MST3K alum predicted digital age 11 years ago

One of the books I’m reading is A Year at the Movies by Kevin Murphy, who played Tom Servo on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 2001, Murphy decided to watch at least one movie per day in a wide variety of settings, then write a weekly column about it. The book has been an affectionate bear hug for good movies and the best places to watch them.

Part of the appeal of a book with bite-sized, independent chapters is the ability to read it in multiple sittings, and I haven’t finished it yet. (Heck, I haven’t even reached the part with drive-ins.) But I just ran into a very relevant passage.

In early June 2001, Murphy visited the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, where he saw “Atlantis,” (probably Atlantis: The Lost Empire). He loved the Ziegfeld for its velvet drapes, plush seats, rolling snack carts, and lack of pre-show advertisements. Here’s how he told the rest of the story:

There was only one thing preceding the movie: a notice from the good geeks at Texas Instruments announcing they were about to blow our collective minds with their new technology called DLP, or Digital Light Processing.

And then they did it. The projection was perfectly focused, sharp in every detail in every corner of the screen. No print scratches, no reel-change pops, in fact no reel changes at all. No projector flutter, no soundtrack rumble.

You might not realize how rare this is. Even the very first screening of a virgin print of Apocalypse Now Redux with Francis himself running the projector is going to have some small flaws. Having every single inch of the screen in perfect focus almost never happens in any theater.

This film was flawless.

It was flawless because it wasn’t a film. Atlantis never was a film; it was conceived, created, animated, edited, and, at the Ziegfeld, projected completely in the realm of digital information, without one single frame of film involved.

It was beautiful, the color density full, detail razor sharp. With video projection there is always some artifacting or scan line problem: In layman’s terms, video still looks lousy when projected. But this isn’t video. It’s a completely new technology using ones, zeroes, and mirrors.

… The import of what I was seeing rolled over me like the Pacific surf. It could mean the end of film for motion picture exhibition. (emphasis mine) DLP will be flawless every time it’s shown. This means the magnificent picture I was seeing at the velvety Ziegfeld theater in Manhattan will look just as magnificent in decidedly less velvety venues in the various boondock theaters around the country. We’ll all be able to see really good-looking films. Even in Idaho. I don’t want to alarm anybody, but it just might raise our aesthetic standards.

I read this passage soon after reading Daniel Eagan’s article lamenting the fate of most older films in the new digital-projector world, as discussed in our previous post. That film gourmand Kevin Murphy could recognize this trend so early is pretty remarkable, considering that TI had been demonstrating DLP in just a few theaters for only about two years. I think it also serves as an eloquent counterpoint in favor of digital projection, illustrating the viewer’s benefits from the new system.

In A Year at the Movies, Murphy repeatedly surprises me with the depth of his cinema knowledge and clever wordplay. But if you’re not knee-deep in love with the movies, it’s hard to avoid a certain repetitiveness. Some films are great, some are awful. Some theaters are heavenly shrines, some are icky pits. Ironically, the book has very little to do with MST3K or movie riffing, though it can be funny at times. Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone who cares deeply about movies and the theaters where we watch them. And if he says something interesting about drive-ins, I’ll let you know.