But it also makes you wonder that, perhaps when John Ford was watching James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Billy Wilder watching Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, whether, by comparison, they  - and now we - were still seeing them at their best.

The golden rule in photography is that you can never improve on the ‘master’ negative no matter how much you muck about with digitisation etc; the same holds true for movies.

What we enjoy today – via the new techs of streaming etc – can only be digitisations of better prints of our old favourite movies; it’s thus a pleasant shock when we see them in their new formats all cleaned up compared to our past screened memories of such.

 My recent HD viewing of The Bridge on the River Kwai was as good as any viewing I’ve ever seen – and probably good enough for David Lean (and maybe as good as he’d ever seen in his heyday?).

But it didn’t match Ender’s Game, Prometheus or The Hobbit which – story aside – had resolutions and clarities which are born out the hi-res techniques of 21st C.

In the near future, resolutions will develop which will easily outstrip 35mm and 70m, and even the digital formats we know of today. It’s difficult to imagine what these might look like – it’s a bit like trying to imagine a fifth dimension.

Others will argue that it’s not the clarity that matters, it’s the stars that make the movie. Perhaps the Newmans, Redfords, Monroes, Bergmans and Bacalls, or today’s Pitts, Jolies and Clooneys are the inevitable focus, however soft or sharp it might be.  

Ars gratia artis, perhaps,  at the end of the day - but then again, if you are going to be trapped in this most vain of mediums for eternity, you might as well be ready for your HD close up, Mr De Mille.

For a very good overview of the cinematic process, see this link.