hungry: Sea Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure.
digital future has come to the cinema, but it’s not an instant
prehistoric leviathan with thick pointy teeth glides through
a pale blue sea—and swims over your head. An equally large
giant squid swims straight for you, stops, turns, and then
glides to a stop inches from your face, the better to check
you out with one of its huge, almost perfectly round eyes.
You will be forgiven for ducking when the brute-faced xiphactinus,
its expression frozen as if in open-mouthed rage, seems to
brush by you, or for squirming when the ammonite lets loose
with a cloud of ink.
You may be sitting in a darkened theater, wearing cardboard
3D glasses and looking at an oversized screen, but you believe
you’re in the middle of the North American inland sea millions
of years ago, surrounded by exotic fish.
the magic of cinema.
And if you recognize this description, you’ve seen Sea
Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Experience, a National Geographic
production that has been playing for months in the GE Theatre
at Proctors. The 3D effects are amazing, and the movie is
the perfect marriage of two technologies, digital imaging
and film. The animated monsters from the cretaceous period
may be computer generated, but they are presented in the iWerks
process, a 70mm film format that is impressive on its own
(and that you can see, sans 3D effects, at the GE Theatre
in the documentary Antarctica).
It’s simple: The larger the film gauge, the more detail may
be captured and projected. So 35mm film, which has been the
commercial projection standard for a century, holds more information
than 16mm, and 70mm film holds more information than 35mm.
But everything is changing, and talking about film gauge will
someday be strictly for academics and archivists. While most
movies are still originated on film, an increasing number
are not: Digitally animated flicks like Pixar’s Up
and Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens are obvious examples,
but the development of high-resolution digital cameras have
been employed with great creativity in films like David Fincher’s
Locally, most commercial cinemas still run film. Regal Crossgates
Stadium 18 in Guilderland, and Bowtie Cinemas Movieland in
Schenectady, for example, each have one or two digital screens,
but most multiplexes are film only. All-digital cinemas have
usually been talked about as something “years away,” which
is why it was a shock when Regal opened the all-digital Colonie
Center Stadium 13 last year.
The question for most moviegoers is, “Is there a difference.”
The answer? To my eye, not really. I can tell the difference
with animated features, but the studios seem to be making
a concerted effort to keep that “film” look. I have, on occasion,
seen the same film once in the 35mm film format, and once
in digital—and I couldn’t tell the difference.
But that’s at the digital high end. (More about the digital
low end later.) And even at this level, there has been controversy.
A good example would be the new IMAX cinema at Crossgates
Mall. IMAX is—or, to be more up-to-date, was—exclusively
a large-format, 70mm film system along the lines of iWerks.
But IMAX has expanded into new markets, like Albany, with
a digital cinema format that uses a smaller screen than traditional
IMAX theaters. The screen at Crossgates (and many recently
built IMAX screens) is 50 feet wide; the standard IMAX screen
was 72 feet.
Complaints have been echoing around the blogosphere for weeks;
the anti-IMAX crowd have created an interactive map (easily
found with Google) called “IMAX or LIEMAX.”
location: filming live-action scenes for Sea Monsters.
by Wired magazine “what exactly does IMAX mean,” IMAX
CEO Rich Gelfond said, “IMAX means the most immersive film
experience on the planet. 3D is going to be more obvious to
you in IMAX. And in 2D, IMAX means a special sound system.
It means a special treatment of the film so that when Star
Trek is shown in an IMAX theater, it goes through a digital
process where we up-res the movie so there’s more brightness
and more contrast.”
He goes on to talk about something he calls “perceived screen
Two points. One, I saw Star Trek in both 35mm and IMAX
digital. Was the latter format better? Yes. Was it substantially
better? Not to my eyes—not enough to justify the extra $5
the ticket cost. Two, there is a substantial difference between
a 50-foot screen and a 72-foot screen. Especially if, as was
the case with The Dark Knight, scenes are specifically
shot in the IMAX format.
I grew up when there was no home viewing system remotely equivalent
to the movie theater experience: Movies on TV were uniformly
reformatted to fit the square shape (which was hell on movies
made post-1953), and chopped up to make room for commercials
and to fit specific programming blocks—often, at the local
TV station level, edited to the point of incomprehensibility
(which was hell on all movies).
I don’t remember the first time I saw any particular film
on TV, but I do remember the first time I saw a movie in a
theater. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; I
was 4 years old; and I was carried screaming from the theater
during the business with the poison apple. And while more
of my cinematic education came from watching the tube that
I would have preferred, I still went to the theater as often
as possible. Which is how I became a film buff.
If you’re a film buff, you want films shown to their best
advantage in the best format available. The fact that most
people aren’t film buffs is something film buffs have
to live with.
For one thing, it’s no secret that when you go to commercial
theaters outside major markets, the quality often suffers.
See a film at any cinema in the Capital Region and, nine times
out of 10, it will be presented correctly. See the same film
in the boondocks, and, well . . . there’s no guarantee. And
this is a problem digital projection isn’t going to solve.
But the biggest problem locally is with what I’ll call low-res
(lower resolution) digital projection.
The explosion of movies on DVD has made it easier to see more
films than before. At the same time, in the area of repertory
(classic) film presentations, it’s getting harder and harder
to obtain film prints. The 16mm print market disappeared long
ago, but even obtaining 35mm prints—the kind shown in first-run
cinemas—isn’t as easy as it once was.
The Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls still runs film
in their weekly series, which focuses on more recent releases.
The films shown on the Proctors mainstage are also in 35mm,
as are the films at the Palace Theatre. But the non-iWerks
movies in the GE Theatre are digital projection. And most
of the film series you’ll encounter at libraries and university
screenings are, too.
This is not the same digital projection you’ll experience
at a mall cineplex; it’s not up to that standard. Do most
moviegoers find it acceptable? Yes. Do I find it acceptable?
Not really. I don’t enjoy these presentations as much as film.
And places that project DVDs are the most problematic of all.
The New York State Writers Institute screened a double feature
of Edgar G. Ulmer films last winter from a DVD—a low-end DVD
of the kind that crams a dozen films on one disc. (I know,
because you could see a bunch of titles on the DVD menu, which
was projected on the Page Hall screen.) If it’s a poor-quality
DVD, the result is a nightmare; the sound on the second half
of the twin bill, Bluebeard, was so awful—and the dialog
unintelligible—that half the audience walked out.
You only have until the end of July to follow the exploits
of the lovable dolichorhynchops and her two cute offspring
as they make their way among terrifyingly larger aquatic carnivores
(no family friendly animated film, however scientifically
correct, can escape the Disney effect); Sea Monsters 3D
will end it’s run at the GE Theatre at Proctors, to be replaced
by another iWerks film (The Human Body).
It is, arguably, the most impressive pure cinematic presentation
in the Capital Region. And for all it’s high-tech aspects,
the experience is still partially the result of a 19th-century