Friday, July 15, 2005

View Masters

When I was a lad in the early-to-mid 1950s, I first got the movies-at-home bug ... and at that age, I'd scarcely even been to the movies. I had a friend, Jimmy S., about three years older than I. He was, I'd say, 10 when I was 7. And he had a projector!

It was, I think, an 8-mm or 16-mm projector which he as a budding movie buff must have bugged his bemused gas-station-owner dad to buy him, along with reels of Abbott and Costello and monster movies and old silents and cartoons which he was constantly itching to show me. I was admittedly a bit antsy about sitting through an entire movie at that age. But that was duck soup compared to sitting still while he, perched at my bench-style blackboard, chalk in hand, storyboarded every scene from the latest movie his mother had taken him to in the theater.

I was more the hands-on type, and what I could really get into, patience-wise, was our attempts, Jimmy's and mine, to overlap stills from those old stereoscopic View-Master slide reels and put 3D images on the wall! 3D was all the craze at the time, remember. And View-Masters must have been a brand new product then.

I gather they're still around. A cardboard ring or reel contains a series of photos of, say, scenes from the latest Disney movie. Each slide is doubled along the opposite edge of the circular reel such that looking through a special viewer brings it into 3D. But the View-Master projector doesn't do that; it projects just one of the paired pictures at a time. So, Jimmy reasoned, why not get two copies of each ring and use his projector (which could also accept View-Master reels) to superimpose the other version of the image on the wall? That surely would reproduce the 3D effect, right?

We spent hours making it work, on several occasions at his house and mine. It never happened. The image on the wall never went 3D.

Yet that must have been the origin of what seems to have turned into a lifelong obsession to become, in essence, my own "view master." By that I mean watching movies in my home and having them look "just like they look in the theater."

And so do a lot of others, as the huge success of DVDs bears out. (I've lost touch with Jimmy S., but I imagine he must have the world's largest DVD collection.)

So what is "just like in the theater," then? What is it that we "view masters" are striving for?

Well, we want size. If not in the league of the local cineplex, where the screen can be bigger than any single wall in our house, at least big enough that we have to turn our heads to take in both sides of the image.

And we want quality, a commodious notion which subsumes things like high brightness, deep darkness, and vivid color, as well as overall clarity and freedom from distracting noise and artifacts.

Then there's the holy grail of grails: filmlike resolution, right? That's what high-definition video basically is: the ability to boost the accustomed resolution of our TV screens.

So, how high is high?

How much detail must the HDTV be able to resolve to be "filmlike"?

A little research reveals to me that it's not as much, not as high, as one might think. For example, The Quantel Guide to Digital Intermediate says on p. 16, "The image resolution of 35mm original camera negative (OCN) is at least 3,000 pixels horizontally; some would say 4000 ... ." Yet, the guide continues on p. 17, "The traditional chemical process of generating a final film print by copying [specifically, by film-to-film contact printing] changes the spatial resolution of the images from that held on the OCN. Although the OCN resolution is up to 4K digital pixels, the resolution reduces every time it is copied – to interpositive, internegative and finally to print, where the resolution is closer to 1K pixels."

Here, the designation "K" represents not 1,000 but 210, or 1,024. Either way, depending on the number of intermediate stages between the original camera negative and the projected print, the horizontal resolution of the typical pre-digital-age 35-mm movie print could be less than the horizontal resolution of a 720p HDTV, which is 1,280 pixels!

"George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels were predominantly shot in high definition at 1920 x 1080," the guide says (p. 16). And, "while grading Pinocchio for digital projection and working at 1280 x 1024 resolution, the director and main actor, Roberto Benigni, was surprised to find his frown lines visible in the digital projected final when they were not in the film print. As a result these had to have their focus softened on the digital final!" (p. 17).

(What's "grading"? It's "individually adjusting the contrast of the [red, green, and blue] content of pictures to alter the colour and look of the film." A synonym is "timing" or "color timing.")

So even 720p HDTV can offer as much spatial resolution as we usually get at the movie theater, and 1080i can offer as much as George Lucas considered necessary for his latest Star Wars epics.

Merely gaining access to HDTV accordingly will play a key role in making each of us "view masters" in our own home domain!

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