SAN FRANCISCO â€“ Dolby Digital is not just for audio anymore. Dolby's new servers are rolling out to about 85 lucky theaters around the country to accommodate the digital stereo-3D display of Disney's new Chicken Little feature (in conjunction with playback technology by Real D, www.reald.com) and many more are planned for next summer's release of Sony's Monster House, produced by Robert Zemeckis.
"When you go to your local theater and it's not played the way it was really meant to be, it's extremely disappointing," says Tim Partridge, senior VP/GM, Professional Division, Dolby Laboratories.
"People do associate Dolby with audio, but internally we associate Dolby with quality of experience," Partridge says. "For us to move into imaging is really an extension of that goal. All we're interested in is reproducing the film exactly the way the director wanted it. That's the way everybody should see it, not only on opening night â€“ but every night." The level of quality the movie industry expects to see from all the investment and effort involved in upgrading theaters to digital is "at least as good as the first answer print," Partridge says. Partridge himself work in the movie business for 15 years before joining Dolby and he feels filmmakers' pain when a movie displays poorly on the screen.
Dolby Labs started to get serious about high-end theatrical imaging technology over five years ago. "We saw that it was such a complex system. As we got deeper into it, we brought in some video experience from a research company [DemoGraphics] in LA. We thought that was a great challenge that Dolby was up to," Partridge says. They soon decided that off-the-shelf servers would not "live up to expectations" of image quality or ease-of-use and designed Dolby's current server from the ground up using the "open technologies that the industry wanted to use."
The Dolby team went to work in earnest four years ago to build a system from the ground up. The result is the core of the Dolby Digital Cinema system, the Dolby Show Player. It contains a precision image decoder designed specifically for high-accuracy display on theater screens. Two other key components of the system are security from piracy and easy integration into any automation programs in use in multiplex projection rooms.
"For 35 years we've been working with film sound crews to create the best soundtrack they possibly can," says Partridge. "Then, when we go in the cinema, we try to reproduce that soundtrack faithfully." This level of dedication to innovations such as surround sound put Dolby engineers in good stead with many film directors and sound crews. "With Star Wars Episode 1 Gary Rydstrom and the sound crew wanted an extra surround channel. We were able to come up with solutions for what the creative guys wanted."
Dolby recognized the futility of creating great sound and picture if it could not be reproduced in the cinema. "We set up a â€˜packaging suite' in our Burbank offices which will allow a director to bring us his master typically on a D-5," Partridge says. Dolby is working with MPEG2 encoding right now, but has made plans to move to JPEG 2000 next year. "We worked with Snell & Wilcox to develop some software for their very high-end MPEG encoder and we adapted that with some software to make it film-specific to get the very highest-quality MPEG encode we could get." Then Dolby takes the encoded material into its Secure Content Creator unit.
The Hollywood studios wanted their digitized films to be packaged uniformly for subsequent decoding and, speaking with one voice as the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives, www.dcimovies.com), specified MXF (Media Exchange Format) as the package format. The goal was to create an international standard that would avoid multiple mastering of a film for the various incompatible systems around the world.
"There wasn't such a thing as an MXF encoder for this purpose," Partridge says, "so we took it upon ourselves to design one to their specification. In our mastering or packaging suites, we do the video encode, the MXF packaging, we do the AES encryption, we also generate the unique â€˜key' for that particular film which is then provided later on in distribution to the authorized cinemas. Then the video, the audio and the titles, everything, gets packaged in a predetermined way. We've been packaging most of the digital cinema films that you've seen out there over the past 18 months for the studios. Hopefully down the road multiple people will be able to decode. The first time we were able to do that was with Star Wars Episode 3 where our package was played not only on our cinemas but also on a competitor's server as well."
Sometime in 2006, the studios will migrate to the JPEG 2000 standard. Dolby sees these MXF-packaged films being delivered either as hard drives, by satellite or over fiber.
Since there are fewer than 100 such digital cinemas at the moment "by far the most economical way to get files to the theater is on a hard drive." So, for now, digital films like Chicken Little will still be delivered by truck â€“ but they will be encrypted in a way that traditional film could never be.