Digital Cinema: To Comply or Not?
When The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia needed an AV integrator to turn an out-of-date theater into a state-of-the-art 3D cineplex, it called on Birmingham, Ala.-based Media-Merge and bought a pair of 15,000-lumen DLP projectors. Oops.
Currently, only four companies consider themselves DCI compliant: NEC, Sony, Barco, and Christie Digital. The compliant Sony projector is the Sony LCoS-based SXRD. The other companies manufacture DLP projectors. Texas Instruments, proprietor of DLP technology, works closely with DCI members to develop performance standards for digital cinema projectors. In order for the DLP projectors to meet DCI’s performance standards, their manufacturers must purchase TI’s Digital Cinema license.
When Art Mercurio, technical director of The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, needed an AV integrator to turn an out-of-date theater into a state-of-the-art 3D cineplex, he called on Birmingham, Ala.-based Media-Merge. Built circa 1933, The Franklin Institute is a science museum with one IMAX and three multi-purpose theaters that host everything from school tours to corporate events. Mercurio wanted the Franklin Theater to have 3D capabilities for educational presentations, so Tim Ogletree of MediaMerge specified two Digital Projection (DP) Lightning 30-1080p projectors, with images configured to overlap, creating a 3D picture. The Lightning 30 emits 15,000 lumens at a 2,000:1 contrast ratio, so it was more than adequate for the museum’s needs.
The Franklin Theater’s main purpose is presenting 3D educational science films, but it also hosts corporate events and screens first-run 3D digital cinema movies.
Or so they thought. “We ended up having to do some after-the-fact changes,” says Mercurio.
The Franklin Institute realized it could increase the museum’s revenue if it ran first-run commercial 3D movies, such as “U2 3D.” Unfortunately, Digital Projection’s products were not licensed to show first-run digital films. While Mercurio continues to use the two DP projectors for educational and corporate presentations, the Institute needed to buy an additional 17,000-lumen NEC NC1600 3-chip DLP Cinema projector for commercial screenings. Understanding the rules that govern digital cinema projection will help other integrators and end-users avoid similar snafus.
It turned out the DP projectors were not compliant with standards handed down by Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a joint venture of Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal, and Warner Bros. Studios. Founded in March 2002, DCI’s purpose is “to establish and document specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema components that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability, and quality control,” according to the organization’s Web site. The standards of presentation and security are designed to be attainable by all eligible projector manufacturers.
In order for a company to call its projectors DCI compliant, the components must undergo approximately 350 rigorous tests defined in the “DCI Compliance Test Plan.” According to Pete Lude, Sony senior vice president of solutions engineering who works closely with DCI, the tests include, but are not limited to, measurements of “image format, resolution (2K of 4K), aspect ratio, bit depth, contrast, screen brightness, uniformity, compression algorithm (JPEG-2000), encryption (AES-128), audio (16 channels at 48 or 96 kHz PCM), security standard (FIPS-140/2), forensic watermarking, subtitling, and many other parameters.”
“Generally speaking, it’s all about security,” says Jim Reisteter, general manager of NEC’s Digital Cinema Division. The security standards were designed to protect the movie content from piracy, and they cover all components of a digital cinema system, including software and hardware.
“There are double checks in the signal path, like if the server doesn’t see a compliant projector, it won’t play,” says Mercurio of the NC1600.
Although some companies claim to meet DCI standards, no system is technically compliant because lab testing has just begun and the DCI specification continues to evolve. The latest version, developed in March 2008, can be found on the DCI Web site (www.dcimovies.com). “They modify it on a pretty regular basis,” says Reisteter. “Technically, no projector is compliant because the specs have been modified in the recent past. We had been compliant and expect to be so when we pass the new criteria.”
The DLP Connection
Art Mercurio purchased the NEC NC1600 Digital Cinema projector for The Franklin Institute because of its DCI compliance and TI license.
Smaller DLP projections companies, such as Digital Projection, Projectiondesign, and Italy’s SIM2, are not DCI compliant and have not purchased TI’s Digital Cinema license. Projectiondesign models are GP3/GP4 projector colorspace compliant, but lack necessary 2K resolution, security algorithms, and dual-link interface, as well as the TI license, according to a company representative. For SIM2, “It was a strategic decision not to participate in the DCI license program because both our consumer and professional markets focus on screen sizes less than 50 feet,” says Andrea-Massimo Valcher, professional systems business manager at SIM2. “The full benefits of DCI are most apparent in very large screen applications. If our focus changes to include screens over 50 feet, SIM2 would certainly reconsider the DCI license program.”
DCI in Three Dimensions
When it comes to DCI compliance, 3D projectors fall under a slightly different set of performance standards.
“Luminance levels can be lower for 3D (4.5 feet/lamberts versus 14 feet/lamberts for standard 2D releases),” says Sony’s Pete Lude. “And there are some differences based on the practicalities of today’s technology.”
One reason why Art Mercurio of The Franklin Institute and Tim Ogletree of MediaMerge eventually chose the NEC NC1600 projector to handle the Institute’s 3D digital cinema needs is that it’s a single-projector 3D system.
“Most of the commercial stuff [uses] single-projector 3D, because they don’t like splitting up 3D prints into left and right eye,” Mercurio explains. While this is true in most cases, there are exceptions. “Either single- or double-projector systems can be used, although single projector is preferred for smaller screens,” Lude adds. “Studios are now working within the DCI structure to more precisely define 3D requirements.”
Reisteter agrees that, while NEC produces a projector specifically designed for 20- to 32-foot screens used in private or post-production screening rooms, “there just aren’t as many of them as there are theaters.” By comparison, the Franklin Theater’s Hurley Screen Corp. screen measures 19 feet by 33.75 feet.
Another reason smaller DLP projection companies often are not compliant is the reported price tag of the TI license. TI and its DLP customers would not disclose the cost, but several sources have put the price tag as high as $10 million. On top of that, companies applying for compliance must also pay a fee for the mandatory testing services.
Reportedly, there are no DCI-compliant LCD projectors, though Epson had reportedly been working on panels for 3LCD digital cinema projectors that met DCI standards as recently as 2006.
AV integrators working on projects that require DCI-compliant projectors should be prepared to work with more than one manufacturer division when installing digital cinema projectors in a multipurpose space. “Digital cinema people are completely separate from large-venue projection people,” says Mercurio of one projector manufacturer. “That’s what makes theater projects like what we have so hard. A lot of integrators aren’t up on digital cinema, and digital cinema divisions just want to put projectors in there to show films. They don’t care about other uses of the theater.”
Reisteter admits that at NEC, digital cinema projectors fall under NEC Corp. of America, while business projectors, are handled by NEC Display Solutions. “But in this particular situation [the Franklin Theater], both divisions would work together with this customer,” he says. “We have a very good relationship with NEC Display Solutions.”
The bottom line is every film that comes out of Hollywood must adhere to DCI’s rules, even overseas. In order to show first-run digital films, a projector must incorporate DCI-approved technology. “Currently, DLP Cinema-based solutions hold 97 percent market share of DCI digital cinema,” says Nancy Fares, TI’s DLP Cinema business manager.
At this point, there is no branding to signify a DCI-compliant projector; integrators will have to check lists provided by DCI as tests are completed and ask manufacturers specifically if their projectors can show DCI content.
As for the nonprofit Franklin Institute, “This 3D theater generates revenue, so I guess in the end that’s the biggest benefit,” says Mercurio. Since swapping out the theater’s projector, “We’ve had zero problems.”