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Was film sharper than digital and what about the blacks?

film versus digital film sharpness digital sharpness

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#1 Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

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Posted 10 August 2018 - 05:43 PM

I haven't seen a 35mm film in a theatre for ages. I can't remember what they were even like. The current crop of digital projections I've gone to don't look impressively sharp and the blacks are not rich and deep at all. I do remember the old time BW films. Jesus they had magnificent blacks.

Would you say current digital projection = good 35mm film projection? (OK film has grain, but we don't need to get into that. Just stick to sharpness and blacks.)

Now with still photography 35mm digital far surpasses 35mm film in sharpness. But I don't see the same sharpness benefit on digital movies when they are on the big screen. Maybe I'm sitting too close to the screen? (Front 1/3 of theatre.)

Edited by Daniel D. Teoli Jr., 10 August 2018 - 05:46 PM.

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#2 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 10 August 2018 - 06:41 PM

I mean Digital cinema can be far crisper then film. The reason why it appears softer then memory is because unlike film projectors which required cleaning, digital projectors just sit and run 24/7 without any real maintenance. Plus, many standard chain theaters, wind up defocusing their image slightly to hide aliasing issues. 

 

Remember, most 35mm prints were 5th generation during the photochemical days. When DI became the norm, the results were crisper by far, but still generally softer then any digital projection. I've only seen a hand full of films ON FILM, that are as crisp as the best digital cinema, Dunkirk would be one of them. Even the 5 perf prints were untouchable by anything digital I've ever seen.

 

I think the conversation of film vs digital today at least, is one of aesthetics rather then pinpointing one or two things that differentiate the two. In my eyes, it's the over-all experience that separates the two. I'm blessed to be living in Hollywood, so watching a movie on film is a quick drive to one of the 4 theaters that still specialize in film. (all be it one of them is closed for restoration and another closed for sexual harassment issues by the management) I've literally walked into Arclight to see the 70mm print of a movie and then peeked my head into the digital version and frankly, the differences are nominal. Sure the film projection has this texture, like a layer between the audience and the content, but most of the other positives are actually in-camera. The vast majority of benefit of working with film is it's ability to capture things in a very pleasing way, more akin to how our eyes work. This includes softening out a lot of the issues with skin tones and even subtle things like background crispness. Film in my opinion, has a much better time dealing with over exposing and requires a lot less work to manage that on set. Plus, with a good film scanner, the digital image retains much of that benefit so grading is a lot easier then digital ocn's. 

 

Where I am a fan of seeing a beautiful photochemical print; (David Mullen's beautiful "Love Witch" is the last all photochemical 35mm print I've seen) I think filmmakers and theaters sometimes ruin the experience through bad practices. I have been very impressed with the recent string of 70mm prints projected at the Arclight, including the all-photochemical 2001 re-release, because they generally make sure the experience is good.  


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#3 Phil Connolly

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Posted 12 August 2018 - 06:34 PM

Depends on the print - also you have to factor it its anamorphic scope or flat 1.85:1 - the negative area of scope is much larger then flat.

 

The converse is true with digital 2.39:1 scope film's are letter boxed and use fewer pixels then 1.85:1.

 

At the time when you could see 35mm and 2k digital at the same time. I often felt of your looking at a really good show print 2.39:1 scope prints in 35mm often looked sharper then then 2 k digital. But the 1.85:1 digital films looks looked sharper then then the flat prints. 

 

The quality of prints made a huge difference - I'd watch a film in the west end in London, it was likely a "show print" printed slower since its used for the press and premiers and then the same movie in a local multiplex would have a softer print.

 

35mm often looked sharper then digital early on - not because its higher resolution but because the blacks were deeper and higher contrast increases perceived sharpness. I think contrast is the bigger issue with digital projection - I did see Attack of the Clones on the early prototype 1.3K DLP projectors. I was shocked how close the resolution was to many 35mm screenings - I was expecting it to be mega soft, but it wasn't. But the contrast and black levels on those projectors was terrible - with very milky blacks and thats what let the side down. More then resolution. 

 

But in general in most cinemas 35mm projection wasn't good. I used to see most films in London and they would be usually look good because you had high end west end cinemas projecting them properly. 

 

But as soon as you went out side the capitol, away from the independant cinemas your typical multiplex cinemas thrashed the films. Pints were poorly made, printed quickly, soft with different colour casts real to real, prints would be dirty, scrached etc...

 

The late days of 35mm didn't look good. Once cinemas went over to multiplexes with one "projectionist" using automation to run 12-15 screens. The quality dropped off. I used to always try and watch films on opening weekend because after that the scratches would be too distracting.

 

Perhaps something has been lost on the move to digital and if everything is perfect 35mm can look amazing. But in most cinemas it didn't and in general digital projection has vastly improved the quality of projection for most cinemas 


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#4 Jon O'Brien

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Posted 12 August 2018 - 07:36 PM

Yes I remember typical 35mm cinemascope and 1.85:1 spherical projection back in the 70s when I was about 10 or thereabouts. Some of the prints were a bit fuzzy and not all that sharp, and that wasn't from being focused poorly. I must have had a bit of a critical eye for such things, as I did notice it (I think the friends I went to the movies with as a kid would have been more interested in less technical aspects, like the Minties, Jaffas and so on - sweets we used to get at the flicks). But I still loved it all. From a young age I watched the slow and unstoppable growth of video on tv. Even on the old tvs of those days the difference between film and video was huge. BBC productions used to do all interiors with video, and anything shot outside was on film. Then it was all video. For some reason I was drawn to film. Today I will go out of my way to watch a film shot on film, even if projected digitally. Most recent all-digital production I really enjoyed was Darkest Hour. Would have enjoyed it more if shot on film. You can see a difference. I can anyway.

 

On the whole, though, 35mm projection at the local cinema was just great. Nice and sharp. Sharp enough for telling the story well. Digital can look too sharp, grainless and clinical to my eye.


Edited by Jon O'Brien, 12 August 2018 - 07:50 PM.

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#5 Jon O'Brien

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Posted 12 August 2018 - 07:55 PM

One idea comes to my mind to describe the typical 35mm prints in days of yore: 'warm and earthy', over the more 'clinical' precision of today's cinema imagery.


Edited by Jon O'Brien, 12 August 2018 - 07:55 PM.

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#6 AJ Young

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Posted 14 August 2018 - 05:19 PM

I was a theatre projectionist for Harkins Theatres in Arizona from 2007 - 2012, my main theatre was Tempe Marketplace 16. I started on film and was present during the company's full conversion to digital in late 2011. (I was literally running the projection booth while the film projectors were getting removed and replaced by a digital projector. A very long, 12 hour shift that started at 6am I believe)

 

My theatre had one auditorium equipped with both a digital and film projector (Barco 3D and Cinemaccanica Vic 5 respectively) before the conversion. Because I was in charge of building the film prints weekly, I decided to test out the quality of a print vs. digital when we happened to have both digital and print version of 2010's Alice in Wonderland. I ran both projectors at the same time and used the dowsers on each projector to block the light from one at a time to compare. Quite honestly, I noticed no difference between the two.

 

 

 

Plus, many standard chain theaters, wind up defocusing their image slightly to hide aliasing issues. 

 

This is a hasty generalization on theatre chains. We never had our digital projectors slightly out of focus to hide aliasing. We treated focus on our digital projectors the same way we did on our film; as sharp as possible.


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#7 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 14 August 2018 - 05:39 PM

This is a hasty generalization on theatre chains. We never had our digital projectors slightly out of focus to hide aliasing. We treated focus on our digital projectors the same way we did on our film; as sharp as possible.


I mean it's all I hear about on the film-tech website in relation to the early DLP projectors and what Dolby and IMAX are doing currently.
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#8 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 14 August 2018 - 05:41 PM

My theatre had one auditorium equipped with both a digital and film projector (Barco 3D and Cinemaccanica Vic 5 respectively) before the conversion. Because I was in charge of building the film prints weekly, I decided to test out the quality of a print vs. digital when we happened to have both digital and print version of 2010's Alice in Wonderland. I ran both projectors at the same time and used the dowsers on each projector to block the light from one at a time to compare. Quite honestly, I noticed no difference between the two.


Neat! They both came from the same source too, since the movie was lasered out to film. So yea, you shouldn't see much of a difference at all honestly coming from a digital source. It's only when you work with a photochemical workflow vs digital workflow, there are some pretty significant differences in the look.
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