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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

From the Vault: Digital Cinema circa 2002

Posted on September 26, 2011 at 6:45 PM

Back in the first part of 2002, I spent a lot of time researching and working on a story on the move of commercial cinemas towards using Digital Projectors. Star Wars Episode II was just getting ready to hit theaters and this was a story that I felt was interesting to tell. I interviewed some really cool people, and wrote up this feature. Unfortunately, the story was never picked up by a magazine and quickly grew stale and out of date as fast as the technology and the industry was advancing.

So, instead of letting it just molder away on a hard drive, I thought I would put it up here and give you a look into the state of Digital Cinema circa 2002. Still some pretty interesting stuff to read, especially knowing now how things played out... Also the transfer process that I describe is likely still very much the same today, albeit at higher (4K) resolutions. Enjoy!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Those now famous words first graced the big screen back in 1977 when Star Wars rolled out onto an unsuspecting public.  The next time you see those words, when Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones rolls out in May 2002, it might be in a totally different format.  Digital.

George Lucas has been the driving force behind several major innovations in theatrical presentations.  Star Wars was among the first films to use Dolby Surround sound to enhance the audio presentation.  In 1997, Lucas upped the audio ante again, when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters with a rear surround channel known as Dolby Surround EX.  

Episode I also set a new standard on the video side; it was the first film to be released in a format known as Digital Cinema. Rick McCallum, Star Wars Producer, described how this came about.  “In late November 1998…Doug Darrow at Texas Instruments…asked us if we would like to see a first generation demonstration of their new digital projector. When we saw the results we went absolutely nuts – George [Lucas] was so enthusiastic that he wanted us to transfer Episode I to show in theaters on a trial basis as soon as the film would be released.”  Some 100,000 movie goers were fortunate enough to catch Episode I digitally on one of four screens (two in New York and two in Los Angeles) during its theatrical run, and reactions were positive.  McCallum continues, “The results from the four theaters where we digitally projected the movie were outstanding. Audiences loved the sharpness and detail.” 

And thus, Digital Cinema was born.

What is it?

Digital Cinema encompasses the production, delivery and projection of motion pictures, trailers, advertisements and other programs to theaters using digital technology.  Films are digitized, compressed, encrypted and delivered to theaters in the digital domain where they are displayed on a digital projector.  Currently all projectors in place are utilizing Texas Instrument’s digital light processing (DLP) technology.


DLP Cinema projectors, currently manufactured by Barco and Christie, use three TI Digital Micromirror Devices, one for each of the primary colors, each arrayed with 1280x1024 microscopic mirrors, totaling nearly 4 million mirrors.  The projectors are fitted with special anamorphic lenses to accurately display both Flat (1.85:1) and Scope (2.39:1) aspect ratios.  They also utilize standard 4.5-6 kilowatt Xenon lamps (depending on screen size), producing between 10-12,000 lumens.  

Kodak is working to develop a digital projection system based around JVC’s (2K) D-ILA chips, which have an on-screen resolution of 2048x1536 (nearly 3 times the pixel count of TI’s unit), but no commercial units are currently in place.

George Lucas said that “in the 20th Century, cinema was celluloid: the cinema of the 21st Century will be digital.”  For now, however, the vast majority of movies are still shot on standard filmstock, so their first step towards the Digital Cinema is to be digitized.

From Celluloid to Digital

I had the opportunity to visit International Video Conversions (IVC) in Burbank, California for a tour of the film to digital conversion process.  IVC was responsible for the preparation of Planet of the Apes and Ice Age for their digital releases, and Vice President Scott Call walked me through the steps involved. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of the processes are already being employed on nearly every movie in anticipation of the DVD release or for high definition broadcast.

Once the film print has been delivered, it is scanned in a process called telecine.  Once the film has been scanned, a process called color correction is employed to correct for differences between traditional film and DLP projection.  At IVC, this process is performed in a room that resembles a movie theater where all of the seats have been removed and replaced with a giant mixing console.  The color correction is performed while watching the film on a Barco DLP Cinema projector and comparing each scene against the film original.  Adjustments are made in the digital domain, with a member of the film’s production crew sitting in on the process to ensure the accuracy of the transfer.

After the color correction is completed the film is sent off for digital restoration. This step is a big reason why digital presentations can actually look better than film.  During restoration, scratches, dust marks and other imperfections present in the film print are removed digitally to deliver a cleaner image.  Also, while going through the movie one frame at a time, it provides an additional opportunity to digitally remove anything from the film that doesn’t belong (like wires supporting stunt men).

Once this is digital mastering is completed, the movie is ready for delivery to the theaters.

Getting to the Screen

Once the movie has been turned into a digital file (between 40-60 Gigabits), it is ready to be loaded onto the theater’s server for presentation.  Currently, most theaters are using a single server for each projector, but Digital Cinema technology can ultimately support a networked theater that could stream the same file to multiple screens.  

To date, all digital releases have required manual loading onto the file server, which has been done with DVD-ROMs (about 15 of them) that are hand loaded in a 4+ hour process.  Ultimately, these downloads could handled by satellite, modem, or even fiber optic wiring, and won’t require a tech to be on hand to complete.  Obviously, this will become more important to Digital Cinema’s success as more theater chains across the country switch over.  This is where Boeing, the aerospace giant, hopes to get into the game.  They have plans to use their digital satellite data transmission technology to transmit films digitally around the world.

There are three primary server technologies in use right now (though Boeing is working on their own system, and Kodak plans to utilize technology provided by Sun Microsystems), each using different compression and encryption techniques.  If all technologies remain in use, as the industry has seen with audio soundtracks, a film will require multiple transfers and downloads.

To eliminate piracy, files remain encrypted on the server. At each showing, the digital file is retrieved by the projector, where it is decrypted using a separately delivered digital key before it can be displayed. To make certain that there is no interruption in the presentation, the server stores a redundant version of the file.

Why bother changing?

Digital Cinema offers benefits for everyone involved in the cinema experience, from the movie studio all the way to the audience.

For the studios, it’s much cheaper to release a film digitally than on standard film stock. When a major film rolls out across the country, it might open on 3,000 screens. That means 3,000 separate prints of the film at a cost of around $2000 each, which results in a cost of $6 million.  A digital release would be a fraction of that. Then there is the cost of delivering each of those prints to movie houses all over the country in time for opening day and making sure that none get stolen along the way.  

Additionally, Digital Cinema shares DVD’s capability to handle multiple language soundtracks, which will make worldwide releases cheaper and timelier.

For the theater owner, digital presentations offer terrific flexibility.  Movies can be streamed to multiple auditoriums without having to have extra film prints on hand.  They might choose to run a movie on six screens opening night and on only two the next.  Because they are dealing with digital files that could be streamed in remotely, the theater could choose to show alternative programming such as live concerts or sporting events, offering an additional revenue stream.

For the moviegoer, the benefits are improved picture quality.  Whether you attend the first screening or the last, each showing shares the same pristine image quality.  Gone are the scratches, burns, splices and projector jitters.

Along with the video, comes improved audio, in the form of outstanding 6-channel, 24-bit uncompressed audio in all of the leading surround formats (Dolby Digital, dts, and Sony’s SDDS).

The Best Picture, The Best Sound

Part of LucasFilm’s Studio Services Division that many people are familiar with is THX.  Most of you have probably seen a film in a THX certified theater, but another of the services offered by this division is their Theater Alignment Program (TAP).  Because digital presentations are in their infancy, studios are eager to ensure that their movies come off looking their best, and this is where TAP comes in.  

A distributor will contact LucasFilm, who will use their trained engineers to ensure that the quality of the digital master looks and sounds as close to the original film source as possible.  THX will preview the film prior to delivering it to a house like IVC and then sit in on the digital mastering process, making certain that nothing changes in the translation.  THX will then handle the film’s digital download, sending technicians around the world armed with stacks of DVDs, and then oversee the actual theatrical presentation.

At the theater, the THX engineer checks for image artifacts.  According to TAP’s guidelines, the “visual requirement for digital image presentations is for visual transparency with the studio digital master.”  This means that the digital file is checked to be free from compression artifacts.  

They’ll also check to make sure that the projector is operating within SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standards: Outputting 12 foot lamberts across the entire screen surface, that the image is properly focused and positioned and has accurate geometry.  Additionally they inspect the theater’s sound system to make certain that all speakers are working properly and delivering proper sound pressure levels, that amplification can deliver proper headroom, that auditorium acoustics have proper reverb times, and that background noise is kept below NC-30.

This means that seeing a Digital Cinema presentation now guarantees you of seeing the movie presented exactly the way the director intended and in the peak performance capabilities of a given cinema.

Is it as good?

A DLP projector has the capability of delivering more than 35 Trillion colors, thus able to reproduce nearly every color available to film.  Doug Darrow, Director of Texas Instruments (TI) DLP Products Division, said that TI understood “what the color space was for film, so we created an optical system that produced all the same colors.  So the cinematographer that is out shooting that very saturated green or that gold or that cyan can get that same color” when reproduced through the DLP projector.

The one criticism hurled at DLP projectors is their inability to create a true black.  Current DLP Cinema projectors can deliver a contrast ratio of 1000:1, and TI is working rigorously to improve on this.  Darrow commented that, “Because contrast ratio is so important to displays in getting life-like images, that’s an area where we’re putting a lot of effort to try and improve.  With the cinema platform, we’ve seen the contrast ratios skyrocket in the last couple of years.  We’ve spent five years working with the industry trying to understand what should go in to a digital cinema projector.  We’ve had a very collaborative approach with the movie industry to try and understand what is really required for putting an electronic projector in a movie theater.  Otherwise, we’d just be building a high-end video projector that may or may not be accepted by the movie industry.  So what we’ve done is really try to take the R&D lab and put it in Hollywood and understand what we need to develop and use the industry’s guidance to push us in the right direction.”

McCallum adds, “Does anyone…seriously think for a moment that we would be reckless enough to risk 100 million dollars of our own money, to make a movie digitally if we thought we were going to achieve less image quality than film? Or, for that matter, go through all this work just to achieve the same quality?  We didn't want to just push the envelope, we wanted to lick it!  The decision has always been about presentation…to have the best looking and sounding product possible on screens. That's why everyone at Lucasfilm is so committed to digital cinema.”

What’s the hold-up?

Why isn’t every theater in the country switching over to this great new technology?  That depends on which side of the line you’re standing on.

For the movie studios, one of the primary concerns is piracy protection.  Someone who stole a digital file would have a perfect copy of a movie that could be replicated ad infinitum with no loss in quality.  This concern is known throughout the industry, and has been handled with various forms of encryption throughout the delivery process.  To date, there has been no known case of someone stealing a digital file.  Darrow mentioned that “DLP Cinema technology even makes watermarking possible, such that an illicit copy made by a moviegoer in an auditorium with a video camera will be capable of being traced to the movie theater where the copy was made.”  

For theater owners, the biggest reason for foot dragging can be traced to cost.  Switching over to digital is going to cost around $150,000 per screen.  Theaters wanting to switch over are going to need a digital projector and a server.  Multiply that by 8-16 for some of your Superplexes, and you can see the hesitation.  Of course, this price will come down as the technology catches on and mass-production takes over.  Since the film distributors stand to see the largest savings from switching to digital, a business model needs to be worked out to make the switchover palatable for theater owners.

One company out to make a splash in the digital marketplace is Technicolor Digital Cinema.  This is a joint venture between Technicolor and Qualcomm founded in June 2000.  They have a business plan to fund the equipping of cinemas in exchange for 12.5 cents per digital viewer, and they hope to have 250 screens in place by year end.  To make the transition even easier on theater owners, Technicolor’s plan also calls for them to install and maintain all in-theater digital cinema equipment.

It’s (still) about the movies

Another concern for theater owners is the lack of content.  A digital projector sits idle when there is no digital file to project.  (Currently all Digital Cinemas have both a DLP projector and traditional film projector in the projection room.)  One factor that has kept some releases from going the digital route is timing.  A film’s production schedule can often run right up until the scheduled release date, and the time needed for the digital conversion process, approximately three weeks, simply might not exist to meet a simultaneous release (as was the case with the digital release of Planet of the Apes, which debuted a week after the film’s opening).

However, more movies have been released digitally than you might think.  In fact, there have been over 40 to date, including Return to Never Land, Ocean’s Eleven, Jurassic Park III, Spy Kids, and The Perfect Storm.  Some studios are much more “digital friendly” than others.  A glimpse down the list of distributors shows that Buena Vista (Disney) really wants this to succeed.  They have released over 11 movies so far, accounting for more than 25% of all digital releases. 

How does it look?

I recently had the opportunity to see a digital presentation of Ice Age at IVC and I can say that Digital Cinema looks terrific.  

The bright, exaggerated colors of animated features just seem to cry out for digital presentations.  In fact, if I had one criticism about the presentation, it would be that the picture looked SO good that it was almost distracting.  I kept turning to Scott Call to say, “Wow!  That looks SO good.  Look at the water!”  The experience reminded me of seeing HDTV for the first time.  It's that good.

But, I wasn’t convinced.  Animation is a lot easier to get right than live action, so I headed to The Metreon in San Francisco and saw a digital presentation of The Rookie. The differences weren’t as noticeable, which is actually good thing. Darrow commented, “The challenge of the DLP cinema projector is to faithfully represent the film origination and at the same time allow for that very crisp, sharp, saturated color either from CGI or from HD origination.”  I felt that it lived up to that challenge.  The image just had a cleaner look, especially on close-ups that had detail that just jumped off the screen and there were none of those distracting scratches and film defects usually apparent in the commercial experience.

Darrow addeded that even among really discriminating viewers, like cinematographers, there have been no real complaints about image quality.  “With the DLP Cinema platform, we’re able to take advantage of a lot of innovations that allow us to do things like add a lot more bit depth, and that’s allows us to be able to electronically project a theatrical quality image.”  

And audiences seem to agree—Digital presentations of Ice Age earned nearly twice as much money per screen as their film counterparts.   Rick King, Senior Vice President of AMC Theatre’s Corporate Communications, whose theater chain currently has nine digitally equipped auditoriums, said that audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.  

Episode II

Digital Cinema has received an added bit of hype lately due to the impending release of Star Wars: Episode II.  This is the first major motion picture that has been shot entirely in a digital format—no film was used whatsoever.  

Those lucky enough to catch a digital presentation will see a movie that has never left the digital domain, and anyone familiar with high-definition broadcasts will know the picture quality differences between programming originally shot in HD versus those transferred.  

At ShoWest, a convention held annually in Las Vegas for exhibitors, roughly 15 minutes of Episode II was shown digitally to attendees.  I asked Darrow his impressions. “I’ve seen HD video on our systems lots of times.  [It has] really sharp, crisp, beautiful images.  The Episode II material was just a step beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.  It was just stunning. The detail, with the depth that you would [normally] get on high quality film.  I thought it was very impressive.”


I want my DLP!

Unfortunately, DLP is not available everywhere…yet.  As this goes to press, there are less than 30 equipped Digital Cinemas in North America. However, Episode II being filmed and released digitally is certainly expected to make a difference in that number.  The goal is to reach somewhere between 50-100 screens in time for the release of Episode II, which suits Texas Instruments and LucasFilm just fine. 

“George Lucas, Rick McCallum and LucasFilm have been a real catalyst to make Digital Cinema happen," Darrow said.  "They’ve had a vision for a long time.   We came along with a component to help them to realize that vision.  And they’ve really been great in their support and their help to drive it forward.”  

McCallum echoes the sentiment. “A long process of evaluation had brought [Lucas] to a total commitment to drive digital imaging into the art of movie making.   Digital technology was already a major part of our lives at Lucasfilm…in post-production and sound at Skywalker Ranch, and in visual effects at Industrial Light & Magic.  It would need to move toward the front end of the process – the shooting itself, and more importantly, to the very back end of all our work – the ultimate presentation of our movie in a theater.”

Special (VERY BELATED!) thank you to the following people for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak with me for this article:

Scott Call, Vice President, International Video Conversions

Doug Darrow, Director of DLP Products Division, Texas Instruments

Richard Dean, Director of Digital Services, THX

Categories: September 2011, Movies, Electronics

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Reply Richard Fregosa
7:46 PM on September 26, 2011 
It's too bad this didn't get picked up for publication it's an excellent primer for Digital Cinema, and in fact with few exceptions is still a very relevant piece to use to explain to people who are new to Home Cinema other than "I want a big assed TV"

Many people still have no idea what's in the Cineplex, other than knowing Digital = The Awesome.

This is an instance where blogging is an amazing vehicle to pass along quality information where there weren't outlets before. (Granted, it helps that it's professionally written in the first place)

As a self confessed video nerd who still knew all this anyway, I totally had fun reading it!
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