Earlier this week, I was given a tour of the projection booth at the shiny new AMC Yonge and Dundas. The first all-digital megaplex in the city, the 24-screen complex boasts “the world’s largest collection of SXRD 4K digital cinema projectors from Sony under one roof”, according to the cheerful press packet.
(The packet also seems to suggest that the high-def advertising display mounted on the front of the building is brighter than the sun, but I might have misinterpreted that part.)
Digital cinema presentations are not exactly a new thing. Hollywood’s been working on the technology since the early 1990s, and while George Lucas’ blue-sky talk about a pure digital future hasn’t exactly come to pass, we’ve finally reached the point where a digital experience can rival a 35mm projection.
The Toronto International Film Festival has been using Christie digital projectors for the past few years; in 2007, almost every film I saw at the Varsity 8 was screened digitally on a 2K CP-2000, and looked terrific – no small accomplishment, given that the room’s gargantuan, curved screen and considerable distance from the projection booth are both potential challenges to digital presentation.
And digital projectors are routinely used for 3D engagements – when Disney screened Meet the Robinsons for the press last year, we had to truck out to Mississauga for a properly equipped auditorium. There are more convenient spots now ... like, say, the AMC at Yonge and Dundas.
So, back to that projection booth. It’s entirely the opposite of my grandfather’s old movie house –a dark, stark bowling-alley kind of space, spotted with server towers and squat black obelisks with giant lamps firing streams of images into a string of theatres. It smells vaguely like air-conditioning coolant. There’s a desk at the far end, with a couple of computer monitors and a single keyboard. A guy tells the system what movie to run in which theatre, enters a couple of authorization codes to unlock the appropriate file, and that’s it – no film-leader countdowns, no tweaking of the focus, no rolls of nickels tucked into reels of film. No reels at all, obviously.
But there are also no opportunities for misframed projection – digital “prints” are shipped at precisely the right aspect ratio for projection, no more and no less – and fewer things to go wrong.
Digital projection will never fully replace film, because film is cheap and portable and universal. Film is like the light bulb; wherever you go, anywhere in the world, someone will have a lamp.
And though digital is much more complex, and way more expensive to set up, the studios love its promise to cut costs – each 35mm print of a feature film runs about $3000 – and protect content, since a digitally encrypted hard-drive file is much, much harder to borrow and bootleg than a film print.
There were a few calibration issues to be worked out down at the AMC, but they seem to be on top of things: Monday night’s screening of 21 looked a little off, with watery motion and some flat contrasts here and there, as though the movie itself had been shot on HD video rather than film, but Wednesday night’s screening of Leatherheads looked crisp and bright, with the illusion of depth that comes from celluloid.