Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: 70mm, 4K, and THE MASTER's Split Personality

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Jason Gorber's Cineruminations: 70mm, 4K, and THE MASTER's Split Personality

Ever since Paul Thomas Anderson announced that he'd be shooting The Master for large format celluloid presentation, many of us have been drooling at the prospect of a modern, epic 70mm masterpiece slipping out of Hollywood.

It's been 16 years since anyone had the chutzpah to shoot a feature film on 65mm neg (Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet for those keeping track), and given PTA's proclivities for all things analogue, this bravado move seemed a natural fit.

When it screened at the Princess of Wales theatre in Toronto, using decades-old projectors rescued from the Cinesphere (the world's first IMAX theatre), it was a fitting marriage of the technology of large format presentation with a venue slightly pretentious, certainly ornate, and ripe for a fine cinematic experience.

I sat in the second row in order to best experience the vastness of the film, and waited through the pre-screening trailers  for the 1.85:1 screen to suddenly open, the curtains splaying for the full 70mm experience.

They never did.

cineruminations-master_sm4.jpgFor reasons that are probably PTA's alone, the film is shot for 70mm, which has a very wide aspect ratio normally, yet The Master has been reframed for 1.85:1. This is essentially the aspect of your widescreen television, or even most smartphones. Essentially, we've got a film shot for 70mm, with the sides cut off, akin to what Tati did with Playtime.

Ignoring the slight shock at the aspect decision, seeing the film on that screen was certainly wonderful - the colours in particular are exquisite, what I referred to in my review as a "Kodachrome pallor" making everything seem a bit more teal and beige, a bit more retro. Reel changes were marked with cue marks (affectionately known as "cigarette burns"), those hole punches in the top right corner that somehow made the film seem that much older. There was a bit of analogue shakiness to the presentation, but it was minor. Even at that close distance, grain structure was almost non-existent, except for a few cases where it would erupt (more on that later).

Days after TIFF ended, I had the chance to see the work again, this time projected from a 4K DCP on a newly-calibrated projector. The differences in presentation were there, but they were subtle. The image on the (larger) screen was slightly darker; in scenes inside the hold of the ship, for example, when Joaquin Phoenix is mixing his drink, it's hard to read the labels on the containers.

The clarity compared to the 70mm presentation was at least equal - there were no bands, jaggies, digital noise, or any of that ilk that plague poor digital projection. The same astonishing depth you get in the opening shots of that teal ocean looked as good in 4K as they did in 70mm.

In fact, in some ways the film projected from a datasource looked objectively better - it's a clearer presentation of the grain structure, there was no flickering of the image, no jittering of the print passing through the projector's gate. Of course, we also didn't have any of the cue marks - the film played in one continuous flow - nor did we have that almost subconscious flicker from the shutter that you get with even the best analogue presentation.

The "problems" that were maintained in the 4K presentation is almost more interesting than what was absent. You still had the beautiful close focus, narrow depth-of-field shots that you get by using camera equipment designed to capture on 65mm film. You have almost all the advantages of shooting for large format negative, and none of the apparent disadvantages of projecting it. What was perhaps most telling, however, is that you can still see dirt on the 4K "print". Occasionally, black specks creep into the image, little bits of grunge that keep the image from appearing pristine.

This was very confusing.

To get some answers, I turned to the person who knows more about 70mm than almost anyone. Robert A. Harris has spent decades helping to rescue some of the most important films of all time. His work on restoring Lawrence of Arabia is legendary, as well as on films the likes of Vertigo, Rear Window, My Fair Lady and the Godfather series, and many others. While Robert has no direct connection with the production, I thought he'd be a great person to bounce some of these questions off of. At the very least, while he has yet to see the film, and has no inside information on the production, I knew that his guesses would be educated ones.

First of all, there are some confusing things about large format analogue. The negative you actually shoot on is 65mm in width. You then print that negative on 70mm film stock. As Harris explains, the 5 perforation high image has an aspect ratio of 2.28:1. However, "the way that it was run in the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s, with magnetic stripes carrying the audio, was 2.21:1, because the magstripes covered the edges of the film."

I asked, then, about how you shoot for 1.85:1 on 70mm? His answer was simple: "If the decision was made in pre-production, you put a mask in your viewfinder." In other words, while the negative afforded a wider rectangle aspect, PTA and crew would be composing shots knowing that they'd be essentially extracting out a centre portion of that frame in order to present the film in the way that they chose.


I asked Harris whether it would make sense to "pillarbox" the negative, essentially vertical letterboxing the side of the negative. "No, you shouldn't. You want to protect for 2.21. If you don't protect, and you have a problem, you end up saying, 'boy, I wish I could move this to the left, just a little!' If you mask your negative, you can't. There's no reason to mask the negative. If that black matte that's printed on the side, is scratched, you're going to have green lines running down the side of the screen. The best way to do it is with a 1.85 aperture plate, the way that E.T., or any of the 35mm blow-ups were run."

In other words, a metal aperture plate is put into the projection system, blocking off a portion of the material on the negative itself, with a slightly smaller "window" through which the less-wide rectangular image is projected.

In The Master, there's one confounding shot in the middle of the film, where the aspect ratio seems to shift. It's a scene of Hoffman at his desk, Joaquin on screen right, and the tops and bottoms of the image are dark. On both screenings it seemed like this was an arbitrary nod to the wider aspect, but according to other sources close to the production, it seems this may simply have been the way that PTA framed that particular shot (rather than, say, printing back a 2.35 image within the 1.85 shot for that single instance). Until we get a formal breakdown on that particular shot, we may never know.

If it was in fact a different aspect shot, Harris suggested two ways that could have been accomplished. They could have taken the 1.85 image and reduced it vertically, or they could have printed the 2.35 image inside the 1.85 frame. Our third option, that maybe a lower ceiling or shooting through a bookcase or something might account for this visual nod to the "normal" way we think of 70mm presentations.

One advantage of 70mm widescreen is that it doesn't need to use "anamorphic" lenses. These lenses squish the image horizontally on the negative, and then when projected back through just a lens stretch the image back out. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, you can think of a 35mm neg as basically being close to 1.19 without the track area, a format that goes back to the pre-Academy 1930s, then having a squished image put in that frame. Projected with anamorphic, the image widens out to 2.39. For 70mm, you're capturing at a "native" aspect of 2.28ish, making the decision to then go back and do a 1.85 "crop" even weirder.

(On a side note,  70mm can also use anamorphic lenses, making for a similar 25% gain in width via the anamorphic "squeeze." That's how films like Ben Hur, shot on "Camera 65," or It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World on Utra-Panavision 70, end up with ludicrously wide aspect ratios like 2.76:1). According to Harris, in most cases these films were projected closer to 2.55:1.

This entire discussion of aspect ratios and the like involves the capture of the film's images. There are unique optical properties to capturing on wide format negative that 35mm simply cannot do in quite the same way. A 35mm 1.85 shot and a 1.85 shot from 70mm look different. They exhibit different levels of grain, the lens kits are different, the way that focal length and depth of field can be maintained is different, and so on. Part of what makes the film so remarkable are the extremely tight shots of faces, the features of the protagonists dancing in an out of an extremely tight focal range, with the depth of field falling off to bokeh in a super pleasing way. This is the unique advantage of shooting for 70mm presentation, being afforded an entirely different kit by which to capture some of these stunning images.

Still, not everything is as it seems. Turning to other sources familiar with the production, they confirmed the info listed on IMDB, namely, that not every frame of the film was shot on 65 neg.

Those scenes where the grain suddenly erupts I alluded to above are almost certainly the segments captured on 35mm. I asked my sources about one key scene when this occurs (where Joaquin is running away from the farming village along the field), a scene shot in very low light at what looks to be pre-dawn hour, and it was confirmed this was a shot captured on 35mm. The reasons for this hybrid are manifold, from potential problems with the bulky large format equipment, or shooting in either lighting or environmental conditions where 35mm makes the most sense. It's also possible that Anderson and his crew simply wanted some shots to exhibit different characteristics, in much the same way as he often uses different emulsions to create changing moods throughout his piece. This is not a unique phenomenon, - as Harris points out Ron Howard did much the same thing on his 65mm production of Far and Away - but much like debates about 3D native vs. post conversion (where even in-camera 3D films often have significant manipulation after the fact), thinking of The Master as a film purely shot on 65mm neg isn't quite the whole story.

On both digital and analogue projection, the differences in these occasional shots, in contrast to the majority that's captured on 65, is startling. That said, if the intention all along was to incorporate both 35 and 65 negatives into the single work, then the lowest common denominator in terms of aspect is, again, 1.85. Whether on the basis of aesthetic or technical considerations, the reasons that PTA chose this aspect remain his alone.

cineruminations-aspect_ratios.jpgSo, given a myriad of reasons that one might want to capture images using analogue technology, I put the question to Harris directly - provided that the projection systems are properly calibrated and there are competent operators at the controls, what are the advantages of projecting 70mm versus 4K. He responded bluntly, "None that I can think of." 

Harris states that with analogue, "you're going to get bob and weave," you're going to get certain projection artifacts, and we both agree that "maybe that's what the director was looking for." The inclusion of cue marks, the other aberrations that we take for granted even in top notch digital projection, are there, are part of the character of what we consider to be (vintage) film presentation. Like those that prefer vinyl to high resolution audio (or even magnetic master tapes), these are sympathetic distortions, things that some prefer to be there even if they're mere artifacts that can easily be compensated for.

This, then, is the crux of what's at stake here - even if one accepts that shooting on large format celluloid gives you something that no other capture format could, does that then necessitate you project the film in that way to get the full experience?

As always with this project, that question has no easy answer.

All things being equal, the 4K should be able to properly convey an image of equal (or better) quality and character.

cineruminations-master_sm.jpgI asked Harris if he saw the need in 20 years for analogue film projection: "No... Well, except in archives." Does he expect in 20 years people will still be capturing images on film? "No. Fuji is going to stop making stock in March. No more Ilford, no more Agfa." In other words, it soon won't be possible to shoot on film.

Harris continues, "Every day, Kodak has less of a rationale to keep making film. I don't see Kodak making stock in 20 years. But, I don't say that's a good thing. Film still works better for some productions. On top of that, we would lose the ability to archive productions, whether shot on film or data, as film. Film is robust. Data is fragile. You can still take a piece of 35mm film that is over 100 years old and print it. Do you really want to entrust your multi-million dollar production to a bunch of 0s and 1s that have to be migrated and cloned every five years? I find the thought frightening."

While we'll lose something quite fundamental by not being able to shoot on film, I asked Harris whether a competent digital projection can replace analogue projection: "Yes, if the theatres hire proper projectionists and keep the equipment up properly."  Asked how he'd rate the current state of analogue versus digital, he admits "they can both be pretty bad. I don't enjoy going to most movie theatres, I don't enjoy going to movie theatres because normally the picture looks like crap. In some major cities you can still find quality projection, but not a lot of it. When I'm in LA, I see everything, I go to the Academy, where everything is perfect. Fortunately, that's one city where you can still find perfect projection if you know where to look - venues like The Egyptian and others."

Given all these caveats, given calibrated projection equipment, competent projectionists and the same source, I put it to him - all things being equal, would he go to a 4K projection or a 70mm projection: "I'd go to 4K. I'd do that for a couple of reasons. You've got a digital projector, and a pair of 70s sitting right beside each other, same venue, same screen. The 4K is a datascan from the original camera negative, or pure data. The print is either 65mm negative printed to 70mm print, which is fine, but down a generation, or a 4K scan, recorded to a 65mm negative, printed to a 70mm print, and at that point you not only have decreased resolution for the print, sometimes by as much as a third, you are losing even more via analogue projection."

I asked what format Harris thought David Lean would prefer for the upcoming Lawrence release: "I think he'd prefer data. He was a perfectionist. I believe both he and Freddie Young, his cinematographer, would be amazed at the new digital version that Sony has created."

cineruminations-master_sm3.jpgSo, where does that leave us with The Master?

Traditionally, filmmakers did whatever they could to push the technology of filmmaking forward. PTA is simultaneously showing what we're losing in large format capture, but also illustrating some of the inherent flaws (or "love bites," as Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes calls them) that are a part of analogue projection.

There were interviews and press reports during the run of There Will Be Blood where PTA admitted to being a "Luddite," and eschewing Digital Intermediates and colour timing his film using traditional methods. This is the in-between bit, the crucial stage between what's captured and what's projected.

Before computer colour timing, a film would be captured on negative, but the way the image would actually look would be influenced by a number of factors that would be carried out during processing. The filmmaker could push a film's luminance, increase certain colour channels, even do radical things like bleach bypass (think Se7en) in order to make the film look a particular way.

With O Brother, Where Art Thou, the modern age of DI's came into being, where filmmakers would scan their negatives and basically "process" the film within a computer. You could then take a portion of the image and tweak it, leaving part of it warm, part of it cool, without ever modifying the actual neg. You would then laserscan back to film the DI'd image, thus creating a new, pristine negative.

One could guess by the fact that there's a 4K presentation of The Master, and based on the info in IMDB, that PTA's film underwent such a process. Furthermore, there are a number of (subtle) effects shots, including one where eyes change colour within a scene. Any effect shot that goes into a computer would, of course, needs to go through this scan/manipulate/output procedure.

Furthermore, doing a full DI would better accommodate the 35mm elements, where you'd have a single ingestion of the smaller negative, scaled up in the computer, thus using digital methods to conform the grainier image to the 70mm print.

This does not seem to be the case. According to these sources, it sounds like The Master really has two forms, two ways of being.

The 4K presentation was done via DI. This is the format that will be used for the Blu-ray, and for general 35mm release prints. This is the "digital" master, based on scans of the original negatives and timed to look the way he wished it to look.

However, this is metaphorically like the Beatles' early stereo mixes which were secondary, almost afterthoughts to the original Mono counterparts. For, according to sources, Anderson in fact produced a conformed negative for use in 70mm printing. In other words, the 70mm print (as well as a few select 35mm presentations) are based on an analogue, DI-free negative.

There are two masters for The Master, one digital, one analogue.

Based on this information, it seems that the analogue negative is the source that was used as the basis for colour timing the digital version. These two versions are very, very close, but of course can't be identical. If the 70mm was simply a laser output from the 4K DI, there would be little doubt that the 4K would be closer to the (digital) original. PTA could have gone the other way, timing the negative, then scanning that into 4K without doing much additional manipulation. It seems, if sources are to be believed, that the process was done in tandem - one for digital, one for analogue. Similar, but not exactly the same process, this is a film with a split personality, different depending on how you see it.

Like the film itself, things are a lot more complicated than they first appear.

cineruminations-master_sm2.jpgThere will be subtle differences, then, between the 4K and the 70mm inherent in the different processes, differences that could very well account for some of the luminance changes that I noticed in the 4K presentation. Again, I have no access to the original materials, and there could be a slew of different reasons for the apparent discrepancies, from projection calibration to the screen size to incomplete memories of the earlier presentation. On the other hand, the subtle differences between a chemical and a digital process could very well account for the "same but different" characteristics of this particular film, the story of the DI vs photochemical timing could leave out important details or could be aggrandizing the differences. Regardless, these are two essentially different facets of the same thing, and it's near impossible to say that one's superior to the other without taking into account these differences.

What of those black specks that were part of the 4K presentation? If the film was DI'd, why would they still be there?

Quite simply, they're there because PTA wanted them there.

It's gunk he either added, or at least allowed to stay, built into the digital master as artifacts of the process. This is the cinema equivalent of leaving in easily removable tape hiss, or worse, adding in the sound of vinyl pops or cracks in order to come across as "retro." In certain scenes (the "blinking" test is one), in both presentations, you can hear the wheeze of the camera chugging away. This is a filmmaker not afraid to show the seams of his process, and while reluctantly creating a digital "print," he nonetheless left in a number of these quirks of analogue filmmaking to make it appear a bit less ... perfect.

Going further, PTA could easily have added the cue marks as well to the 4K, added bob and weave into the digital source so that it to exhibited all the "flaws" inherent in film projection. He went part way, but not all the way there, still crafting a near pristine digital master that does a more than satisfactory job of presenting the film in its best possible light.

Let's be frank - PTA wants you to watch this thing in 70mm. He's been touring cinemas personally checking to make sure the presentation is up to his standards. This goes well beyond any technical or demonstrable advantage to the analogue projection, this is a fetish, pure and simple.

Of course, this is a fetish I very much share with him.

Still, it would be silly to decry the state of modern digital projection in favour of 70mm simply because you prefer the distortions inherent in the latter. It's certainly a hell of a lot easier for you to be able to find competent 4K presentation in your area than 70mm, and it makes more sense from the perspective of a person seeing this film weeks or months after it first opens - the $170,000+ print cost means it's not exactly going to be replaced if it gets the inevitable scratches on it. The DCP will play perfectly, under ideal conditions, if it's the first or thousandth time it's being screened.

The Master is a film without any explicit answers, so it's fitting that this analogue/digital divide is but one more thing that's perplexing about the film. It's an astonishing work visually, and if you have the chance you should most certainly try and see it the way that PTA wishes you to. That said, if 4K is available, I'd recommend choosing it for your second screening, seeing the differences for yourselves, judging on aesthetic grounds which presentation is best able to convey the stunning images.

Save for those still carving out films with portions shot on IMAX, The Master does seem like the end of an era, but it's hardly a straightforward ending. There will be a time, not so far from now, when even capturing this movie on film will be an impossibility. This, by any measure, will be a shame.

For now, we have PTA's film to help us revel in the wonders of projected cinema, be it digital or analogue. Like those IMAX spectaculars, what's not up for debate is that the film benefits tremendously from being seen on a giant screen. Both 70mm and 4K afford the ability to project cleanly on even monstrous sized screens.

Despite my challenges with the film's plot, what's not up for debate is that The Master is a film that demands to be seen. More than that, it's a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Anderson is baiting the public with a 70mm presentation, of course, but in getting cinephiles to go out and see this "roadshow"-style presentation he is to be applauded. It's entirely possible this may the last time we collectively experience a contemporary work shot on large format negative that's not some IMAX action extravaganza, and it's certainly a worthy enough project to celebrate for this reason alone.

We're living in interesting times in the ongoing story of the moving image, and in many ways The Master helps expose both the history of quality presentations and the future of audiences going to the theatre to be swept away by the work of a fine director.

The Master is playing in limited release throughout North America. It is hopefully presented in 70mm or 4K at a theatre near you.

Thanks once again to Robert A. Harris for his invaluable assistance with this article

An unexpurgated version of my original ScreenAnarchy review can be found at Filmfest.ca.


Update: October 1, 2012

Caught my third (!) screening of the film this evening, and clarified a few elements addressed in the article above:

  • Firstly, as noted in the comments below, there are a number of elements that I discussed in this article that have subsequently been commented upon officially. This article by Kodak details that at least 15% of the film was shot on 35mm, including handheld shots, and this article provides further, on-the-record confirmation about what I reported above regarding both the 4K and 70mm workflow.
  • I pegged down the scene where I think the sound of the camera is still in place over dialogue: It's one of the early interrogations in the military hospital, where an officer is directly asking Quell about his feelings. The sound might be something as innocuous as a fan or an air conditioning unit, but the throb certainly sounded to me like the movement of film through a camera rig. Later sounds in other close-mic'd environments (aboard ship, for example) may well be put down to the sound of the tape recording, but this is one instance where I believe we have, either left in or purposely placed, the very "analogue" sound of film run via sprockets through the mechanism of a 65mm film camera
  • Beside the running-through-field shot, I noticed more this second time on film, third time through certain shots that were softer than others, almost certainly indication of other scenes where 35mm was used and then blown up for 70mm theatrical presentation. A definitive list will certainly be compiled by some stalwart person, but there were clear shifts in clarity that were not simply accounted for by low light environment or focal issues.

  • I'm not, nor have I ever been, a professional projectionist. That said, I'd be mildy surprised if this is the usual procedure for masking the 70mm image for 1.85. As I indicated above, usually a metal aperture plate is put in the projection system to block the sides of the image. While leaving the theatre (the Varsity in Toronto), you walk right past the projection booth. I took this image:
    You can see above the strip of film being threaded from a spool on the top right corner, with the arrows point to black tape that is masking the image being projected (those are the end credits being shown as the white blob in the middle). I was sitting in the 4th row, and could see through much of the film some leakage on both the bottom right and top left of screen - seeing this rumpled tape that seems to be the sole device used to mask the image, I'm a little less surprised to see these aberrations. The fact that we also had a building wide alarm test, and that the majority of the audience who had paid a premium to see the film on 70mm and still sat at the back rows of the theatre, added up to a slightly less than stellar presentation.
  • Finally got my head around that one shot that appeared to be a 2.28:1 shot reframed within the 1.85:1 image. The scene takes place just before Dodd is about to introduce his second publication. The scene is composed as a 2-shot, with Hoffman on screen left in a chair, and Joaquin on screen right. On my first two screenings, I had thought this a single scene representation of "proper" 70mm aspect. That may well be the case, a clever little nod from PTA, but what it really is is a shot through a window. The top of the "letterboxing" is formed by a pull down shade (you can make out the ring used to pull down the blind), and the bottom edge is set by the window frame. You can actually see out the window of this office into the main hall a few scenes later, just after the (extraordinary) shot where you see Hoffman collecting his thoughts before confronting his audience.
  • All technical quibbles aside, the film continues to grow on me with each viewing, and certainly can stand up to these type of repeated screenings. The dream-like images, the powerful performances, all contribute to one of this year's must-see films. I still don't know that it all adds up to much, but it's definitely a movie that demands to be experienced on the big screen.

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4K70mmAmy AdamsCineruminationsIMAXJoaquin PhoenixPaul Thomas AndersonPhilip Seymour HoffmanPTAThe Master

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Kurt HalfyardSeptember 24, 2012 1:30 PM

The long tracking shot where Fred Quell walks up and hops onto to the Alethia (Ship) hosting Lancaster Dodd is very jittery (i.e. the Persistence of Vision is temporary stuttery - you can see that it is composed of still frames rather than a smooth moving image). That is the only shot in the movie that I was completely cognizant that I was watching FILM vs. DIGITAL.

Greg KnaussSeptember 24, 2012 2:30 PM

Test comment.

Greg KnaussSeptember 24, 2012 2:31 PM

Another test comment.

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 2:31 PM

You passed

Ard VijnSeptember 24, 2012 2:41 PM

Wow. This might just be the most awesomely researched and diligently pursued article we've run on Twitch in years.

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 2:42 PM

cheers :)

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 2:46 PM

It's been pointed out to me by (celebrated critic) Norm Wilner that it's possible that what I heard as "camera noise" may simply be the diagetic sound of the tape recorder in the background. I can't attest to any element of the sound production on the film, all the questions I asked were about the visuals.

Still, if I'm recalling correctly, I heard the gentle buzz of what sounded like film going through a camera in several places throughout. Then again, the film does have a proclivity for making you think things that aren't really there (from the wall...to the window...)

I guess a third screening will be required just to clear this up!

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 24, 2012 2:51 PM

Alethia Ship Engine? They are below deck there.

Matt StevensSeptember 24, 2012 2:57 PM

Saw it in 70mm. Immense detail. Wondrous use of shallow depth of field. Finest grain i have ever seen. but there was some flickering in bright whites that annoyed me from time to time. Still vastly superior to normal Digital projection in NYC, where they keep the 3D setup in place, robbing 2D films of 70% of the light! Most theaters in NYC do this now. It's a crime.

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 3:25 PM

I'll have to dig into this on the repeat, but I recalled hearing it as well in other scenes. Again, maybe it was an implanted memory from a forgotten past life...

shaneSeptember 24, 2012 4:08 PM

PTA admitted at the Venice Film Festival that they tried to cover up the sound of the film with a fan at some points in the film. The "Do you want to F***" scene would probably be one instance.

shaneSeptember 24, 2012 4:13 PM
Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 6:03 PM

Excellent! Thanks for the link. Again, I'm not sure that's what I was hearing, but more things to pay attention to on subsequent screenings.

Ditto for that one shot that seems to be of a different aspect ratio - is it a bookcase? I was assured that there was no reduction shot (ie., a 2.28 plate reduced and letterboxed to fit into the 1.85 frame), so is that him just teasing us?

Much to ponder... I guess the next step is sitting down PTA and asking him directly. Anyone have his email address?

Danny BaldwinSeptember 24, 2012 9:20 PM

This paragraph, to me, is the most essential in the piece: "While we'll lose something quite fundamental by not being able to shoot on film, I asked Harris whether a competent digital projection can replace analogue projection: 'Yes, if the theatres hire proper projectionists and keep the equipment up properly.' Asked how he'd rate the current state of analogue versus digital, he admits 'they can both be pretty bad. I don't enjoy going to most movie theatres, I don't enjoy going to movie theatres because normally the picture looks like crap. In some major cities you can still find quality projection, but not a lot of it. When I'm in LA, I see everything, I go to the Academy, where everything is perfect. Fortunately, that's one city where you can still find perfect projection if you know where to look - venues like The Egyptian and others.'"

The film vs. digital exhibition debate often completely misses the larger issue, as Harris hits upon here. Both formats can look exceptional, but they're only as good as the people and equipment in the booth. This is where the real intervention is needed.

I saw THE MASTER in 4K and it looked as good as anything I've ever seen in a theater. Now, had I gone to the cinema five miles down the road and seen it projected through Sony's 3D-accommodating twin lens, as they were showing it, I would have completely missed that glory...

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 11:34 PM

I'd slightly take issue with that - the SONYs aren't fundamentally worse, and having twin lenses also isn't an issue. Properly calibrated, you should be getting the exact same luminance. In fact, odds are better with digital that you'll get it at all corners of the screen.

The point is that comparing crap digital to prisitine 70mm is of course a no-brainer. Fact also is that in order to run 70mm at all you need someone who knows what they're doing, so already you're almost assured of a quality projectionist who at least configured and calibrated the euqipment, where the same cannot be said for any run-of-the-mill DLP/LCD setup.

I wouldn't hesitate for a second to see a 4K projected from a SONY, nor for that matter from most newer Christies or Barcos (IMAX, I found out at TIFF, is moving to Barco from their current twin-Christie setup).

I've seen just as many crap film projections as digital (probably more), dark and dank and fuzzy/out of focus setups from venues where they haven't given a crap in forever. Take MOONRISE KINGDOM - the local 35mm projection (at the now in limbo AMC Kennedy, for those keeping track locally) looked like =ass=. Blurry, fuzzy mess, a film that went OCN>DI>35mm release print and ended up with something that looked like VHS.

The DCP, meanwhile, at the Varisty looked fantastic, and, frankly, closer to a primo, pristine, festival-grade theatrical celuloid print. The film was shot Super-16, DI'd at 2K and then laserscanned back to 35mm. So, in this case, Wes Anderson's film looked more like an actual Super-16 print release than the 35mm did when projected digital.

In short, I wouldn't be knee-jerk about any particular technology (LCD/DLP), brand of projector, etc. An image can look like crap, and it'll have nothing to do with the caliber of the equipment. In an ideal world, on these 3-chip monsters, you should not be able to tell the difference at all between them.

Now, with home projection, well, that's a whole 'nother giant kettle of eels....

Jason GorberSeptember 24, 2012 11:35 PM

Agreed. It's unconscionable that something so easy (20 minute, tool-less switch I've heard from 2D to 3D) should be left alone due to laziness and incompetence.

Danny BaldwinSeptember 24, 2012 11:47 PM

Well, I'll put it this way: Of the 50+ twin-lens 2-D projections I've seen (this is how they hold many of our press screenings), only about 15% were properly illuminated. I've seen it done, but it's definitely harder to get the appropriate illumination through this set-up. Especially for a 'Scope presentation on a side-masked screen.

Further, even when the illumination is there, the colors seem slightly washed out (why, I don't know). Not to mention that you aren't getting the full 4K resolution, but rather two stacked 2K images. I think all the criticism laid upon this configuration is warranted. By contrast, I've never had illumination issues on a single-lens Sony 4K.
But everything you say about spotty 35mm is right. That's my point: It's not so much the format used as it is the projectionist and the projector's maintenance. If both were their most pristine states, I'd prefer digital--no shutter, no print quality issues, etc--but both can look great. That's why I think all the film-vs-digital talk in terms of exhibition is wrongheaded; projection quality is far more important than projection medium.

David MackenzieSeptember 26, 2012 2:11 PM

Hey Twitch, small error in your resolution image: 720p is 1280x720, not 1440x720.

Jason GorberSeptember 26, 2012 5:03 PM

Ah, good catch, sir. The image has been corrected.

NoneSeptember 26, 2012 5:17 PM

"It's entirely possible this may the last time we collectively experience a contemporary work shot on large format negative that's not some IMAX action extravaganza."
Don't be so mean towards Christopher Nolan, he's a film lover too! Great article btw.

JoeSSeptember 26, 2012 8:19 PM

I saw SAMSARA and THE MASTER (both shot on 65mm) in the EXACT SAME theater one week apart. SAMSARA was transferred in 8k and projected in 4K (idiotically, there are NO 70mm film prints - NONE). THE MASTER was shown in 70mm.
There really is no comparison. Film just looks softer, warmer and more realistic. Digital has a glossy plastic image.

I honestly respect Robert Harris for everything he has done for movie restorations, but, with all due respect - I think Harris has spent too much time transferring material to Blu Ray/HD. I cannot believe he honestly feels that digital looks better than 70mm film.

Finally, this reminds me of the early days of CDs. Everybody jumped up and down talking about how great it was to finally hear music without the dreaded surface noises, pops & scratches. All true. But, over time, there was a realization that analogue, for all its flaws, simply has a warmer more natural sound. A number of pros in the industry, both artists and technicians have admitted this in recent years. Hence, the recent uptick in LP sales. Still, a niche, but it IS superior sounding.

mike@thesubstreamSeptember 27, 2012 11:45 AM

Fantastic article Jason - as somebody who generally doesn't bother with the projection end of things it was gratifying to see somebody pay attention to the other image-related differences that 65mm affords. Not only different lenses, etc., but d.o.f. is going to naturally be much shallower on larger formats, neat that somebody out there still cares about that!

PatrickSeptember 27, 2012 1:42 PM

When I saw Dark Knight Rises in 4k projection, I noticed that moving objects appeared to have multiple visible frames (4 or 5, like trails maybe). When I saw it in real IMAX, you could only see maybe one or two frames at a time. I thought it was interesting. I think the black space in-between frames with film projection allows your brain to discard the previous few frames. They say it relaxes the brain. I do actually feel a little more tense when I watch a digital projection, almost like it's fatiguing. This could be the placebo effect, I suppose. In the end, I just prefer film projection - even when it's flickery sometimes.

Jason GorberSeptember 27, 2012 1:45 PM

Cheers... For those that don't know, Mike (and Rajo's) site, thesubstream.com, has some pretty excellent content that shows even this hapless film critic how people who actually make movies get things done.

Jason GorberSeptember 27, 2012 1:56 PM

Glad you brought this up - SAMSARA was definitely on my mind when I wrote the article. I saw it at TIFF when it premiered a year ago (http://filmfest.ca/2011/09/11/..., and thought it looked stunning.

The vinyl vs CD debate is a hoary one, and I'll not get into that, but what we're really comparing here with Samsara (with the grading/post being done digitally) would be metaphorically comparing the 24/192 master recording to the vinyl output from those source files.

Comments about it looking "plastic", vs "warmer", point specifically to sympathetic distortions. PTA has encouraged this by adding (or, at least, not actively scrubbing) dirt and other elements that he's baked in on purpose into both the digital and analogue sources of his film.

The reasons for LP sale increase has far more to do with fetish than it does with any perceived increase in quality. As someone with some 3,000 records (plus some 2000 CDs, and over 600 SACD/DVD-Audio high resolution releases), I've looked with bemusement as it has become easier and easier for many to listen to music on paltry systems that will sound worse than what they easily can purchase digitally.

Hell, I even have a pretty sizable collection of 8-tracks, and a lovely Pioneer transport to listen to Helen Reddy the way she was meant to be heard.

The point is, I too am a fetishist, but I think a relatively self-aware one. The fact that you've claimed "softer, warmer and more realistic", without recognizing that the latter often is at odds with the former two, well, then there's our conundrum.

We're getting into metaphysics here, I grant, but to complain that Samsara was an idiotic production and presentation, well, I'm not in agreement with you.

Jason GorberSeptember 27, 2012 2:00 PM

Nolan's an interesting case - he shoots parts of Inception on 70mm, and intersperses a "down-res'd" version (post-DI) into the DCP "print". I still can dream about a full length IMAX film from the guy.

Oh, and for the record, there's no digital projection system on the planet (yet) that comes anywhere close to 70mm 15perf native IMAX. But, again, that's content ripe for a whole 'nother article...

Jason GorberSeptember 27, 2012 2:03 PM

Sure, especially for those of us who have taught our brains to accept these so-called "faults" of film projection for most of our lives. The 48fps debates will rage about such things as well, of course, so we'll see how that falls out.

I'm not sure that ghosting of images is indicative of what the source contains, but you may be sensitive to different levels of refresh. As I said below, for something that's even partially filmed for 15perf/70mm, it's best to drive however far you have to to see the film in that proper venue.

Oh, and don't get me started on "LieMAX"...

JoeSSeptember 27, 2012 2:15 PM

First of all, I only said that the decision not to strike 70mm Film Prints of SAMSARA was "idiotic", not the film itself!
The comparision with CDs is not just a romantic notion (nor one of pure fetishism - an LP fetishist is one who "enjoys" hearing the pops and scratches). Let's face it, digital in both audio and picture is mainly about two things: Convenience and Money.
There is no doubt that digital is easier to use and, when used correctly, a wonderous tool. But, if it's pure quality you are seeking, it is a much more complex issue. The simple test I ask folks to perform: break a piece of glass. Now, find a digital recording of glass breaking. Anybody with a trained ear will notice that the "real" glass sound is much softer and more nuanced than the amped up trebly sound on digital. Then, next time you go see a digital projected print in a theater, take a look at actor's faces. Once the movie ends, look at folks sitting next to you. Again, the digital presentation has a more high contrast and plastic look to them as opposed to the real thing. Analogue representations in audio and picture may have a bit less detail, but, they simply look and sound more natural.
The money issue is self-evident. As you mentioned in your piece, the cost of a single film print vs. a digital copy is a no brainer for bean counters.
During the early years of CDs, Neil Young hit the nail on the head: this is the first generation which will embrace a new technology that is inherently of LESS quality than the one it replaced.

Jason GorberSeptember 27, 2012 3:30 PM

Again, this is debate for another place (you can join me at AVS if you'd like), but let's get a couple things straight here:

1) Doing a 70mm print from a 4K DI of SAMSARA would make the image worse, not better. You may have wished that they did all their processing in the analogue domain (like my sources tell me PTA did for half his workflow), but that was not the case with that film

2) I'll let you test the breaking of glass, but if we're (metaphorically) comparing "real" glass sound to a recording of glass sound, we're already going down a pretty steep cliff. The point is to reproduce the recording, not so-called "real life". You can then debate about the best way to achieve that recording. In the above article, that's the difference between shooting and projecting 70mm, two very different characteristcs to consider.

There's argument, and a strong one at that, that recording your band on 2" analogue, then distributing on high resolution digital, will do a far better job replicating what's on the source recording than any vinyl pressing could ever do.

3) Neil Young is an interesting example - he hated (early) CDs, yes. The guy also has been a big proponent of digital high resolution audio, from DVD-A to the (sublime) Boxed set he released on Blu-ray audio. He records on tape, and his preferred distribution that best replicates his recordings is high resolution sound.

It's why we're talking 4K instead of "just" 2K, and ensuring that these systems are properly calibrated. Notions of the "real" get very complicated very quickly, as with any process we're trading one limitation for another. With both 70mm and 4K we're at the limits of reduction of those limitations, and, it can be argued, on the projection side 4K reduces those limitations more than analogue projection does.

You still may prefer 70mm for the very reasons that you like those limitations (ie., cue marks, flicker, etc.) That's then an aesthetic, not a technical argument, and the whole notion of projecting in 70mm in the first place is called into question (would, say, a low grain 35mm projection be so very different from a 70mm source?)

But anyway, too many rabbit holes to go down in one comment thread...

JoeSSeptember 27, 2012 7:13 PM

1. Yes, I do wish SAMSARA had been all analogue all the way from filming to release on 70mm film. THE MASTER on 70mm looks better than SAMSARA on 4K.

2. I guess we meet on the superiority of 2" analogue for recording sound. I've spoken to several sound techs who will proclaim the superiority of digital, but, when I really really press them, they will admit that analogue on tape still is the best recording medium. Same goes when I press a still image photographer - if this is for your OWN project (rather than a commercial assignment) - most would choose shooting film over digital.

3. Again, I am not an analogue fetishist. I don't "enjoy" hearing surface noise, pops and skips on an LP. And, I don't "enjoy" flicker and cue marks. But, I still feel that analogue has a more natural look, sound and texture than digital both audibly and visually. Yes, that is somewhat an aesthetic choice, but, I also feel that it is one that more closely approximates human vision and hearing.

4. Speaking of fetishism, one thing that isn't written of enough, is that of digital. Besides, the basic fundamental digital issue of choosing what is a "1" or a "0", there is, in the hands of many techs the fetishistic choice of amplifying visual and audio data that is beyond the normal scope of human vision and sound. Too many films have soundtracks with amped up audio details that only a dog would normally discern. HD video also has the tendency to bring out "details" that the normal eye wouldn't necessarily fix on. So, there is a counter to the fetishism argument as well.

Jason GorberSeptember 28, 2012 12:19 PM

There have been a couple updates since I published the article earlier in the week.

First of all, Kodak has a nice little rundown on the use of 70mm - doesn't say much, but does have some pretty pictures (yes, this is a metaphor): http://motion.kodak.com/motion...

Secondly, industry trade paper Screen Daily has an article that gets certain things on the record that I was slightly coy about to ensure the anonymity of sources.

While Bryant Frazer didn't reference my article above as the first source for much of the information that he presents as original (to his credit he did link back and referred to me as a "film buff"), he manages to go into a tiny bit more detail about the process than I was able, and it may be of interest for those willing to pay the subscription price to read the article.

Hugh GuineyOctober 14, 2012 4:20 PM

“The Master has been reframed for 1.85:1. This is essentially the aspect of your widescreen television, or even most smartphones.”

I know you used the word “essentially”, but this is a little misleading. The aspect ratio of almost every widescreen TV currently on the market (with the notable exception of Phillips’ gimmicky “21:9” sets) is 1.78:1—16 divided by 9—in accordance with the HDTV specification. If you watch a 1.85:1 film on your widescreen TV, you still get letterbox bars; they just aren’t as tall as the ones you get from noticeably wider 2.40:1 films.

Jason GorberOctober 15, 2012 9:52 PM

The difference between 1.85:1 and 1.78:1 is slight, hence the "essentially" used for the uninitiated. Still, you're of course right, on a proper set, with 1:1 pixel mapping, there will be black bars on top/bottom.

As for the phone, you're also right, "most" is probably an overshoot. There are a number of 16:9 phones on the market, but none from Apple as you point out.

Thanks for reading and for assisting with that clarification.

TomNovember 24, 2012 2:44 AM

This message is for the author of the article, the actual print cost of The Master is not $170,000 like the author states. The cost of a 70mm print like the Master would be around $12,000 to $14,000. This of course would be quoting early 90's pricing, James Cameron confirmed the cost of a 70mm print on a laserdisc.

Jason GorberNovember 26, 2012 1:20 AM

heh, not sure that'd be relevant, particularly given that printing is significantly more rare, thus significantly more expensive nowadays.

That said, the figure was not of my invention, but drawn from multiple sources. I'm not sure it's in need of correction, especially based on info from a LD commentary track.

Still, thanks for reading!

TomDecember 1, 2012 3:35 PM

Hi Jason, thanks for replying. There is no way the print will cost more than $12k-$14k, the cost of 70mm prints in the 70s and 80s was high because of the addition of magnetic sound on the print and not the print itself. Today, there is no magnetic sound printed on film at all, the sound on the print was a simple timecode for the DTS reader.

There is not much difference in printing 70mm vs 35mm, like I said, the sound is what made the price so high previously.

For comparison, an IMAX print of the Dark Knight Rises or Skyfall will cost around $40k, this is because the length of the 70mm film used compared to 70mm for the Master.

Diego HumanesJanuary 4, 2013 8:15 AM

Following the debate, with the facts and personal experience, I say digital acquisition from film scan pretty much capture it all. Why? Because in the last few years movies we've watched at the theathers were film projected from copies already sourced from Digital Intermediate (shot in film), and nobody ever complained about being 'digital'. So the D.I. is the purest source scanned from film. The difference from 70 to 35mm is less depth of field and more resolution, but you really need a big screen to appreciate and these days multiplex are the norm. It doesn't mean better color or contrast than 35mm at the same screen size, since it's the same silver halloid film, only bigger. And also I agree with Harris when he says that the 70mm theater copy is either a laser obtained print from 4K or a blown-up optical copy from 65 to 70mm. Both methods lose quality in the process, but in my opinion the digital projected 4-k is the closest to the original. On the other hand, the contrast and light sensual film from digital projection is more a easthetic thing like when you compare two lamps to buy at home. DP emits light through color-wheel prisms and film projector is a white bulb projecting through a negative 'slide' of film. Different sensations, but what I mean is the quality of digital source, convenientely projected, is practically indistinguishable from film source.

JoeSJanuary 4, 2013 2:12 PM

I understand your comments, but, I must say they are besides the point. Sure, almost all movies recently go through DI, but that just means filmmakers have gotten lazy in not sourcing film prints from FILM negatives. That does not mean that if they were FILM Print from FILM negative that they would demonstrably be superior.

To use the DI argument is like saying that a digital print based on a film negative is superior to a home computer scanner copy of a polaroid. Why of course, but that's not the same thing as saying digital projection is better than film projection - ESPECIALLY, when you are talking about 70mm (I doubt Harris would agree that a Blu Ray of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA would look better than a 70mm print of the same film sourced from a pristine 70mm film negative)

Diego HumanesJanuary 4, 2013 4:16 PM

the question is: If they scan the negative at enough resolution, is the DI superior to a first generation film copy blown from the original, chemically color timed? And projected? All mechanical projectors flicker and jitter at the gate (and loose sharpness). I think it's more about light coming more 'natural' through celluloid as through color-wheels in DLP projectors than the source.

JoeSJanuary 5, 2013 1:14 PM

I think we agree there. I have found over the past year or so that movies that were SHOT on Film look better than those shot digitally, even when going through the DI and digitally projected. The warmer, more natural look of film still provides a better source no matter how projected.

Chuck KahnJanuary 15, 2013 1:58 PM

It isn't true that "filmmakers have gotten lazy in not sourcing film prints from FILM negatives." Filmmakers favour DI because it gives them infinitely more control over final colour grading than analog methods.

Jason GorberJanuary 15, 2013 3:34 PM

Ah, but a digital scan of a polaroid is way better (even output via laserscan back to a polaroid!) than a developed shot that's been left to fade.

Where are you finding a "pristine" 70mm negative of a film from 1962? Sony sure as hell didn't, hence them spending YEARS doing a "dry" neg scan/colourtime/cleanup.

I saw LOA again last night from a 4K DCP > 2K Christie (at the Bloor in Toronto) and it was simply breathtaking (far better than an earlier screening at a chain theatre in the Northend of the city). I've seen LOA in 70mm 5 or 6 times, and forgetting that the screen is of course smaller than I'd have like (I still miss you, Cinesphere) there's no comparison.

Note that you don't get a FILM print from a FILM negative. You get a Neg > Interpositive > Internegative > Release Print. Note the latter is done using a highspeed machine - if you're old enough to remember how shit high speed tape dubbing was at home, you'll see what you're missing out on.

Look, this doesn't have to be either or, as I've tried to show, SHOOTING on Film remains a viable aesthetic choice, but it's growing increasingly the case that PROJECTING from celluloid (save for 15/70 IMAX) is mere fetish, and in many ways is counterproductive to presenting the film in the best possible way.

JoeSJanuary 17, 2013 6:16 PM

Are you saying that ARABIA looks better now with 4K than it did back in the day in 70MM? I doubt that.

Jason GorberJanuary 21, 2013 3:06 PM

I am, actually, depending on the 4K venue/70mm venue. Fact is, the 4K scan is straight from the neg, and given their ability to properly colour time in a consistent way, it's now, I would argue, the definitive presentation.

Pan oRoyaMarch 20, 2013 1:05 PM

Well, I've only watched it once, in cinema, and not in 70mm but that hardly matters. The fact is that many of the close-ups have the plane of focus in entirely the wrong place. What possible artistic purpose is served by having the ultra shallow focal plane situated at the subject's ears rather than (as conventionally) at the eye or eyes? My own interpretation, using the handily available tool afforded by William of Ockham, is that these shots were chosen DESPITE this error on the basis of a preferred performance in that take. As for the cause, that's relatively simple to explain, given that much of the film was shot on oversized stock. With a film (or sensor) of this size then for any given focal length the DOF is much shallower than for an equivalent lens on 35 mm: is video assist even available for ageing cameras running this stock? To me it looks like a blunder. An obsession with shallow DOF is something of an epidemic. The ever increasing use of DSLRs for video production has made this effect, useful though it is if used judiciously, common even in completely inappropriate contexts.
Great film though.

Jason GorberMarch 20, 2013 1:47 PM

While I can't speak for PTA, I think that, yeah, that's exactly the look that he was going for - low light, extremely shallow depth of field, and happy accidents when characters get slightly softer as they "dance" (as I put it) in and out of the focal plane. Notions of "wrong" versus "conventionally implemented" are of course fodder for a much larger discussion.

Your pullquote did point out a slight error, that was meant to read "shooting for 70mm" rather than "on", I've not corrected.

Pan oRoyaMarch 21, 2013 6:57 AM

Ears in focus (rather than eyes) for an entire shot? Deliberately? Affording what, exactly? I can't see this as anything but a mistake.

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