Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Site Search
   Search Metroland.Net
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 Columns & Opinions
   Looking Up
   Rapp On This
 News & Features
   What a Week
   Loose Ends
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
   Tech Life
   The Over-30 Club
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad

He’s hungry: Sea Monsters 3D: A Prehistoric Adventure.

Reel to Unreal

The digital future has come to the cinema, but it’s not an instant paradise

By Shawn Stone

A 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.

It’s 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 Zodiac.

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.”

On location: filming live-action scenes for Sea Monsters.

Asked 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 size.”

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.

Buyer beware.

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 photochemical process.

Digitize that.

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.