70mm Film Projection Vs. Cinema LED Displays

Never in my life have I been able to have a film vs. digital cinema experience akin to the one I was able to have this past weekend in LA. Within a 24 hour period I was able to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” on 70mm projected film and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” displayed on the Samsung Onyx Cinema LED screen. After seeing the two back to back, I took this opportunity to write some thoughts about how the vintage looks of 70mm compared to the incredible colors and contrast of HDR LED.

A quick trip to LA and a fortunate run in with an old friend, landed us at the 70mm film projection of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As we walked into the ArcLight theater in Hollywood, it felt like a throwback to the way cinema used to be. The film played on a massive screen with no commercials, an overture, and even a 10 minute Intermission, this felt like the original operatic cinema experience. Heck, there was even an usher who personally welcomed us and introduced the film before the overture.

 My index finger held up against the screen. If you look closely you can see the 4 LED lights inside each "pixel".

My index finger held up against the screen. If you look closely you can see the 4 LED lights inside each "pixel".

The very next day, we found ourselves at the movies again but this time at the Pacific Winnetka 12 & XD Theaters in Chatsworth. We came here specifically to see Samsung’s latest innovative tech, the Onyx Cinema LED Screen. This screen is comprised of modular tiles that contain 4096 LEDs each (64x64).  With 64 tiles in width and 34 tiles in height, this makes this screen a true 4K pixelation with 8,912,896 individual LEDs. If you wanted to get really technical, each of the individual LEDs appears to have 4 LEDs inside (RGB and White), which gives it over 35.6 million LEDS. And this was one of the smaller screen. Along with the latest innovative technology came the modern movie theater experience: reclining seats, movie commercials, theater promos, and technology pre-rolls.

So, how did they compare?

The 70mm projection had all of the characteristics common to film projection. Occasional screen jitters, scratches and dust, and even the occasional optical flaw. This specific print of 2001: A Space Odyssey had been re-developed from the camera negatives under the supervision of Christopher Nolan (well-known for his film advocacy). There was no clean up of the image, and it showed. Quite honestly, it bugged me. It pulled me out of the story and forced me to remember “I’m watching this on a flawed film medium”. The colors were not as rich or definitive as I had remembered, and the iconic scene of Dave wearing the red suit walking down the white interior spaceship was not as striking as it should have been. Summing it up, it was antiquated. This is not a bash, but an emotional response. It took me back to what film used to be, and I gained a profound appreciation for both the technology and the storytelling in the late 1960’s. For the time, this format and this film were incredible feats to behold, and history shows that this cinema experience inspired an entire generation of filmmakers who went on revolutionize the film industry.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Samsung Onyx Cinema LED screen was a flawless cinematic display, and is the very best that modern technology has to offer. When the commercials and pre-rolls were playing, the HDR capabilities were on full display. The contrast ratios stretched into ranges that kept my eyes glued to the screen, and the colors had a life giving pop to them (especially during the Incredibles 2 trailer). It also had a sharpness and clarity that I haven’t seen before, because we are experiencing the light directly from its source. This removes that annoyance of dirty screens, scratches & tears, out of focus projectors. It also reduces the problems with optical degradation that comes from the image traveling through a projector lens, a pane of glass, across the room, through the inherent atmosphere, bouncing off of a mesh screen and then traveling back across the room before entering your eye. It’s no wonder there is a slight blurry glow to the details on a theater screen, no matter how sharp the original image is. The Cinema LED screen is a huge leap forward, for the image is coming directly from the screen itself, and it produces incredible color, clarity, and contrast.

With this amazing screen technology, I was ready for an incredible cinematic experience. And then the movie started and the washed out, muted tones of Solo: A Star Wars Story came on screen. It was pretty disappointing to have so much capability but have the film use so little of it. You could tell that the original vision of the color grade had very little contrast since the displayed blacks were well brighter than what the screen was capable of, and the colors had a desaturated old tone to them. But I must respect the cinematographer for his choices since he probably wasn’t focused on shooting for an HDR grade during production (they already had enough challenges on their hands with that film).

There was a strange irony about that took place during these two screenings. One film was a grand vision of the future (but ironically staged in the past) and was a bright and colorful presentation played through antiquated equipment. The other was a modern interpretation of past events (but still oddly set in the future), with aged tones and colors playing on the latest and most innovative equipment. 


In conclusion, the Samsung Onyx Cinema LED brought about the greatest clarity, color, and contrast that we have yet to see on the big screen. While its price point may be cost prohibitive for the near future, I fully expect this type of screen to take over future cinemas. On the other hand, 70mm film projection has been on its way out of the market for some time, but this experience has given me a great appreciation for the work of the past and our growth over such a short amount of time.