Samsung LED Theaters

Roy H. Wagner ASC

Master Filmmaker
Staff member


Roy H. Wagner ASC hFRPS

As a young cinematographer I did whatever it took to stay in the game. That included working as a theater projectionist in the 1960’s thru 1970’s in Los Angeles. That meant that I was a replacement projectionist in EVERY theater in Los Angeles from Valencia to Rolling Hills and West Covina to Malibu. I would watch “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” in virtually every conceivable condition. Even thought film projection had a standard value of excellence nobody followed it. Some theaters might project the film too bright, some too dark. If the manager wanted to go home at the end of an evening that might mean we removed one of the reels to shorten the film. If we got caught the manager would offer a PASS. At worst the patron would get their money back.

When digital projection became a possibility I was one of a very few ASC cinematographers applauding the standardization. We would no longer have to worry about print quality because you could project a digital image forever without it changing. No scratches or missing footage. Every projector was standardized. No more horrible Eastman Kodak intermediates to get from the negative to release print. You could go directly from the camera negative to digital output.

Theater owners, who had always operated at a tiny profit, were not enthusiastic about the new technology. Studios loved the idea because they would not have to manufacture and ship thousands of prints with equal quality. Quality control with high speed film print manufacturing was not great. If only a consistent image could be sustained internationally from theater to theater cinematographers had everything to gain.

A plan was developed where theater owners would not have to shoulder the entire cost of upgrading their projection booths. They had already eliminated the projectionist with a dreadful automated system that could literally rip a film print out of the projector if a bad splice was snagged in the machine. That happened with a 70mm print oF TITANIC in Westwood California. It not only destroyed the print but a massive Norelco 35/70mm cast iron projector, ripped completely off it’s base.

Even though the color space and dynamic range was compromised with digital projection you could rely upon a consistent presentation. That went well until technological dreamers decided to continue following their technology to 3D, 2K, 4K and Dolby HDR Laser projection.

Theater owners were discovering that the larger silver screens installed for 3D could not output enough light thus the dual projection system required for 3D was needed for 2D. With the sophisticated digital alignment potential it appeared that the images were in complete registration and bright enough. The dirty little secret was that although your eyes seemed to believe that the dual images was perfectly registered the brain suggested otherwise. At best the image seemed out of focus. At worst the registration was so subtle that many audience members began to have headaches.

Theater owners were never very good at maintenance. Digital technology suggested that new projection was a hands off operation. As the projectors got older and, even worse, xenon bulbs aged patrons complained. In the era of film projection a modicum of service was required. Digital service seemed unnecessary, at least for management.

Another issue that haunted management was the upgrades and replacements to servers and projectors from 1080p, 2K, 4K, 3D, HDR and Dolby Laser Projection.

Studios were now required to provide all of the above options. They were not minor flick of the switch versions of the film. Each required a new color management and control process that the Studio, Cinematographer and Director had to oversee.

As you can imagine many in studio management questioned, “who cares?” Alas, that was the policy of studio management during the photo chemical era. For most films the same print that ran in the drive in was used in the hard top theaters. Unless the drive in had enormous lamp houses the images would be flat and dark. If the lamp houses powered the image to the distant outdoor screen the print would show signs of warping or bubbling to the next theater showing the film.

Now, with the advent of Samsung LED projection systems the hope is that audiences will rush back to theaters to see the new technology. Cinematographers and Directors are always seeking a more transparent technology and yet LED projection will NEVER insure a bigger more enthusiastic audience.

I suggest we are still left with the same age old problem with any form of filmmaking. We must tell a compelling story that engages the audience. They do not care what camera, lens, light or process you embrace. All they care about is an emotional response to the characters and story telling.

Thus, if I were to have the ear of the Studio, Distributor and Theater Owners I would suggest MAKE COMPELLING MOVIES that your audience believes in. Nothing has changed! Forget about the shiny new toys. Embrace your opportunity to enchant those who still believe there’s a chance to engage their audience in the dark of a movie theater.