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The Movies look so Terrible

Why, then, do so many of the movies look so terrible? This particular night “Limitless,’’ “Win Win,’’ and “Source Code’’ all seemed strikingly dim and drained of colors. “Jane Eyre,’’ a film shot using candles and other available light, appeared to be playing in a crypt. A visit to the Regal Fenway two weeks later turned up similar issues: “Water for Elephants’’ and “Madea’s Big Happy Family’’ were playing in brightly lit 35mm prints and, across the hall, in drastically darker digital versions.

The uniting factor is a fleet of 4K digital projectors made by Sony — or, rather, the 3-D lenses that many theater managers have made a practice of leaving on the projectors when playing a 2-D film. Though the issue is widespread, affecting screenings at AMC, National Amusements, and Regal cinemas, executives at all these major movie theater chains, and at the corporate offices of the projector’s manufacturer, have refused to directly acknowledge or comment on how and why it’s happening. Asked where his company stands on the matter, Dan Huerta, vice president of sight and sound for AMC, the second-biggest chain in the US, said only that “We don’t really have any official or unofficial policy to not change the lens.’’

A description of the problem comes from one of several Boston-area projectionists who spoke anonymously due to concerns about his job. We’ll call him Deep Focus. He explains that for 3-D showings a special lens is installed in front of a Sony digital projector that rapidly alternates the two polarized images needed for the 3-D effect to work.

“When you’re running a 2-D film, that polarization device has to be taken out of the image path. If they’re not doing that, it’s crazy, because you’ve got a big polarizer that absorbs 50 percent of the light.’’

They’re not doing that, and there’s an easy way to tell. If you’re in a theater playing a digital print (the marquee at the ticket booth should have a “D’’ next to the film’s name), look back at the projection booth.

The difference can be extreme. Chapin Cutler, a cofounder of the high-end specialty projection company Boston Light & Sound, estimates that a film projected through a Sony with the 3-D lens in place and other adjustments not made can be as much as 85 percent darker than a properly projected film.

That’s dark enough for Hollywood director Peter Farrelly to complain loudly when his comedy “Hall Pass’’ had its promotional screening in two of the Common’s theaters prior to opening this past February. Farrelly went from one screening where the 3-D lens had been removed to a second in which the lens was still on, and he couldn’t believe his eyes.

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