Movies at the Theater Versus the iPad…

How are the Internet and other technologies currently affecting the ways in which movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited? Are the changes having an impact on the quality or depth of the films?            

This initial post about the internet’s effect on the production and distribution of movies is not something I have considered previously; although, I recently finished watching Bram Stroker’s Dracula using the Crackle app on my iPad.  The film has a reduced quality, with some visible grain and less than optimal dynamic range, and stopped for a commercial every ten minutes.  The film has a very dark style, and dark scene would certainly have a stronger portrayal on a large screen, or even just a high definition television.  I suppose the question more or less falls around “Does it matter?”

It appears to me that ever since Charlie Chaplin was making silent films, there has been an insatiable drive to create films with higher quality, increased dynamic range between light and dark areas of scenes, and intense sound, which culminates in a product that encapsulates the viewer.  Around the turn of the 21st century, there has been a parallel environment created with mobile devices and the movie/TV show industry.  Goodykoontz and Jacobs (2011) made a loaded statement when they said, “Ironically this trend toward individual viewing of smaller images harkens back to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes of 1894” (p. 30).  I initially felt that I was no longer watching a great film on the trendiest technology, but I was instead reducing myself to a century-old means of watching a movie.

That feeling of loss subsided when I considered the entire situation more carefully.  Companies that develop streaming movies for mobile devices are only a few years old.  Even though the technical quality of the movies are not nearly as good as in a theater or on Blu-Ray, it is still remarkable that I can watch a feature-length film on a portable device while waiting for a plane at the airport, and do it for free.  The loss in technical quality becomes far outweighed by the availability to watch the movie.  As Goodykoontz and Jacobs (2011) eluded in the text, the movie selection was not available in the theater, nor was I available to be at the theater even if it was a current showing.  Bram Stroker’s Dracula is not in my DVD or Blu-Ray selection, so without the modern distribution through the Internet, I simply would not have seen the production.  In my opinion, reduction in technical quality is a fair trade to the alternative.

In photography, film is processed into a print using chemicals.  There is never any selection to reduce the quality of an image as it is processed onto paper: it is merely a reaction of light and chemical.  As I transitioned into digital photography, a plethora of questions about “final-use” started to fill my mind, and I have learned that I need to be a computer graphics engineer as well as a creative photographer.  For example, if I take a perfectly sharp photograph with a 50 megapixel Hasselblad sensor at the highest possible resolution and then post that image on the Internet, would you believe it would look blurry unless I “processed” it for screen viewing?  That is because computer monitors cannot reproduce an image with 3-600 dots of information per inch.  Computer monitors traditionally had 72 dots per inch, and now typically hover around 110 dots per inch for some of the better LED displays.  All the extra pixels get compressed or removed using various algorithms by whatever photo browser the end-user is equipped with.  If I do not professional adjust an image beforehand, then I do not have any control over what the different software will use and the result is likely an image from a very expensive camera that looks worse than an iPhone snap.   In order to counter this, duplicate versions of the same version are created: for print, for web, for e-mail, etc.

Internet streaming of movies is no different than the process I must use with digital photography.  Due to the parallel distribution channels, I suspect there will be an increase in plural versions of movie releases made for the different types of screens they will be viewed on.  This is why some very recent movies play fantastically on mobile devices, and some older versions appear to be blurry or with increased grain.  Presently, there is an effect on quality but not on the depth of a film.  In the end, it is ironic that we are willing to subject ourselves to a century-old view of film, isn’t it?

Cheers-

-Mark Wyman

Reference

Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. P. (2011). Film: from watching to seeing. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.  Accessed through eBooks for iPad.

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