Midweek Mumble – Cinemarred
This weeks ‘Mumble’ is being hijacked!! Actually I asked him to, let me introduce my good friend Sam Inglis and his take on Cinema Projection in UK today, Cinemarred
I have benn hounding Sam for ages to write one of these posts. The reason is simple. He is awesome, and also my word can he do a bit of ANGRY TYPING! We often joke about how he gets on his virtual soap box, and types very loudly about a subject close to his heart.
This is the sound that can be heard resinating from Sams office when he gets going. Below is his mumble. I think you will agree with me he is talented and destined for big things in the world of Film Journalism. Sam’s blog is 24FPS and also can be found writing for Front Row Reviews.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Blu Ray player, my 2000 DVDs, my 65 Blu Rays – hell, I still love my two VCRs and my 400 VHS tapes – but for me the ultimate, the proper, way to see movies remains going to the cinema. Cinema is changing, right now, right before our eyes, and for good. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that it is changing for the better, so I wanted to take this opportunity (thanks Scott) to address some of my most pressing concerns about the way films have been presented to the public over the past couple of years.
The big change in cinemas has really come in projection, and the shift (largely mandated by the growth of 3D films) to digital projection. The shift away from projecting from 35mm has become so prevalent that even some of London’s best known and loved arthouse and rep venues have had to invest in expensive new projectors (£55k, says one source) in order to continue showing everything they want to. On the one hand this is great; digital prints don’t get damaged as you play them more and more (though how long the files can be stored remains very much up for debate, and there is some doubt that they will last as long as some ‘lost’ silent films that have recently been restored from prints up to 100 years old) and there is, on the face of it, much less hassle involved in showing a film from a digital print; hit the button and away you go. Unfortunately this also means that technical knowledge is no longer held as a premium for projectionists, particularly in multiplexes, and has resulted in a great many serious problems with projection in my recent cinema visits.
I’m not and never have been a projectionist, but after spending the better part of twenty years going to the cinema at least once a week, and doing so at least semi-professionally for about eight years, I like to think that I know a bit more than your average layman about how a film should look when it’s projected, and frankly, they don’t often look like that at the moment. There have always been issues; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to pop out of a screening to tell someone that the film has gone up in the wrong aspect ratio, or that the frame lines has been set too high or too low. The difference lately though is that nobody seems to know what’s wrong when I mention this. I’ve actually been greeted with blank stares when I’ve used the term ‘aspect ratio’ to cinema staff, it’s not like I’m saying they should all understand foot lamberts and what the difference in them means for 2D vs 3D projection, but not knowing what an aspect ratio is if you work at a cinema shocks me. Some have also, when I’ve pulled them in to show them that a frame line has been set wrongly, been unable to see the problem. These issues remain pressing, but the problems have become worse of late.
Light is the key ingredient of cinema. The precise use of it to project the film and the restriction of it in the room where the film is being projected are the essentials for showing a film properly, and this is where I’ve seen cinemas fall down lately. At the London Film Festival, a public screening of Snowtown was all but destroyed by the fact that, in a room behind the screen, a light had been left on. This had the effect of creating a huge shadow on the screen, in the rough shape of a proscenium, which was visible on about three quarters of the screen, completely destroying many of Justin Kurzel’s compositions. One of my critic friends got up to complain three separate times, and many others also complained, and were issued refunds. The thing is, refunds aren’t the point. Refunds are what you resort to when the problem can’t be fixed (say a print, as sometimes happened through sloppy 35mm projection, burned in the gate), not when all you need to do is take one look at the screen, pause the digital file, and get someone to turn some lights off. The fact that they didn’t take two minutes to do that means that they either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was a problem, either is inexcusable. This wasn’t just any screening, but part of a major international film festival with a near sold out audience (presumably) largely made up of discerning filmgoers. Vue should be mortified about the state they allowed that film to be shown in, and if I had my way that screening would lose them next year’s festival.
Light has also interfered with recent screenings in other ways, with ‘safety’ lights (NINE of them) casting on the screen in a showing of Tyrannosaur. The worst issue, and the most worrying one, however, came at a screening of We Need to Talk About Kevin. At this screening we saw every single problem that digital projection can throw up; first the file seemed to be inaccessible (something which cancelled a screening of Melancholia at another of my regular screens recently), then it came up with digital noise and interference altering the colours of the picture. During the half hour it took to fix these issues, and between chatting to an usher about what was going on, I happened to glance back at the projection booth, and see that the 3D lens, while not covering the lamp, had been left as close as possible to it, probably so it could be easily slid across rather than having to be re-fitted next time a 3D film was shown. I thought little about this until Kevin finally came up and within seconds I could see a problem; just off centre on the screen was a thin outline of a rectangle in light, brighter on the near edge, it was particularly noticeable in bright scenes, of which there are many in Kevin. No problem, I thought, the projectionist will spot it. Five minutes went by, ten, I spoke to the usher, fifteen… SERIOUSLY, WHY THE BLUE F**K IS THAT RECTANGLE STILL ON THE SCREEN?! Incensed, I walked out. I tried very hard to be nice to the usher, it wasn’t her fault (and she was very pretty), but I made it clear that I thought they should fire their projectionist who, again, clearly either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was a huge, stark staring obvious, problem with how this film (at a paid public preview screening the night before it opened) was being shown. I may be way off base here, and if someone with more technical knowledge wishes to expose my idiocy in the comments then I’ll look forward to it, but it seemed to me that some light from the projector lamp was hitting the 3D lens, and creating that shape on the screen. Again, it’s so basic, all it needs is for someone to take a brief look and spend two minutes fixing a problem.
Cinema attendance is weathering the recession quite well, but I’ll be intrigued to see how it goes (particularly if you take out Harry Potter) this year, as the amount of complaints I’ve had and have been hearing about projection are soaring since the dominance of digital. These are by no means the only issues with the experience of cinemagoing, the familiar complaints of having too few ushers to deal with people talking or playing around with their phones, noisy and smelly foods (honestly, what genius thought ‘you know what’s an ideal cinema food? Nachos!’), overlong advert and trailer reels, reaching 32 minutes this Christmas, one source told me, and the more recent issue of service becoming much slower as some cinemas close dedicated ticket lines and move ticket sales to the concession stands. The difference is that none of those things will stop me going to the cinema, but sloppy projection will, and it will stop other serious cinemagoers too. Okay, you might think that’s a small issue, but with 2010′s figures showing that for every resident of the UK there were about 3 cinema visits last year, and the fact that I went 212 times that year, cinemas really can’t afford to lose me and my movie buff mates.
So let me come full circle here. Front Room Cinema is ultimately about watching movies at home, and I love doing that, but I love watching them in their natural habitat more, and with home cinema technology improving all the time I am seriously concerned by the careless destruction of that natural habitat by a culture that values a ticket sale and a box of popcorn over showing a film as it should be shown. I’d be interested to hear, in the comments, any of your tales of cinemagoing woe, but don’t just share them here, make sure you tell the cinemas themselves, loud and clear, that we want them to care about how films look.
What are your thoughts on the stat of cinema projection today? Do you agree with Sam? Comment below