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Predicting the Future of Cinema: No Limits — and the Web Wins

SMPTE summit sees bright future with few limits for filmmakers, but cloudy forecast for theaters

LAS VEGAS — Filmmakers got a vision of hope as well as a warning in Saturday’s presentations at the Technology Summit on Cinema in Las Vegas.

The hope is for a future where technology doesn’t limit filmmakers, where cameras and screens can reproduce almost anything the eye can see, where networks make collaboration effortless — in short, a future where filmmakers choose their own boundaries rather than being hemmed in by hardware and software.

But in that future, theaters may become the lowest-quality way to view content, trailing Ultra-HD TV and Internet devices that leave UHD eating their dust.

Those were some of the scenarios painted in Saturday’s presentations at the Technology Summit on Cinema, presented by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers at the NAB Show.

Keynote speaker Chris Cookson, recently let go by Sony after serving as president of Sony Pictures Technologies, drew on his nearly 50 years of experience in the business to imagine what cinema might look like 50 years from now.

That begs the question, said Cookson, “What is cinema?” “The essence of cinema is storytelling,” said Cookson, defining the medium as a story told by a single storyteller, not controlled by the participants like a game.

With that established, Cookson told the audience of engineers and technologists from around the world: “Our job on the technology side is to make the technology disappear, to make applications and interfaces that are so powerful and intuitive that storytellers can focus only on telling their stories.”

Asked by a member of the audience what frame rate will be used in 2064, he said “In 2064 you won’t even ask the question, it’ll be whatever it takes to convey the feeling,” and went on to predict frame rates will even change scene to scene, if that’s what serves the story.

He said today’s tech already offers hints of what the future will bring: screens large and small that can duplicate nearly anything the eye can perceive; cameras that let filmmakers choose framing, depth of field, focus and brightness in post, rather than on the day of shooting; fast networks that permit “collaboration at the speed of thought” and allow people to work together regardless of how far apart they are.

He even predicted a kind of personal “holodeck” virtual reality experience like that envisioned in “Star Trek.” Noting that business models often determine what gets built and what doesn’t, he pointed out that even today there are flight simulators offering a kind of virtual reality. He predicted there will be a business model to support such individual VR experiences as the Oculus Rift.

A panel on the future of cinema following Cookson’s speech expanded on his ideas. “Filmmakers are going to have more of an infinite palette to play with: frame rate, high dynamic range… It’ll be whatever you want it to be,” said Rob Hummell, president of Group 47 and a Hollywood tech stalwart. “But don’t think any of this stuff is what’s guaranteed to get audiences into theaters,” he warned, harkening back to a survey in the early 1980s that asked theater patrons which exhibition innovations mattered most to them. “Cupholders” was their answer, said Hummel.

Disney’s VP of production technology Howard Lukk said “I think we’re in one of the most exciting times we’ve had,” adding “It’s like we’ve been painting with oils for so long, and now someone came along and said ‘Oh, here are some watercolors.”

The panel agreed that the audience craves better stories more than it craves better-quality picture and sound, but they also agreed that something will have to differentiate the theater experience from home viewing, which is improving fast. Deluxe Entertainment Services chief technology officer Steve Weinstein compared the change in exhibition to the shift in live music from stand-up-and-play bands to DJ’s with dancers. He suggested theaters will have to bring back live performances as part of the show to keep audiences interested.

Weinstein also predicted flatly “The second screen in theaters, it’s just an inevitability” — a notion that brought groans from some, who complained of seeing cell phone and tablet screens light up around them as they try to watch a film.

One of the more extreme predictions of the day came from Light Iron Digital’s CEO, Michael Cioni, on a panel on “The New Post-Production.” Cioni noted that today cinemas are the highest quality presentation, TV is next, followed by web devices. He predicted that soon that order would turn upside down, with web devices beating out TV and theaters trailing behind.

Cioni and Sony Pictures Television’s Phil Squyers — both of whom have made big business bets on UHD production and post — agreed said the future belongs to those who make “high-fidelity” content, future-proofing their libraries by capturing and mastering in 4K. “I believe this NAB will open up a massive, massive opportunity for high fidelity development,” said Cioni.

Yet while much of the day was devoted to predicting a future where formats are fluid and filmmakers face few limits, Cioni did make a firm prediction on a format that will thrive. “It’s a really widescreen future,” he said, predicting that this year’s NAB Show will have more announcements of new anamorphic lenses (for shooting widescreen formats) than ever before — not least because in a world where digital technology goes obsolete quickly, an investment in lenses holds its value better over time.

 

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