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January 08, 2004

Screen Sizes and "The Company"

Dear Friedrich --

To return to our usual lighter fare ...

Are you as surprised as I am by how little discussion there's been about what the impact of screen sizes (and screen resolutions) on movies and TV is likely to be?

High-end plasma televisions are growing bigger and cheaper while LCD TVs of a whole variety of sizes are showing up all over. Ipod-ish (but for video) gizmos are now available that have teeny-tiny screens and hard drives; Tyler Cowen posts here about one such device.

It seems that we're going to be growing ever more used to watching audiovisual-in-time programming (whether movies, news, or reality TV) when and where we see fit. But we'll be watching it on lots of different, and different-size, screens.

What's the problem? Er, challenge. Well, it's this: how to make programming that'll be visually effective on all those screens. A movie-theater screen needs a lot of information to hold our interest; it can lure us into quite a subtle and complex involvement with textures, patterns and detail. A small TV screen, on the other hand, thrives on clarity, brightness, and impact.

How can both of these things -- density and simplicity, depth and kapow -- be achieved at once? I'm not sure they can be, and I sometimes pity people who work in the TV or movie business who have to wrestle with questions like these.

The usual winner, alas, is dumbness. In the hopes of being watched by as many people as possible, you make imagery that works well on even the most low-quality machine. This can have substantial aesthetic consequences. As they've been made more and more with the TV screen in mind, movies, for instance, have lost a lot of their visual interest. When was the last time you were struck by a director's daring framing choices? A dumb example: how often these days does a director put one character far to one side of the screen and another far on the opposite side? Doing that would make it impossible to see both on a TV screen, so directors and directors of cinematography generally group the actors closer to the center of the screen. Yawnsville.

Free-associating just a wee bit: the WSJ today has an amusing article by Emily Nelson about how HDTV, which is finally gaining acceptance, is affecting people's experience of the TV image. Lighting, decor and makeup specialists are scrambling to adapt. Nelson quotes Bruce Grayson, a makeup artist, who says that on HDTV "a blemish on a face becomes a volcano." I've been told similar things by a friend who works in TV news. Apparently many of the desks and walls that TV newspeople sit at and pose before are in fact in pretty tatty shape -- you just can't tell because the resolution of conventional TV is so bad. Watching HDTV, though, your eye would spot the tattiness easily.

For the sake of HDTV viewers, then, detail and polish levels are likely to go up. And, who knows, perhaps the info-denseness of HDTV imagery will make editors cut less fast. Yet will such an approach do anything but bore the people who watch the same programming on a 4 inch screen?

How and when the viewer discerns a visual detail has always been part of what filmmakers have tried to control; it's also been part of how they give their work rhythm. An extreme example is a famous shot in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia": oceans of sand wavering in the heat ... And then, at a very specific moment, the audience recognizes that a distant speck they'd until just now barely noticed is in fact a man on camelback. When you watch the same shot on TV, that beat, that instant of recognition, comes several seconds later. Imagine what a strange experience watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on a 4 inch mini-Tivo would be. You'd probably wonder why the film has such a great reputation.

Another example comes from back in the early days of editing-films-on-computer, when I spent some time hanging out and talking with film editors. When you cut a film on computer, you're looking at the shots and the cuts on a computer monitor -- a TV, basically, instead of the old film-based Moviola or Steenbeck screen. One thing the editors told me they'd found was that editing a film on a TV screen created problems of the "Lawrence of Arabia" sort but on an intimate-scene scale too. We all know how important the light in actors' eyes is to the experience of watching a movie: think of the moment when the heroine realizes that the hero really does love her: she looks up and ... her eyes twinkle with happiness. (One thing that made "The Godfather" so strikingly gloomy and somber was that the director and cinematographer made the unusual choice to mask the actors' eyes in shadow.) The editors told me that when they reviewed their footage on computer monitors, they couldn't be sure when these twinkle moments were occurring. To make sure they were nailing them accurately, they had to project the footage up on a big screen. Some told me that they'd found that, when they viewed a movie they'd cut on computer up on a big screen, they had to go back and "de-cut" it. The quick, bounce-bounce pace that works well on a medium-size video screen seemed assaultive when the imagery was 20 or 30 feet across.

I wonder if perhaps people will start to sift and sort the programming they're interested in according to which device they plan to watch it on. Sitcoms and news should work fine on a portable machine you can throw in an attache case, for instance, while movies might best be saved for the big screen back in the living room.

On another semi-related note: last night I dragged The Wife to The Company, the new Robert Altman film about dancers who work for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. I enjoyed it though I wouldn't recommend it to anyone; my enjoyment was of a very peculiar-to-me sort. As you know, I love entering the Altman Zone more than just about anything else in moviegoing; spending time in the altered, stretchy space-time state that some of his movies create is something my aesthetic system craves. And "The Company," although it isn't terribly successful otherwise, does cast the Altman spell, unlike many of his other not-good movies.

But it's also a vague blur of a thing, with mere wisps of an Afterschool Special-style story, hard-to-distinguish characters, and a muffled, offstage-seeming soundtrack. Altman turns 80 this year, and he seems to be in a remote and not very energized (if still good-humored and appreciative) state these days. I found the movie, which is more a casually experimental scrapbook than a conventional piece of filmed drama, to be like a performance of trance music. It was my kind of trance music, though; The Wife, on the other hand, fought sleep all the way through.

But the movie was also interesting from the point of view of this posting, because it was shot in HDTV. Altman and his cinematographer Andrew Dunn go to all kinds of lengths to make the imagery sing. They layer the lighting to provide pathways to lead your eyes in, they limit the focus' depth of field, they fill the screen with a variety of light sources and tons of movement, etc. (I know this not only because I'm such a moviegoing sophisticate but because I read an interview with Andrew Dunn in one of the cinematographers' magazines.)

"The Company": Eloquent, if electronic, murk

Even so, and even allowing for Altman's taste for murk and fog, the imagery is missing something. It's certainly active, and it's certainly better than most HDTV-on-a-movie-screen imagery that I've seen. But it's still dead, or dead-ish. You and I (and a lot of visitors, especially Jimbo) have yakked about what it is that digital imagery seems to be missing. Sparkle? Depth? Density? Chi? The Wife says "voluptuousness," which I think is pretty good.

It's some sense of spark or life, in any case, and when it isn't present what's on screen goes emotionally and visually flat. The imagery in "The Company" is deliberately a little grayed-out, rather like the imagery in Altman's "California Split." But watching "California Split," you peer through the haze and then get caught up in detail and substance. Watching "The Company," you peer through the haze and ... Well, basically wake up on the other side of the moviescreen -- what's onscreen is ghostlike and insubstantial. A more concrete problem with HDTV video imagery -- I noticed this at the recent "Star Wars" movie too -- is eyes and faces; when an actor turns away from an HDTV camera, his eyes and face fall off into blah, inexperessive nothingness very fast.

Interesting how hard even supertalented movie artists and techies have to work to wrangle a little magic out of their digital movie-making tools. Interesting too how much is still lacking from the final results. So I was pleased to note in the cinematographers' magazine that the ASC and a partnership of studios and corporations have set up a new Technical Committee to try to ensure that quality won't be lost as movies inevitably go digital. As Bob Fisher, the article's author, writes:

The truth is, the fuel driving Hollywood's interest in digital projection is the possibility of eliminating the costs of producing and distributing film prints. Among the unanswered questions is whether standards set for digital projection will be able to match or exceed the best possibilities of film. So far, much of the debate has consisted of hyperbole based on marketing-driven claims.

Which certainly jibes with my moviegoing impressions.

Hey, here's a fascinating USA Today piece by Mike Snider (and not the Mike Snider who's one of my favorite bloggers, who lives here) about the amazing success of DVDs. Key quote:

Nearly 20 million "Finding Nemo" DVDs have sold in the past two months at an average of $17 each. In the first week alone, Disney sold 11 million "Nemo" DVDs. Rentals have generated millions more.

Other areas of entertainment can only envy such success. The top-selling CD of 2003, 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," has sold 6.5 million copies since its February release. And if you assume three or four people watched each "Nemo" DVD that first week, the audience of nearly 40 million doubles that of the most-viewed TV shows, including "CSI" and "Survivor."

Nearly every other area of entertainment - TV watching, CD buying, moviegoing - is showing a downward trend.

Amazing -- and even more amazing when you realize that DVD players are so far in only half of American households.



posted by Michael at January 8, 2004


Saw Altman's Company this October. He uses at least six different versions of "My Funny Valentine" -- AARGH! It's a great song, but how much is too much?

Would you have bothered to see this film if you didn't know Altman directed it?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 8, 2004 11:33 PM

Certainly not. Neve Campbell -- who cares. Though I do like hanging out with dancers and watching dance ...

Altman likes to do that thing you noticed of running various versions of one song throughout a film. Remember the way he used the theme song in "The Long Goodbye," or "Beautiful Dreamer" in "McCabe"? But he didn't come up with anything witty for "My Beautiful Valentine" to do in "The Company," did he.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2004 02:03 AM

Could you provide a list of the movies that provide the most Altman Zone-effect? I'm genuinely curious.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 9, 2004 11:09 AM

As if anyone's following this thread? And wouldn't it be lovely if people dug gabbing about the arts as much as politics? Sigh...

Anyway, purely subjective, of course: my list of Altman movies that induce the Altman effect.

* Countdown (a little)
* That Cold Day in the Park (a little)
* MASH (lots)
* McCabe (tons and tons)
* Images (a little)
* Long Goodbye (lots)
* Thieves Like Us (tons)
* California Split (tons)
* Nashville (tons)
* then there's a biiiiiiiiiiig gap. Booze? Dope? Ego?
* Come Back to the Five and Dime (lots)
* Secret Honor (lots)
* his TV series Tanner '88 (lots)
* Vincent & Theo (lots)
* Gingerbread Man (enough)
* Cookie's Fortune (enough)
* The Company (enough)

I'm working out of my faltering memory, so I've probably forgotten a few. Any help here? Interested to hear which ones cast a spell over you.

Hey, anyone got any thoughts about screen sizes and what's likely to become of audiovisual entertainment, art and info?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2004 12:34 PM

One side benefit might be that the quality of TV imagery is going up substantially -- the Sopranos, for example, uses some wonderful and presumably expensive overhead shots, and 24 (which I'm now watching on DVD) does some really interesting things with its lighting. But I don't know enough to know exactly what's driving these improvements....

Posted by: williamsburger on January 9, 2004 03:52 PM

* then there's a biiiiiiiiiiig gap. Booze? Dope? Ego?

Nope. Popeye.

BTW, when it comes to Altman-zone moments, I'll nominate the first hour of that film, as well as the first forty-five minutes of O.C. and Stiggs. Both films fall apart in the end, but they start out well. There's also a one-hour TV adaptation of a Pinter play that came off quite nicely -- I believe it's "The Room." ABC aired it sometime in the late '80s.

Now to screen sizes: Sidney Lumet once said that TVs and movie screens will probably meet at about six feet.

But what about the relatively recent phenomenon of suburban theaters that advertise big screens and stadium seating? Surely they indicate some sort of a counter-trend. Perhaps American teenagers are starting to rebel against those teeny-tiny TV screens. If they are, good for them.

There's a social dimension to this phenomenon as well (oh nooooo! not social commentary!). When you go to the movies, you hang out with other people. When you're watching a flick on your TV, you don't. In this age of Internet access, downloadable books, and mail-order DVD rentals, perhaps adult audiences are opting for the convenience and privacy of home consumption. After all, with a DVD you don't have to check showtimes, you don't have to hire a babysitter, you don't have to check your bladder beforehand, etc. ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 9, 2004 04:17 PM

But I don't know enough to know exactly what's driving these improvements....

The pioneer was David Lynch's Twin Peaks, which really raised the bar in terms of the imagery you see on TV. Before that, TV shows were not supposed to look "cinematic" -- basically, they were glorified radio programs. But Lynch proved that television viewers will actually watch a visually interesting program, even if the plotlines don't make much sense.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 9, 2004 04:23 PM

Some thoughts about screen sizes:

The angle subtended by a 4-inch screen at, say, nine inches away from your eyes (about the same distance I look at my watch*) is about the same as the angle subtended by a 21" (diagonal) screen at three feet or a 40 foot wide screen at 90 feet (about twenty rows back in the theater).

This has caused me to wonder why the experience is so different for each of these; my initial thoughts are these:

1) Resolution -- Tiny screens often have better resolution per area (pixels per square inch), but worse resolution per image than larger screens. Thus less detail is available on the smaller image. Screen resolution at all sizes seems to be changing fairly rapidly, so this effect might tend to disappear, as you can only see so much detail.

2) Ambient light levels -- I know that I, at least, tend to watch smaller screens in areas where the ambient light level quite a lot higher than that in a theater. This results in quite a bit more visual distraction when I'm using a smaller screen (I'll neglect the issue of sitting behind tall people with hats and good posture in theaters. 8-)

3) Sound systems/Ambient noise -- Notwithstanding cell phones, popcorn, and the rustling of wrappers and coats, there's much less distracting noise in theaters than at home, and I'd imagine that there would be even more with a wrist theater. Similarly, sound system quality tends to drop with the size of the screen.

4) Viewing angle -- This one is entirely speculative, but I've noticed that the smaller the screen, the lower it is likely to be with respect to my normal eye level: I generally look up at movie screens, level or slightly down with TVs, and I would expect to look down at a wrist viewer or similarly sized device. Given the well-known apparent-size aberration of images slightly above the horizon (the rising or setting moon, for example), I wonder how this might affect the viewing experience.

Food for thought, perhaps.

*WAG for the distance at which I'd watch such a screen.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 9, 2004 05:16 PM

Forgot one of my favorite Altman films -- Kansas City. Some of it doesn't work (i.e., Jennifer Jason Leigh), most of it does, and Altman captures a great jam session on film.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 10, 2004 06:13 PM

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