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2023 in Review: 5 Quick Tech Takeaways from September’s New York Film Festival

Mark Ruffalo and Emma Stone in Poor Things, filmed through a fisheye lens

Those of us who live in New York are treated each fall to a Whitman’s Sampler of world cinema, a curated selection of highlights from some of the year’s most prestigious international festivals. It’s hardly a large sample size, given the annual output of theatrical films worldwide, but it’s a weathervane nonetheless.

Which way were the winds blowing this year?

Take what I say below with a grain of salt. I saw 27 feature films at NYFF 61, out of the 44 selections programmed in the Main Slate and Spotlight sections. A modest sample within a modest sample, in other words. All digitally projected from DCPs.

1) What I call “full frame aspect ratios” were predominant at NYFF 61.

Let me explain. For years at festivals I’ve run a tally of theatrical aspect ratios, out of curiosity mostly, which I break down into four categories:

Full frame, which I define as 16:9 (aka 1.78) or 1.85. The first is today’s ubiquitous TV and video aspect ratio, the second is the American “flat” widescreen projection ratio originally from the days of film. Although slightly different in shape, each essentially fills a modern wide display, whether a 16:9 TV or YouTube window, or a 1.85 cinema screen from a DCP. Note that a 1.85 image will show tiny black bars, almost unnoticeable, top and bottom when played back as 16:9, and that 16:9 will show tiny black bars right and left when projected as 1.85.

My second category is “anamorphic” or 2.39 (aka 2.40). 2.39 means 2.39:1, so this is a widescreen image that is more than twice as wide as it is tall. In the film days, special anamorphic lenses were required (where the name comes from) to squeeze a super-wide image into the squarish frame of film negative, but today’s digital films can be shot with either anamorphic lenses or conventional spherical lenses. In the latter case, considerable top and bottom cropping are employed to achieve the widescreen shape.

My third category matches the classic silent 1.33 aspect ratio, or the 1.37 “Academy” variant from sound motion pictures. And lastly, a category of digital films that mix several aspect ratios for expressive purposes, which digital cinema has made an easy thing to do.

Of the films I saw at NYFF 61, my tally was 18 films shown in full frame, 4 films in 2.39, and 4 films in 1.33. Plus one film, La Práctica, in 2.0, an aspect ratio newcomer associated mainly with episodics from streamers. One of the 1.33 films was Maestro, which for most of its running time uses 1.33 to denote the past in flashback, although it is also briefly bookended by the story’s present-day scenes in 1.85. This is how 1.33 is typically used, as shorthand to signify the past, at least the past as captured by movie cameras.

This might be a good place to point out that the vast majority of DCI 4K digital cinema projectors use Texas Instruments DLP chips as imagers, and that each of these chips contains 4096 x 2160 pixels, for a chip aspect ratio of 1.89. In other words, all projection aspect ratios, including 1.33 and 2.39, are projected from the same palette of 4096 x 2160 pixels. Only full-frame 16:9 and 1.85 aspect ratios use virtually all available pixels for projection. Shapes that are significantly boxier than 1.89, like 1.33, or wider, like 2.39, simply forgo use of large bands of pixels on the DLP chip. Yes, this translates into a lower vertical screen resolution in the case of 2.39.

Flat and anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios are vestiges, it can be argued, of the film industry’s panic in the early 1950s toward the prospects of TV in the home. (Color NTSC was introduced in 1953). Just as today’s desperate theater chains add plush seating, food services, and Dolby Atmos to keep audiences coming, the film industry in the early 1950s created widescreen 1.85 and 2.39 to enhance the spectacle of motion pictures—the better to fend off that boxy TV set with its puny 1.33-shaped image.

Do we still need these cropped aspect ratios? After all, all of today’s TVs, computers, smart phones, and digital cinema projectors are natively widescreen. So might this have something to do with the preponderance of 16:9 and 1.85 full frame films I encountered at NYFF 61, most of which were partly underwritten by broadcasters or streamers?

On the other hand, digital imagers and displays themselves don’t care whether or not they encounter letterbox or pillar-box black bars. In the bygone heyday of broadcast TV, “blanking” part of the screen like this was a no-no, an illegality as far as the FCC was concerned. People might think their analog TVs were broken. You could lose your broadcasting license. Yet Yorgos Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan use extreme fish-eye lenses in Poor Things, which came to NYFF 61 from Venice and Telluride, with image circles too small to fill the celluloid frame (shot on film), creating a porthole effect. No one thinks they screwed up. Does this portend a new fad in lens use, lenses that don’t cover the format adequately?

2) As of late summer 2023, all projectors in Lincoln Center’s theaters are now DCI 4K. All of their DCP servers are 4K. I asked a NYFF technical staffer how many DCPs submitted this year were 4K instead of conventional 2K, and he basically said all of them. 4K DCP files are larger than 2K DCP files of course, but only about twice as large due to efficiencies in JPEG 2000 encoding. Furthermore, 2K DCPs play perfectly well from 4K servers and 4K projectors. One of the beauties of JPEG 2000 compression is that it scales up seamlessly on the big screen. So everybody wins. 

3) Also, as of late summer 2023, at least two screening facilities at Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall and Walter Reade Theater, feature 4K RGB laser projection. RGB laser projection is no brighter—DCI standard screen brightness must be 14 foot-Lamberts (+/- 3 fL)—but colors appear richer, with greater saturation. In fact, no digital video monitor comes even close to the full color gamut that RGB laser projectors produce. They alone are able to achieve the expanded color gamut of Rec. 2020, the technical spec for HDR (high dynamic range) video. This is because, for an additive color display system, the smaller the width of each of its light primaries on the electromagnetic spectrum, the greater the size of its reproduced color gamut—and the red, green, and blue diode lasers of an RGB laser projector output but a single wavelength each. Sweet! Next time you’re in Walter Reade Theater watching a Netflix film, pay special attention to the big red “N” logo that bursts into a rainbow of vertical stripes. You’ll literally see what I mean.

4) Speaking of lens fads: to my taste, as a longtime stickler for lens perfection, we’re still in the unfortunate throes of a trendy overuse of “detuned” lenses—lenses intentionally adjusted to introduce a smidgen of spherical aberration—and uncoated lenses, both of which intentionally invite flaring and veiling glare. “Uncoated” typically means that the outer lens elements have been stripped of the multilayer anti-reflection coatings that create those green, purple, blue, and orange reflections you see when you look into a high-end lens. Concomitant to this trend has been the trend of exhuming old cine lenses, some from before WWII and the era of lens coatings, and rehousing them for contemporary digital cameras. After one particular film at NYFF 61, I commented that I now knew what it was like to see the world through cataracts. I won’t name the film because I have too much respect for my fellow DPs. But there were scenes where I felt like I was straining to see detail through theatrical scrims and not succeeding very well. I noticed evidence of this trend in a number of digitally-shot films at NYFF 61, particularly in every scene where a camera panned past an open window with daylight outside.

5) Lastly, I attended quite a few industry screenings during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, including press screenings at NYFF 61, after which, for the Q&A, instead of the usual line-up of actors (often by contract), a row of department heads like production designers and art directors and costume designers and DPs and others joined the director on stage—and it was invariably fascinating and edifying. Nothing against actors, but it made me realize that I wish there were more discussions like these after industry screenings, in which key creatives whose faces are not at all familiar although their names and film credits may be, are instead called upon to delve into the challenges of building a genius film together. If only because filmmaking is profoundly a collective enterprise, and sometimes we lose touch with this.

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