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December 2014
Issue: April 1, 2002

On the verge of digital cinemas

By: By Claudia Kienzle
Technicolor is collaborating with studios and exhibitors to create a digital distribution format, while supporting open standards for the digital delivery of movies and the existing studio-to-theatre model. Pictured is equipment used in Technicolor/Qualcomm cinema installations.

When we asked proponents of digital cinema when we're going to start seeing this stellar digital projection technology in multiplexes in middle America, they gave us the old line, "We can tell you but then we'll have to shoot you."

Everyone alluded to being in discussions and having deals in the works, stressing we'd certainly be impressed and encouraged if we knew what's really going on behind the scenes. No one wanted to speak for or about the movie studios, only to say that that's where the real power lies.

While digital cinema's been on the verge of a rollout for two years, many vendors suggested that multiplex exhibitors who were heretofore reluctant to changeover from low-cost 35mm film projectors to quarter-million-dollar digital projection systems might now have incentives to do so.

Two forces propelling the market are Boeing Digital Cinema and Technicolor Digital Cinema, both of which are actively packaging projectors and delivery systems into end-to-end services. If these prove to be financially palatable to local theater operators, it may break the logjam and enable a distribution channel that will transform digital cinema into a viable industry. Once it reaches theaters across the US, the movie-going public will finally have a chance to experience digital cinema's superior, pristine images showing after showing.

What does digital cinema mean to us? Well, along with HDTV, digital cinema is the new high-end where post professionals can benefit by offering specialized expertise and technology. But, with this new high water mark in resolution comes the need to invest and upgrade the infrastructure again. Any post house seriously interested in supporting content creation for digital cinema, or 24p HD in general, will need to upgrade its telecine and digital film mastering suites.

Among other things, they'll need to make a six-figure investment in a new digital projector and screen, and create an atmosphere similar to movie theaters so clients can truly scrutinize the detail in these 1920-by-1080 or larger images for optimal color correction and image enhancement. But with talk of technical standards for digital cinema still "up in the air," we asked vendors how post houses could advance into this new territory without getting burned.

Flexibility is Key for Post

"When it comes to digital cinema, the movie studios have stressed that they want the images to be indistinguishable from film, with none of the artifacts typical of digital video," says Jim Graham, VP of sales and marketing for QuVis (www.quvis. com) in Topeka, KS. "With wavelet compression, our images don't ever get blocky-looking artifacts. If anything, the images get a bit softer, which essentially makes them look even more like film."

In the emerging digital cinema business, QuVis already garnered a considerable track record with its QuBit digital motion image recorder, now widely installed in the majority of digital cinemas worldwide. The QuBit was used for the seven-city digital cinema premiere of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical. It was used to support Miramax's digital cinema premiere of Spy Kids at ShoWest 2001 in Las Vegas. It was also used by the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum in its Munger Theater; by Sea World-San Diego for high-quality imagery in its virtual helicopter ride Wild Arctic; and (nine QuBits synced together were used) in the Autostadt 360-degree domed cinema at Volkswagen, in Wolfsberg, Germany.

With QuVis' QuBit, users can record and playout any video format, and have various native formats living on the same disk.
Designed as an alternative to film, HD and video solutions, QuBit records pristine 12-bit images, from 720-by-486 to 1920-by-1080 resolution and support for over 50 video formats, including HDTV and high-end graphics files.

The flexibility to record and playout any video format, and to have different native formats residing on the same disk, makes the QuBit ideal for film festivals where entries can arrive in a variety of SD and HD formats. And in the post environment, one QuBit ST, starting at $40,000, can replace multiple, costly HD format decks for the recording and playout of 24p HD, 25p HD, 720/60p and 1080/60i, although converting from one format to another requires an external converter.

"This technology has the capability to change the way people work. But its potential goes well beyond digital cinema," says Graham. "We're finding that other markets - like HDTV, themed entertainment, 360-degree theaters, museums and trade shows - are increasing demand for large screen digital displays. And the need for content creation is causing the post production market to expand rapidly."

Seeing Digital Cinema in Technicolor

While the digital cinema landscape has been dotted with highly publicized premiere movie events, Warner Bros. Pictures' Ocean's Eleven was the first digital movie to be released to multiple digital cinemas nationwide. Distributed by Technicolor Digital Cinema in December 2001, Ocean's Eleven was shown in 19 digital cinemas in North America.

The Ocean's Eleven digital release was the first tangible accomplishment for Technicolor Digital Cinema since the company and its partner Qualcomm Incorporated (www. qualcomm.com) unveiled its commitment to promoting digital cinemas across America in March 2001. Technicolor Digital Cinema (www.technicolor.com) is founded on the combined strength of Technicolor's 80-plus-year legacy as the provider of color, quality and timely delivery for the motion picture industry and Qualcomm's expertise in digital wireless communications systems, compression, encryption and transmission of digital images and sound.

"While the studios will see tremendous savings in the handling and delivery of film prints, there hasn't been a financial incentive for exhibitors to changeover to digital projection systems at costs ranging from $180,000 to $200,000. Our goal is to break the chicken-egg syndrome - where exhibitors don't want to convert to digital cinemas and movie studios don't see enough of a base of digital cinemas to produce digital films," says Russell Wintner, principal/exhibitor relations for Technicolor Digital Cinema in Studio City, CA.

To promote digital cinemas, Technicolor is offering to put the technology into the theaters while assuming all of the financial risk. Exhibitors only pay for service, and only when the equipment is actually used to show digital movies. Besides revenue from movies, exhibitors may also see additional revenue from the presentation of alternative programming, such as concerts and theatrical productions live via satellite.

"If we prime the pump and prove that the market exists, others will begin taking risks and making investments that will further the digital cinema infrastructure," says Wintner. "We're already seeing some success. Because it's a sexy subject, exhibitors readily take meetings with us, and I've already closed deals at theaters in middle America. I believe we can have 250 to 300 digital cinemas by year's end in markets of great interest to the movie studios and distributors."

Christie's Transformation to Digital Cinema

Panasonic (www.panasonic.com) offers the PT-D9610U HD projector for digital cinema. The PT D9610U, which has been selected by inTheater Entertainment, a division of WorldStage, for digital cinema, features 12,000 ANSI lumens and a contrast ratio of 1000:1, and is fully HD compatible.
"Digital cinema is inevitable," says Craig Sholder, director of business development for Christie Digital Systems (www.christie digital.com) in Cypress, CA. "It will happen. The technology is very good and improving all the time. But, before there can be a full-scale digital cinema rollout, the industry needs to resolve issues of technical standards, interoperability and compatibility from post production through exhibition.

"While people look to SMPTE for direction, the reality is that industry standards won't be determined by just one body. They'll be shaped by the market at large - studios, exhibitors, distributors and post professionals - all of whom have a stake in digital cinema. Equipment vendors are also going to drive standards through their sheer implementation and knowledge of the application," continues Sholder. "Once a technical standard is established, post professionals will be better able to serve their clients because they'll know exactly what specs a projection system should have to master content digitally so that it looks as good in the field as it did in their screening rooms."

For post facilities looking to invest in digital cinema projectors today, Sholder points out that DLP Cinema from Texas Instruments (TI) is the only display technology endorsed by Hollywood, and one that has proven its quality and reliability in digital cinemas worldwide.

While Christie has over 70 years experience in film projection, the commitment the company has demonstrated in the post industry has resulted in a high-profile customer base, including Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Pixar Animation Studios, Vidfilm International Digital and Laser Pacific, among others using Christie projectors to post movies for digital cinematic release.

TIP: Sholder advises people to "choose a projector company that's interested in building a long-term relationship with them, as well as upgrading and supporting the equipment to keep pace with advancements."

When Boeing Met Barco

"There's no question that digital cinema is poised for a mass rollout very soon. Our factory in Belgium is cranking out digital cinema projectors as fast as their little hands will move," says Harry Mathias, director of LA-based Barco Digital Cinema. "We are definitely ramping up and we have been ramping up for some time. The train has left the station. The only remaining question is how fast is it picking up steam."

On March 5, the promise of a rollout became more real with Barco's announcement that Boeing Digital Cinema had purchased a sizeable quantity of Barco's high-performance D-Cine Premiere Digital Cinema projectors. Called "the first purchase of its kind in the industry," Boeing will package Barco's DLP Cinema-style projectors into a direct-to-cinema delivery system, which securely transmits first-run movies and alternative programming via satellite and fiber optic networks.

Christie's Cine-IPM is an image processor that converts analog or digital signals when used with Christie's d-cinema projectors.

"Distributors, filmmakers and exhibitors recognize that digital delivery promises extraordinary economic advantages, unprecedented flexibility and consistently sharp images," says Frank Stirling, executive director of Boeing Digital Cinema (www.boeing. com) in Seal Beach, CA. "Our technological expertise and CAA's [Creative Artists Agency] central position within the entertainment community allow us to jointly plot a course that addresses the differing demands of studios, exhibitors, filmmakers, print labs and consumers." CAA was hired by Boeing to serve as business strategy and marketing consultants to this venture.

Boeing is not new to digital cinema. In the last two years, they helped Broadway Television Network with a satellite-delivered presentation of the Broadway is Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical at the Pacific Theater in Hollywood. They helped Dimension Films with their digital cinema premiere of Spy Kids at the Hyperion Theater in Disney's California Adventure. And they helped Miramax Films with its high-profile digital cinema event, the Ben Affleck-Gwyneth Paltrow movie Bounce shown at the AMC Empire Theater in New York.

Hitched to the DLP Cinema Engine

The Barco D-Cine Premiere Projectors being ordered by Boeing are based upon DLP Cinema technology developed by Texas Instruments (TI). For five years, TI has been a major proponent of the digital cinema revolution, having developed and demonstrated its prototype digital cinema projector in the Hollywood creative community. TI also set up 30 pilot digital cinemas (today there are now 45 worldwide) that use digital projectors based upon its DLP (Digital Light Processing) Cinema technology. Today, TI's DLP technology is built into projectors manufactured on an OEM basis by Barco, Christie Digital and Digital Projection, Inc. (DPI).

At the heart of DLP is the Digital Micromirror Device (or DMD) optical semiconductor chip. The DMD switch has an array of up to 1,310,000 hinged, microscopic mirrors, which operate as optical switches to create a high resolution full-color image. Endorsed by Hollywood's leading movie studios, TI's DLP Cinema is often referred to as "black chip" projectors because TI deposits a black metal underneath the mirrors to increase the contrast ratio of the chip.

While the digital cinema industry looks first to SMPTE for guidance on technical specifications for projector systems, many vendors say that in reality digital cinema standards may be driven by the needs and expectations of the marketplace. So, will anyone buying a projector today risk having their expensive investment quickly obsoleted?

The DMD chip at the heart of the DLP Cinema has an array of up to 1,310,000 hinged microscopic mirrors which operate as optical switches to create a high-resolution, full-color image.

"There's no risk to early adopters because if SMPTE ratifies standards for color space, storage capacity, memory, or anything different from what we are using, we can upgrade every Barco digital cinema projector to meet those standards in about 15 minutes per projector," says Mathias. This is because DLP Cinema projectors are software-driven and based upon standards like SMPTE 292M and ATSC HD formats and TI's forward-looking design strategy.

TIP: Mathias stresses that post houses looking to master films for digital cinema need to employ DLP Cinema (or digital cinema) projectors as opposed to video projectors to ensure consistency with what's shown in the marketplace where DLP Cinema projectors dominate.

"Digital cinema projectors project digital files at contrast levels of about 1250:1 using a film color gamma or range," adds Mathias. "But, if post houses want to use the same projectors for HDTV content mastering as well, our systems can be easily calibrated for a broadcast color gamma by loading a different look-up table into the projector's memory."

DPI's Digital Cinema Projection

At Digital Projection, Inc., or DPI, (www.digitalprojection.com) in Kennesaw, GA, company president Mike Levi says that among other factors, the rollout of digital cinema to movie theaters has been hampered by the lack of uniform engineering standards and the costly financial models associated with early proposals. He sees both of these obstacles being overcome in the near term.

"Standards - for projectors, encryption, compression, transmission, storage and the other components that comprise an end-to-end digital cinema delivery and display system, are certainly points that should be agreed in the mid-term. People want to know the investments they make in technology will be viable for the long run," says Levi.

"In the post environment, if the reference display is intended for finishing movies for theatrical release, that display must be capable of reproducing imagery based on the same criteria as the target displays in the final viewing environments. Optimally, the reference display and the target displays should be based on the same imaging technology. I believe that today, a post facility investing in anything other than a DLP-based projector would be taking on some risk."

DPI's projectors are based upon DLP technology from Texas Instruments. DPI has added value to TI's technology through its own engineering. The company's high-end projector offers 14,000+ lumens, which is sufficient for projection onto screens up to 60 feet wide. DPI also offers extremely accurate lower lumen systems like the tabletop DLP Cinema model in use at Modern Video in Los Angeles.

With a focus on creative content management and delivery, SGI (www.sgi.com) offers the Onyx 3000 series graphics systems and Origin 3000 series servers, capable of handling true film resolution media in a high-speed networking environment. When used with the SGI DMediaPro DM3 option, these platforms take advantage of SGI's scalable computer and high-bandwidth NUMAflex architecture to optimize film mastering, digital dailies, editing, multi-stream HD compositing and image analysis. The DMediaPro DM3, a single expansion card and video breakout box, supports realtime I/O of multiple uncompressed HD and SD formats, with realtime color space conversion.
 

Levi estimates that today, the price of installing digital cinema equipment for the first screen at a movie theater is about $135,000 and that increasing demand, volume and resulting manufacturing efficiencies will help pull prices down over the coming years. Citing many positive steps, such as the enthusiasm of certain studios, post facilities and of course film exhibitors, Levi says he believes the rollout of significant quantities of digital cinema systems will begin in the next two to five years. "Today," says Levi, "DPI's strongest vertical markets include staging, process control and visualization, broadcast sets, large churches, home cinema and retail displays. With respect to digital cinema we are finding some good short-term opportunities abroad, where there seems to be more new cinema construction and the exhibitors are very enthusiastic about the benefits digital cinema technology can provide."