1. Project the film in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
  2. The correct fader setting on Dolby and DTS systems is 7. Malick asks that faders be kept at 7.5 or even 7.7, system permitting.
  3. The film has no opening credits, and the booth operator is asked to make sure the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.”
  4. With all the recent talk of “darkier, lousier” images, operators are asked that lamps are at “proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”

San Diego Reader: “The Projectionist Has Final Cut — Ask Terrence Malick” by Scott Marks, June 2, 2011

[UPDATE – June 23, 2011] I was able to produce an actual copy of Terrence Malick’s instructions: see “Actual Copy of Terrence Malick’s Notice to Projectionists (Tree of Life)”. The following post was modified accordingly (obsolete informations were struck while additions appears in underlined italic).
Those “instructions” or “directives” were allegedly addressed to (some) projectionists in the United-States and Canada along with copies of Malick’s most recent film The Tree of Life (2011). They were introduced on the Internet by Scott Marks from the San Diego Reader. Since then they were and still are widely reblogged all over the web (usually without explanation). Below I explain each aspects of those instructions. Finally, I suggest (as a hypothesis) that those instructions may be specifically aimed at digital projections, not 35mm film projections.

• About the authorship of those instructions

Although it’s very interesting, there’s no way (at the moment) to confirm if those instructions were indeed directly issued by Terrence Malick. Maybe it’s the case, maybe not. Scott Marks claims those instructions exist and were written by Malick himself, but the San Diego Reader doesn’t provide us with any evidence to support this claim. As they are actually quoted all over the Internet, they are written by Scott Marks, not by Terrence Malick. The instructions’ authorship should be attributed to Marks. Evidence is produce here.

• About the 1.85:1 aspect ratio

The 1.85:1 aspect ratio refers to the combination of lens and aperture plate used in film projectors in order to obtain an image on the screen which is 1.85 units in width for each unit in height. See “Aspect ratio (image)” on Wikipedia for more information about this. It appears The Tree of Life was shot full frame (1.33:1): this alone could justify the need to specify the proper aspect ratio for theater presentation using 35mm film.
1.85 is one of the two most common ratios used for film projection in the United-States, the other being 2,39:1. The latter is an anamorphic format requiring a special lens (as well as its own aperture plate). One would need to be a very, very bad projectionist to mix the two and it couldn’t possibly go unnoticed for a long time.

• About the fader setting and sound level

The correct theoretical fader setting is indeed “7” (on a range of 1 to 10) on both Dolby and DTS cinema processors. This information is available online in the official manuals of the manufacturers (for example, see the official user’s manuals for Dolby CP500 and CP650). However, it is subject to variations from one theater to another. For example, a good projectionist will adjust the sound level according to the number of people actually sitting in the theater. A full house screening calls for a higher sound level. The main idea expressed in Malick’s alleged instructions is that his film should be played at a higher sound level than normal. That’s a very common request from filmmakers.

• About asking for a blackout before the feature film starts

Not much to say here. The directive asking for the lights to be turned off in the theater “well before the opening frame of reel 1” is common sense. This operation can be done manually (in small theaters with only a couple of screens) or automatically (using magnetic foil cues). However, it is not always the projectionist’s decision to turn on and off the lights. It also depends on the management of the theater.

• About color temperature and screen brightness

The last instruction, in two parts, is the strangest of all four.
By design, modern 35mm projectors uses xenon arc lamps. Those lamps are used precisely because the ionized xenon gaz inside the bulb produces both a bright light and a light similar to natural daylight, which is approximately 5400 kelvins. Maybe a dying or defective lamp could show a different color temperature, but then the lamp surely wouldn’t be able to meet the required theater nominal luminance (see below).
The request about the “foot Lambert level” does not directly refer to the power of the lamp, but rather to the brightness reflected from the screen. “Foot-lambert” is indeed a unit of luminance. One can read about this on Wikipedia (“Foot-lambert”). It makes a lot of sense to ask for the film to be presented with proper luminance. Last May, American film critic Roger Ebert wrote a well-informed post about the subject: “The dying of the light” (Chicago Sun-Times, May 24, 2011).
Pixar put up a nice website at the attention of projectionists with simple explanations about those standards. They make the following statement about the “lamp levels”:

Projection lamp levels that are set too low have a disastrous effect on the picture. When projected at the SMPTE standard of 16fL open gate, the image is sharp and colorful. At lower levels, the colors become muddy and gray. The picture has less snap to it and feels lifeless. Important details in the darker areas will disappear if the light levels are too low.

So, again, this seems like a valid instruction: please show my film with adequate lamp levels. The strange thing is that for film projection (here 35mm) the standard is not 14 fL, but 16 fL. If those instructions indeed come from Terrence Malick, he’s actually asking for his film to be presented at a darker level than what industry standards call for. Why he would asks for such a thing is beyond my understanding.
To be more precise, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) stipulates that the nominal screen luminance for an indoor film projection should be 16 fL at screen center, with a minimum of 12 fL and a maximum of 22 fL (this measurement is taken without any film threaded in the projector, using a professional spot photometer). This is stipulated in article 5.2, under the section “Luminance level” on page 2 of the SMPTE’s official document ST 0196:2003 “Motion-Picture Film – Indoor Theater and Review Room Projection – Screen Luminance and Viewing Conditions” (a fee of 50US$ must be paid to download a PDF copy of the document: quite expensive for a four pages document). Here’s the exact specification:

Theater screen luminance shall be nominally 55 cd/m2 (16 fL) measured at the screen center. The luminance of the screen sides and corners shall be measured at a distance of 5% of the screen width from the screen edges. The readings shall be taken from each location specified in 5.1.

The 2003 revision of document ST 0196 was approved on October 20, 2003.
For digital projection however, the standard is lowered to a nominal 14 fL at screen center. This measure is defined by an SMPTE official document, ST 0431-1-2006 “D-Cinema Quality – Screen Luminance Level, Chromaticity and Uniformity” (a fee of 50US$ must be paid to download a PDF copy of the document). Freely accessible online is an article from the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal: “Color Processing for Digital Cinema 4: Measurements and Tolerances” (by Thomas O. Maier, November/December 2007, PDF). There’s a table on page 512 stating that the luminance for a 100% white projected by a digital projector should be 48.0 candela/square meter (or 14fL).

• Are those instructions for digital projections?

Although Malick’s notice seems to address both digital and film projection, I leave the following comments as it is since I believe they shed some light on existing differences between the two mode of presentation.
So maybe (this is a hypothesis) those instructions (whoever produced them) were made specifically for digital projections where the standard for the screen luminance is 14fL and where a special attention must be given to color temperature (since in can be adjusted in the projector settings). It makes more sense.
The same goes for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio requirement. Video has been arround for longer than what we’re starting to call “digital cinema”. The two most common aspect ratios for video are 4/3 and 16/9. While recent digital systems designed specifically to distribute and project motion pictures acknowledge the 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 aspect ratios, those remains uncommon as video formats (thus the need to mention 1.85:1 as the correct aspect ratio for The Tree of Life when presented in video format). Furthemore, the industry is still struggling to establish standards for what can be considered as an emerging technology (as compared to 35mm which haven’t change, in its basic principles, since its invention more than a century ago). For more about this, see “Standards development” in the Wikipedia article about “Digital cinema”. While DCI’s specifications (see below) mentionned 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 ratios as “examples” (art. 3.2.1.8), there’s no mention of image aspect ratios in NATO‘s specification (PDF).
If those instructions are indeed intended for digital projection, one could wonder, why then would they refer to “reel 1″ when they ask for a complete blackout in the theater before the beginning of the film? Version 1.2 (2008) of the Digital Cinema System Specification (PDF) authored by Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) provides a possible explanation:

“Feature films have been sub-divided for some time into discreet temporal units for film systems called reels. This concept and practice will continue in use for the Digital Cinema system. In Digital Cinema, a reel represents a conceptual period of time having a specific duration chosen by the content provider. Digital Cinema reels can then be electronically spliced together to create a feature presentation.” (article 2.1.1.8)

The DCI was created in March 2002 as a joint venture of Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios. Its primary purpose is

to establish and document voluntary specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability and quality control (official DCI website).

Since The Tree of Life is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures (in the U.S.) it should theoretically comply with DCI’s specifications when presented digitally (the key word here being “theoretically”).

• • •

Previously: Terrence Malick Wins Palme d’Or in Cannes (2011)

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