Paving the way for digital projection

Setting standards necessary, say techies, academics

The push toward digital projection is overwhelmingly evident at this year’s ShoWest, with countless seminars and exhibitions scheduled to show off various forms of the new technology.

With companies like Sony, Panasonic, Technicolor and JVC pushing their wares to Boeing Digital Cinema’s projection via satellite of Miramax’s “Spy Kids” it seems as though the transition to digital cinema is right around the corner.

Not so fast.

Many industryites are tempering the drive to digitize with a quest to create some sort of comprehensive format that will manage to please all parties involved in the process, from filmmakers to distribs and exhibs to even moviegoers. The method to set these standards is the topic of choice for techies and academics.

Jim Korris, the executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, says such standardization is necessary because of the risks inherent in digital projection.

Stressing testing

Sure, the rewards of the technology are numerous, including clarity of picture and detail, and ease of transport. But there are increased risks in terms of security, the awkwardness of compression techniques and the cost of changing theaters from one format to another. With the goal of solving these issues, USC created a digital cinema lab to test the technology.

“We had to have a torture test,” Korris says. “It’s over a 102-foot throw to a screen that’s over 50 feet wide. That’s more than most movie screens in America. With that length of throw we figure that if it works here, it will work anywhere.”

Industry insiders are also concerned with the standardization issue. A report in the February issue of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Journal says the org’s technology committee on digital cinema has been working on the problem since 1999.

Right now, the group is looking solely at digital cinema distribution and exhibition, believing that dealing with the issues of production and post-production extends beyond the resources at hand.

“What remains is still the Himalayas, even though Mount Everest may not be included,” says the report.

The Motion Picture Assn. is watching SMPTE’s work carefully, working in tandem with the org on digital cinema issues. MPA chief technical officer Brad Hunt handled developing goals for digital cinema, including worldwide compatibility, secure content protection, reasonable cost and having the format be an enhanced theatrical experience.

“This is really an important document,” he says. “It’s a concise, two-page document that defines 10 very important goals that the seven member companies of MPA believe in.”

The SMPTE report was written by Bob Rast, the vice chairman of the digital cinema committee and VP of business development at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, who says that while trying to develop standards is daunting, it’s necessary for long-term innovation.

“The stuff you can gain consensus on quickly helps the people who are trying to build systems,” he says. “But there’s a whole set of issues where consensus is hard, if not impossible, to get while sitting around a table. Marketplace trials are really what is going to make this work.”

One of those companies conducting market trials is Texas Instruments, which has 33 theaters operating digital projection systems in 10 countries including England, France, Japan and South Korea.

“It’s a grassroots approach for developing standards,” says Doug Darrow, business manager of DLP Cinema products at TI. “One of the reason we’ve got those systems in place is to evolve standards as the studios work on developing digital releases of their movies.”

The big picture

The complexity of creating a standard can’t be overemphasized — after all, businesses obviously can see the profit potential of changing the way every single movie theater in the country shows films.

Bob Sunshine, co-manager at this year’s ShoWest expo, says ways of incorporating digital projection into standard usage will be one of the hot topics at the confab for years to come, especially since attendees can now see firsthand how the technology works and what the repercussions could be of not coming to terms on a unified approach.

“The whole topic of digital cinema is going to be seen in a new light,” he says. “It’s going to be the push that makes it clear on how it’s going to become a reality and replace (35mm).”

But at the end of the day, it may be the moviegoer that is the motive for adopting a set of standards. As more and more theaters get digital capabilities beyond those that already exist in L.A. and Gotham, more and more auds could find themselves drawn to the look.

“What do you think people notice the first time they see film and digital cinema projected side by side?” Korris asks. “It’s that people realize they’ve been looking at films that flicker their entire lives. Digital cinema is like looking out of a window. It’s rock steady.”

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