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Thoughts About Movies

Here, in no particular order, are some of the many things I've noticed about films.

Movies that snuck through the Iron Curtain in the last years of the Cold War were generally very well received in the West. If you watched very closely, most of them were critical of their governments; criticisms were generally heavily obfuscated to get past their censors. As a result, they tended to be quite subtle and sophisticated, which made them more interesting to movie critics and viewers. But when all those governments dried up, those movies largely dried up too. Partly both the moviemaking organization and movie financing changed completely, so many knowledgeable filmmakers were stranded with no idea how to proceed. But significantly, without a common bad guy to focus on, and without the threat of censorship, the movie topics wandered off in all directions (some of them trivial), and the movies lost their subtlety and sophistication.

Recent advances in digital technology have greatly affected the making of movies. Use of digital technology in moviemaking was at first democratizing, as it was possible to produce a credible movie with only relatively inexpensive prosumer equipment. But digital quickly grew ever more complex to meet demands for extremely low‑light shooting, high color accuracy, ability to distinguish very similar colors, oversized images, and so forth - even a very basic model of a less expensive alternative RED digital camera now costs over fifty thousand dollars, while the top-end Alexa 65 (currently available only for rent, not purchase) has a roughly estimated purchase cost around two hundred thousand dollars. Moviemaking is once again dominated by a few elite directors and studios, who now use the new digital technologies to produce movies faster and cheaper.

The typical theater audience experience of the recent switch to digital distribution and projection in the U.S. has been that the image on the screen in front of them is crisper than it was before. (Several directors though maintain the debatable view that film projection is noticeably better.) To me, attempts to measure the effective resolution of various projection methods are inconclusive (except for extra-resolution formats such as 70mm, where standard digital distribution is currently clearly inferior). Film does still have a slightly wider one-shot dynamic range, and a slightly more uniform warmer image, but it's not clear to me this actually makes much difference by the time a real film appears on my theater's screen.

So if in theory the new projection standard isn't any better, yet many viewers see a noticeable improvement, what's really going on? Well, there are several possible reasons for the perceived improvement that don't really have anything to do with analog-vs.-digital, including:

Discs often jitter back and forth sideways quite noticeably during credit sequences, which may be a bit of a puzzle.

In the past most movies were created on film, then transferred to disc only later. At first much (not all) of the transferring used the same telecine methods originally developed to transfer films for television broadcast, which had to handle all films inexpensively and quickly and reliably even if the film was stretched or shrunk or brittle or decaying. So they simply gripped the film by its edges rather than trying to use its sprocket holes in any way. But because the film edges are not nearly as accurate as the sprocket holes, the image drifted back and forth sideways a little bit. This was not particularly a problem when showing an old film on broadcast TV, as the target was a small screen that already had image quality issues anyway. But for transfer to VideoDisc and then higher-resolution display on a larger screen, it was barely good enough.

The results were generally acceptable with images, perhaps because the human brain compensates for some image drift, or perhaps because in most images there's no reference point good enough to pinpoint the drifting, or perhaps because crude software helped stabilize many images. But the results with text (particularly scrolling text), with its multitude of short regularly spaced lines defining small figures with simple geometries and sharp edges, were disappointing. Recently, transfer methods and image stabilization software have improved so much (capturing a whole frame at once, automatically adjusting to different films, higher resolution, content awareness, etc.) that the best (and of course most expensive) recent transfers don't exhibit this problem any more.

(But maybe it no longer matters anyway: movies shot digitally are already in the format needed for VideoDisc, and so are not digitized or transferred at all. So the problem of credit sequence jitter simply vanishes.)

There's been considerable mutual reinforcement between new image manipulation technologies and film stories that slip the bonds of reality. Physical destruction (explosions, earthquakes, floods, dissolving dreams, etc.), high action sequences (wires, exaggerated fights, car crashes, impossible physical feats, etc.) and fantasy settings (fairy tales, outer space, other worlds, etc.) play major roles in many films today. Only a few years ago such image manipulation simply wasn't possible no matter how much money was supplied. But now evidences of the new image manipulation technologies are so common we don't even notice them (acting in front of blue/green-screens, the digital backlot, and abandoned studio physical backlots). Perhaps the influence of so many things now being possible shows most clearly in the current ascendancy of comic book films. It remains to be seen if and how films will eventually settle down (like records eventually stopped showing off the ping pong sounds that were so common when stereo technology first became widely available).

Most cinephiles prefer to listen to the original sound, even if the dialog is in a language they don't understand. The actors' tones of voice often convey as much as understanding the words would. (Sometimes the tones of voice convey so much one can fully follow the story without any other hints at all.) But although searching out the original sound is usually what happens, there's one particular type of film where it's clearly irrelevant, and one other particular type of film where it isn't even possible.

Movies from the silent era were often explicitly designed to be widely understood without words. Films made in any country could be distributed in any other country with little or no change (at most swapping out the printed credits and intertitles). In fact, some go so far as to opine that without the wide appeal of such films to recent immigrant communities in the U.S. during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, Hollywood wouldn't have taken off financially.

Movies made mainly in Italy (some in France too) in the first few decades after WWII often simply didn't have any original sound. A fashion at that time was to use actors from many different countries; sometimes the actors in a film didn't even share any single language. All the Italian studio stages had been rebuilt before sound came to films, so they were not soundproof (i.e. they were not sound stages) and did not provide a suitable environment for recording. And recording sound on location required specialized very expensive equipment that often either wasn't available at all or wasn't considered worth the cost. As a result, all the dialog was looped (or dubbed or ADRed or whatever you call it) in post-production, often by completely different people. (This led to such oddities as in some versions of The Leopard Burt Lancaster speaking fluent colloquial Italian in a voice that doesn't quite match his appearance.) Such things don't happen any more, and film novices often can't believe it when first told that for those films, there simply is no such thing as the original sound.

If the original dialog is in an unfamiliar language (or dialect), the viewer typically adds subtitles to get some hints. (Correctly speaking, subtitle refers only to one particular kind of text on the screen, which is how the word is used in what follows. Often though the word is used instead to refer to all text on the screen, regardless of how exactly it got there.)

On disc recordings of current films subtitles can be switched on or off, and are typically fairly easy to read. With older films though subtitles sometimes cannot be switched off, as they are burned in and have become an integral part of the image, and they often have contrast and/or placement problems making them hard to read. There are also closed captions (originally intended to make image media handicapped accessible to deaf individuals). The end result of closed captions often looks so similar to the end result of subtitles viewers can't tell them apart. Closed captions tend to be longer/wordier, more literal, and even easier to read; but to always appear in the same part of the screen even when some other part of the image would be better.

There are unfortunately quite a few potential problems. Sometimes there will be two subtitle tracks that differ slightly -English and English SDH- and it isn't always clear which is better. With online streaming (rather than a physical disc), the procedure for turning on subtitles may be odd, or subtitles may not even be available at all no matter what. About closed captions one could say the best thing about standards is there are so many of them to choose from. There are at least four slightly different ways to encode closed captions, the choice will probably require manual intervention, and not choosing exactly right often gives the misimpression closed captions aren't available at all. While there may be several different subtitle track choices for different written languages, in most cases there's only one choice of closed caption track, in the language that matches the location where the disc was initially marketed. As noted, closed captions likely always appear on the same part of the screen, even when some other part of the screen is relatively open. Many Blu-ray systems, particularly older players connected to a fairly small screen such as a computer monitor, will not display closed captions no matter what, not even if the closed captions work right on other systems or larger screens. (This is apparently due to a glitch in the standards.) And when closed captions do finally appear, there's no consistency about whether they are controlled by the Blu-ray player or by the display screen itself.

Most discs will let you switch to different subtitle or audio tracks while playing the movie just by pressing the subtitle or audio button on the player's remote. A few discs though (especially those with both multiple versions and multiple commentaries) will offer some or all of their subtitle or audio tracks only via the disc's setup subscreen. Usually when this happens it's possible to pop up the main menu, select the setup sub-menu, make the desired change, then resume playing (possibly with the return button). This procedure can seem awkward in comparison to the previous one, but it does usually work.

Once in a while (for example on earlier Disney/Ghibli releases) there's a hidden subtitle track. The setup section of the disc may list for example three subtitle tracks, but repeatedly pressing the subtitle button on the player remote while watching the film shows there are actually four. In these cases this funky procedure with the subtitle button on the player's remote is probably the only way to access the extra hidden subtitle track.

People may look back on these years as The Golden Age of Animation. Our animated features are as expensive as live action films. Nobody even raises an eyebrow when the cost of one animated feature greatly exceeds $100million. Huge numbers of people are involved in creating these animated features - some end credits go on for more than ten minutes. At least one or two and usually more major animated features are released every year. Recently premium quality has been defined by the annual or biennial Pixar offerings (for decades the premier was Disney, but not any more), some releases from other studios approach the same level, and even the releases that don't look so good in comparison to the premium entries are really quite good in absolute terms, much better than any animation released during the dry decades. It hasn't always been this way, and it may not continue to be this way.

Animated features have always cost very roughly the same as live action features, because creating them required so much labor. Although their method of creation has changed and the labor is now used in a very different way, lots of labor is still required, and the cost of animated features is still very roughly the same as live action features. (It used to be creating minimal but still acceptable quality animations was possible, whereas doing the same thing with live action was not. Such el cheapo animation was sometimes used for one-time TV shows, but never for features or other theatrical releases; as it isn't relevant to this discussion, it won't be treated any further here.)

Production of animated features was completely changed by Computer Graphics (and other uses of computers). Inking and painting cels, then stacking them and photographing them one frame at a time on an animation stand, has become an antique (or solo) technology. At first computers just helped with the drudge work: filling the open areas with solid colors (painting), then drawing the lines too (inking), then automatically generating the frames in between each one explicitly drawn by the animator. Then computers took over the parts of the frame that couldn't be done by hand: the spinning helicopter blades in Mia and the Migoo, repetetive drawings of things as mundane as a whole wall of cigarette cartons in The Simpsons, scenes of large crowds in motion like the stampede in The Lion King, even the moving camera in the dance scene in Beauty and the Beast. There was experimentation: create an entire feature with only off-the-shelf software, nothing custom or proprietary (Delgo); create an animated character similar to a real actress, hopefully appearing in multiple films (Dr. Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within); and enable intimate workflow collaboration between different studios, even if they're on different continents and separated by language (The Secret of Kells). Finally, the technological change seems to have settled down on 3D modelling of everything in the frame, both backgrounds and characters, both still and moving.

In the past, if a proposed film contained lots of highly imaginary scenes or very dangerous situations, it would sometimes be forced to use animation instead of live action. This is no longer the case, as virtually anything that's desired can now be believably portrayed in live action by using CGI.

In fact, the very same 3D modelling techniques are now used both for animation and for live action enhancement (for example the swarms of zombies in World War Z). (They're used for other things too, such as the new lego/pixel style that's different from recognized animations and different from live action too [The Lego Movie].) For many decades any feature that looked like animation was created using a particular unique set of methods, and looked that way mainly as a side effect of the use of those methods -- but no more. Something that looks like animation is now just one more style, and looks that way simply because the creators wanted it to look that way.

It seems to be traditional to describe movies by nothing more than a brief description of the plot. But this in fact doesn't work all that well; not all movies are focussed on the plot. (ex: a solid unmoving geometric presence teaches hungry ape-men how to kill and eat meat; a cosmic burglar alarm on the back side of the moon is triggered; a computer runs amok and hijacks a spacecraft; an astronaut goes through a wormhole; and that astronaut ages quickly, dies, and is reborn as an astral baby - what movie? and does this really describe it?) Sometimes even just a genre is more descriptive than the plot. (ex: is being told a female former newspaper reporter plans to marry an insurance man and settle down, but the male newspaper editor entices her to postpone those plans to cover one last story; the editor and the reporter fall in love, but their honeymoon plans are put aside to cover a strike in the state's capital city as helpful as being told simply a well-known Screwball Comedy?)

Synopsis by plot needlessly limits what will be accepted by the public. It's almost always used by movie rental services, usually in movie marketing and user reviews, and even frequently by professional movie critics. As a result, viewers becomes so accustomed to this one sort of description that they're flummoxed by any movie that doesn't fit the mold, and a result usually refuse to even watch it. Thus we see tiny audiences for -as an example- visual poem movies.

The term movie star may feel a bit old-fashioned, bringing to mind the highly integrated studios of the 40s with their stables of groomed and manicured personalities. But in fact it's still relevant, meaning something a wee bit different than actor. The two skills are of course directly related, and some people excel at both.

An actor like Alec Guinness or Daniel Day Lewis disappears within a role. A movie star like Tom Hanks establishes a screen persona which they then play, with variations, in each of their films. We enjoy watching Hanks playing Hanks playing the character.

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