Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hugo (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Hugo” to Be
First 3D Film
Shown at Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

New York film buyer Jeffrey Jacobs makes an interesting observation. That two of the movies vying for this year’s Best Picture Oscar pay homage to the early days of filmmaking. But in “Hugo” an American director looks at the beginnings of motion pictures in France, and in “The Artist” a French director focus on the beginnings of movies in Hollywood.
“A fascinating juxtaposition,” says Jacobs.
He and I were talking about “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece about a young orphan who encounters Georges Méliès, an early pioneer of the cinema. While the cinématographe films of Lumière brothers presented slices of life transfixed onto the screen (a train coming straight at you, etc.), Méliès’s films dealt with the world of fantasy, devising special effects that revealed the magic of motion pictures.
The subject of “Hugo” came up because Jacobs has booked it to be shown at the Tropic Cinema in Key West this week – in 3D.
Yes, 3D at the Tropic.
A masterpiece that uses 3D effectively (i.e. not as a poke-you-in-the-eye novelty), “Hugo” is a most appropriate choice for the Tropic’s debut of its new DCI-compliant 3D projectors.
As Scot Hoard, who books the Tropic’s films through Jacobs, explains, “A great and highly acclaimed film about a filmmaker, from one of America’s most important directors and Academy Award nominated for Best Picture, made ‘Hugo’ an easy choice for our first 3D exhibit.”
But the installation of the 3D projectors is a major (and expensive) undertaking that was occasioned by greater cosmic forces: the studios.
Jacobs recounts the studios’ announcement last March at the CinemaCon in Las Vegas that as of the end of 2013 motion picture exhibitors had to switch to digital because 35mm prints were going to become nonexistent.
And 20th Century Fox sent out a memo to exhibitors saying it could no longer afford to make 35mm prints so all films will be supplied in digital format in the future.
This led to the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), an organization whose owners are six major motion picture studios (the same studios that comprise the MPAA). This represents the consensus of DCI’s members about the technical details of exhibiting digital cinema.
“That’s the death knoll for many small-town theaters,” Jacobs shakes his head sadly. “Many of them can’t afford the conversion to digital.” It can cost $50- to $100,000 per auditorium to convert a theater from analogue to digital, he notes.
He explains a program called Virtual Print Fees where third-party integrators help movie theaters recoup part of this digital conversion expense over time. “But for some reason they generally don’t make this program available to non-profit theaters.”
Thus the not-for-profit Key West Film Society turned to its local supporters for help. “The Rodel Foundation’s grant and matching funds from the TDC didn't just propel the Tropic into the 21st century with DCI-compliant projection,” says Tropic Cinema’s executive director Matthew Helmerich.  “They did do that, but more important, they really saved us, in a real sense, from having to close our doors because we could no longer show films.  Distributors and studios will almost entirely stop making 35mm prints by the end of this year – many majors have already cut 35mm production by 75%.  Our 35mm projectors will be more or less obsolete, except for existing old films we can show.”
The 3D system that has been installed at the Tropic is unique to South Florida. As the Tropic’s chief projectionist and technical guru Dan Schwab describes it, “Our 3D technology gives a bright, crisp, perspective-rich image that other 3D technology can’t deliver.  Our glasses are synced to the projection with an active-shutter system – not like the disposable, passive system glasses you see in commercial theaters – and they create 3D images without blocking color or compromising image integrity.  The effect is incredible.”
“Another factor influencing our 3D technology choice was keeping our white screens at Tropic Cinema,” says Matthew Helmerich.  “With passive 3D systems, you have to project onto silver screens rather than white screens.  Silver screens degrade and dim the clean images of regular two-dimensional DCP (Digital Cinema Package) films.  We expect to continue to screen mostly 2D films and wanted to keep our white screens so those films look as they were meant to look.”
The switch from film to digital was inevitable, for once technology escapes Pandora’s box you can’t stuff it back in. “Sometime around 2000 digital cinema became a technical reality,” recounts Jacobs. “Since it cost studios $1,500 to $2,000 to make a 35mm print of a film, and the shipping cost for 50 pounds of film cases is quite expensive, it wasn’t surprising that studios quickly gravitated to a digital solution. And blockbuster films like ‘Avatar’ being supplied in digital format put the pressure on movie chains.”
“Now we get a small computer drive shipped to us for each film rather than 50 pounds of plastics,” smiles Helmerich.
The Tropic is proudly DCI compliant with its state-of-the-art 3D projection equipment. So while the storyline in “Hugo” represents the beginning of the film industry, the showing of “Hugo 3D” at the Tropic represents the industry’s future.
It’s likely that Martin Scorsese’s paean to film history – a wonderful, magical movie that everyone will enjoy – is going to win this year’s Oscar as Best Picture. And you can catch it at the Tropic (in 3D, the way it was meant to be shown) prior to the telecast of the Academy Awards on February 26. The Tropic will be hosting its annual Academy Award gala that night.

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