Cinephiles Beware the Dome

March 3, 2008 at 10:29 am in Entertainment, Filmmaking/Filmmakers, Media

Last Friday I finally got around to seeing There Will Be Blood over at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. I wanted to see the film under the best circumstances possible with particular consideration paid to the picture quality. TWBB was in fact shot and posted with a minimum of digital enhancement, most notably where the final color-timing is concerned. (You can read all about it in January’s edition of American Cinematographer Magazine).

Many movies these days go through what is called a digital intermediate. This means that the movie is shot on film, scanned into a computer at two or four thousand lines of resolution, digitally enhanced or altered (the intermediate), and then captured back to film using a laser camera. The “old” way of doing things was to shoot the film on film, then using a series of red, blue, and green printer lights, a colorist would adjust the luminance and chrominance values of the picture, then print the results from the negative directly to film (for more information, read Richard Crudo, ASC’s “A Call for Digital Printer Lights”).

This analogue method of coloring tends to work more within the parameters of a particular film stock’s unique “look”, unlike the DI process which can extend the colorist’s reach beyond the boundaries of the original negative’s capabilities.

That being said, TWBB is a gorgeous film. Having now seen it I can see why Elswit won the Oscar. Each scene has its own look and speaks with its own visual language. I was originally going to see it at the Dome on Sunset when it was playing there a few weeks ago, because as far as I knew the Dome had the best picture and sound in Hollywood. I asked a friend at work if he wanted to come along. He shook his head.

“If you’re going to see that movie, then don’t see it at the Dome,” he replied. “The Dome sucks.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because every movie I’ve seen there looks like shit,” he stated.

 Find out why after the jump…

We’re both in the business of filmmaking. My friend works at a company that supplies high-end digital cinema cameras to big-name directors, and I’m part of a post-production company that specializes in digital intermediates. We care a lot about how a film looks both going into production and coming out of post. He’s more of a purist, I should warn you, but his wariness has yielded some interesting facts about Los Angeles’s only geodesic cinema experience.

The first problem with the Dome, according to my friend, is that the giant 86 x 34 ft screen is curved. This is of course, part of the design – both architecturally and functionally to accomodate the 3-strip Cinerama format - but will warp the picture depending on where you sit (ideally, centered and 1 1/2 screen heighths back). Word has it that when Evita had its premiere there in 1996, director Alan Parker had a flat screen installed in front of the curved one because he wanted his film to be seen under the most ideal circumstances.

The next problem, he says, is that the screen is too bright, about 1.2 points of gain over what it should be. I did some research on screen gain and this is what I found:

Gain is a measurement of the reflectivity of any screen or projection surface. The gain number represents a ratio of the light that is reflected from the screen as compared to the light reflected from a standard white (magnesium oxide) board. Therefore, a screen with a gain of 1.0 will reflect the same amount of light as that from a white board. A screen rated at 1.5 gain will reflect 50% more light as that from a white board, whereas a gray screen with an 0.8 rating will reflect 80% of the light from a white board. (from projectorcentral.com)

I mentioned this to Markland, and he said that he’s heard stories of film actually burning up in the projector. These two accounts didn’t really jive until i did some digging at cinematreasures.org. According to a lot of posts from cinephiles far more concerned than yours truly, it seems that the Dome screen is in fact, too dim. This could perhaps mean that the projectors in the Dome are using bulbs that are too powerful, but necessary to acheive a proper reflectance off of the screen. Hence, the film burns. (This theory is totally uncorroborated, and I’m going to try to follow up after speaking with an Arclight rep.) You can read all of the highly opinionated and somewhat repetitive technical reviews of the Dome at its dedicated cinematreasures.org page.

Supposedly, the rest of the Arclight “black box” theaters are right on the money when it comes to picture and sound. From what I’ve learned through my “research” is that the Dome’s history as something of an anachronism and a tourist attraction and its mishmash of old and new technologies hasn’t really endeared it to the discriminating filmgoers of Los Angeles. In any case, I saw TWBB in the downstairs Theater 3. It was in fact a gorgeous exhibition with crystal clear sound. But it’s three days since I’ve seen it and I find that it’s not the cinematography or the sound design that’s left an impression on me, but rather the gripping story of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview – from its beginning in a dusty, dirty mineshaft all the way to its final, horrible conclusion in the ruins of a crumbling mansion.  The moral of the story? When the credits have rolled and the house lights have come up, there’s nothing that can detract from the power of a truly magnificent film.

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