Archive for September, 2011

The Velvet Curtain

September 19, 2011

One summer day in 1982 in a giant harshly lit too air-conditioned hall Lhary Meyer and I stood in front of a dark blue velvet curtain adorned with a large sign reading StereoGraphics Corp.  We stood behind a similar dark blue velvet cloth draped over a tabletop covered with our demonstration gear featuring a 19-inch CRT monitor that was big and murderously heavy to pack and unpack and to schlep especially in its godzillan case. We had the smallest booth money could buy and no seniority so we got stranded in a corner away from the main Siggraph action. We didn’t know it but we were showing flickerless 3-D images and the antecedent of CrystalEyes, the foundations of the electronic stereoscopic industry.  We were demonstrating tethered visors with electro-optical shutters through which one could see a stereoscopic image on that big monitor with a small screen.  Getting decent quality demo images was not easy because we did not have customers so we had to scrounge for stereopairs from contacts all over the country; we had stereoscopic weather maps and a random assortment of still images.

Lhary, our vice president of technology, was the first employee of StereoGraphics; there were only five or six of us then. Lhary (his spelling) was a good electronics designer who was self-taught without having gone to college.  He had been the youngest engineer to work at the ABC radio network responsible for the cross country feed. Lhary had a calm disposition and sonorous voice and he wore thick tortoiseshell glasses; although I do not think Lhary and I looked alike people would often mistake us for brothers.  The glasses and the beards were enough; just a couple of hippie anarchists spreading the gospel of 3-D.

We were alone in the hall; that is to say there were no other stereoscopic displays. Lhary and I waited for people to stop by and tell us what they thought of our wares.  Not all of them were polite; a number of people would say things like 3-D! ha! ha! pretty good for pornography or maybe you should have a giant gorilla sticking its hand out of the screen.

No matter what kind of crap was on display in the hall I cannot believe that it was greeted with outright disdain, disbelief, incredulity, and hostility; those reactions went on for years.  But after Silicon Graphics and Evans and Sutherland adopted our products we eventually had a large booth and because of the years of standing behind little tabletops we had seniority so our booth was adjacent to the likes of Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems. The mockery ceased. At one time I counted 40 booths in the hall at Siggraph featuring our products.

We looked like one of the big player, and in fact we had enabled a significant industry whose revenue could be reckoned at a few hundred million but we were only a $5 million company.  That was because many people were selling hardware and software-based on our products but we were considered to be a computer peripheral and we could not figure out how to properly monetize the value of our technology.

Lhary died a few years later but he did live long enough to see us gain acceptance.  I did scores of tradeshows after Lhary was gone but persistent into the beyond he stood next to me and calmly answered questions. Now the technology we developed is in use not only for cinemas but also in the home.  A couple of years ago I thought acceptance had come.  The stereoscopic medium was saving the film industry!  There were going to be 3-D TVs in every home! But now I am having bummer flashbacks behind the velvet (probably velour) tabletop once again flinching because of the barrage of articles in the press decrying the stereoscopic medium. It’s a seemingly unending stream of complaints about 3-D movies and television. The movies are dark, conversion is no good, the movies aren’t making money, 3-D TV is DOA because of the need for glasses and no content.

Today when I read what the skeptics have to say, so outspoken in their loathing of the technology, I have visions of the brothers Lhary and Lenny, standing in front of the velvet curtain, taking it on the chin for 3-D.

George Kuchar

September 16, 2011

In 1964, when I had been at Popular Photography only a few months, I was given the job of editing the movie section, an editorial sop to the ads that were run for 8mm cameras, projectors, and film, and for Super8, after it was introduced.  The movie section consisted of two or three articles a month — mostly mundane stuff like how-to film your pets or kids. I was discontented with such content and began to run stories about people in the New York filmmaking scene, which amazingly, the boss let me do.  I ran one story about Bronx filmmakers, brothers George and Mike Kuchar. who worked in 8mm.  They were narrative filmmakers who made over-the-top productions that were parodies of feature films and television shows that were satirical and anguished views of American culture.  The films were good – funny and moving and sweet natured and crude and sophisticated simultaneously.  The Kuchars were expressing themselves perfectly because, as I got to know them, I realized that there was no disconnect between what was on the screen and who they were. They were a couple of kooky young brothers who were living at home with their parents.  I lived in a dingy railroad flat on the upper Eastside of Manhattan in Germantown. I had access to movie gear including projectors and editing stuff and George would come by to screen his movies. And so we became friends.

I remember laughing so hard with George that I had to fight for breath.  I remember one occasion when George laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair.  Bob Christgau (now a music critic) and I ran a screening room, The Eventorium, on W. 100th St. near Broadway. We had open screenings (bring a movie and we’ll show it) on Friday nights that caught on and well-known underground filmmakers, if that is not contradiction, would attend. We had a couple hundred people packed in this little room watching movies.  Once Gregory Marcopolis showed up and I kept his $2 admission check as a souvenir. We were part of the underground or independent film scene and at that time an independent filmmaker was not somebody who made a feature hoping it would be a stepping stone to a Hollywood career. The term referred to a countercultural artist who either ignored or despised the film industry and wished to pursue an alternative path.  These were experimental filmmakers who were trying to find a way to express themselves beyond the theatrical cinema narrative structure – that was the doctrine. Cinema is capable of many things and only one of them is telling stories.  George and his brother Mike resembled today’s independent filmmakers because they told narratives and were developing their own sensibility, not any wilder than that of John Waters or Tim Burton.  George was a loony guy but he knew exactly what he was putting on the screen.  He was a fine comedian. I suppose Hold Me While I’m Naked is considered his Masterpiece.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and a year later George came out.  There was a flourishing underground film scene in the Bay Area just as there was a flourishing underground film scene in New York.  The New York scene centered around The Filmmakers Cooperative which is located on the lower East side and the scene in the Bay Area centered around Canyon Cinema Co-op which at that time was located in Earl Bodine’s apartment in San Francisco near the Bay Bridge.  In New York there were filmmakers like the painterly Stan Vanderbeek and Ed Emshwiller, and sybaritic Jack Smith, who were championed by the indefatigable Jonas Mekas in his Village Voice column.  Jonas was the glue that kept the scene together. His diatribes awakened me to the independent filmmaking movement.  An odd movement it was since the filmmakers were so different stylistically.

In the Bay Area there were filmmakers Robert Nelson, part of the Funk Movement, the lyrical filmmakers James Broughton and Bruce Baillie, and collagist Bruce Connor. Canyon Cinema started as a screening society and became a co-op distributor. Under its auspices screenings took place starting in the little Bay Area community of Canyon and then migrated to San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church. The screenings were organized by Emery Menefee, a chemist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Emery was the editor of Canyon Cinema News and once a month or so some of us pitched at his house in Richmond and assembled the News to ship to the membership. The screenings at Glide were raucous. Once there was a man who would not shut up during a film and Bruce Connor, who sat in the row in front of him, turned around and punched the guy in the face; a response that was in excess of the crime. But haven’t you wanted to do it?

My part in this was writing a weekly film column for the Berkeley Barb underground newspaper and making films of my own. It was a great time of my life and a time of community when George arrived on scene.  He stayed with me for a bit and I showed him around and he liked the scene. He helped me with a film I was working on, Below the Fruited Plain.  He added a voice-over track transforming a mundane how-to-do it film, on sandal making (shades of Popular Photography), into the story of a broken marriage. He went home to the Bronx and then returned to stay. And one day after George had been in the Bay Area for a while a friend of his from New York and he dropped by my apartment and the decisive event in our relationship occurred. I do not know how we got onto the topics area but his friend launched into a diatribe against black people. It was a fulsome vituperation and I yelled at the guy telling him he was racist and a jerk. That ended the visit and, as George was leaving, he said to me: “You bit Bob’s head off.”

From that day, until the day George died only a few days ago, we never spoke again. I would see George at screenings and try to say hello but he would avoid me. I wonder if shouting at the dope was the right thing to do?  He was a guest.  Should I have let it pass? Was the response worse than the offense, like Conner’s punch? Sure, I thought I was on the side of the angels but was it worth it?

George I will miss you but I have been missing you for the past 45 years.

A modest proposal for 3-D projection

September 2, 2011

The efficacy of the stereoscopic cinema has been repeatedly questioned in the press in recent months. Those who follow the industry perceive that there has been a falloff in the stereoscopic portion of the revenue generating capability of recent feature films in North America. Various reasons have been given for this phenomenon, including poor quality conversion from 2-D to 3-D, poor quality films, and dim projection. I’m going to address the current projection situation with ideas for improvements. One thing to keep in mind is that most movies that get released don’t pay back their return on investment so why should 3-D movies be any different?

Questioning conversion quality is legitimate and there are both good and bad examples of the art. Similarly live-action 3-D cinematography quality is variable. The highest 3-D image quality is associated with CG animation.

It is generally accepted, by the press and by people in the industry, that stereoscopic projection is dim. I have several suggestions for how to go about improving projection brightness. Some of these suggestions will be perceived to be impractical. None of them would break the bank for exhibitors with existing installations. If only some of the suggestions are implemented alone or in combination we could more than double  the brightness of projected 3-D images.

It is a hellish tradeoff to ask people to accept a dim image that’s in 3-D over a bright image in 2-D. Few in their right mind would pick the 3-D image given this choice but that’s what theater-goers are being asked to accept.

The SMPTE standard for 2-D projection is 14 fL. (A special photometer aimed at the center of the screen when projecting clear leader for 35mm or a white field for digital should read 14 fL. to meet spec. ) The reason that we are accepting less brightness for 3-D projection is because it’s not easy to accomplish. But it’s not impossible. If 3-D movies were projected at 14 fL they would look great. I should point out that most of the time 2-D movies are probably not projected at the 14 fL standard but I surmise that it is pretty rare for the image to be in the realm of 3-D stygian gloom. The informal 4.5 fL goal for 3-D projection is a sad comment on the state of the art. If exhibitors want to give people a special experience that justifies the up-charge they need to have bright 3-D projection. Here are my suggestions for accomplishing that:

Screen size
Screen size has greatly increased over the years. I can’t prove it but I think it has doubled in the past half century. This is not the place to discuss the historical factors for this but is not uncommon for the front wall of theaters in a multiplex to be mostly screen even in a relatively small house. But a screen that is only slightly smaller can result in a great increase in brightness. Changing from a 40 foot wide screen to a 30 foot wide screen or from a 55 foot wide screen to a 40 foot wide screen will double brightness — all things being equal. Brightness is a function of area and a relatively small reduction in width can result in a large increase in brightness. The simplest and least expensive way for exhibitors to increase the brightness of stereoscopic movies is to reduce the size of the screen. This will seem like heresy to some of those who operate theaters but it’s a smart way to solve the problem. The audience will notice that the image is brighter but I think they won’t care that the image is a bit smaller.

Stop the detestable practice of running the lamp past its rated life. It still gives off light but its output falls of drastically with time of operation.

High gain screens
Exhibitors who’ve purchased Dolby or XPand systems, which don’t depend on polarization conserving screen which are also high gain screens, should not elect to stay with matt screens. They also need a high gain screen. They don’t need a silver screen but there are nonmetallic high gain screens that can increase the brightness by a significant factor compared to matt, something like 1.8 times. Even small theaters will greatly profit from such screens.

Projector choice
I’m now going to make myself an enemy of cost-conscious exhibitors all over the world. If you’re equipping a new theater for projecting stereoscopic movies get the brightest projector even for a small screen. I don’t mean the brightest projector for your screen size; I mean the brightest projector – which is also the costliest. I’ve been to too many theaters and screening rooms with small screens that are projecting dark 3-D images. You can’t spec the projector for 2-D and expect it to work for 3-D.

Scope projection
For 35mm scope is projected using an anamorphic lens. But scope in most digital cinemas is accomplished by means of cropping to get the wider aspect ratio. Cropping results in less utilization of the image engine and less brightness. My suggestion is that when projecting 3-D in scope exhibitors should use and an anamorphic lens to get the brightest image. This will be true for both top masking and side masking theaters.

To recap
I’ve given a number of suggestions for how the industry can improve the brightness of stereoscopic projection.
For a theater running Dolby or XPand products reducing the screen size and using a high gain screen could increase screen brightness by a factor of four. Polarization image selection systems like those offered by the MasterImage or the potentially very bright RealD XL system could also increase their brightness by the means described here. The RealD XL system can be very bright but practically it won’t be if it’s used in conjunction with a projector that is underpowered for that room, or with a screen that is too big, or with lamps that are run past their rated life.

Except for my suggestion for new theaters that they buy the brightest most costly projectors, every other suggestion could be accomplished for a relatively minimum outlay. The single most effective thing that an exhibitor can do is to project on a smaller screen and that would involve getting masking for the existing screen and possibly a new longer-throw lens. This could immediately double the brightness of projection. The other suggestions, such as getting a high gain screen won’t break the bank either. If only some of these suggestions are adopted by theater operators then in a matter of days we progress  from having a bleak stereoscopic cinema to one that is bright enough to justify calling 3-D movies a special event.