Why Do I See Pixels In A Theatrical Release?

by Justin Sevakis,

Will asks:

I've had the good fortune to be able to see numerous anime films at the cinema over the years - most recently your favourite, Only Yesterday. As I like to immerse myself in the visuals I prefer to sit towards the front of the theatre. Almost all were digital screeings and the catch is, from time to time I notice the pixels. Is this my imagination? If not, is it a shortcoming in the equipment? Or due the use of low resolution files? I imagine it would be possible to make the resolution so high that the individual pixals wouldn't be noticed, even in the front row, unless the viewer had exceptional eyesight. I also had the privilege of seeing 35mm screenings of Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro last year, which suffered from graininess so I suppose there are limitations whichever way anime films are screened.

It's definitely not your imagination. While many theater chains are upgrading their projectors to 4K, most screens -- and indeed, most released films, are still in 2K resolution, which is basically the same as good old 1080p high definition video, of the sort you can get at home. The color reproduction is better, and there are 40 extra pixels on the left and right sides, but that's really the only difference.

1080p is ideal for the home (unless you have an absolutely gigantic TV), but on a larger movie theater screen, it may not be enough. At that resolution it's definitely possible to make out each individual pixel, especially if you sit close to the screen. While that resolution is capable of displaying roughly as much detail as 35mm film (possibly more, depending on how grainy the film stock is), when you're sitting close enough for the picture to break down, it does so in a very obvious, clinical matter: the jagged edges of each pixel are plain to see. It can be a little distracting, especially compared to 35mm, which just turns into a grainy blur when you sit too close. Neither are ideal, but a grainy blur is a lot less noticible.

Many major studio films are now being released to theaters in 4K, but anime is not. No anime is being made in 4K. Art house releases, especially of the sort old Ghibli films get, are not going to get the fancy theaters with 4K projection, and are probably not having their digital cinema packages produced in a 4K format. Are you missing out on any detail? Not really. But in 2K, you might notice some jagginess. The only solution is to simply sit further away.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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