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Does film belong on the (very) small screen?

Today, our world is constantly drawing nearer to Ashton’s fabled “internet of things.” Every few months, it seems, there is a new way of connecting our lives to the internet and, thus, to the world of film. Apps for services like Netflix and Amazon’s Video on Demand bring the cinema to these personal devices, like smartphones, tablets (like the iPad), or even Laptops, which –although having been around for quite some time—seem to be gaining in popularity is a method of media consumption. However, this might not necessarily be good news.

In our first Film Studies class this week, the professor led her instructions on screening the required films with the statement that watching them on anything smaller than a television screen in the Library was unacceptable. Though I did not take down a quote, I think it is appropriate to paraphrase that she said she would “have a conniption” if she caught us watching or even talking about watching the films on a mobile device. To back this up, she sent us a link to an excerpt from and interview with David Lynch from the special edition copy of his film, Inland Empire which seems to agree with her assessment of the mobile device as a film consumption mechanism:

“Playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think think you’ve experienced it, but you’ll  be cheated. It’s –uh—such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your FUCKING telephone. Get real.”

Though both Mr. Lynch (whom I deeply respect) and my Film Studies Professor (whom I just met, but suspect I will also come to deeply respect) are incredibly vehement in their positions on the issue, I don’t think that the simple and broad conclusion they have come to is necessarily correct. Though it isn’t perfect, I think that a mobile device can still provide an effective presentation of the film.

When I thought of an instance where the effect of a big-screen presentation is vital to the understanding of a scene, the first shot that came to mind was the helicopter shot that occupies much of the opening title sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s famous adaptation of The Shining. On a big screen, this shot has a special kind of power for me: looking down and following one little car as it travels up a curving mountain road and curving with the road has two effects on me: it first reminds me how small and insignificant I am, but secondly – and almost more importantly – feeling the frame move along swiftly, as if being dragged by the car gives you this feeling of lack of control, of instability, as if you are being pulled by an invisible spiritual string towards the vehicle. This sense that you are actually moving is what makes these shots great, and you risk losing it entirely if you watch the film on a phone or tablet.

However, this is not an issue of screen size as much as it is a combination of screen size and distance from the screen. In my own personal tests, I found that this sense of motion was preserved on a variety of devices from a variety of distances, as long as the film’s frame occupied the vast majority of my vision. On my laptop, which has a 15.6” screen, I was able to sit up to about 18 inches away from the screen and still feel the motion. On my 10.1” Motorola Xoom tablet, I had to be much closer: about 12 inches away. Finally, on my smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy Nexus with a 4.65” screen, I found that I had to be the incredibly close (and possibly eye-damaging) distance of 4 inches from the screen. Though this sounds crazy, it does show that the effect of motion is preservable on these smaller devices.

Another argument made is that, because the films are so much larger on the big screen, you might miss something interesting or important in a shot. This is once again largely covered by moving closer to the screen, however there is another issue that plays into this: resolution. If the screen does not have high enough resolution, then there is no possible way to see all the details that one might see on the big screen. Luckily, most devices today have incredibly high resolutions. The third generation (most recent) iPad, for example, has an incredibly sharp display at 2048×1535 pixels. This screen is more than capable of handling 1080p video, which has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, and even the lowest end phones and tablets have screen resolutions of 1024×768 or higher, something that, while not adhering to any specifications for HD video, is perfectly capable of playing back DVD-quality video, which only has a resolution of 720×480 pixels.

The last argument that people make against film on a small device is something that I just can’t possibly refute. I agree wholeheartedly that many films, especially comedies, are community experiences. When you’re watching a comedy alone, it’s just not as funny. Jokes may strike you as amusing, but your own personal guards keep you from laughing or enjoying them. In a group, the mob psychology seems to kick in. Personal inhibitions are lifted and everyone laughs at the jokes that he or she finds funny.  The movie is transformed from just a picture on the screen to a bona fide social event. There is no way to replicate this personal interaction, and there never will be.

All these things said, filmmakers will still have to adapt to the use of mobile devices as film consumption tools. Here, Kubrick’s The Shining is an interesting example again. I found it odd that The Shining would be presented in the film cell’s (and television’s) raw aspect ratio 4:3, so I did a little research. As it turns out, there is indeed a story to it. Knowing that the film would find its way to home video and that the studio would “pan and scan” the film to make it fit onto a television set (thus compromising his notoriously meticulous directorial decisions), Kubrick decided not to film it with an anamorphic lens, as he would have otherwise. Instead, he filmed directly onto the 35mm film stock, giving him a 4:3 aspect ratio, which he cropped for theaters to get the widescreen look he wanted. With every shot he made, he considered how it would look both on the big screen and at home. This mirrors what filmmakers need to do today. There is now a huge range of different screen sizes that may be used to watch a film. Sometimes, directors and cinematographers will need to compromise to ensure that the important things can be seen on any device. It’s not the ideal solution, but – like it or not – mobile devices are here to stay.