Link to header image HERE if you want to take a closer look.
Let’s talk a little bit about film resolution.
Recently, Disneyland closed down their popular Soarin’ Over California attraction to swap out its film projectors for new digital replacements. This was an inevitable change, as all around the world the number of places you can go to see real film projected on a screen is decreasing, seemingly by the day. From a certain perspective, it makes sense. Digital “prints” can be copied an infinite number of times without a loss in quality, every copy is exactly the same and they don’t degrade over time. Many theaters can download prints over the Internet, but even for the ones that can’t, it’s cheaper and easier to ship a hard drive than a film print. It also makes projection easier as it reduces the process to a simple task of pressing “play” and checking focus. These are all the reasons why the digital revolution has swept the world and why film, especially film projection is becoming extinct.
But maybe it shouldn’t be.
In spite of all the positive qualities I just listed, digital projection is still largely inferior to film in terms of sheer quality.
First, let’s talk about some common buzzwords and define what exactly they mean:
HD – High Definition or “HD” essentially refers to anything that is noticeably higher resolution than Standard Definition (SD). This term is sort of antiquated now that HD is the new standard, but it was an important distinction when most people still owned old SD televisions. Standard Definition has a resolution of 480i or 480p*, meaning there are 480 pixels from the top of the screen to the bottom.
HD displays are displays that have a minimum resolution of 720p (or 720 vertical pixels). 1080p (1,080 vertical pixels), the current standard for HD home video, is also classified as 2K (2,000 horizontal pixels, just to make things extra confusing).
4K – 4K stands for 4,000, and it’s any image that has a resolution of 4,000 horizontal pixels – twice the home video standard. There are also 2K and 8K projectors (2,000 and 8,000 horizontal pixels respectively), but 4K is the current standard for theatrical exhibition.
Does all that make sense? If it helps, just think of HD or 2K the resolution of your TV and 4K as the resolution you see in a theater.
So what about film? Well, since film is an analog process that’s nothing more than light being shown through a strip of celluloid, it doesn’t have an absolute number of pixels like digital images do. It also varies depending on the quality of the print and the quality of the projectionist. That being said, people smarter than I am have estimated that the approximate resolution of 35mm film (what most movies used to be shot and projected on) is between 6K and 8K. Right now, digital projection is getting close to matching the resolution of 35mm film.
There’s also 70mm film. This is bigger film capable of capturing and displaying much more detail than 35mm. This is used for large scale event films like Sleeping Beauty and Lawrence of Arabia, and for IMAX films.** According to IMAX the resolution of 70mm is roughly 18K, but others say it’s as low as 12K. Either way, it’s at least six times the resolution of home video and at least three times the resolution of 4K.
Soarin’ Over California was previously projected on IMAX 70mm film, so the switch to 4K digital means it has at best one-third the resolution it used to. That’s not to mention the fact that digital doesn’t reproduce color and contrast as well as film does. While the difference between 35mm film and digital is becoming negligible, going from 70mm film to 4K digital is a tragedy.
Calling Soarin’s digital conversion a “4K HD upgrade” is technically true – 4K is high definition because it has more than 720 vertical pixels – but it’s effectively dishonest. The old film was also HD, and it happened to have 3-4 times the resolution this new version does.
Does it ruin the attraction? For me it kind of did, but I’m weird and these kinds of things stand out to me. Most people won’t notice the difference and those who do will mostly just be happy that there’s no longer any dust or dirt on the print. Still, it’s important to know exactly what they changed and not be duped by dishonest buzzwords.
*The “i” and the “p” stand for “interlaced” and “progressive” which isn’t really relevant to this conversation, but it’s referencing how each image appears on screen. You’ve probably heard about “refresh rates” and that just refers to how many times the image is “refreshed” on your screen every second. With interlaced images, the image is split into two sets of comb patterns and half the image is refreshed at a time. Progressive means that the image stays intact and whole picture is refreshed every time.
**IMAX film is actually slightly different from regular 70mm. It’s physically larger and runs sideways through the projector instead of up-and-down.