Brightness has been one of the most common complaints about the presentation of 3D films in the past year. And so Michael Bay and Paramount are trying to be strict with exhibitors with respect to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The studio is pushing a specific digital print mastered to deliver “almost twice the brightness if standard 3D projection,” and Michael Bay has been pushing theater owners to project the film at the proper brightness.

This seems like a good PR move in the wake of falling 3D attendance and increasingly loud grumbling about the quality of 3D projection. But is it just a trick on Paramount’s part to score more 3D dollars while shutting out other studios from 3D screens?

Begin here: the New York Times reports that, last week, Michael Bay called theater chain owners to show his film through projectors tuned to proper brightness, “[imploring] them to show Dark of the Moon in a way that burns out projector bulbs more quickly but makes 3-D look brighter and sharper.”

The whole idea of keeping projector bulbs turned up to the proper brightness might be familiar if you followed some of the 2D/3D projection kerfuffle that hit a couple weeks back. In short, bulbs are expensive, and some chains turn them down to extend their life. That’s a practice that goes back many years, well before the current surge in 3D. Issues with 3D projection and viewing just make the shortcomings of that practice more apparent, as you’re looking at the image through glasses that block some light, which is possibly compounded by the issue of dim images to begin with in movies that were post-converted to 3D.

Let’s turn back to Tim League’s post where he talked about how he runs the Alamo Drafthouse:

A theater should NEVER be underlit.  There are industry standards for acceptable light levels for both 3D and 2D presentations.  Cinemas should always operate within this range.  Alamo owns a light meter and we check light levels on all of our screens monthly at a minimum, sometimes as much as weekly.  It is a very easy tool to operate, all cinemas should own one, despite the reasonably high price… The bulb needs to be burning hotter to produce a brighter 3D image.  When the image leaves the lens of the projector, it passes through a polarizing filter in front of the lens.  You are also wearing what are ostensibly sunglasses in the theater, so in order for an image to be appropriately bright after passing through the filters and your glasses, the intensity of the light needs to be much higher for 3D films… Bulbs are expensive, and it is very tempting to run bulbs well past recommended bulb life or to not run them as hot as you can in order to extend their life.  From January to April, we spent $23,000 on bulbs for Lamar alone.

Variety and Deadline both point out that the prints being shown on the Tuesday June 28 screenings of Dark of the Moon will be specific digital prints, and Deadline emphasizes that those prints are the only way that theaters will be allowed to show the film on that night.

These digital prints “have been mastered and color graded for the extra brightness. Michael Bay told Variety, “We have created a special version with extra sharpening, color and contrast. It is a superior look in the format. The brighter the image, the brain processes in a different way (sic) and the result sharpens and makes it more vibrant.”

Or, to put it into numbers,

Standard brightness for a 2D digital cinema system is 14 foot-lamberts, measured off the screen. About 75%-90% of the light is lost in 3D, so the informal standard for 3D systems is 3.5 FL, measured through the glasses. That’s the light level for which 3D pics are color graded. The special DCPs for “Transformers 3″ have been graded for 6 FL, almost twice the brightness of the usual 3D standard. By comparison, the dual-projector Imax Digital system averages only 5.5 FL for 3D.

About 2000 RealD 3D screens will get these prints. The insistence that theaters can only show these digital prints if they want to open the movie on the 28th is where Deadline gets into theorizing that this is part of Paramount’s strategy to own more 3D screens this week than might have otherwise been the case. But for the end user, all that matters is seeing the film of their choice in the best manner possible. We’ll be very interested to see what you all have to say after these prints are in theaters.

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