Even Netflix is doing it: adventures in advanced film technology

We’re so conscious of movies as cultural expressions — their performers played up on magazine covers, their directors lionized or criticized or both, their storylines hashed over, their titles entering our language — that we’re apt to forget they’re also technological artifacts, the product of an ongoing and increasingly sophisticated set of developments involving chemistry, optics, mechanical and electrical engineering, and electronics. In the beginning, pictures didn’t move at all; then they did. Then we added sound, followed by color and other improvements. It’s a historical irony that the character of Norma Desmond, responding to someone’s remark that she used to be big, declared, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” at the outset of the 1950s, in which movies not only became brighter and sharper, as had been happening all along, but also got bigger and broader — widescreen formats, explored earlier, began to spread in that decade. Three-D, the ability to suggest depth, has arrived twice now. The tale continues.

In recent years, filmmakers and film technologists have developed new formats with the aim of improving what we still call film, though much of it is now digitally captured, processed, and projected. One of those technologists is Douglas Trumbull, who has been practicing a form of wizardry since the late 1960s, when he created visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. A few days ago, MIT Technology Review reported on a system called Magi, which Trumbull has been working on for a while now. His aim, as he says in the story, is “being able to create profound personal experiences for audiences.… Whatever it is, I want you to feel like what’s happening on the screen is actually happening in real time, to you, in this theater.” To that end, Trumbull has devised a new form of image capture along with a new theater in which to show the results. In the Magi system, images are captured in 3-D, at what’s known as 4K resolution,¹ and at 120 frames per second (rather than the 24 f.p.s. that’s been standard for decades). The results are shown in a 60-seat “Magi Pod” theater, designed to be transportable, in which the screen is slightly curved and every seat faces its center.

Trumbull’s project may sound idealistic, even quixotic. But those who’ve seen what his methods can accomplish have come away convinced of their value. Ang Lee is one who saw a demo, in 2014, and was sold on it. His soon-to-be-released film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was shot using what the Tech Review article calls “a similar process,” which, like Trumbull’s Magi system, employs 3-D, 4K, and 120 f.p.s. (I’d guess that the differences involve details of how 3-D is captured and/or shown.) In an article posted online a few days ago and included in today’s print edition, The New York Times talks to Lee and others about the new film and the exotic methods used to create it. One reason for Lee’s choice involves motion blur in existing 3-D systems, which is apt to affect viewers whether or not they consciously notice it. Lee appears to believe his new approach will solve that problem. “It’s just good to look at,” he says in the Times article. “You look at it, you just get it.”

Undoubtedly the proof of the pudding will be in the screening, and in this respect Lee’s film faces more than one challenge. There’s the Hobbit hurdle: many viewers who hoped for a better cinema experience in 2012, when Peter Jackson began releasing his Hobbit trilogy in a 3-D, high-frame-rate format, felt that the result instead looked worse. I thought it resembled a strangely flat and sterile kind of video. (If you want to know more, consult the long, detailed analysis written by photographer-filmmaker Vincent Laforet for his blog.) Luckily for Lee, the potential audience for his contemporary drama probably doesn’t include the Ring nuts who felt burned by Jackson’s experiment, although in truth they may have cared less than the rest of us. More important, not every theater in America or the rest of the world is currently able to show such films in the way their directors intend. An earlier New York Times article indicates that the premiere of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in a New York Film Festival showing this Friday, as well as its New York run, which begins on November 11, will take place in a theater specially outfitted to meet the film’s requirements. As for everywhere else, today’s Times article quotes Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group, declaring, optimistically if vaguely, that “almost every proper upscale multiplex, worldwide, is fully capable of showing the film.” The Tech Review article is more specific, reporting that “only about half of theaters globally can play 3-D movies at 120 fps” and adding that those can’t currently handle the full 4K resolution. Rothman also gives a broader rationale for trying the new system: “[Filmmakers] need to dream, and we [the studios] need to dare.… If we just sit here, it’ll be Netflix and chill instead of dinner and a movie. We’ll see what happens in the world, but I know Netflix can’t do this.”

He’s mostly right about that, but yesterday I discovered by chance that Netflix recently undertook an experiment using some of the same advanced technologies. An article in the October 2016 issue of American Cinematographer, available online here, discusses a short film called Meridian, a project that was intended from the outset to employ 4K among other techniques and that came to include high-frame-rate capture as well. The overall aim of the project was to “illustrate” — or more likely discover — how “high-end image acquisition advancements might enhance the viewer experience for the Web-based streaming service.” In other words, Netflix’s hope is that if you create a technically high-quality film and scale it down before showing it, it’ll still look better than if you create it at lower quality to begin with. This has often been borne out in other areas, and it has an important implication: the worries of filmmakers such as Trumbull and Lee, and of filmgoers, about showing the new high-tech films in their original format may be a little overwrought. It’s conceivable that the new work will look sharper, more vivid, and more engaging than the old stuff even if it’s shown just as the old stuff is.

Though the AC article is heavy on jargon and acronyms, it might tell you something. (Viewers of Veep will notice that one of that show’s actors plays a supporting role in Meridian.) The film itself, which hadn’t been completed when the article went to press, is now available for streaming from Netflix; I haven’t had a chance to view it yet. Registered users should be able to find it by clicking here or using the usual methods.

Most of the linked articles sidestep, for understandable reasons, a couple of important points. Moviegoing is not only a personal experience, as a couple of them mention; it’s also a social experience, a communal event, a shared encounter. Laforet’s analysis of seeing the first Hobbit film in different formats refers to the audience response to support some of his points. The other pieces, despite their talk of finding ways to keep drawing people to the cinema, make no mention of the fact that, in a way, cinema is other people. Furthermore, what distinguishes a film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only the quality of the effects or the overall quality of the images but also the quality of the imagination behind it. If Ang Lee’s upcoming film fails, in terms of box office, critical reception, or both, it may not be because of the technology. Likewise if it succeeds.

¹ The resolution of a 4K image is 4096 by 2160 pixels. Readers accustomed to tossing off megapixel figures for their smartphones and digital cameras may be surprised that this amounts to only 8.8 megapixels. Consider two things. One, a motion-picture camera shooting 4K has to capture, process, and store not one or a handful of these images but dozens or scores of them every second, depending on the frame rate. Two, this is roughly four times the resolution of a 1080p HDTV, whose image size is 1920 by 1080. We should all know by now that megapixels don’t directly equal quality, but if you think your HDTV looks good, you can expect 4K to look better.

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Originally published at ifitbenotnow.wordpress.com on October 9, 2016.