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    seenhear's Avatar
    seenhear
     

    Cinema projection - a lost art?

    In 1982, George Lucas and Tom Holman created a set of quality standards for the audio and visual presentation of movies in cinemas. If a movie theater could pass muster for these standards, then that theater was awarded a certification and the right to display the logo of that certification on screen, in the lobby, and in advertisements. That logo is the now well-known three lettered logo: THX. If you went to a THX-certified theater, you knew you were going to see & hear the film as close to how the director intended as possible.

    It's no secret with the advent of digital projection in movie theaters, that a good film-based movie presentation is becoming a hard-to-find event. Some directors still insist on using film (as opposed to digital video) to create their movies. If you are going to see a movie that was captured on film rather than digitally, it's great to try to go see it in a good theater with a film projector. Many theaters these days are now digital only, and even if they can do both, they most often receive their movies digitally (even ones created on film are converted to digital and projected digitally). This is fine for many movies, in fact as the number of viewings goes up, the digital version will still look pristine, whereas the film version will start to show wear: dust, hair, spots, faded colors, etc. visible on the screen. But for a movie created on film, nothing beats viewing it in a good theater with a film projector while the celluloid is still young (first couple weeks of release).

    One recent such movie is Chris Nolan's Interstellar which was shot on 70mm IMAX film and 35mm standard film. I was excited to see this movie and therefore wanted to find a good film presentation of it. I wasn't so keen on travelling to Dublin (CA) or San Francisco to view it in one of the few "local" 70mm IMAX theaters; so I looked for a 35mm presentation of it.

    Santa Rosa Entertainment Group's "Roxy Stadium 14" theater came up as an option. They have been showing Interstellar on multiple screens, but if you go to their web site, they indicate that three of their showings are in 35mm and "Playing in our main Auditorium" and they even use a different poster graphic (see attached). Sounds like a special thing, right? I got even more excited, since I knew the Roxy was THX certified.

    It was special, alright: "special" in a bad way. First, the previews came up. There were shadows of dirt and dust from the projection room's window on the screen; but that's okay because these were just previews and the film could be old & dirty or they might not clean that window or projector as much as the main one used for the feature presentation. But focus was off, and so was the geometry. You probably know what I mean by focus (blurry picture, evidenced by the fact that you couldn't really read fine print on the screen, like the "www.mpaa.org" at the bottom of the green "this preview has been approved for general audiences" screen.) By geometry, I mean that what should have been a perfectly rectangular shaped image on the screen was stretched and distorted. This can be caused by several things, like a mis-aligned lens or the entire projector being mis-aligned relative to the screen. In this case it was most likely that the axis of the projector was not close to perpendicular to the screen. The sides of the image were slanted so that the image was rhomboid in shape instead of rectangular. But again, I let it slide because it was just the previews. But I was starting to get worried about the main show.

    Sure enough, as the projection switched to the main projector, the image was bad. Admittedly, it was better than what we saw in the previews, but it was still unacceptable for a THX-certified theater who bragged about this being their "main auditorium". The focus was again off. It was better than the previews, but I could barely make out the small text "A VIACOM COMPANY" underneath the Paramount mountain+stars logo; stuff like that should be sharp and in focus. Chris Nolan's production company, "Syncopy" has a great logo for judging the geometry of a projection, because it's the word "SYNCOPY" with a rectangular border around it. If the rectangle doesn't look like a rectangle (i.e. 90 degree corners, mutually perpendicular horizontal and vertical lines) then the geometry is wrong and you're not going to see the movie as the director intended. Well, last Thursday night at the Roxy Stadium 14 in Santa Rosa, we did not see the 8pm 35mm showing of Interstellar as director Chris Nolan intended. Aside from the focus and the geometry, the brightness was not uniform. The picture faded in brightness from the center (brightest) to the edges. This kind of fade is normal and to a small extent unavoidable due to the nature of spreading light from a single bulb across a 40-foot screen. However it was excessive and distracting in this case.

    Santa Rosa's Roxy 14 theater is a THX-certified theater, and they tout their certification. Indeed, they played one of the older (early 1990's - "cavalcade") THX trailers before Interstellar started. I think if anyone from THX actually came to watch a 35mm film in that theater these days, they would immediately rescind that certification.

    The thing is, I've seen similar problems in the past at the Roxy (so yes I should have known better than to get my hopes up, alas I'm an optimist). One time the image was absolutely not view-able. It turned out that the correct (anamorphic) lens was not in place on the projector! Another time the analog sound track was playing instead of the digital one, and it was almost inaudible. Both times I complained right at the beginning of the movie and staff fixed the problem quickly. Usually after the movie they give me a "sorry here's a coupon for a free viewing at any SREG theater." Thursday night, I really didn't want to miss a minute of the movie, and after a 3 hour movie I didn't have the time nor energy to complain, and I knew that the real manager probably wasn't there that late anyway. Besides, enough is enough. A little public shaming is in order.

    Has anyone else had a bad experience at the Roxy? I only harp on them because they claim to be THX certified and therefore should not have these problems. I'm betting that most of their 14 theaters don't have these problems as much since they are probably mostly digital. Unfortunately, I can not recommend watching a show on their "main auditorium" until they advertise that they are "newly THX (re)certified."
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