Why is picture quality poor when old movies are shown in a theater?
January 31, 2017 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Why don't they project Blu-ray or 4K versions of old films in theaters?

I like old movies. I especially like watching old movies on the big screen theaters. I frequently pay extra to see them.

I am fortunate enough to have three Alamo Drafthouse theaters in my hometown, and they frequently show old movies, with social qualities added (Dress up! Yell at the screen! Special meals!), and, while it makes for an expensive evening, it's a lot of fun. But the movies never look super-good. They look and sound old. (And it's not just at the Drafthouse; I've encountered the same thing at other theaters.)

They once did a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" and replaced the audio with Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon." They billed it as a "high-resolution sound experience." Now, I've heard this album played back on $100,000US stereo systems, and it was definitely not that quality in the theater. And the picture quality of the film was quite poor.

I've seen other older films in theaters recently, and the picture quality has been consistently poor, or not as good as I'd hope. Why is this? Should I simply not expect the quality I get with Blu-Ray discs on my 65-inch 4K TV in a movie theater?

If it is a digital theater, couldn’t they project a Blu-ray or 4K version of the film? Or are there licensing reasons for not doing that? Or are old films only available for public, commercial display on film, and the prints are old and dirty?
posted by the matching mole to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I went to see Blazing Saddles a few months ago at Radio City Music Hall, they definitely projected the Blu-ray.

On the other hand, a lot of people (myself included) prefer to see movies on old, scratchy but actual film than touched-up and remastered Blu-rays. In the above situation, I was actually kind of disappointed that I wasn't going to be able to see an archival (or otherwise) print.
posted by griphus at 11:29 AM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Do you know that they didn't project from a Blu-ray? That's what the UPCA theater here in NYC used to do before they finished fundraising for a new projector, and I never noticed it being particularly impressive looking -- what's high-definition for a tv-screen is bound to suffer when blown out to movie-screen size.
posted by oh yeah! at 11:31 AM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]


Just for an example, when you see most classic or older movies at the Film Forum in NYC, it will almost always be on film. They've probably been playing the same reels for ages, so the quality isn't the absolute best (definitely less clean than Blu-ray) but going to see a movie on film is just a different experience that watching it on Blu-ray and that's the experience a lot of people show up at revival houses for.
posted by griphus at 11:31 AM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


Let's say you have a theater and you want to show Some Classic Film. That is not a film that been converted for digital projection. It hasn't been converted to 4K. And anyway, people go to classic films to see film. The studio isn't going to strike a fresh print for this for a single showing or even for a single engagement at one theater. So you go find a print. Let's say it's from the last time the film was restored and got a limited re-release, or maybe it's even a print from when it was re-released in the days before home video. (Which is/was pretty common.)

The print is going to be old.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:31 AM on January 31, 2017 [10 favorites]


If it is a digital theater, couldn’t they project a Blu-ray or 4K version of the film?

Even setting aside the likely audience preference for film, I feel like you vastly, vastly overestimate the availability of nice digital restorations of old films. They don't grow on trees. A good restoration is a painstaking process. See this piece on the 4K restoration of The Third Man, which had already benefited from an excellent restoration around the late 90s to bring it up to modern quality for the Criterion DVD release. These films have limited audiences. Where is the money going to come from?

(P.S. Go see The Third Man in the theater, regardless of film quality.)
posted by praemunire at 11:42 AM on January 31, 2017 [6 favorites]


A) Film degrades, and the film or the master any copies are made from also degrades. Color degrades: even in films from the 1970s/80s, a lot of the blues & greens are now reddish on unrestored prints.
B) Depending on how old the movie is, the aspect ratio (the picture's width to height) might have been changed in making a restored version; for some years now the most common aspect ratios are 1.87:1 or 2.85:1, where an early film might have been 1.66:1 or even 1.33:1. So the basic shape of the picture might have been stretched or trimmed to fit.
C) Before making a digital version of some old movie, was it first restored, or was it just transferred as-is to digital? Was the picture actually cleaned of dirt and scratches and other visible damage? And the soundtrack: remember, old movies weren't Dolby surround sound, or going back a bit more they weren't even stereo, they were mono; and you can't 'restore' something that never existed in the first place.

Look, I'm an IMAX theater projectionist; I get asked all the time "why is the film from the moon landing so grainy?!? After all, this is an IMAX Digital Laser theater, isn't it? So the film should be IMAX Digital Laser picture quality!" Sheesh. Couple things wrong with that, but the main one is, that's how it was filmed. And unless you have a time machine and can take the astronauts in 1969 a modern IMAX camera, instead of what they did have, then all you'll ever see from the moon landing is grainy.
posted by easily confused at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2017 [13 favorites]


FWIW, this is why restorations are such a big deal to many film nerds. I could have gone to see scratchy garbage prints of Phantasm any number of times over the years, but I didn't. But when JJ Abrams and Bad Robot Productions digitally restored the film to 4K and cleaned up the artefacts, digitally removed telltale signs of wires, etc. I was right there. Because that wasn't just "old movie in theater again," that was something special.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2017


There are a handful of situations that could result in the less-than-pristine projection you're describing, and I'm guessing several situations apply to the different cases.
  • Although I haven't been, the Alamo Drafthouse chain is known for catering to film fans who consider themselves purists, and they pride themselves on still having some film projection in their theaters. It's likely at least one of these situations involved actual film reels -- which is a pretty rare situation these days, and prized!
  • Other films, even ones with some fame, have been poorly transferred to digital or have not been restored. I've seen Tarkovsky's Stalker projected off a DVD transfer that looked pretty bad, but it's the best available (thankfully Criterion has recently been working on a release). I've seen a few "blu-ray" copies of films that aren't that rare that are were obviously just reworks of the dvd release with no real change in quality.
  • There's also the question of retro appeal. I kind of cracked up when you mentioned the whole Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon mash-up -- this was a fixture of urban lore/urban legend for a decade already when I was a kid, and I would expect any claim of fidelity to be tongue in cheek -- you're talking about recreating something kids did at home in the 80s! For pure authenticity, I would *demand* this be done with a film print and the album played on a vinyl record (the original directions were very specific about when to flip the record).
  • There's also licensing. It might be that specific films aren't available in digital theater presentations legally so they're using the best available copy.

posted by mikeh at 12:29 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


Or more succinctly said on the Wizard of Oz bit:
They billed it as a "high-resolution sound experience."
high-resolution

whatever could they mean?
posted by mikeh at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2017 [5 favorites]


Why don't they project Blu-ray or 4K versions of old films in theaters?

They do, when those versions exist and can be licensed, and in fact digital projection is becoming the norm. Film requires prints and projectionists who know how to run the machines and keep the prints in good order, and as those prints age they suffer. Digital is easier to distribute, easier to run, and doesn't degrade over time. It's also basically a requirement for current releases, but it's an expensive upgrade for an independent, standalone, "art house" theater (I think digital projectors run something like $80K/screen, and movie theaters aren't exactly a high margin business).

Some theaters might still be showing film because they can't afford that upgrade cost; others may prefer film because that's what purist film geeks prefer and will pay for. I'm a purist and I will often skip classics shown in 4K DCP, because I can get that experience at home in my pajamas, with real butter on my popcorn.
posted by fedward at 12:47 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]


" I will often skip classics shown in 4K DCP, because I can get that experience at home in my pajamas, with real butter on my popcorn."

I'm of the same mind. For new films, the benefit of seeing it in the theater is the big screen, the THX (or whatever) sound, the communal experience, and seeing it ASAP. For old films, the benefit of seeing it in the theater is seeing an original 35mm print. In rare cases, maybe there is no disc/digital version in distribution, but mostly there is so seeing it on that old scratchy film is a chance to experience it as it was meant to be seen. Obviously a pristine print is preferred, but most old films, especially obscure ones, haven't survived in good shape.
posted by abrightersummerday at 12:57 PM on January 31, 2017


" I will often skip classics shown in 4K DCP, because I can get that experience at home in my pajamas, with real butter on my popcorn."

First of all, having worked for the Tribeca Film Festival the year they screened a DCP restoration of Doctor Zhivago, I assure you that you CANNOT recreate that experience in your home. And Zhivago is a good point of comparison, because the whole reason the DCP was created was because the studio was remastering it for BluRay, and decided to spend the money to produce the DCP for a brief tour through select theaters. The BluRay was a step down from the DCP, in fact the DCP file was downsampled in order to make the BluRay. In the theater, the blues of the wide open sky were unbelievable. And every human was beautiful -- there's no grain on my face when I see you in real life, and there was none on the screen; it was like I was seeing the movie when it first premiered with a totally unblemished print.

Let me clarify with numbers: Doctor Zhivago is 3 hours and 20 minutes, or 200 minutes long. A BluRay disc has a 50GB capacity. If you remaster it for BluRay, meaning if that is the peak quality you're after, then 50GB is your maximum size, assuming you put no special features on your disc. The Zhivago file was over 300GB. And that was (pretty sure) for a 4K projector. The more modern DCP projectors are 8K, which would demand a larger file size for smooth projection.

The only real limiting factor in how "good" a DCP image looks is the throughput from the server. HDMI 2.0 is 18 GBps, which may be enough assuming the projector doesn't choke on that much data coming in. This is to say nothing of the sound quality -- unless your home system is set up for 5.1, 48kHz, 24bit uncompressed, you are also missing out on what DCP audio is capable of.

TL;DR -- DCP is the first video format that is truly capable of outshining 35mm and even 70mm exhibition formats. If you want to argue that film grain is "more authentic" or "warmer", then you're getting into unquantifiable aesthetics, just like the vinyl/digital debate.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 1:54 PM on January 31, 2017 [8 favorites]


But anyway, all that aside, the other posters have mostly answered the question. I just want to chime in that print traffic for film festivals used to be my job, and even for films that were entirely digital -- that is, they were shot, edited and finished without ever bothering with celluloid -- I would not screen from a BluRay unless there were no other options.

BluRay was never designed as an exhibition format. First of all, since it relies on a spinning disc inside a laser array, it's vulnerable to vibration or being jarred, causing skipping, image smearing or even (heaven forbid) losing tracking altogether and defaulting back to the main menu. Also, the video output was meant for 2k resolution (1080p) in the home -- that is, an HDMI cable that maxed out at 10GBps (because HDMI 2 wasn't introduced until 2013, way after the BD standard) -- and so if you run it through a 4k or 8k projector you're not getting your money's worth.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 2:24 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]


The Zhivago file was over 300GB. And that was (pretty sure) for a 4K projector. The more modern DCP projectors are 8K, which would demand a larger file size for smooth projection.

I don't think there's any such thing as an 8K DCP or DCP projector, is there? The overwhelming majority of films projected at your local cinema are still 2K DCPs.
posted by Mothlight at 3:53 PM on January 31, 2017


I've seen excellent restored prints of (my favorite movie) The Wizard of Oz, as well as a 3D version, in movie theaters and other venues, so they do exist. I'm thinking that maybe those are more expensive/not available to your local theater, as they were always limited engagements or some other kind of special event (sing-along, accompanied by a symphony orchestra, etc.)
posted by elphaba at 3:57 PM on January 31, 2017


It depends largely on when/how your local theater adopted DCP. The original systems were independent units, basically projectors with server units strapped to them. They weren't exactly mobile, but they were small enough to be installed in places that 35mm projectors used to be. Those probably were 2k units.

But the more recent models, especially in places that were either built with DCP in mind or just had more time to prepare, are projectors with bigger "throws". The extra space is made up by having the servers be kept in a central location, basically a workstation from which the projectionist can load up each package and schedule runs without leaving their chair. I'm pretty sure those new units are 4K, the technology is robust enough.

8k projectors are real, you can locate them with a simple web search. They may be too pricey for regular use, I've changed employment since I worked for film festivals.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:53 PM on January 31, 2017


And just to throw one more complication into the mix: architecture. The shape of the physical building, as well as the sound equipment, all makes a difference. I don't know about the theater you were in, when it was built or how it was designed; but you could install the finest sound equipment on the planet --- damn the cost! --- and it still might or might not sound as good as the local shoebox multiplex.

At one point I worked at an old theater, built in 1914: definitely the pre-'talkies' era. That theater was built primarily for silent movies accompanied by an organ right next to the stage, with vaudeville acts between shows. In other words, it was designed for sound that emanated from the stage at the front of the room, not for mechanical sound reproduction (speaker systems!) on the sides or ceiling projecting that sound sideways or down. I had a part-time projectionist working under me who, even after I explained all this with very, very tiny words, still made an emergency call to our service tech: "it doesn't sound as good as x theater!" I'm happy to say the service tech reamed her a new one for making such a stupid call --- she was complaining that our sound, at that 1914 theater with forty-year-old sound racks and stereo speakers, didn't sound as good as a five-year-old theater with the then-most modern Dolby surround-sound system on the market. Duh.
posted by easily confused at 4:47 AM on February 1, 2017


Just to bring things full circle:
It depends largely on when/how your local theater adopted DCP. The original systems were independent units, basically projectors with server units strapped to them. They weren't exactly mobile, but they were small enough to be installed in places that 35mm projectors used to be. Those probably were 2k units.
I'm almost certain this is the case for the theaters around here, which is part of why my opinion of DCP is less than favorable. I do have to admit that DCP might be a better experience, on average, than film (because of the practical issues with film as a physical medium that ages, and because of the difficulty of finding projectionists and technicians to deal with the equipment), but I have yet to see DCP that exceeded the quality of 70mm film. Not saying it's not possible, but just that I haven't seen it.
posted by fedward at 7:57 AM on February 1, 2017


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