SIFF 2010: An (Inauspicious) Evening at the Neptune

(revised and updated Saturday, May 22)

I spent Friday, May 21—the first day of regular screenings—at the Neptune in the University District, a fine old theater with personality and history. It’s recently added a digital projector for 3D screenings, but those studio pictures run off of what is essentially a massive hard drive of digital information. For the films that arrive on digital video for SIFF screenings, most of them independent productions, a different sort of player is needed.

The first show got off to a rocky start when the film, projected digitally from a low-fidelity source (not the 35mm print promised in the catalog), suddenly broke up in digital noise and stopped. The venue manager explained that it was the “First test run of the projector” (she probably meant the player, not the projector) but that didn’t explain why it was so poorly calibrated for the film. Air Doll suffered from serious stuttering images, with panning shots jerking across the screen and the slow, careful movements to the actors broken up like a strobed image. While first it appeared intermittent, it became clear it was cyclical: a few seconds of (relatively) smooth movement, then a few seconds of rapid-fire jerkyness. That’s in addition to the bleary, badly-registered color and generally blurry image with scan lines visible throughout, not to mention the sudden intrusion of the soundtrack to another film (this one in English and apparently a documentary) suddenly cutting in halfway through the film. The sound was fixed (after I brought it to the attention of a theater employee) but the motion problems were never addressed.

Someone asked me what I thought of Air Doll after the screening. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t seen it yet.” What I meant was, I haven’t seen the film that the director made. Quality matters. It was more than simply a disappointment to go to a screening of 35mm film and face a low-fidelity video, without even an announcement alerting the audience of the substitution. The technical glitches destroyed the texture of this quiet, slow, introspective film of moods, where personality and character comes through stillness and body language and slow, deliberate movement. The spell was broken every time the herky-jerky stutter-vision cycled back through. And despite bringing the issue to the attention of the theater staff, it wasn’t solved by the second film of the evening.

The color and clarity improved greatly with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which was clearly from a high-definition source (as indicated in the catalog). But the motion problem was still an issue, enough so that Eli Craig, the director of Tucker and Dale, began his Q&A by first joking that the jerky image was a deliberate directorial choice, then explaining to the audience that it really wasn’t supposed to look like that: the film was not actually shot in stutter-vision. He promised it would look better at the upcoming Midnight screening at the Egyptian. It was least distracting during the final screening of Neptune’s opening day, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, after they made adjustments, but it was never fully resolved and every time the stuttery visuals returned I had to stop and figure out if this was some stylistic choice to denote a fantasy or flashback, or simply the same technical issue distorting the presentation.

These kinds of issues are not uncommon in festival screenings, when projectionists are faced with prints from all over (some of them improperly rewound, many of them never checked before being sent off to festival, and sometimes rushed to the theater after arriving within hours of the scheduled screening) and digital masters from all manner of sources (and not all of them in the format promised). But even so, wouldn’t a test run be in order, a quick check to make sure everything is running correctly, before an audience of ticket-buyers and pass-holder is let in? And when a chronic problem that can’t be resolved does surface, at least an announcement to the audience is in order, so they have the choice whether or not to remain for the screening, and the knowledge awareness that these glitches do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the filmmaker or the proper look of the film.

Update May 22, 2010:

I contacted the SIFF press office with my concerns and received a prompt reply. Indeed, the folks at SIFF are aware of the problem (which, I was informed, has to do with a dirty head on the digi-tape deck rented for the weekend). When the problem surfaced on Friday afternoon, it was too late to bring in a replacement for that day’s screenings, but on Saturday they replaced the faulty deck with a new one, which is in now in place at  the Neptune for subsequent screenings.

Also, according to the press office, the listing for Air Doll in the catalog is in error: it lists a 35mm presentation for the film, but it is in fact in the Digi-Beta format (which, according to the  overburdened yet seemingly indefatigable Director of Operations manager Holden Payne, is the lowest quality format that SIFF accepts for digital projection showings) and will be presented in Digi-Beta on its encore screening on Monday, May 24.