Metaphors for Extinction: Disney’s Digital Dinosaur

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Film Going
A ways into
Disney’s new animated feature Dinosaur, just after we’re fully
acquainted with our scaly hero and his furry friends, a meteor strikes the Earth.
You will recall this episode from the science lore of our own era. Sixty-five
million years ago, it is said, a meteor’s impact wiped out the dinosaurs.
But in the Disney version, the dinosaurs aren’t destroyed; they’re
just faced with a vastly changed living environment.

As irony would have it,
I saw my first full-length digitally projected movie–I decline to use “film”
here, since what I’m describing here isn’t–without knowing that’s
what I was in for. Last year, I saw a portion of a digital showing of Miramax’s
An Ideal Husband just to see how the image looked (pretty
good, I thought); I’d already seen the movie on celluloid. This year, I
went to a press screening of Dinosaur thinking I was going to see celluloid,
and found myself watching 80 minutes of digital dinosaurs.

The press screening was
held at the new AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. This gargantuan cinema is already
famous for being constructed inside a 1912 vaudeville palace, which in 1998
was hauled almost 200 feet down 42nd St. as part of the ongoing effort to make
Times Square look like an Omaha shopping mall that’s been struck by a meteor.
But the Empire 25, which appears still under construction though its grand opening
happened in April, has an even greater distinction: it’s now the world’s
only movie theater featuring two all-digital screens.

Last summer, the first public
sightings of the digital-projection tidal wave (or incoming meteor) took the
form of three movies (The Phantom Menace, Tarzan and Ideal
) shown at digitally equipped theaters in New York, New Jersey and
L.A. These were trial runs, in effect. One year later, Dinosaur at the
Empire 25 is much less a test and much more digital-as-usual: the future now.
Those projectors haven’t been set up for one movie’s run. They’re
there to stay, anticipating the day when most U.S. movie screens are digital.

How far off is that? Trying
to say for sure is “crystal ball time,” said Rob Hummel, Technicolor’s
vice president for digital development, who joined Texas Instruments’ Doug
Darrow in a press conference at the Empire 25 a couple of days after I saw Dinosaur.
Technicolor, you’ll note, is a name perennially associated with film processing,
which it’s been doing for 80 years. Having read the writing on the multiplex
wall, though, the company set up a digital division last year and has partnered
with Texas Instruments, which designs the microchip innards of digital projectors,
in the commercial launch of DLP Cinema (the initials stand for digital light
processing), the system showing Dinosaur at the Empire 25.

This time last year, Texas
Instruments was head-to-head with Hughes/JVC in what looked like a VHS-versus-Beta
showdown over which system would dominate the digital projection realm. In recent
years the movie industry has been embroiled in the complications of three competing
digital sound systems being in use at once, and no one wants to see a similar
standoff muck up the expensive conversion to digital projection. At the moment,
JVC (which has taken over Hughes’ share of their erstwhile partnership)
is still in the game, but Texas Instruments has the lead, largely because most
people agree that its system looks better.

There are currently 18 DLP
projectors installed in theaters in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Belgium,
France and Japan. That number will double by summer’s end, and the host
countries will grow to include Germany, Korea, Mexico and Spain. By the end
of 2001, Hummel said, the number of digital screens in the U.S. could number
anywhere between 100 and 1000, perhaps even more.

To me, one thing seems easily
predictable about the increase of those numbers: they’ll grow slowly for
a while (one year? Two? More?) and then, once the industry decides to take the
plunge for keeps, they’ll explode, driving celluloid from the screens of
most first-run U.S. theaters in a matter of months.

It was less than two years
ago, after all, that a demonstration at Paramount in Hollywood convinced key
industry figures that conversion to digital projection was not only viable but
also, perhaps, inevitable. Since last summer, improvements to the projection
technology have continued apace. But the key decisions being made now, the ones
that will determine whether it’s one, two or three years until the majority
of U.S. theaters goes digital, are “not about technology, they’re
about economics,” digital-projection manufacturing executive Chuck Collins
told me last week.

Systems like those showing
Dinosaur now cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 per screen. That figure
will come down, surely, but the large exhibition chains are pushing for the
major studios to share the cost of installation, a collaboration that will be
tricky to negotiate at best. Exhibitors have other concerns beyond the initial
price, too. Old-line movie projectors have changed very little in a half-century;
some theaters still use behemoths that are 60 years old, and solid and dependable
as battleships. Will these new digital systems be more like computers, outmoded
and demanding replacement (at 100 grand a pop!) every two or three years? Obviously,
such fears are real enough to require real answers.

As for the delivery systems
that will get movies (and other digital entertainment) from Hollywood into theaters,
last year the magic words were “satellite feed.” Currently, according
to Chuck Collins, it looks like we’re in for a “three-stage rollout”
of delivery systems. First will come systems like that at the Empire 25, where
the movie is contained on a series of 10 to 12 DVD-ROMs (manufactured by Technicolor,
of course). The second stage will intermix this technology with fiber-optic
and satellite feeds, which are the technologies that will take over completely
in the third stage.

The advantage of that third-stage
technology, which perhaps won’t look any better than DVD-ROMs, is that
it will allow theaters to program much besides canned entertainment like movies:
every sort of live event from basketball playoffs to rock concerts to telethons.
I argued in my “Death of Film” article last year that this will be
the real revolution, since it’s destined to produce a new form of
entertainment palace that will owe as much to the programming paradigms of television
as it does to traditional movies. In fact, this revolution is already under
way: in January, Canada’s Famous Players chain started beaming live professional
wrestling matches into its theaters. The shows have been selling out at $15
a seat.

Back in the realm of mere
movies, the boosters of digital projection claim that it means that any movie
will look just as good on the 1000th showing as on the first, a huge advantage
over the fading, splicings and other deteriorations that besmirch film prints.
This is unquestionably true. So are the claims that the digital image is sharper
and steadier than what you get in most film theaters. But is sharper and steadier
necessarily better?

This question didn’t
occur to me when I looked at a portion of An Ideal Husband last summer.
The image there looked equivalent to a normal, film-projected movie, and I assumed
the cumulative effect would be much the same. Dinosaur made me think

This latest Disney creation,
I should note, is not cel-based animation like Tarzan, nor is it an entirely
computer-created cartoon a la Toy Story. A weird hybrid, it features
computer-generated dinosaurs (sorta like in Jurassic Park, except they’re
cute and talkative rather than realistic) set against backgrounds that are often
actual locations shot with regular movie film. Thanks to its strange, composite
nature, the movie already looks hyperreal in a slightly phantasmagoric way,
and the addition of digital’s bright, extra-sharp and -steady images makes
it seem even more so. It’s like a computer-chip mural come to life.

And I don’t know that
this necessarily helps. I found my mind wandering during much of Dinosaur,
which admittedly is pretty formulaic and uninspired by Disney standards. Coming
out, I asked several fellow viewers, “Was my difficulty in paying attention
solely due to the lame story, or did technology have something to do with it?”
No one had a sure answer, but everyone found the question understandable.

At the Technicolor/Texas
Instruments press conference, they projected portions of Dinosaur in
digital on one half of the screen and film on the other. Aside from the color
differences (the film image was bluish, the digital favored yellow-greens and
had blacks that were less deep), the digital image was clearly as advertised:
sharper, steadier, more vibrant. Yet the very deficiencies of the film image
certainly had their own attractiveness, and I’m not speaking esthetically.

The flicker, the grain,
wobble, even the slight murkiness of film are somehow involving. They
invite the eye into the picture, and subtly entice the mind into an imaginative
collaboration with the imagemaking. Could it be that such imperfections are
not incidental but essential to what we consider cinema? And that some of digital’s
nominal improvements actually work against the special form of imaginative engagement
that we prize in movies?

This is undeniably curious
if you ponder it: in several decades of voluminous research and writings that
fall under the heading of “film theory,” there’s nothing, so
far as I know, that explains why storytelling through the medium of film engages
us in the precise psychological way that it does. We all know that movie watching
induces a form of attention that’s noticeably different from that of, say,
theater or television. It’s a soft, dreamlike state, but heightened and
focused, somewhere between slumber and full, broad-daylight attention. And it’s
ideal for imaginatively projecting oneself into what the old-timers called “photoplays.”

Nearly half a century ago,
Andre Bazin wrote an essay called “The Myth of Total Cinema” in which
he said that cinema began in inventors’ dreams of reproducing reality with
absolute accuracy and fidelity, and that the medium’s technical development
would continue until that dream, that Platonic ideal, was achieved as nearly
as possible. Sounds reasonable, perhaps, but my digital experience of Dinosaur
showed me just the opposite: that cinema has nothing to do with total
representations of reality. It is, by its nature, a medium of half measures,
of tantalizing chiaroscuro and truths that must remain, in part, flickering
and veiled.

This isn’t to suggest
that the digital tidal wave can be averted–pure and simple, that won’t
happen–or even that moviemakers will continue shooting film long in the
age of digital projection because audiences “like the look.” What
I think, instead, is that the makers of digital movies will be compelled to
explore the myriad ways they can “dirty” their images in order to
imbue them with some of the eye-enrapturing imprecisions of film. As it turns
out, the baby needs its murky, roiling, untidy bathwater.