Since we are studying within the realm of technology, we will begin by researching the first moviemaking group who perform their magic using technology. This group was the first group who constantly and consistently asserted the concept that quality must be a primary issue in the transition to Digital Cinema. This group is known as The ASC—The American Society of Cinematographers.
From the first public displays in 1999, there was a lot of early excitement for the potential of digital cinema. There seemed to be an inevitability to it. The benefits of a medium that wouldn't degrade from heat and handling, and which could distribute a perfect clone 'print' world-wide via one-to-many satellite feeds seemed compelling. Then George Lucas announced that he would be releasing Episode II of StarWars in May of 2002 in a digital cinema format1 and encouraged cinemas to buy into the technology. He was hoping for 100 screens. After a flurry of activity, the number rose to just over 60 world-wide.2
To get each system working there were several engineers flying to each site to make certain that it all worked as well as possible; upgrades were required for existing systems and new systems were squeezed next to film projectors. If one watched the movie in a small 150 seat room, perhaps with an 8 or 9 meter screen – and didn't sit in the first 6 or 8 rows – then it could be an enjoyable experience. If one was lucky enough to be able to walk from that room to a room showing a first run film print, then it was perhaps a different story. Even on a 25 meter screen the film is fully saturated, with nuanced edges. Three weeks later, when that film is beat up and the heat has desaturated the colors, it was a different story again.
Technically, it was 1.3k, compared to today's norm of 2k. The pixel count was 1280 x 1024. This didn't look great against the claims that the next evolution of film would deliver 10k equivalent. The output in light was also much lower and absolute black was not achievable, making the overall quality at best "different".
Against this background, the ASC was making certain that everyone had their eye on the realities of the present, not only on the potentials of the future. Their belief was that the current level of technology hadn't even reached the "good enough" stage and that the end user shouldn't see a product that was seriously degraded. They kept pushing their contacts at the studios to insist that the standards would be set higher and only when those standards could be met should a wide-scale roll out be allowed.
Time has proved that the ASC were right. Not only technically - people shouldn't be distracted by 'jaggies' and poor colors, both which were noticeable – but the history of digital transitions in the audio recording and broadcast industries showed that "good enough" often became carved in stone as the only level to achieve.
So let's explore the ASC. First, go to their website here: The American Society of Cinematographers
Notice the tone of the site, who they are talking to, how education has a primary position in many the things they do. Read the first 3 paragraphs of The History of the ASC. Notice, in particular, the purpose in the 3rd paragraph. Now read the last paragraph.
Go to the website of the article named The Color Space Conundrum–Part One: Seeking Standards. You don't have to read this article now, but we want to download it. So, the first thing to do is create a folder of your own on your computer, then create a folder inside that named DCinema Articles. Inside that folder, create a folder named ASC. Save this page of the article in that folder.
There is a quote in this article that should be emphasized:
Video engineers, who are not cinematographers, “assist” the images in getting from point A to point B. However, a video engineer is a middleman who is human and therefore subjective. This fact led Arthur Miller, ASC to pen the following diatribe for the May 1952 issue of AC:
Much of the poor quality of video films as observed on home receivers is due to faulty electronic systems of the telecaster, to poor judgment of the engineer handling the monitor controls in the station, or both…. In short, much of the trouble still exists because of the lack of standardization in the television industry. Perhaps the strongest point here is the fact that a new factor enters into the telecasting of motion pictures: the privilege vested in the network’s engineering staff to control contrast and shading as TV films are being broadcast.
You now hold the same responsible position as the engineers who Arthur Miller was deriding in 1952. The point of this training is: Don't get into the position that this will ever be said about you or your compatriots in the projection booth. Remember that you are entrusted with the material begun by the people with the ASC designation as the credits of a movie go by.
1 Star Wars II, first digital world premier at the Festival de Cannes