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'Avatar' projection issues? Maybe yes, Maybe no.

Posted by Ty Burr  December 21, 2009 11:15 AM

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Some interesting responses from my posting late last week about possible projection problems with James Cameron's game-changing megillah. The upshot -- and this will make the folks at Fox happy -- is that no one wrote in to complain that the 3D went awry at their theater. Closest I could come to a rant was from one Doug Helmreich in the midwest, and the picture wasn't at fault:

I live in Ann Arbor, MI (far from Boston, I know!) and made special plans to treat my wife to the Imax 3D showing of Avatar tonight. As we walked into the theater the guy in front of me asks the glasses-hander-outer "Did you get the sound fixed?" and she replied that the earlier showing that day had gone fine. The guy then said how two earlier IMAX 3D screenings that weekend had to be cancelled because of sound issues.

Well, the movie starts up, and we get about 45 minutes in (when the Navi on 'horses' arrive at night), and the sound goes out, and then 2 seconds later the whole picture goes dark. Some stirring, house lights go up, and fifteen minutes later there's an announcement that they'll try to show it in 2D but get your refunds if you want them.

I have no idea if this is just specific to the one theater (Showcase Cinemas Ann Arbor), or what. Obviously a huge letdown; I had reserved dead center seats and who knows when we'll get back to the movies. For what it's worth I didn't detect any ghosting issues, or any problems with the reflective surfaces (e.g. the gas masks) in the live action stuff

I also heard from Steve Barnett, VP of Feature Post-Production at Fox, who clarified some of my earlier attempts to describe the issues with RealD prints and the bobbled Boston press screening:

There are several brands of digital 3-D, but they all project two basic types of digital print, called the Digital Cinema Package.  For theaters running Dolby 3-D and XpanD, the studios send a non-ghost busted DCP. These systems do their “ghost busting” on site at the theater.  For Real-D, the studios normally create a ghost busted DCP and send it to theaters running that system.  This is how Fox is distributing AVATAR. 

Maintaining this two version inventory and tracking which theater gets which is inconvenient, but it allows exhibitors flexibility when selecting their 3-D equipment.  Real D is also in the process of upgrading their gear for on-site ghost busting, so making a separate version and wrangling a dual inventory will soon cease to be an issue. The proper version of AVATAR was sent to Boston Common by the way, and the second, well received screening was also in a Real D house.

All this said, we hope that you and your readers will continue to press your local theaters for the proper presentation of Jim Cameron’s remarkable film.  We feel AVATAR is a unique and astonishing theatrical experience and will bring 3-D into the mainstream of motion picture exhibition.  Correct calibration of the projectors and sufficient light on the screen make all the difference in seeing this wonderful movie in all the 3-D formats.

Which still doesn't clear up what happened at the screening. By omission, Barnett seems to be saying the projectionist screwed up, and in a follow-up email, he elaborated:

Regarding the original press screening, my boss had the DCP drive from that event sent directly back to Fox where we loaded it in our theater and watched it. It was perfect; a ghost busted DCP for use in a Real D Theater. From what I hear, the auditorium where you first saw it was not properly calibrated.  One of the AVATAR team calls this the "vagaries of public exhibition." Sad but true.

So: I repeat -- Hope that the people at your local multiplex know what they're doing, especially in the first showings of any given film. Speaking of which, I got a testy email from an AMC employee (who wishes to remain anonymous) objecting to my characterization of projectionists as teenage counter-jockeys:

You are completely wrong about concessionists being the ones who run the movies. Our crew members are trained to be in the projection booth. We don't go on the main floor, pull a random member of the crew and have them "push a button" to start the movie as so many people like to think. There's a lot that goes into projection such as making sure the projector is properly laced, looking to see if the picture looks good on screen, going into the auditoriums themselves to check sound and troubleshooting any problems that may arise.  Another common misconception is that there is one projectionist for every theater in the building. In reality, there are only one or two projectionists upstairs running movies at any time, so it actually does take time to go and fix problems.

Another issue is that usually when the press has a screenings, it is the first time the film is being shown. The movies come on reels that have to be put together by a projectionist. Most of the time, these movies only enter the theater hours before being shown to the press, which would explain the poor sound you complain of. Also, it is unusual to get ghosting on digital projectors because the information is coming off a hard drive shipped directly from the film company, which we download to our computer. Back in the days where 35 mm was the only option available, ghosting was common due to belts wearing out inside the projector and the slowing down of the shutter gear box (the piece of equipment inside the projector that makes the single images on film look like a continuous picture on screen.)

Usually the best way to get someone to fix a problem is to ask someone to fix it. So what if you miss 2 minutes of your movie, is it really worth it to watch a movie that has a lousy picture just because you were too lazy to get up and tell someone?  We're more than happy to fix a problem if someone comes and tells an employee.

Okay, good point about press screenings being more prone to cock-ups since the projectionists are often still working the bugs out of the presentation. But I will take issue (as will others, I think) with asking someone to fix the problem, since it's usually impossible to find someone in most giant multiplexes. At the Common, for instance, you have to walk what feels like several miles to the concession booth, and often the refreshment clerks don't know what to do. Finding a manager or someone who can affect a change can take much more than two minutes, and, besides, if I paid $15 for a 3D presentation or even $10 for a regular flat film, I don't want to have to miss even two minutes. It should be right first time and every time. The occasional mistake is one thing, but some theaters seem to make a practice of poor presentation, perhaps because -- as you yourself note -- there's only one or two projectionists overseeing nearly two-dozen projectors. And I know that I've looked through the projection booth window in the past and actually seen the uniformed kid who just sold me Junior Mints wrestling with the machinery.

Let's have the last word from reader Carol Ferguson, who drops a little Boston-area exhibition history:

As a former non-union projectionist I agree completely with your larger point about not having a projectionist operating and monitoring the films and how that's become a major problem over the last twenty years. The problem began with the platter system and automation systems first seen in metropolitan Boston at the Galleria Cinema twoplex in Cambridge and then installation and operation of platter systems in every multiplex. One projectionist could run multiple screens spreading himself very thin and eventually that job was given to assistant managers and even ushers with the projectionist being phased out. I can't count the amount of times I left a movie seat to go to the concession stand to complain about framing, focus, and audio issues only to have them fall on deaf ears and be ignored. The idea of pride in presentation which was drilled into me when I apprenticed at the Exeter Street Theatre and which I always taught to other soon to be licensed projectionists while I worked at a variety of other movie theatres, sadly many of them gone now, no longer has a role in most movie theatres.

One thing I wanted to mention in regard to your excellent article though was there were and are both union and non-union houses. I very much resented the strong arm tactics that some union members used to try and get the unions into non-union theatres.  I saw it first hand at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Harvard Square Theatre, the Kenmore Movie House and the Paris Cinema, formerly on Boylston Street. When they tried to go non-union, some nitwit vandalized all the projection equipment.  Those of us who were non-union always felt that we ran better shows than the union operators, I don't know if that's true but we had a nice camaraderie going and a love of films and the projection equipment that ran them. Anyway I still love going to see movies and appreciate the new technology but wanted to set the record straight that there were and still are smaller art-houses and repertory theatres that are non-union.  The problem is lack of oversight and the lack of a projectionist, union or not, overseeing the operations, providing maintenance and repair, understanding the technology and implementing it to run the best presentation possible. Unfortunately that will not change anytime soon.

Thanks Carol, and thanks to everyone else who dropped a note. Until such time as the Globe web boffins see fit to repair the commenting software on this blog, feel free to send me an email at

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

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