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Gordon Meyer

Gordon Meyer

By Gordon Meyer
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It was the summer of 2001.  Oscar winning producer/director James Cameron was still basking in the success and mega-revenues from his 1997 hit “Titanic,” when he embarked on a deep sea expedition to further explore the wreckage of the legendary ocean liner.  Ever the consummate storyteller, Cameron brought along cinematographer Vince Pace, actor Bill Paxton and a full camera crew to document the expedition as the IMAX film “Ghosts of the Abyss,” which comes out on 3D Blu-ray and DVD on September 11.

“Ghosts” is no ordinary documentary.   First of all, it’s truly a fascinating look at the physical challenges of taking a pair of submersibles 12,500 feet down to the bottom of the Atlantic where Titanic’s remains lie.  Apparently Cameron invited Paxton to come along on this expedition both because of their friendship and because Paxton had joined him on at least one previous expedition.  As a casting choice, Paxton essentially serves as an everyman surrogate for the audience and we see much of the journey through his eyes.

Then there’s the footage of Titanic herself, which is both astounding and haunting.  Cameron and his associates not only had multiple cameras on the two submersibles themselves, they also had a pair of remote controlled robotic probes equipped with cameras and lights to explore the interior of the ship.  He then often superimposed footage of passengers and crew members walking around the ship, simultaneously showing the present day wreckage and what life on the ship probably looked like before the iceberg.

From a film geek’s perspective though, in many ways this film became the testing lab for production techniques that Cameron would ultimately use on “Avatar.”  He and Pace designed and built their first custom 3D rigs for “Ghosts,” which was mostly shot using Sony Cine Alta cameras, then transferred to film in 3D IMAX.  Though the production notes don’t say, Cameron must have had at least four or five full sized 3D rigs and almost as many miniature 3D rigs both inside the submersibles to capture crew responses to what they were experiencing and one rig aimed at a port hole looking in.

After the release of “Avatar,” Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau espoused the mantra that the most effective use of 3D is as a “window onto another world, not things coming out of a window.”  But, judging from the 3D Blu-ray I screened, when he made “Ghosts,” he had not yet come to that MO. There’s almost as much imagery projecting in front of the screen as there is behind it.  Most of it looks pretty good, but there are a few shots from time to time where the images that project in front of the screen were a bit distracting, at least on my reference platform of a Windows 7 based PC using NVIDIA’s 3D Vision technology, a 22” LG 3D display and ArcSoft’s Total Media Theatre 5 software.  Still, this is a pretty good title to use if you want to show off your 3D home theatre system to friends.

As for the Blu-ray, Disney sent me the three disc version which consists of the 3D Blu-ray (the original 60 minute feature only with no bonus material), a 2D Blu-ray that includes the 60 minute version, an expanded 90 minute version and a pretty good “making of” feature called “Reflections of the Deep,” and a 2D DVD featuring both the 60 and 90 minute versions of the film. 

Bottom line (out of 5):

Content:  ****                                 Image/sound quality  ****         3D Show Off Factor  **** ½

Saturday, 01 September 2012 00:57

The Gizmo Guy - Future Proofing Content

By Gordon Meyer
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Glasses-free (aka autostereoscopic) viewing has long been the Holy Grail of the growing 3D industry.  I’ve seen prototypes of autostereoscopic displays at the Consumer Electronics Show and other industry events for probably the last ten years or so.  While they’re still not quite ready for prime time, they are getting better, especially smaller screens for devices like tablets and cell phones.  But I have yet to see a really good 40” or larger autostereoscopic display.

On a parallel track, while in principle, I prefer home displays that use passive polarized glasses instead of the active shutter variety (cheaper and more light gets through), one of the significant tradeoffs here is the fact that passive 3D on flat panel displays cuts the horizontal resolution in half.  Each eye sees 540 lines of resolution instead of the full HD 1080 specs.  The closer you are to the screen, the more noticeable this difference in resolution becomes.

I just got a press release from a Philly based company called Stream TV, announcing a new technology that theoretically will offer not just standard HD images in 3D; their technology promises 3D in 2160p resolution in the home without needing glasses.

I am intrigued, but remain skeptical until I see a demonstration.   While the press release claims that the first products to be released using this technology will be 40” and 46” LED displays, there is no mention of either a timeline or licensee so it’s up in the air as to when consumers will actually have the chance to vote with their wallets.  I did attend a demonstration of an earlier version of Stream TV’s autostereoscopic technology at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show back in January and while it was better than most, the prototypes I saw were still not ready for prime time. 

So why am I talking about this now?  Because this Is all part of the old “chicken and egg” conundrum of hardware (TVs, DVD/Blu-ray players, etc.) and software.  But here’s the real point. Whether it’s Stream TV or someone else, sooner or later someone is going to finally figure out how to cost effectively make a home 3D display that doesn’t require glasses.  Once that happens at an attractive enough consumer price point, demand for quality 3D content is going to skyrocket.  And there had better be plenty of quality 3D content available or this technology may well go the way of the 8 track.

The same thing goes for the higher resolution display; both in terms of Stream TV’s announced 2K technology and the growing number of CE companies embracing 4K in the home.  Sure, there are likely to be built in up converters in these “Ultra HD” displays to artificially bump 1080p images up to 4K, but it’s going to take having a wide variety of native 4K content easily available to make that technology a success.

This means a whole new delivery infrastructure will be needed, including yet another packaged media format to succeed Blu-ray since the amount of data needed for a two hour movie in 4K resolution is going to be at least 10x the amount of data currently used for 1080p – way too much to fit on even a dual layer BD disc.  Forget broadband delivery for now.  That pipe isn’t near big enough using current technology to stream that much data in real time.  But where there is sufficient demand, or anticipated demand, engineers will inevitably come up with a solution. 

Back in the 1950s when television was young and all but a handful of programs were broadcast in black and white, every studio and television production company in town shot their shows in black and white – except Walt Disney, who insisted on future-proofing his content by shooting his “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents” anthology shows episodes in color.  Disney knew it was only a matter of time before color TV became a reality.  He also knew that most, if not all of the programs he aired on his “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents” series were evergreens that would be entertaining for decades.  When Disney moved his show from ABC to NBC in 1961 and began broadcasting in color, he already had a backlog of color content in addition to new shows in the pipeline.

3D and Ultra HD are now where color was in the late 1950s.  How many producers out there will follow Walt Disney’s lead and future proof their content accordingly?

Sunday, 12 August 2012 04:39

Theatre Review - "Mary Poppins"

By Gordon Meyer
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Like millions of people, I was a wide eyed kid when I first saw the Walt Disney classic, “Mary Poppins.” Even as an adult, watching that 1964 film puts a smile on my face with its practically perfect casting and storytelling.  So I was really looking forward to seeing the celebrated West End/Broadway version when it opened Friday night at the Ahmanson Theatre here in Los Angeles.  For those who have not yet seen the stage version, even though it’s co-produced by Disney and includes several songs from the movie, this is most assuredly not a stage version of the Disney classic.  It took me a while to get past that, but once I did, I had a wonderful time, as did the packed and enthusiastic house.

Pamela Travers, the author of the Poppins books, licensed the stage rights to Cameron Mackintosh decades after the movie came out.  But as a brand, most people know Mary Poppins only from the Disney movie and not from any of the books. So Mackintosh wisely teamed up with Disney to mount the stage play, more than anything else to be able to use many of the signature songs from the movie.  However the play itself, with book by Julian Ffellowes (the Oscar winning screenwriter of “Gosford Park”) and new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe  is much more closely aligned with Travers’ books than the movie.  It works well, but I had to keep reminding myself to see this “Mary Poppins” through fresh eyes as if the movie didn’t exist.

While still very family friendly, this is a darker, less sugary “Mary Poppins.”  For starters, the children, Jane and Michael Banks, played at this performance by Cherish Myers and Zachary Mackiewicz, are infinitely brattier than their cinematic counterparts and frankly more realistic as a result.  They are frustrated and rebellious because of the lack of attention they get from their parents, superbly played by Michael Dean Morgan and Elizabeth Broadhurst.

While Julie Andrews’ shoes are a big challenge to fill, Rachel Wallace manages to make the title character her own.   Her Poppins is edgier, vainer and less sweet than the Disney version. It’s also closer to the way P. L. Travers described her in her books.  Wallace has a beautiful singing voice that does justice to the score, especially with the songs “Feed the Birds,” and my new favorite, “Anything Can Happen,” a glorious anthem to the power of taking on the seemingly impossible that could have been written or at least inspired by Tony Robbins.

Like Ms. Wallace, Nicolas Dromard also has big shoes to fill in his portrayal as Bert, the jack of all trades who often serves as Mary Poppins sidekick, for lack of a better description.  It’s a role made famous by Dick Van Dyke in the movie. Thankfully, unlike Van Dyke, whose Cockney accent was never all that good and tended to come and go almost randomly,  Domard proves to be an able song and dance man who handles his accent admirably.  While many of the songs showcase his talents well, he particularly shines in the showstopper “Step in Time” with a subtle tribute to Fred Astaire and "Royal Wedding."  While I won’t spoil it for you, I’ll just say that Mary Poppins isn’t the only character to perform a bit of on stage magic.

One of the forgivable flaws of the movie was that, in terms of dramatic structure, it was a very episodic movie comprised of a series of more or less standalone adventures with very little overriding arc, especially in the first half. Mr. Ffellowes' book boasts a much better dramatic construction, especially in the way George Banks’ expanded story is told.  We get to learn a lot more about who he is, how he became a seemingly aloof dilettante and most importantly how he ultimately grew into the kind of father and husband his wife and children needed.

Although the stage version omits some of sequences from the movie that were my personal favorites, like the dancing penguins and tea party on the ceiling, we get to meet a number of characters from Travers’ books that never made it to the movie, in particular, Miss Andrew, the nanny who raised George Banks.  As portrayed by Q. Smith, Miss Andrew absolutely lives up to her nickname of the Holy Terror and turns the song “Brimstone and Treacle” into a real show stopper.  As a dramatic contrast, Ms. Smith also plays the Bird Woman.

Make no mistake about it.  While this incarnation of “Mary Poppins” is quite different from the Disney movie, it provides audiences with a joyful and memorable experience, not to mention a nice serving of Disney magic.  You might even say it’s supercalifragilistic.

“Mary Poppins” runs through September 2 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles at the Music Center, downtown.  Tickets are available at the box office and online at http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

 

Wednesday, 01 August 2012 01:34

The Gizmo Guy - Fangs for the Memories

By Gordon Meyer
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I’m a big cartoon fan, with a special affection for those classic toons originally made for theatres in the 1940s and 50s and I’m far from alone.  For many years, the folks at Cartoon Network have been nurturing new cartoon makers, many of whom have been strongly influenced by Masters like Jones, Avery and Clampett.  One of those artists is a Russian immigrant named Genndy Tartakovsky, who came to the United States with his parents when he was seven.   

At Cartoon Network, Tartakovsky was given the chance to expand a concept he worked on while a student at CalArts about a little boy who was secretly a mad scientist.  That concept became the hit series “Dexter’s Laboratory,” and it’s the show that first exposed me to Tartakovsky’s distinct visual style and sly sense of humor.  His later creations of “Samurai Jack” and “Star Wars: Clone Wars” were further evidence of the man’s range and talent.

So when it was announced that he’d be taking over the direction of “Hotel Transylvania,” a CG feature from Sony Pictures Animation, I was intrigued.  That film had been in development since 2006, but went through a number of talent changes.  Earlier this summer, I was invited to Sony Pictures Animation’s Culver City lot to see some advance footage as introduced by Tartakovsky.

In the world of Hotel Transylvania, classic monsters are real.  And when they want to get away from it all, they travel to the hotel in the film’s title for a little R&R.  Count Dracula himself runs the hotel with a voice provided by Adam Sandler.  His daughter (voiced by Selena Gomez) is about to turn 118, which in human terms is comparable to her turning 18. Dracula is an over protective father who, like so many fathers, has a hard time dealing with a grown up daughter.  But then an adventurous teenage human hiker discovers the hotel and Drac wants to keep as much distance between the two as possible.

Since we were only shown about 20 minutes of footage, some of which was still being rendered at the time, I have no idea as to how well the final product will work.  But Tartakovsky and producer Michelle Murdocca have assembled a first class voice cast that also includes Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Jon Lovitz, Steve Buscemi and David Spade. I would have loved to have been able to sit in on those recording sessions.

Based on the footage I did see, I can tell you that I’m looking forward to seeing the final version of “Hotel Transylvania” to see how Tartakovsky fares as a feature director with material originated by others.  I am optimistic.  “Hotel Translyvania” opens nationwide in 3D on September 28.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 19:21

The Gizmo Guy's Blu-ray review - "Coma"

By Gordon Meyer
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Warner Home Video appears to be reverting back to the early days of plain vanilla Blu-rays with its recent release of Michael Crichton’s 1978 thriller, “Coma,” based on the best-selling novel by fellow medical doctor turned novelist Robin Cook.  

There’s not a whole lot to say about the disc itself.  The only bonus feature is the original theatrical trailer.  But the transfer is clean, as is the monophonic soundtrack. 

I admit it.  I’m spoiled by the wealth of behind the scenes bonus material I see on most Blu-ray releases, so I was very disappointed at how Spartan this disc is.  However, even though it’s a new release, WHV has given it budget pricing ($19.96 MSRP with online retailers like Amazon selling it for $10.97), so I guess you get what you pay for.  Plus, since writer/director Michael Crichton died almost four years ago, it would have been a challenge to come up with suitably compelling bonus content.

For those who have either never seen the film or read the novel, “Coma” is about what happens when the best friend of Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) goes into the hospital where Wheeler works for a routine operation and comes out brain dead and in a coma.  Wheeler, not satisfied with the patronizing, “it’s tragic, but these things happen” type explanations from her peers at the hospital, begins her own investigation. She’s not sure who she can trust anymore, including her boyfriend and fellow surgeon, Dr. Mark Bellows, played by a very young Michael Douglas.

Crichton assembled a top notch cast for this thriller.  In addition to Bujold and Douglas, there’s Hollywood legend Richard Widmark as the head of the surgical department, a creepy Elizabeth Ashley as the woman running a mysterious medical facility, and even a pre-Magnum Tom Selleck as a hospital patient caught up in the mystery.  Everyone in the cast turns in first rate performances, especially Bujold with her growing determination to uncover the mystery combined with justifiable paranoia.

As a former medical doctor himself, Crichton brings a real sense of authenticity to “Coma,” especially with many of the background details.  Although the tone is quite different, this same attention to detail would contribute to the 15 season run of “E.R.”  More to the point, even though “Coma” was only Crichton’s second time at bat as a director, he managed to successfully create a classic Hitchcockian thriller, complete with a protagonist thrown into the deep end of intrigue who can only survive by tapping into ingenuity and resources she didn’t even know she had.

Even though “Coma” is almost 35 years old, it retains a contemporary feel and holds up much better than probably most movies of the same vintage.  Screenwriters can learn much by studying the way Crichton slowly unveils the mystery of what’s going on in OR 8 and why.  It’s a textbook example of how to craft an effective thriller, right down to the ticking time bomb type climax. 

Movie: **** (out of 5)                  Transfer *** ½    Bonus Content *  Overall Rating *** ½

Monday, 30 July 2012 02:06

The Gizmo Guy - Reality Begins Here.

By Gordon Meyer
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When I was a film school student, we had a piece of graffiti over the portal of our campus building which said, “Reality Ends Here.”  Whenever the building had its annual paint job, that piece of graffiti mysteriously reappeared within days, though sometimes we saw the alternative slogan, “Where reality ends and reelity begins.”  Either way, it was our traditional way of affirming that, as filmmakers, we create our own reality.

A few months ago, I ran into Leonard Maltin at a press screening for “Men in Black 3.” The week before, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Redd and Ken Ralston, the visual effects supervisors on the film for what became the cover story of June’s P3 Update issue.  One of the things that struck me during that interview was how much of the alternate reality of MIB3 was created digitally, including all the shots of the Apollo 11 moon launch and I commented on this to Leonard, who, in addition to his full slate of editorial work, also teaches classes at my alma mater, the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Leonard told me that many of his students now expect everything to be accomplished digitally, which frankly saddens me a bit.  For one of his classes, before the main feature, he runs a chapter of a 1940s vintage serial, like “Zorro’s Fighting Legion,” where it was common to have stunt men jump onto live horses and gallop off.  Some of his students wanted to know how the shot was accomplished and had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that it was a real man jumping on a real horse without the aid of any kind of visual effects because they were so accustomed to shots like that created in a computer.

Last Monday, I watched a 70mm roadshow print of the 1966 movie, “Grand Prix” at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ “Last 70mm Film Festival.”  One of the things remarkable about this movie was the way the Formula 1 races were shot, on location in Europe with 65mm Super Panavision cameras mounted on the cars and with most of the actors, including James Garner, doing their own driving. There was almost a documentary level of reality in those racing sequences, thanks to director John Frankenheimer shooting real Formula 1 race cars driven by real Formula 1 drivers and no blue screen shots to show actors behind the wheels.

I don’t think there was a special effect shot in the entire 3 hour film, unless you count Saul Bass’ innovative and beautiful use of split screen imagery in many of the racing montages.  Yet if a movie like “Grand Prix” were to be produced today, what do you want to bet that much of that racing footage would have been digitally created, ostensibly to both protect the safety of the actors and to give the filmmakers more creative freedom in how they depict those action sequences?

A few days later, I attended the 38th Annual Saturn Awards, presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.  While in the media room, I had the opportunity to briefly chat with Frank Oz, who was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award that night.  Frank’s career began back in the late 1950s as one of the original Muppet performers.  His characters include Fozzie Bear, Sam the Eagle, and most notably, Miss Piggy.  Later, George Lucas hired him to perform as Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

With Frank Oz at the 2012 Saturn Awards

Some of my fellow reporters referred to Oz as a voice actor.  But he saw himself as a total performer with the voice being just one component of his full performance as a character like Yoda.  He talked about the experience of actors like Mark Hamill in the “Star Wars” movies reacting to Yoda as if he was real, an observation echoed by an interview I conduced several years ago with “Empire” director Irvin Kershner.

CGI technology has been a powerful tool enabling filmmakers to create visuals they could only imagine just a few years ago.  But sometimes, technical limitations trigger wonderful creative solutions that actually make a film better. Back in the 70s, Universal spent big bucks to create a mechanical shark that just wasn’t working for Steven Spielberg when he directed “Jaws.” Spielberg responded to the challenge by reducing the number of shark shots and keeping those relatively brief.  As a result, there was a lot more suspense. Roughly a decade before, Robert Wise directed one of the scariest, most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, “The Haunting,” and had almost no special effects shots. Instead, he was extraordinarily creative with sound effects and editing. 

Today, I suspect most filmmakers would yield to the temptation of using CGI to create whatever they want instead of engaging the audience’s imagination as Robert Wise did with his 1963 movie. The filmmakers behind the 1999 remake were roundly criticized for that movie’s overuse of CGI effects.

Getting back to Frank Oz and Yoda, although the CG version of that Jedi master was able to do things impossible for the original puppet version, the latter helped actors like Mark Hamill give better performances because he was acting against something physical.  Personally, I think the puppet version of Yoda feels much more “real” than the CG version and I’m far from alone.

Movies are about creating an alternate reality, no matter what the genre.  But often that reality is much more “real” to the audience when the latter gets to use their imaginations, rather than being spoon fed everything.

By Gordon Meyer
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In my last blog column, I wrote of the grandeur of restored movie palaces and their importance as both viable commercial venues and as ways to honor our legacy as film goers.  Today, I want to talk about large format films - and 70mm films in particular.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s “Last 70mm Film Festival,” ran Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” last week as the second feature in this six film series.  The series kicked off on July 9 with a restored roadshow print of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and an amazing panel moderated by Billy Crystal that included cast members Barrie Chase, Stan Freberg, Marvin Kaplan, Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters plus script supervisor Marshall Schlom, legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster and Karen Kramer, widow of producer/director Stanley Kramer. Other films in the series include 70mm roadshow prints of “Grand Prix,” "The Sound of Music," “2001: a space odyssey,” and “Spartacus.”

Even though it’s called the “Last” 70mm film festival, Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's Managing Director of Programming, Education and Preservation said on opening night that there was a good possibility the series will be brought back next year. Based on the sold out and capacity crowds I’ve seen so far, I think it’s fair to say that this could be a perennial event for the Academy.  I certainly hope so because to me, 70mm film is still a wonderful, bigger than life format.  When venues like the Academy present original 70mm roadshow prints, audiences have the increasingly rare opportunity to see these timeless films the way they were originally intended to be seen. 

While I’m glad studios are investing in digital restorations of classic films in their libraries like the one Sony recently completed on “Lawrence of Arabia.”  These restorations not only help preserve these titles for future generations, they also make it possible for millions of movie lovers to enjoy these features in their homes through cable, packaged media like DVDs and Blu-rays, and streaming services.  It also makes it possible for repertory houses around the country to be able to show pristine “prints” of classics.  But it’s still a different experience from seeing something on film, titles that have been digitally restored, then printed back to film.  I saw Disney’s digital restoration of “Sleeping Beauty” a few years ago, and the Academy’s 70mm presentation last week.  The digital print was striking with vibrant colors and the original 2.55:1 aspect ratio.  But it also felt a little hard compared to the 70mm version.

I’m far from being a Luddite when it comes to digital cinema.  I recognize both the creative and economic value.  But as good as digital is, it has a different look and feel to film.  This will be even more evident this Christmas at those theatres running the 48 fps version of “The Hobbit,” which reportedly has a very video-like look to it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if that’s what the filmmaker wants.  But let’s acknowledge that digital is essentially a different medium from film.  And sometimes, old school analog 35mm and 70mm film has a preferable look and feel over digital. In Haberkamp’s opening remarks, this was one of the reasons that the Academy was presenting this 70mm festival.

There’s no question that the films Haberkamp selected represent a very different era and filmmaking style than today.  For example, much of what Stanley Kubrick and his visual effects team accomplished in “2001” using front projection, models and multiple exposures in-camera would be done digitally today.  Contemporary filmmakers wouldn’t even think about resorting to the kind of analog technology that Kubrick used almost 40 years ago.  Were he tackling a similar subject matter today, perhaps Kubrick himself would embrace digital technology.  But those painstaking techniques that Kubrick used are part of what gives that movie its distinctive look, including shooting many of the visual effects using multiple exposures of the same piece of film so that all the elements would be first generation.

Fortunately, at least some A-list contemporary filmmakers still embrace the look of film versus digital. Last fall at an Awards Season screening of “War Horse,” cinematographer Janusz Kaminski voiced his commitment to continue to shoot film as long as he can.  Not only did writer/director Christopher Nolan shoot “The Dark Knight Rises” on film, reportedly close to a third of it was shot on 65mm using IMAX and Panavision Super 70 cameras and Kodak Vision3 250D and Vision3 500T film stock.  The upcoming film “The Master,” which premieres this fall was also reportedly shot on 65mm film instead of digital. 

I recently interviewed Ken Ralston, the five time Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor who, with Jay Redd, oversaw the effects on “Men in Black 3” for director Barry Sonnenfeld.  Even though that movie was always intended to be released in a digital 3D format, Sonnenfeld, a former DP himself, did his principle photography on film.  That decision was made in part because Sonnenfeld just flat out prefers the look of film over digital, joining filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and P.T. Anderson who also understand that film and digital are really different media. 

There may well come a time when digital technology will be able to look the same as high quality, fine grain film – a look that many digital proponents still acknowledge as the Gold Standard of image acquisition.  But until that time, events like the “Last 70mm Film Festival” are tangible reminders of the power of celluloid and the value of continuing to make room for both formats in our industry.

By Gordon Meyer
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Call me a film geek.  It’s a label I proudly wear.  I’m a huge fan of classic Hollywood and anything that honors our history.  Sadly, too much of our legacy has become disposable or simply abandoned over the years, including large capacity, single screen movie palaces and shooting epics on 65mm film.  Now, I’m far from being a Luddite.  I recognize both the creative and economic values of digital technology.  But film inherently has a different look and feel to digital.  And there should be a place for both formats.

I want to tip my hat to some people and organizations that have made a commitment to honoring our legacy through preservation.  And I want to also point out that there have been real world financial benefits to those efforts as more and more people discover the joys of classic Hollywood.

Back in the 1970s, the Fabulous Fox Theatre was being threatened with demolition to make way for a Southern Bell office building.  This 1920s vintage movie palace was and is irreplaceable with its 4,600 seat auditorium (reportedly second in size only to Radio City Music Hall), near perfect acoustics, and astoundingly ornate interior.  The auditorium itself was designed to look like the courtyard of an Arabian castle at night, complete with twinkling stars and floating clouds in the ceiling.

When word got out about the pending demolition of the Fox, the citizens of Atlanta rallied and quickly formed a non-profit organization to acquire the building from Southern Bell and restore it to its former glory.  Now, almost 40 years later, the Fox continues to be a treasured jewel for the citizens of Atlanta and is host to a mix of concerts, theatrical events and movies.

A similar situation took place in Seattle in the late 1990s, when the Martin Cinerama Theatre was slated to be converted into a rock climbing club.  A grassroots effort was launched to save the theatre and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen responded by purchasing the theatre and funding a multimillion dollar restoration, including the refurbishment of the original Cinerama screen and projection equipment.  Today, the Seattle Cinerama is not only one of the most popular movie going venues in Seattle, it’s also one of only three venues in the world still capable of running three projector Cinerama – the other two being our own Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, filmmaker Michael Moore is passionate about movies, film history and community.  Part of his commitment to community in his present home of Traverse City, Michigan included spearheading a movement to buy and restore a vintage movie palace that had been idle for over 20 years, the State Theatre.  Moore and his army of volunteers re-opened the State in 2007. 

Here’s how Moore describes his efforts in a recent email: “I decided to devote my time (and resources) to help the area I now call home by getting its long-closed downtown movie palace restored and reopened. The local Rotary foundation owned the large, ornate empty theater, which had not shown movies in 20 or so years (a theater has stood on this site for nearly a hundred years).

I set up a community-based non-profit organization that would own the theater. Four others and I donated all the money needed to bring the theater back to life. Hundreds of people pitched in to hammer nails and make curtains – and the new "Historic State Theatre of Traverse City" was opened in 2007 with its 584 brand new made-in-Michigan seats, the biggest screen within 150 miles, a state-of-the-art sound system, a big new balcony built from scratch, a complete restoration of the 1940s art-deco décor, and a concession stand where you could get drinks and popcorn for just $2.00.

Since our grand reopening, the State Theatre has been one of the largest-grossing independent art houses in North America. We have landed in the top ten highest-grossing theaters for a total now of 138 weeks. And, get this – for 62 of those weeks, we were the #1 theater in the country for the film we were showing during each of those weeks. This success has happened while movie attendance nationwide has dropped in the last decade – and with us, it has happened in a depressed state and in a rural, somewhat politically conservative area where the nearest four-year college is 100 miles away.”

More recently here in Los Angeles we’re seeing the renaissance of more and more of the surviving movie palaces, like the Orpheum and Palace theatres in Downtown LA’s once glittering theatre district. The 101 year old Palace recently completed a million dollar restoration thanks to new owner Ezat Delijani, whose family also owns the Los Angeles, State and Tower theatres downtown. You can read all about this restoration in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two of my favorite restored movie palaces, the 85 year old Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the El Capitan, directly across the street from each other on Hollywood Blvd.  I have a couple of sentimental attachments to the Chinese.  My first job out of college was as an assistant manager there.  Talk about feeling the history of the place!  Many years later, the Chinese served as the host venue for my long running “Hollywood’s Master Storytellers” series.  It is still, arguably, the most famous movie theatre in the world.

As for the El Capitan, that’s one of my favorite places to see a movie.  In addition to drinking in the ornate décor that was beautifully restored when Disney took over the theatre over 20 years ago, they virtually wrote the book on presentation showmanship, a practice that sadly very few venues practice. Beginning with a live pre-film concert on their Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, the magic continues with the way they make a show just out of opening the three sets of curtains in front of the screen.

These are irreplaceable treasures that are important not only because of their architectural beauty, but also because they are a part of our history.  Plus, there’s frankly a very big difference in the experience of seeing a movie in a 200 seat multiplex with sound leaking in from the adjacent auditorium and watching that same movie in a plush, temple to cinema surrounded by 1,000+ other movie lovers.  The vibe is palpable.

So kudos to people like Michael Moore, Paul Allen and Ezat Delijani and organizations like The Walt Disney Company and Atlanta Landmarks for recognizing and honoring the value of these grand venues as still viable, profitable venues.  May these restoration efforts pay off huge dividends for decades to come.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012 06:00

A look Back at Produced By 2012

 

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Last June, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) returned to the historic Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, Calif. for its fourth annual Produced By Conference (PBC) — and it was a weekend to remember. The PGA and PBC Co-Chairs Tracey Edmonds, Marshall Herskovitz, Rachel Klein and Gary Lucchesi once again managed to corral an all-star lineup of speakers for the two-day event that proved to be both enlightening and inspiring for over 1,400 attendees. Yet, according to Lucchesi, the first time the PGA mounted the Produced By Conference, they were all “a little nervous” that it wasn’t going to get any traction. “But it proved to be enormously successful from the very beginning,” the co-chair reports.

Tuesday, 01 May 2012 01:30

The Gizmo Guy - Sped Up Cinema

By Gordon Meyer
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Last week, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) held their annual spring convention, CinemaCon, in Las Vegas. While schedule conflicts prohibited me from being there, I kept up on the show highlights.  CinemaCon (formerly ShoWest) is a star studded celebration of movies scheduled to come out between now and the end of the year.  Exhibitors get to hob nob with stars and studio big wigs, see advance footage of movies months before their releases and, this year, enjoy a celebration of two technologies whose proponents believe will enhance the movie going experience and therefore sell more tickets.

One of those technologies, 3D, is kind of old news.  The master 3D evangelist, James Cameron, made an appearance with fellow director Ang Lee in promoting the virtues of the format. But another format took center stage with very mixed response from exhibitors – the new 48 frame per second (fps) projection speed that Peter Jackson wants exhibitors and studios to adopt.

The idea is that when the frame rate refreshes at double the 24 fps speed that’s been the industry standard since the late 1920s, there’s an enhanced sense of reality with audiences because they are less aware of the subtle, almost subliminal, frame to frame flicker that goes with the slower projection speed.  In many ways, this is a 21st Century version of the Showscan format developed by Douglas Trumball over 30 years ago, except that Showscan used 70mm film running at 60 fps.  Apparently viewers notice much more detail at the higher frame rate as well.

I would have loved to attend Peter Jackson’s demonstration of the 3D 48 fps experience with his excerpts from the first half of “The Hobbit.”  By all reports, the response from exhibitors was split.  Jackson himself acknowledged that there’s an adjustment period needed for audiences to acclimate themselves to the higher frame rate.  Since New Line only showed 10 minutes from “The Hobbit,” and since those scenes were apparently incomplete in terms of effects and color balancing, it was admittedly not a fair demonstration.

But looking at the mere concept of a higher frame rate raises esthetic questions for me.  My friend Doug is one of millions of people who have a flat screen TV capable of 120 Hz or higher refresh rates.  That translates into quadruple the standard television rate of 30 fps.  Since nobody is broadcasting in these higher frame rates (yet), the additional frames are electronically extrapolated from the video signal.  This actually looks pretty cool when watching things like sporting events at the higher frame rate.  But movies frankly look weird – almost TV-like instead of filmic.  Maybe it’s just because, like virtually the entire populace of the planet, I’m used to and therefore comfortable with, filmed entertainment presented at 24 fps (or 30 fps on a TV screen).

Higher frame rates are poised to become a new tool for filmmakers, just like HD, multichannel sound and 3D.  Filmmakers will need to go through a learning curve as they discover the pros and cons of this enhanced format.  But it’s an interesting thing about having too much detail on the screen.  Ironically, it has the potential to actually feel less believable.  Many years ago, I was involved in a tribute to Albert Whitlock, an Academy Award winning visual effects artist who specialized in matte work, where a background painted on a sheet of glass is combined with live action footage to create the illusion that the camera is actually in a different place.  When Whitlock showed me several of his matte paintings, I noticed that they were actually less detailed and more stylized than I would have thought.  Whitlock explained that, when photographed and projected onto a movie screen, the less detailed, more stylized matte paintings actually read more realistic and believable to audiences than photo-realistic matte paintings.

Recently, I interviewed cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister, ASC for my article on lenses that will appear in the May 2012 issue of P3 Update.  During our conversation he said that because many of the newer digital cameras like the RED Epic have such high resolution imaging sensors, as a DP he’s often asked to use things like diffusion lenses to soften the image because the image is so sharp and detailed that it becomes uncomfortable for audiences.

Of course, to be fair to Jackson and other filmmakers promoting the higher frame rate, to render any kind of judgment until “The Hobbit” comes out is premature.   But it seems to me that this kind of technology is best used selectively, especially during the first decade or so of its existence, so filmmakers can learn how to use it in ways that enhance the audience experience, rather than feed them so much visual information that it becomes a distraction, much like camera work that calls attention to itself.

 

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