Caffeinated Clint – 24/11/08

The reason most media haven’t been treated to a screening of ”The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” yet is because, well, it’s only just been completed.

But last week, according to Variety, a screening was held of David Fincher’s ambitious CGI-laden film for some press and prominent suits at the DGA Theater – and it killed! (but not in a good way).

The film, starring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, tells of a man (Pitt) born old who ages backwards.

The technically ambitious movie, which deploys multifaceted visual effects to make its lead age rearward, is to be screened via a digital projector.

Unfortunately, Gremlins got into the projection room and left producers – and the movie – green. Ya see, for some reason, there was an ugly “green tint” across the screen.

d.p. Claudio Miranda shit his pants. “Initially I thought there was something wrong with my eyes for a second. I was rubbing them,” he told Daily Variety, “I said ‘no way.’ ”

Miranda dashed to the projection booth, and a few minutes later brought the lights up and stopped the screening. “We like green but not that much,” he apologized to the packed house. “The movie’s not supposed to look like that.”

Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, not new to the world of special effects having produced the “Indiana Jones” series, were left red-faced and apologized to the invitees who’d gathered in the lobby for an impromptu party, helping themselves liberally to the planned post-show food and drink.

“On the right setting it was wrong and on the wrong setting it was right,” explained Marshall.

“When you shoot a movie digitally,” Kennedy told Daily Variety later, “you’re dependent on those projectors being calibrated perfectly and everything working perfectly. Even the condition of the screen is important.”

Marshall added, “This is a modern-day version of the film breaking, but you can’t paste it back together and keep going.”

Another screening of the film was being held at the same time across town for SAG members. It apparently wasn’t so ‘green’.

So what happened? And who’s going to get fired? Well, according to the trade, the machine’s to blame. A rented digital projector that Paramount had hired for the occasion had shit itself.

This isn’t the first time these new-age digital projectors have ruined a screening. In recent months audiences have been treated to very-short and bungled screenings of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” and Philip Seymour Hoffman-starrer “Doubt”.

Let me explain, first. Digital Projectors work kinda like an online movie rental service with everything kinda being done for you, the projectionist. Through either broadband phone-lines or through satellite transmissions, the movie file is sent to the theater’s projector. The projector then decodes the info in that file and sends it through mirrors which bounce the image through the lens and onto the white screen down below.

Most cinemas are now having to install digital projectors because it’s the standard Hollywood types want their films played on (or maybe because they shot them in digital – like, for instance, George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels) but more so, 3D films, for instance, can only be played on a digital machine.

But as good as they are (they have their advantages in that you can pretty much stop the movie instantly; some fainted at a screening of “Revolutionary Road” recently and the movie was basically able to be put on pause and then resumed once an ambulance picked up the poor woman) these technologically-advanced machones (like everything) aren’t without teething problems. And in some respects, will never be as reliable or dependable as the old manual 35mm projection system run by your friendly neighbourhood projectionist.

I worked at drive-in theaters as a kid. I remember the huge projection machines they had then. You couldn’t leave them for a second – you had to be there to make them work. You had to change the reels every half-hour or so, and splice and spool another whilst that one was playing. It was an endless charge – projectionists really did earn their money back then. Not to say they don’t know… if they so much as existed! Ya see, with the invention of such automated digital projectors, you don’t need the old-time projectionist so much anymore. Anyone with half-a-brain can push the START button. Someone’s bound to argue with that statement – but it’s true. You merely need someone there to basically download the flick, decode it and start it up in the projector. The pimply-faced virgin at KFC that just served me a runny Potato and Gravy could do it.

So the thing isn’t complicated to run, but still, we’d probably all feel better to know ‘the guy’ was up there in charge of it still wouldn’t we? And when I say ‘guy’ I mean a bloke with hair on his chest, glasses on his head and a rolled-up newspaper on his workbench?

More so, are these digital projectors really worth it?

Nearly all of today’s digital projectors display about 2.2 million pixels – significantly more than a HD-TV but only about 30% as good as 35mm film.

Riddle me this Batman, did “Raiders of the Lost Ark” look as good as “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in theatres? Depends who you’re asking I guess (Katzenberg’s excluded from answering). For my money, “Raiders” looked like a film, “Crystal Skull” looked like a way-too-perfect and super-sharp video presentation. The colours aren’t as warm with digital. The contrast isn’t even as good. And when shot through a projector, even those digital prints are downgraded. There’s less chance of a digital print fucking up (when 35mm stuffs up, it REALLY stuffs up!) but still, I think 35mm looks better – it’s film as far as I’m concerned. If there’s grain, there’s grain – I wanna see it. It’s all part of the experience. I think films lose something when they look too damn good – “Crystal Skull” played liked one of those pixel-heavy short stories you watch before the video-game starts. I want the cigarette burns mother-hopper!

And did you know that most films today are digitally scanned during editing and post-production. So basically any film print produced will have roughly the same visual quality as digitally projected copies of the movie. Almost eliminates the need for digital projectors, right?

Oh, that’s right…. the 3D movies.

So without these machines we can’t play 3D movies, we’ve told.

Um, OK – - so have one or two theatres set-up to play say, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D” or “Final Destination 4D” (yes, 4D) but not all of them. Half of these 3D films are about as useless as tits on a bull – no story, just all splashy visual effects (though “My Bloody Valentine” looks like fun!).

I’m sure cinema owners agree. It’s bloody expensive to replace all the old machines with new digital set-ups. And as of today, a lot of cinemas still aren’t balking. In the United States, only about 1,400 out of the 30,000 movie screens have 3D capability. In the rest of the world, only 700 screens can show digital 3D movies. I couldn’t even tell you how many theatres in Australia are outfitted with new digital set-ups – I only know that quite a few projectionists are trying to stick it out as long as they can with their old dependable spooling-machine.

Digital may indeed win the war but its not going to eliminate the problems associated with 35mm films – annoying assholes talking or texting on their cell phones throughout the film, the greasy-haired dip getting a blow-job in the back row (and yelping through all the best bits of the 007 film) forgetting that he’s not in his Holden Monaro parked in a disco car park, the screen that’s got a big rip in it and as a consequence a black hole can be seen in every frame of the movie playing, the bulbs that constantly go dull, nor is it going to immediately rectify the presentation when it suddenly becomes out of focus. As I see it, the only benefit of having digital projectors – well, unless you’re a Brendan Fraser fan – is that we won’t have to wait half-an-hour for a projectionist to fix the film after it breaks down. “Who cares!?” says the greaser in the back-row. “More time for me before the movie kicks back up!”.