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The Digital Projection of STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE!

Hey folks, here are a couple of reviews of THE PHANTOM MENACE, but unlike the other reviews you've seen... these have come from the perspective of someone having seen the films DIGITALLY PROJECTED IN A THEATER. The first example of this was covered by Moriarty back during SHOWEST (Click here to read that report!) If these test runs are successful, look for the entire universe of film projection to change, the future of film distribution, the quality of exhibition and... NO MORE SCRATCHY PRINTS. Instead... we get to discover a whole new universe of screwups that they haven't even yet begun to realize will happen when High School kids begin running this equipment! Joy! If you've seen this new Digital Projection... Post your experience in TALK BACK, let's hear about this new fangled technology!

How a Digital Screening and My Thirteen Year Old Brother Saved Star Wars

Meesa wuv you. Meesa wuv you? Meesa freakin' wuv you!? I haven't heard any thing so uproariously awful since "Itchee Wah-wah." The only thing that could have possible been worse came a scant 30 minutes later when young Anakin "disproportionate head" Skywalker cheered "Yipeee!" and ran off screen. Part of me died the night TPM premiered. Star Wars had finally re-emerged and I had wanted, and expected so much more.

For the record, I should clarify where I stood. Star Wars came out when I was three. I went. I cried. I got my parents kicked out of the theater. Time passed and with Empire I was old enough to understand obsession. Star Wars toys, bed sheets, stationary, underoos, even a lunch box, before to long I wouldn't touch anything that wasn't a Star Wars trademarked item. In fact, I think it was all the things I was bought as a child that really paid for TPM. This fascination continued on for me for years, until eventually-- in that Star Wars void of the late eighties/ early nineties when it was completely forgotten by the populace-- I forgot about it.

When I was thirteen I had to spend a wretched summer baby-sitting my three year old brother. I hated him. I would do anything to keep him quiet. One method was to put either Top Gun or Ghostbusters into the VCR, for some reason they captured his young attention span. After two months of viewing one of them every other day I was getting sick of them, I hate Tom Cruise and Bill Murray getting "slimed" was only so funny for so long. I needed an alternative. So I dug through a cabinet of old videos, past all of his cartoons, past all of my Dad's "secret" pornos, and there in the back of the cabinet, covered with dust, was the holy trilogy.

Dubbed on SLP from HBO off a satellite dish before the days when they scrambled signals, the tapes hadn't been played in years. I had rediscovered my roots. While my brother screamed for Top Gun I noticed the tape wasn't rewound, I slipped it in and the screen filled with a Star Destroyer dropping it's payload of probe droid pods. My brother was instantly quiet. He didn't make a sound until he begin laughing hysterically at Yoda rummaging through Luke's belongings. He started crying when it was over so I quickly rewound the tape and started it again what did he care about continuity?) I had to dig into the cabinet further to find Jedi, and admittedly it wasn't quite as cool as I remembered.

Time passed, and something called America Online and the internet came into existance. It was here that I first started seeing the rumblings of what went on at those weird sci-fi conventions that my pointed eared, Starfleet uniform wearing aunt attended-- Star Wars had never really died amongst the hard core fans. Tension built. I think it was Zahn's trilogy of books that came out that really started the SW resurgence. Rumors of new toys on AOL. Rumors of new movies even. Was it all crap? More time passed. Then George showed up on Entertainment Tonight saying he was going to do the prequels, I remember Leonard Maltin practically crapping his pants. The next day on AOL several people "in the know" were giving out plot points involving Kenneth Branaugh battling it out with IG-88 droids and Dark Lord of the Sith Clancy Brown, all with help from Christopher Lambert as Anakin. Like a fool I believed it. I told all my friends. They laughed. They called me a dork. "It's just a movie, dude." I should have listened. I should have stopped. Of course I didn't.

Almost six years later I found myself going to the Force.Net every day for the latest reports. The closer May 1999 came the more it seemed like Christ's second coming. Hugely anticipated with equal amounts fear and excitement. I remember staying in the theater until the last of the credits rolled after the Special Editions because somebody "in the know" on the net had assured us there would be a secret prequel trailer afterwards. Lies. The same thing happened when they came out on video. My roommates and I searched through every inch of tape to find a secret prequel trailer... but alas there was none.

Then at last, like Ewan's post-rehabilitation shot of heroin in Trainspotting... the trailer. Months of being teased by blurry photos on the net, crying in agony over some of "in the know" rumors, cheering for others, wondering if "The Phantom Menace" was a worthy title, discussing the finer points of lightsaber colors on bulletin boards assuring I would never get laid again, it was now all going to pay off. I skipped work and went to the first showing of the Waterboy in town. I thought I was in on a secret, but the place was packed. There was a brief moment of panic when the showed the "feature presentation" clip before the trailer. Then it happened. Some fools, (actual Adam Sandler fans) walked in making noise and were collectively shushed. I think I actually blacked out, because I don't remember watching the trailer. I only remembered my pants being wet and Adam Sandler acting retarded. I sat through the awful movie to see the trailer again. I think I cried. I went home to my Star Wars shrine that I had been assembling since the day I had found the holy trilogy behind my Dad's pornos, and prayed. I prayed for several things. I prayed for no midi-chlorians. I prayed for kick-ass Jedi kung-fu like action, I prayed for a low muppet factor, and I prayed for no musical numbers.

Like a fool, I moved to Los Angeles a few months before the release. It occurred to me that all those times I had seen people camped waiting for movie tickets on the news, they were in LA. I was in LA. I began to fear I wouldn't get to see the flippin' movie. I went to see The Matrix in Westwood in mid April, it was the last show and I got out well after mid-night. I parted with my friend and started for my car, then I heard it. Westwood is usually dead at that time of night, but I could swear I was hearing tie fighters. I turned slowly and was more then a little shocked.

I saw three figures. One was Han Solo, he was holding his blaster and a sign round his neck said: "Episode I line starts here." The other two figures where in lawn chairs watching the Death Star battle on a portable TV. I drove home distraught. That clenched it, I wouldn't get to see TPM for a month... at least. Not only that, but I thought I was such a good fan, but these guys... talk about devotion. I just couldn't do what they were doing. What was I supposed to do, quit my job and drop out of school so I could wait in line for a month? Okay, it was tempting, but I couldn't do it.

The week of the release was depressing. I sat at work going through all the Force.Net's archives. It got little of my job tasks done, hey it's their own fault for giving my computer internet access. Instead of work-work-work-work-work-work my day usually consists of Star Wars-Star Wars-Star Trek-nudie pictures-Star Wars-Star Wars. Two days before the Tuesday night mid-night premier, my workmate slammed his phone down with a cheer. "What are you doing Tuesday?" he asked me. I had been planning to drown my sorrows with alcohol and repeated viewings of Empire. "Twenty bucks gets us in." he proclaimed.

I guess it pays to be friends with a theater employee. Actually I guess it costs to be friends with one, it pays if you are one. Tuesday came and we left work a only a scant hour before show time. The line was frightening, I'll spare everyone the details, I'm sure everyone knows by know what it was like. The best part was when I sat next to a perfect model of a lack of washing can do to a human.

"I've been in line for six days!" he told me. The smell concurred. "How about you?" he asked me and I checked my watch.

"About fifteen minutes," was my reply. He only scowled. We've all had the moment of euphoria when the lights went down, it's when they came up that I really felt odd. I had the impression that had I not known the story for months previous I would have been lost. All my friends asked me the next day how it was, and I couldn't answer. I had to say I like it, but honestly I thought it sucked. I spent a week trying to come to terms with the fact. I really wanted to like it, I swear I did. I tried to see it a few more times. Admittedly the good parts got better, but unfortunately-- the bad parts got worse. All I could think of was, "Yeah man! Episode II!" I'm such a junkie.

My brother, now thirteen, came to visit this week. The first thing he did when he arrived at my apartment was head for my Star Wars shrine. He lost all concept of reality and actually tried to touch one of my lightsabers, I almost clouted him over the head with it.

"Are you insane?" I asked him and snatched it away.

"Is the movie good?" he asked with huge eyes.

"You haven't seen it?"

"No, is it good?"

"It's Star Wars."

"Right, so it has to be good!" he smiled.

Ack. That was the point, it had to be. I mean, I am an adult. I know that the original trilogy is not really the best acted or written set of films around. But it doesn't make a difference, they're cool because they're Star Wars! My brother pleaded for me to take him so I conceded to seeing TPM again. I told him he'd have to wait for the digital screening-- I needed something for myself.

Much like when I went to see the trailer, I was blown away by the amount of people. I don't know if it was because of the "Star Wars Fan Day," or if it was for the digital screening. Either way, something happened when the lights went down. Magic. Like the first premiere people whooped and hollered, but that wasn't it. The 20th Century Fox fanfare always opens the floodgates of nostalgia, but that wasn't it. The main theme starts, and you realize it's a new Star Wars, but that wasn't it either.

The magic happened when I looked over at my brother and saw the same look of amazement he had when he was three. I realized then that Star Wars didn't suck, I did. I had gotten old and sardonic. I was used to the Pulp Fictions, the Matrixes, the Armageddons. I was used to Star Trek constantly reinventing itself. I was used to science fiction being nothing action covered with special effects. I was used to a different type of movie. But not my brother, he didn't care.

I started paying attention to the screen as the crawl ended. The Republic cruiser flew by, and for a moment I thought I was sitting a lot closer to the screen then I was. I was expecting the main big thing to be sharpness, and let me tell you-- it was freakin' sharp. It was like watching a DVD or laserdisc on a gigantic HDTV after dumping a gallon of visine in your eyes. What really caught my breath though, was the color. The freakin' colors man!

Vibrant. Thick. It did wonders for the digital scenes that were less refined then others. The senate looked perfect this time. Jabba was better then perfect. The pod race was absolutely amazing, I only wished it was 3-D. The only scene that still looked a little to cartoonish were the Gungan battle scenes, but even they seemed vastly improved. Everything seemed so much more... "solid." The haziness of some of the effects, like during the lightsaber battle or the Jedi Temple scenes was much more subtle. Everything seemed more cohesive, and therefore-- realistic. I must say, for me one of the best visuals that seemed to take full advantage of the sharpness was the Federation Battleship. During the last battle it looked so convincingly huge and real, I just want to... well, lick it. I felt like I could run down to the screen and simply lick it because it was so realistic.

As I sat there and watched it through my brothers eyes, I started cheering with everyone else. It's also important to notice, my brother went in completely green with sickness in the end from horror. He hadn't even seen pictures from the Insider. He didn't have a clue to the story. When Qui-gon got the saber through the chest, my brother's jaw hit the sticky movie theater floor. Then, when Obi-wan offered up a little payback, my brother cheered. He completely came unglued when Maul fell into two pieces, which BTW with extra sharpness looks really cool. My brother claims to have seen hints of a spinal cord, but I think he's imagining things.

It was watching TPM through my brothers eyes that I was able to go back to being a kid. If I had never seen Star Wars at all, and I heard this was the big summer movie, would I have liked it? Probably not. The fact that it is Star Wars, that it's a culture of it's own, that it's a small part of a much bigger story-- that's why I love Star Wars. Now, I can admit freely... I love The Phantom Menace. Anakin isn't that bad. The story and dialog are perfect Star Wars. I love everything about this movie.

Even Jar-Jar.

Cantankerous Jedi

And now... on to Peter's look at it...

On March 10th of this year George Lucas took the stage at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas to make a major announcement. Beginning June 18th four movie theaters in the United States would be host to the first public demonstration of a full-length motion picture from a major studio using digital electronic projectors. The motion picture to be presented? Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Lucas stated "I'm very dedicated and very enthusiastic about the digital cinema," further mentioning the "quality, the savings in cost and the ability to do things that aren't possible today."

I read George Lucas's statement on a Star Wars web site and patiently awaited the announcements of where exactly the spectacle would take place. Imagine my surprise when two weeks ago a theater no more than 15 miles from me was one of the chosen few. So with our clan of fourteen Star Wars junkies we descended upon the Route 17 tenplex in Paramus, New Jersey for what promised to be a milestone in the future of movie presentation.

Before I give you my review of the digital Menace presentation let me give you the cliff notes explanation of what exactly Digital Cinema entails. In Digital Cinema the movies are shot on film and then converted to a digital format. Lucas has even said that he plans to forego film on Episode II and just shoot it digitally. The completed movies are then distributed from studios to theaters by satellite, by fiber-optic cable or on special discs. Then, the movies are shown on a digital projector. Two of the industry's leading forces in digital projection are CineComm Digital Cinema and Texas instruments. These projectors create a screen image by bouncing light off 1.3 million microscopic mirrors squeezed onto a 1-square-inch chip.

Movie distributors welcome this format for numerous reasons. The high cost of film prints, the number of film prints needed and competition from digital and high defintion television. The digital technology gives audiences a cleaner, sharper onscreen image that won't show wear and tear with repeated showings. That means no scratches, declining color, or fiery film eating infernos in the projection booth. Sound is also another matter that weighs heavily in here. Crisp, digital sound with no pops or scratches emenate from the speakers, allowing you to hear subtle nuances clearer then ever.

The lights fell at exactly eight o' clock pm that night and we were bathed in an eerie glow from the large screen as two previews were quickly rushed onscreen to whet our palette until the "real deal" came on. Both previews were shown in digital format and it was quite obvious that this would be no "ordinary" film experience. Then, the familiar John Williams thunderous kettle drums exploded alongside the cacophony of horns and I noted how incredibly clear and free of distortion the sound was. Now, on to the good stuff. I will dissect the digital experience of Phantom Menace for you.

How was the picture quality? Incredibly good. Imagine a picture free of flecks of dirt or grainy image. The level of detail was quite staggering in some scenes. I tried to pick out certain nuances in characters such as the Gungans. Their scales and markings were vivid and stood out with such clarity that were not apparent in my other four viewings of Menace on film. Landscapes of the Naboo surface presented lush colors that were vibrant and alive. The yellow Naboo fighters, the queen's ship, and the royal palace exuded a crispness you would never see in a film presentation. Was it perfect? No, but the technology has me excited. This is a promising step of things to come. An image that will ultimately lead to a near life-like experience at the movie theater. None of us came out of the theater flabbergasted or overwhelmed, but we were all in agreement that digital film was superior to ordinary film in every way. Will it replace film someday in our futures? Count on it.

The auditory experience was nothing short of incredible. Let me give you two scenes in particular. When Qui-Gon-Jinn addresses the Jedi council through the back glass you see several starfighters pass by. The panning effect of the starfighters was so accurate from the left to right speaker you would swear they were in front of you. Of course the other scene I speak of would be the pod race. Every smack of metal or gunning of engines came through with such ferocity and clarity that I was indeed dumbfounded by it. The precision of a given sound effect, devoid of any noticeable distortion is a testament to the technology of digital film. Granted, the sound was cranked in the theater but every auditory bell and whistle that LucasFilm put in Menace was clearly audible through the digital experience.

We left the theater with big smiles on our faces. Digital Cinema is clearly the future. This was truly the ultimate and only way to experience The Phantom Menace for any Star Wars fan. Science Fiction or effects laden films will look great on a digital projector. I could probably do without seeing General's Daughter in a digital format. Overall, this is a technology for us film geeks to get excited over. No more scratchy, dirty prints with blurry images. America is getting a new set of glasses.

Peter

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