Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

4k's Impact On Story Telling: Format Matters

This weekend marked the official release of The Dark Knight Rises, the last in the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films.  My wife and I joined several of our friends for a road trip up to Seattle to watch the film on the largest IMAX screen still projecting film in the Northwest. By the end of the day we had covered almost 400 miles, seen the film on two screens, projected in two different formats on a journey that lasted almost 18 hours, and reinforced this storytelling truth to me: Format Matters.

Our original intent was to make a day trip to Seattle to watch The Dark Knight Rises at the Seattle Science Center IMAX. It is an 80' IMAX screen that is roughly 6 stories tall and they are still projecting film. This is truly my favorite theater experience. There are very few places where you can go to see film projected these days, let alone, go to a theater that still cares about how a film is projected. As we took our seats in the dead center of the theater, the lights dimmed, and the massive screen was filled by the beautiful imagery shot by Walter Pfister - I knew I was in for an experience unlike any other I had this year.

As my wife can tell you, it is VERY important to me to watch films in their intended delivery format. If a film was shot in 3D, I want to see it in 3D. (Even though I don't like 3D.) If it is shot and finished on film, I want to see it projected on film by a theater that cares about projection. Not only was The Dark Knight Rises shot and finished on film, but it was also partially shot on IMAX. That meant I had to see it on a REAL IMAX screen, not a lie-max. This experience was worth every penny. Including the 6 hour round trip drive (about 400 miles) and waiting in line for 3 1/2 hours - all in one day. (Yeah, I take it that seriously.) The real IMAX experience immerses you into the world of the film in a way that just isn't possible through any other format, in my opinion. As Bruce Wayne entered the Bat Cave and the lights turned on, I felt like I was actually there. Flying over Gotham City, I felt like we were there flying along and could fall to our death if we leaned to far out of our seats. I was a part of that world. This is the kind of film and experience that makes me excited and passionate about working in this field.

Christopher Nolan crafted a well told story, and captured it with Walter Pfister in a way that very few people are capable of doing - these are masters at work. Not only were the visuals stunning, but they engaged me in the story, drawing me in deeper as it unfolded before my eyes. Christopher Nolan is such a skilled storyteller, that he was able to keep hidden several key plot points until he wanted to reveal them to me in the film. (This is significant to me, as 98% of the time I can tell you how the story is going to unfold before it happens.) I became so involved in the story that the switch from 35mm to 70mm did not distract me in the slightest. In fact, there were times when I had to force myself to pay attention to the switch so that I could study their visual differences. And yet I kept finding myself drawn back into the story as it overtook my ability to study the imagery. This was a truly an immersive experience that 3D has yet to even begin to touch.

As soon as the film was over, we were ready to see it again. So we pulled out our phones, and checked the show times for Cinetopia in Portland. We had just enough time to make the drive back to Portland and catch the last screening of the film in their Grand XL Theater. Cinetopia features some of the latest technology in digital projection with their 4k projectors, and screens up to 70 feet*. Their Living Room and Movie Parlor theaters are some of the most luxurious around. This was going to be a rather unique experience - I was going to be able to see the same film back to back, in two well equipped theaters, projected on two very large screens, but delivered in two very different formats. It was a great setup for a head to head comparison. How much does 4k matter? Does film really add anything to the experience?

Unfortunately, I learned that the DCP that Cinetopia had was only 2k. I don't know if this was a theater or distributor decision, or if a 4k DCP is even available for theaters that are not equipped for digital IMAX. Disappointed, but not deterred, I took my seat in the center of the theater with my wife and friends and we watched the film for a second time.

As I watched the film, I did notice a qualitative difference between the film print on the 80' IMAX screen, and the 2k DCP on the 70' screen. The first thing that I noticed, and was disappointed by, was the fact that everything had been cropped to 2.35. In the IMAX version, the IMAX shots were seen in full frame - not so in this DCP. And this was not due to the limitation of the screen size. There was enough screen real estate vertically, but the 2k DCP did not make the switch in-between ratios. If I had not seen the IMAX version, I'm not sure I would miss it the switch on a cognitive level. However, it did make for a less immersive experience in the theater. While it did not change the meaning, or alter the plot in any way, the visceral experience of that large frame had less of an impact on me at a gut level.

The second thing that stood out to me was how much the 35mm and 70mm frame were equalized in the 2k DCP. Film is an analogue format, and as such it does not technically have any resolution inherent in it. You could, if you wanted to, scan it at 16k and say you have a 16k image. However, at some point you get diminishing returns. For 35mm film, it is generally agreed to (but still debated) that this point is at 4k and so film is said to have a "4k resolution". And IMAX is thought to have a resolution approaching "12k". Regardless of how you decide to slice it, when I watched the 35mm film projected on the IMAX screen, and then saw the IMAX frame, the differences were noticeable. In comparison to the 70mm film, the 35mm looked soft and not as detailed. But when I saw the 2k DCP this visual difference was not as apparent - even on a 70' screen. Don't get me wrong, the differences where there - just not as pronounced. It was almost as if the 35mm footage had magically gotten better, and the IMAX footage had magically gotten worse. This is not true of course, as I know both Mr. Nolan & Mr. Pfister take great care in how their films are handled. Instead, I think that this is just a natural byproduct of scaling down all that information and making it fit into a 2k frame. The smaller you go, the more information you throw away, and the less the differences between the formats stand out. (As was demonstrated with my experience with the Zacuto Shootout 2012.)

The last thing that jumped off the screen at me, was the overall aesthetic difference between seeing a film projected digitally and one properly projected on film. By comparison, the 2k DCP felt washed out- it wasn't as lush and detailed as the film projection had been. This became really apparent to me during the night exterior scenes that were shot in IMAX. When projected on film, all of the detail, the tonality, and gradations were there. But in the 2k DCP, it turned to mush, it was more muddy- the clarity and subtlety had been lost. It just didn't feel as real to me as the film print had just hours before.

As I reflect on this experience, it reminds me that format matters. Part of the experience, part of the message of any work of art, or any communication for that matter, is inherent in the format that it is delivered in. Changing the format will change how that message is received by the audience and in that process something will be lost. It's unavoidable. If you want to fully experience a film, then I highly recommend that you do whatever you can to see it in the format that the author intended it to be viewed in. If you don't, I think you'll be missing out on the subtleties of the story - you will not receive the full impact the author had intended for you. If a film is shot in 3D, see it in 3D. If shot in IMAX, see it in REAL IMAX. If it is shot in and delivered in 4k, see it projected in 4k.

While watching a film in a format different from what was originally intended will not dramatically change the story. And I'm sure that probably 90% - 95% of viewers could not articulate the difference between formats (Other then, it was a bigger screen). I am convinced that we all respond on a gut level to these differences whether we can articulate them or not. It is not about a format war of 4k is better then 2k, or film is better then digital. Rather, it is about doing what we can as an audience to view a film in its intended format so that we can experience everything that storyteller intended for us to experience. A master storyteller, will use the tools at his or her disposal to expertly craft our perception and experience of that story. It is our job as an audience to do the best we can to enable that to happen.

*Cinetopia does not call these theaters IMAX as they do not conform to the IMAX specs. I REALLY appreciate this, as there are other theaters in town that have smaller screens, and yet they advertise them as IMAX, which is the reason for the term Lie-Max ...

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

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