Editorial: Still Killing the Giant Screen

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Originally published in the March-April 2014 issue.

by James Hyder

After the 2013 Giant Screen Cinema Association Film Expo in Galveston, TX, I wrote an editorial (What Will Kill the Giant Screen, April 2013) in which I complained about the increasing number of films that had originated as television productions, and warned about the risk that such films pose to the reputation of the GS industry. However, I refrained in that article from identifying any films or producers explicitly.

Unfortunately, at the 2014 Film Expo in Austin, the situation had not improved significantly: there were still too many films that failed to live up to the basic minimums of image quality for the giant screen. I left Austin so infuriated that I vowed that this time I would kick ass and name names.

What separates the giant-screen experience from all other media (except perhaps fulldome shows) is its immersiveness and ability to give audiences the impression that they have been transported to another place. Chief among the factors in achieving this effect is image quality: the pictures must be bright, clear, and sharp, but the greatest of these is sharpness.

For most of the first 40 years of the medium’s existence, the huge 15/70 film frame ensured that most films, on most giant screens, presented images that equaled or exceeded the resolving power of the audiences’ eyes. Indeed, the first films to incorporate full-frame 35mm footage instead of 15/65 — Africa: The Serengeti (1994) and Wolves (1999) among them — were criticized by some for lowering the standards of the industry.

The arrival of digital cameras in the last decade has allowed filmmakers to do things that were difficult or impossible with the bulky, noisy, and expensive 15/65 film cameras and their three-minute loads. For the most part, when used by skilled filmmakers who are aware of their limits, digital cameras have improved the overall quality of GS films.

On the flip side, because they are cheaper and easier to use, these cameras have allowed filmmakers with little or no experience in the GS world to use them inappropriately. The shots that define the GS medium — the WOW shots — must be sharp if viewers are to feel they are really there. Dull, fuzzy aerials and wide shots simply kill the realism of the experience, and instead of transporting you to another world, they remind you that you’re sitting in a theater. At present, few digital cameras are capable of capturing the level of detail needed to match the 15/70 frame in the most challenging wide shots.

Experienced GS filmmakers understand this, and use cameras that are appropriate to the scene they are shooting: in general, film for the wide shots with lots of detail, digital for medium and close-ups. Greg MacGillivray, Jonathan Barker, Daniel Ferguson, and others have successfully mixed film and digital photography to tell their stories on the giant screen. As any of them will tell you, it is complicated and expensive to do properly.

But a number of new releases have been shot entirely on digital cameras, with dismal results. Although this is not an entirely new phenomenon, several I saw in Austin put me over the edge. The worst example was The Great Apes, produced by Visionquest Entertainment, an Australian television production company, and distributed by nWave Pictures.

Before going any further, let me be perfectly clear about one point: I have no problem with the content of most of the films I will discuss here. I am not a scientist, but as far as I can tell, The Great Apes is an accurate and responsible documentary about an important and serious topic. And it tells its story well.

But it is, first and foremost, a television show. I could see no sign that any thought was given to the giant screen in any aspect of its production, from its fuzzy aerials and wide shots to its too-tight framing and jarring hand-held shots. It is fine for the 3net cable channel (on which it will run), and it might be acceptable in conventional cinemas (where it will also be shown). But it simply is not a giant-screen film.

Slightly less egregious is another film from nWave: Galapagos 3D, produced by U.K.-based Atlantic Productions. Although it avoids shaky-cam shots, it too suffers from fuzzy aerials and wide shots. In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution and Imax Corporation released Galapagos, shot entirely on 15/65. If the producers of the 2013 film had licensed outtakes from it, they might have significantly improved the quality of their film.

People who have known me a while may have heard me relate this story, which taught me a lot about what makes giant-screen films work. While I was working in the IMAX theater at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, I prepared printed transcripts of the narrations of our films that deaf visitors could read while watching the movie. The completed transcript for Blue Planet (1990, 42 minutes)ran to almost 30 pages. The one for Stephen Low’s Beavers (1988, 30 minutes) was a page and a half. A page and a half! Here was a film that let its pictures tell the story, placing minimal narration only where it was absolutely needed.

Since then, I have frequently opined that any GS film — or fulldome show — with non-stop narration has failed. A good GS film must have remarkable images and must give its audience time to absorb them. Despite its relatively extensive narration, Blue Planet, produced by one of the founders of the giant-screen medium, Graeme Ferguson, did that. But the two films mentioned above did not, nor does the third film that sparked my anger in Austin: We The People.

Inland Sea Productions shot portions of We The People on film, although that hardly matters because the film violates so many other precepts of good GS filmmaking. Its two narrators, Kenny Rogers and Morgan Freeman (who has become seriously overexposed in recent GS films), talk constantly over every scene, making the film little more than an illustrated 40-minute lecture on the history of the United States. There are no WOW moments that use the giant screen well, and as the film enters the 20th century, several very grainy historic film clips are painfully shown full screen, instead of in a small window. We the People is also visually padded with many sunny feel-good shots of happy families that look like they were taken from a commercial for laundry detergent.

Again, I have no problem with the content of We The People, as such. It is a fine (if somewhat bland) TV show about U.S. history. Unlike others, however, it was conceived from the start as a GS film, which makes its failure to use the medium well even more disappointing.

Ironically, the fact that these three films have relatively solid content makes them more problematic for the GS industry than if they had been merely bad movies. Perhaps the worst film to be shown at any GS industry meeting in the last decade was Paragliding 3D. Shot entirely in fuzzy HD, with a weak story, poor acting, confusing character shifts, and minimal educational content, it was so unsuitable to the medium that there was little risk that anyone would show it. (To my knowledge, it has not gained a distributor or any bookings.)

But Great Apes, Galapagos 3D, and We the People (and others I could have mentioned) are not bad. They’re just wrong for the giant screen. So, unlike Paragliding, they may very well be booked in GS theaters whose managers don’t understand these issues, don’t care, or can’t afford films that would use their screens to better advantage. In the end, this could damage the reputation of all giant screens, if viewers come away dissatisfied with an experience that does not live up to the medium’s potential for immersiveness, realism, and transformation. Experienced GS moviegoers who know what good films look like may be disappointed and think less of the theater and the medium in general; newcomers may not realize how good the GS experience can be, and may not be inspired to return.

I understand that times are hard for filmmakers and theaters alike. (Things aren’t that easy for journalists, either.) Making a film for giant screens entails financial risks, and producers and distributors need to find as many venues as possible for their films. It seems clear from the recent experience of SK FilmsFlight of the Butterflies that a film can be successful in multiple venues — flat and dome GS theaters, fulldomes, and smaller digital theaters — if it is made with all of those venues in mind. It is expensive, time consuming, and technically challenging, but it can be done.

On the other hand, there is no excuse for taking a film that was made for television, or by people with no experience in the GS world (regardless how many TV shows they’ve made), and simply blowing it up to the giant screen. This has happened and is continuing to happen, and it is nothing less than a betrayal of the stakeholders in the GS industry: filmmakers, theaters, and ultimately, audiences. Such films may make money, but at what cost?

I certainly don’t mean to say that most, or even many, of the films presented in Austin fell into this category. Indeed, many of the films in production and development looked extremely promising, such as the four or five projects that BBC Earth is producing.

Good films that use the giant screen well are still available and are still being made. Theaters should rush to book them, and avoid the ones that don’t live up to the highest standards of the GS medium. As long as substandard shows are not rewarded with bookings on giant screens, they will remain in the smaller venues to which they are best suited.

I welcome feedback from those whose films I have critiqued and from anyone else with an opinion to share on this matter. If I have made any errors of fact, I will, as always, publish a correction in the next issue.

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