Digital Cinema Initiatives moves fast to catch up
It’s coming up on three years since the Digital Cinema Initiatives consortium announced its specifications for d-cinema systems, and now d-cinema has begun to take off in earnest.
Yet for all the benefits that d-cinema was supposed to offer studios and exhibitors, interest in it has been fueled in large measure by a feature that was barely an afterthought for DCI: stereoscopic 3-D.
The DCI helped make 3-D more popular, and 3-D in turn has turned out to be a boost for DCI-compliant systems. Yet when it comes to 3-D, the DCI has arguably been a victim of its own success in that 3-D’s growth took almost everyone by surprise.
The DCI was set up by studios to “establish and document voluntary specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability and quality control.” In other words: to make d-cinema as standardized as 35mm prints and projectors. DCI wrote specifications, and then the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) wrote standards for manufacturers.
Digital cinema consultant David Reisner explains, “The goal of the studios is to have single inventory or, as close as possible, one mastering.” That seems to be working, as far as it goes. There is a single, consistent standard for a digital cinema “package” (the equivalent of a release print) for regular 2-D films.
But the rush to put 3-D in theaters got ahead of the specifications, so there are now competing proprietary 3-D systems, notably from Dolby and Real D. The competition may not be as dramatic as the homevideo format wars, but it is the kind of problem DCI was set up to avoid.
“There is one format for the digital files, but the digital files that look good for one (3-D) system aren’t necessarily the files that look good for another system,” Reisner says. “We have multiple 3-D systems out there, and we don’t have a mechanized system to go from one to the other. Right now they have to be mastered individually.”
That can be a headache for studios and distributors. Warner Bros. technology VP Wendy Aylsworth, who is also technical operations and engineering VP of SMPTE, says that for the worldwide release of “Beowulf,” “Between 3-D formatting issues, servers that hadn’t been upgraded to the latest configuration and subtitling issues, we probably released a dozen different versions of the movie for 3-D, as opposed to one version for the standard 2-D version.”
Ahead of schedule
DCI had not anticipated that d-cinema would turn 3-D seemingly overnight from a problematic novelty into a bona fide attraction for audiences.
“We knew it was a possibility,” Aylsworth says. “We just didn’t know the studios and consumers would jump on this bandwagon. We thought it was 10 years out.”
So DCI has been hustling to catch up, issuing an addendum last year to address 3-D and move toward a single master for 3-D. Then there’s the issue of subtitles, which complicates matters.
“Do you burn the subtitles into the master or keep them as a separate file and merge them into the image? If the subtitles are jumping back and forth, that’s going to make people seasick,” says Reisner.
Still, the omission of 3-D specifications from the DCI may have some silver lining.
Rob Engle, senior stereographer and digital effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, notes the technology for projecting 3-D on the bigscreen has improved markedly over the last year and is getting better all the time.
The 3-D “Monster House,” Engle says, was released at less than standard 2K resolution. “There was no equipment out there that could have played in its highest quality possible, so what’s the point? Why would you release a master that nobody could play?”
Yet when “Beowulf” was released a year later, it was possible to screen the film in 3-D at full resolution.
“If they had done a standard a year ago, it wouldn’t have been this level of quality, because there was no way the equipment could have done it. Now it can. So the spec you get now may be very different from the spec you would have gotten a year ago,” Engle says.
Screen size dilemmas
Those improvements are raising new issues, though. Ray Feeney, president of RFX and one of the most respected technologists in the industry, warns that new projectors, bright enough to throw a 3-D film on screens as big as 60 feet wide, reveal some basic problems.
Until now, digital projectors limited commercial 3-D exhibition to screens roughly 25 to 30 feet. “When you go up in size, the images tend to diverge and make it difficult for your eye to resolve them as stereo,” says Feeney. “When you go down in size the stereo effect lessens.”
This is a problem for multiplex owners who want to run 3-D films through their normal cycle, starting them in big theaters and moving them to smaller ones over the course of their release window. Feeney believes this may require different masters for different-size screens, despite the best efforts of the DCI to avoid that.
“When (the DCI) set out to do digital cinema, they went at it in a thoughtful, scientifically researched approach to the problem,” Feeney says, but with 3-D, the focus of research has been on how to create a single 3-D release package, not on the larger issues of 3-D.
“The studios need to take a look at it before they standardize on a package,” he says. “I just think people are going to have to look at the higher-level issues behind this as part of a studio effort, not just say put the left eye this way, the right eye that way, and pack the bits this way.”