Which is more important, the technology or the film?

There was a time when home theater was pretty low tech; everything was mono and full screen. Times have certainly changed, but have we lost our focus? Now with the increased popularity of DVD and six channel receivers you can get a better picture and sound than in many theaters. I talk to a lot of home theater owners as well as read the threads in the DVD and home theater news groups and there seems to be a growing number of people whose purchases of films seem to be driven more by the technological aspects of the DVD than the quality and content of the film. As someone who got into collecting movies in the low tech days I find this a bit upsetting. People will endlessly debate whether a DVD has DTS, if it is anamorphic and whether the aspect ratio is true to the films original specs. While many of these concerns are realistic and valid I still have to wonder where is the actual film in all of this? Are advances in home theater technology creating techno-snobs? Do we purchase DVDs for the film itself or for the video and sound quality?

First, let?s look at some statistics about DVDs that should surprise a number of people out there. Most DVDs are full screen. Of 26,991 region one DVDs 20,294 are in 4:3. The simple reason for this is the large number of DVDs devoted to television shows, educational material and older movies that were released in full screen. For similar reasons most DVDs are not in full six channel sound, most are stereo. In fact, 13, 117 are in just stereo with another 3,444 in mono. When you consider the new seven channel sound the number falls to just under 90 titles. The big ticket DVDs that the studios heavily promote are usually the large budget films festooned with special effects. Films like the recent Star Wars, Blade, and Harry Potter are not only popular movies but they are the things you pop into the DVD player to show off your new home theater to your envious friends. The question now comes up; are you showing your friends how well a movie is presented on your system or just demonstrating the technology of your home theater?

So many people today seem to be more concerned with the technology than the film. By using the audio and video wonders of DVD as criteria they can miss so many excellent films. For a long time the majority of films produced where in the 4:3 ?academy aspect?, the typical ratio of regular television sets. These films typically did not exhibit surround sound, they relied on a story, cast and crew that knew how to make a movie of lasting merit. That?s not to say that every older film is a classic. Many in my collection are the Sci-Fi flicks of the fifties that I grew up with and that initially got me into loving movies. This prejudice against films without full surround sound of widescreen video will also preclude many worthy independent films. Some of these low budget films are among the best in my collection yet since they where made on a shoestring budget they usually do not have the technical features that draw audiences to the blockbusters.

I remember seeing these movies in old time theaters, no Dolby sound, just a speaker behind the screen. Now there is a compromise to be had and it comes at the hands of the technology. Most receivers include a Prologic mode. As part of the standard there are emulation modes like ?theater?, ?live? and ?hall?. These modes provide a nice, realistic feel of anything from a small neighborhood movie house to the high end theaters many of us still remember. There is no shame in using the mode available to watch a film that is not encoded with discrete surround sound. The fact that the DVD does not have spectacular rear channel use or a booming sub woofer does not negate the fact you are watching a film worthy of your enjoyment.

There is a place for this technology. For one thing it is driving more and more studios to releasing films in their original scope. I used to have to hunt through small specialty video stores hunting for a letterbox version of a favorite film. I have to admit the hunt was usually arduous but the feeling of triumph when I found a tape was worth it. Now, there is an increasing number of films coming out on DVD that do retain the director?s chosen aspect ratio. Studios like Universal have begun to release those Sci-Fi flicks of my youth on DVD. Now I can own a copy that is not subject to the degradation of video tape and many even have interesting extras such as production features and interviews with the crew. My excitement here comes from a film I enjoy being correctly presented not that the technology has improved.

I feel that much of the attitudes are formed by the studios themselves. So many movies are produced more like extended music videos than films or merit. The booming audio and bright video are part of the movie, unfortunately often in lieu of story. These films are designed to be viewed at home on a high end home theater. The MTV generation used to fast paced loud sights and sounds has translated to the movies made by Hollywood and this has moved over because of the availability of high quality home theater equipment. As a culture we are being pushed to expecting high quality audio and video at the expense of content. The expectation of quality in movies appears to be diminishing rapidly. How a film looks and sounds is becoming more important than what the movie has to say or the production values used to say it. As I speak to people about this many are adamant about the need for all the bells and whistles a DVD can provide. Some will not even consider a disc of what they feel is lesser production standards. Film as an art form started out has humble flickering images on a wall. We have come a long way from then but we should not allow the technical advances overwhelm the love of enjoying a film for the sake of the film.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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