- Observations on film art - http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog -

Movies on Demand—at 39,000 Feet

Kristin here—

As David has mentioned, I made a short trip to England to deal with inventorying the latest additions to the P. G. Wodehouse Archive. I got back last night to resume work on The Frodo Franchise and to hold up my end of the blog.

Having been in a lovely old farmhouse in the rolling hills of southern England the whole time, I don’t have any film-related experiences from the trip to report. Going and coming, however, was another matter.

For years now we’ve been hearing about the airlines installing these wonderful new systems that will allow bored travelers to choose from a long list of films (or music or video games) to view on personal monitors. It’s finally happening, and for the first time I was on a new plane that had these systems.

I have to say, they’re pretty neat. Definitely a big improvement on the old ways of watching movies on airplanes. When I started flying, movies were shown on 16mm, projected on screens at the front of each cabin. Naturally from most positions, you had to stretch your neck to see over the seats in front of you, and if you were way on the side at the front of the cabin, it was a lost cause.

Eventually video projection replaced 16mm, but that only made the picture fuzzier. The airlines then went for quantity, showing old sit-coms, documentaries, and, naturally, ads.

Business class cabins came to feature personal monitors, which emerged on a swiveling pole from a chamber under one armrest. These offered a choice of maybe half a dozen films on different channels. The screen was small, and these films were playing on a loop, on at the same time for everyone in business class. If you missed the beginning, you could wait a couple of hours until it started again, or just watch the beginning after seeing the rest of the film first. The movie rolled merrily along even while announcements were made or dinners served.

These new systems are somewhat like watching movies on a small laptop that doesn’t have quite all the controls that we’re used to. A remote stored in the arm of the chair navigates you through various help screens and menus. I didn’t count how many movies were on offer, but it must have been more than 30, ranging from The Devil Wore Prada to Fight Club to Sideways, with a sampling for kids as well.

You watch the film (or whatever) on a small screen imbedded in the seat in front of you. It’s a fairly decent size, given the circumstances, maybe six inches wide. (Didn’t happen to have my ruler handy.) Bigger than the little screens on the typical business-class monitor, anyway. The picture seemed sharper, though there was a tendency for ambient light to wash out the dark parts of the image.

The main thing, though, is that you have lots more control over the film. You start it when you want, and if there are interruptions, you can pause it. Meal service and other distractions don’t make you miss bits. I even could stare out the window as we passed over Greenland and then go back to watching Meryl Streep bullying Anne Hathaway.

I wouldn’t exactly recommend this new system for close film analysis, but apart from pausing, the remote does let you go fast backward or forward. I couldn’t find a way to go in slow motion or frame-by-frame, but I suspect there’s not a lot of demand for that sort of thing.

So, after years of not watching movies on airplanes—even on those lovely, rare occasions when I got to go business class—I now have that option again. I even watched Cars again. I enjoyed its narrative and wit, but it made me very glad I had seen it on the big screen already. Clearly one would do well to choose films to watch on this new system carefully. I feel fairly confident that The Devil Wears Prada didn’t suffer all that much, but I can’t imagine seeing Fight Club for the first time under such circumstances.

One other cautionary note: the films I watched weren’t letterboxed, and I suspect the others on offer weren’t, either.

I was traveling via Northwest on an A330. NW also has these systems on its 747-400s, and I presume other airlines have them on their newer planes. I don’t know if it would be possible to retro-fit older planes with systems this elaborate. It will probably be a long time before every flight will let us summon up movies according to whim.

Now, if they could only do something about those little headphones!