Posts about Movies

Oppenheimer and the reason movie theatres are disappointing

I finally got tickets to see Oppenheimer in 70mm IMAX later this month. I’m excited about seeing a theatrical presentation on film, which is a surprising rarity in Canada these days.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone to the theatre less and less often. Less than a decade ago, I was going once every week or two. This year, I’ve seen a handful of releases (we saw Barbie twice), but we often strategically wait to see something when it releases on home video.

The reason for this is simple: outside of sheer size, most modern TVs are better than theatres in every object measurement. My wife and I are fortunate enough to have a surround sound system in our home, and we have a big 4K HDR OLED TV in front of our couch too. The visual experience (size of the screen notwithstanding) is much better than what you can get in most theatres.

Most movie theatres, including Premium Large Format screens, do not project in HDR. They can’t. Projector bulbs can’t get bright enough. Some laser projectors can get in the ballpark, but they’re exceedingly rare. (If you live in Toronto, the Scotiabank IMAX theatre has a dual laser 4K projector that is very bright. That being said, the last I heard was that the theatre was due for demolition so they can build condos there instead, so enjoy it while you can.)

Because the projectors are so dim, they are only projecting standard dynamic range. They often project a 2K version of the film (just above the resolution of 1080p). If you’ve ever sat up front at an older theatre (perhaps one built before Avatar came out), this is why you might have noticed pixellation.

The cameras that filmmakers use to make movies, though, shoot in HDR. It’s not a feature they need to enable. They simply capture more dynamic range than a theatre can support.

A high-end cinema camera might capture seventeen stops of exposure. Your average SDR presentation can present three of those seventeen stops. A digital presentation in SDR is prepared to show you everything within those three stops, and any other information is jettisoned from the image. (This is why studios are eager to re-sell you films you already own in HDR — this is the first time they’ve been able to present the whole negative.)

For a lot of films, this isn’t as big a problem as it might sound. Good cinematographers are aware of the limitations of film production, and use a lot of lights to make sure that the dynamic range in their presentation is not beyond what most screens can show. (Roger Deakins, who has shot films like Skyfall, Blade Runner 2049, and Sicario, is amazing at this.)

But there are advantages to a wider range of presentation for any film. Jaws is a perfect example: it doesn’t have a huge dynamic range, but there are still lots of reflections of the sun on the water, and it’s nice that those reflections can get brighter and more like what you’d see on celluloid. Lawrence of Arabia was shot in the desert for a year, in gruelling conditions. It’s a very bright film. It’s wonderful in HDR, simply because it benefits from the wider dynamic range of that presentation.

For that reason, I can tell you Barbie is going to look wonderful in HDR too. Both my wife and I immediately recognized that some shots in Barbieland looked almost underexposed in both screenings we saw. I am certain that they had to compress the range of these sequences to preserve the highlights in the sky. Skin tones are a little darker on occasion, but unlike the real world, which is grey and dull in Barbie, Barbieland is always bright and colourful, and the sky is always lit up like a rainbow. It’s going to look great in HDR.

Back to Oppenheimer: After years of watching things on our HDR TV, I’m excited to see a real film projected on a big screen. The film reel can support a wider range of dynamic imagery than a digital SDR presentation, which I imagine is going to shine, particularly in the black and white sequences.

I’ve been disappointed in theatres for years. When film directors talk about how you need to get to the theatres to see their films, I think most people roll their eyes. But that’s only because the current method of theatrical presentation is so far behind the advancements in home cinema that, for most of us, there really is no reason to go to the theatre unless we need to see a movie the second it’s available.

My hope is that Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm is a noticeable improvement. I’ll report back after I see it.

Blue and orange

I’ve read a lot of articles about how homogenous web design has become, but few have compelled me like Morgane Santos’ on Medium. For the first time, I felt as a web designer that I wanted to join this conversation.

This part of the article grabbed my attention:

Perhaps the biggest issue with all this homogeneity is how lonely it can feel when you want to do something different. Two separate friends have told me how they don’t feel like they fit in with the design community. These two friends are guys who more or less fit the Designer Dave stereotype, too. If they feel isolated, how does everyone else feel?

I started to gather my thoughts, but explained to my wife later on that I didn’t feel qualified to share them — which is interesting to me because it proves Ms. Santos’ theory. I, too, am white and in my mid-twenties (although I do not have a beard). Some of my web design work falls prey to certain stereotypes (although I don’t necessarily feel all of it does). In many ways, I relate to Designer Dave. With that being said, I’ve tried to gather my thoughts coherently regardless.

What’s happening in design reminds me of what’s been happening in filmmaking over the past twenty years. Have you noticed that a lot of popular action movies have been bathed in orange and blue?

Blade Runner screenshot Thelma and Louise screenshot The Dark Knight Screenshot

Once you see it, it’s hard to un-see it. Priceonomics has a really good rundown on what’s going on, and you should read the whole article, but this quote deserves special mention:

One way to figure out what will look good is to figure out what the common denominator is in the majority of your scenes. And it turns out that actors are in most scenes. And actors are usually human. And humans are orange, at least sort of! Most skin tones fall somewhere between pale peach and dark, dark brown, leaving them squarely in the orange segment of any color wheel. Blue and cyan are squarely on the opposite side of the wheel. You may remember from preschool that opposite” color pairs like this are also known as complementary” colors. That means that, side-by-side, they produce greater contrast than either would with any other color. And when we’re talking about color, contrast is generally a desirable thing.

I’d need to do more research, but I’d be willing to wager that a teal and orange colour scheme makes your average film studio more money on opening weekend too. Most big-budgets films are cast in this orange and blue look, while indies feel more free to roam around.

That’s not very different from web design: while market forces are unwilling to invest in unusual design, smaller organizations who need to stand out may be more interested. The same way some directors make one for the studio, and then one for them, it’s financially sensible to do the same thing as a designer. (I’m not saying to compromise your values; I’m telling you to make enough money to support yourself and your families.)

My second thought is this: there are ways to play with established conventions.

Priceonomics included an image from Mad Max: Fury Road in their article. It was my second-favourite movie last year, and a big part of that was because I adored the colours. The story is that director George Miller wanted to show the film in black and white, but Warner Bros. refused (market forces at work). In response, Miller gave them what they wanted: blue and orange, cranked up as high as he could make it go.

Mad Max: Fury Road screenshot

That sense of over-saturation practically outdoes Transformers, and in a backhand way, forces you to notice it and be aware. I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t mention the colours. It’s subversive. Miller wants the colours to be part of the film’s intensity, yes, but he also wants it to reflect the insanity of everything else going on. It’s absolutely intentional.

I think we can learn something from Miller: If you’re given constraints that you don’t like, be subversive with them. We design for audiences who are smart enough to notice, and while they might not realize you’re being playful, they’ll appreciate your work all the more. You’ll stand out within the confines of homogeneity.

All that being said, at the end of the day, I don’t know the answer to homogeneity in web design, nor do I feel qualified to share my thoughts on the topic. For me, sharing this takes courage.

I learned in school that our brains are wired to notice semiotic patterns. Blue and orange is one such pattern. Boring websites are another. And while neither are going away any time soon, I think there’s a lot we can do to subvert expectations and experiment with new things.