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EXAMINING digital cinema

You might be wondering what cinema anything is doing in a video column. You also might be wondering about the apparent oxymoron of "digital cinema." Hopefully,

EXAMINING digital cinema

Jun 1, 2000 12:00 PM,
Josh Kairoff

You might be wondering what cinema anything is doing in a video column. Youalso might be wondering about the apparent oxymoron of “digital cinema.”Hopefully, everyone is wondering what new bit of digital wonder is going tocome along and once again reinvent all those things that seemed to havebeen working just fine before and now stand to be improved. Well, hold onto your popcorn because before too long, attending the cinema will bedifferent from going to the movies. Improvements in display anddistribution technology are now making it possible to change the mostfundamental elements of what makes up a current movie experience in yourlocal cinema. These changes will result in higher quality, increasedcapabilities and some new opportunities for cinema owners.

A historical perspective

Some 100 years ago Thomas Edison’s motion picture viewing device wasintroduced into a theatrical environment. Then, as now, light was projectedthrough moving film via a lens and shutter system on a screen in a darkroom. People watched and heard the reproduction of images and sound. Whilemany components within movie theaters have evolved, the method of showingan image has remained essentially the same since its introduction.

Cinema was originally the only way to see a reproduced moving image. Overtime, however, new technologies were introduced, and customers began tohave choices. Movie theaters needed to find ways to compete for customers’business. Having exclusive content and higher quality color images provedsuccessful in keeping people interested in going out to the movies. On theother hand, competition from television, sporting events, movie rental,video games, satellite and cable programs presents people with manyentertainment options. The movie theater industry has always been underpressure to keep ahead in quality and features without raising prices. Oneway to accomplish this is to update some of the core technologies used inmovie theaters.

Recently, it has became possible and cost effective to use digital storageand projection technology instead of film to show movies. Toy Story 1 and2, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Tarzan and The Ideal Husband all havebeen shown in both film (analog) and prototype digital cinemas. Averagemoviegoing audiences watching the digital cinema versions have ranged inopinion from unaware of the digital change to pleased with the differencebetween digital and traditional film. Digital cinema takes our currentunderstanding of cinematic experience as the starting point. Going digitaloffers benefits that are simply not possible with analog film, and theadvantages of digital cinema are many.

Digital advantages

There is little doubt that the issue of film cinema vs. digital cinemaquality will be debated for some time. What is not debatable, however, isthe clear superiority of digital in maintaining constant quality with use.In much the same way vinyl records degrade with use due to stylus contactwith the substrate, and CDs do not degrade due to laser-light contact asthe method used in decoding the digital information, the first showing of adigital movie will be identical in quality to the 1,000th. Digital moviesdo not get scratches or break the way regular film does. Every copy of amovie is identical to the master reference print. Normal movie film becomesslightly damaged with each showing. After enough showings, it will becometoo damaged for use. Digits, on the other hand, do not ever wear out.

Although digital cinema involves complex technology, using it should bemuch easier than film. Film is heavy, hard to work with and fragile. Theprocess of receiving, prepping, showing, dismantling and returning a movierequires skilled labor and resources. Digital cinema movies can be managedwith the simplicity of basic computer commands and operated just like a VCR.

Additionally, a typical movie mastered onto film today costs around $2,000for each copy. Each copy of a movie requires secure transportation andstorage from the time it is made until it is returned to the distributorfor storage or destruction. This whole process adds cost and liability tothe process. Digital movie source materials are data stored on reusablemedia, so costs are for the storage media and are amortized over the lengthof usefulness of that storage medium, ultimately a much lower cost permovie than film. Distribution of movie data in digital form is relativelyinexpensive as well when compared to shipping costs of bulky and heavy filmin containers.

Another point to consider is that film distributors make educated guesseswhen determining how many prints of a movie to make. If too few prints aremade, there is the danger of not having enough screens to show the moviewhile it is in demand. Too many prints, and money is wasted on unneededfilm. Either way, if a movie does not perform as predicted, it can wastemoney. Supply can conflict with demand. Using electronic distribution andlocalized data storage, a cinema house can adjust the schedule and numberof screens at anytime. Additionally, delivering a single copy or 100 copiesends up costing exactly the same amount for the cinema.

Show schedules and screen placements are not limited by the presence ofphysical film. If a multiplex cinema has two copies of a movie, then itcannot show on more than two simultaneous screens. In the digital medium,the demands of the customers and the agreements with the studios are thecontrolling factors.

In digital cinema, movies also do not have to be physically shipped, storedor returned. Movies cannot get lost or stolen. Digital copies of movies canbe released with robust copy protection and watermarking. Unlike the copyprotection systems used with consumer electronics, digital moviedistribution can be strong, proprietary and bidirectional. The likelihoodof a movie’s being shown or copied without authorization would benegligible.

With digital cinema, the movie studios have the ability to modify theircontent whenever it is found desirable. Movies can be changed even afterthey are released. Anything from language to brand product placement toscene selection can be controlled based on market demand. If mistakes arediscovered, they can be corrected by downloading new content. A movietheater could even select which language or version (PG or R) of a movie toshow and when.

Digital cinema uses solid-state projectors that are generally smaller thanfilm projectors. Content storage and playback is accomplished with harddrives, data networks or digital VTRs, not large platters of heavy, fragilefilm. Projection booth design and location can be more flexible as a result.

Digital movies can be distributed over satellite, high-speed data networks,the Internet, DVD-ROMs, digital tape, or any other data path. Non-primetime and non-real time transition can increase the flexibility and decreasethe cost.

Currently, movie theaters have a somewhat small window of time in whichthey can do business. Matinee showings and private screenings are about theonly way to produce revenue outside of normal business hours. If thefacilities could be used in off-hours with other types of images, such asboardroom meeting feeds for corporations, then movie theater owners wouldhave another source of revenue.

High-quality display equipment in a premium viewing environment is alwaysin demand. One potential non-cinema use for a digital cinema facility iselectronic classrooms. Students could attend lectures held by instructorslocated across town or in another state or country. With interactivehandsets at each seat, students can ask questions and take tests. Teacherscan take attendance as well as get feedback on student progress. The sameidea also works for corporate meetings, presentations, pay-per-view eventsand group teleconferencing.

Digital cinema vs. video and HDTV projection

Digital cinema systems consist of equipment that has been designed basedupon the visual qualities of film and the environmental considerations ofmovie theaters. Most of the core imaging and storage technology comes frommodified HDTV and data display products. Due to this reality, sample rate(14 bit vs. 8 bit), contrast ratio (>1,000 vs. 200 to 400), frame rate (24fps vs. 60 Hz to 80 Hz), color capability and signal input (digital vs.analog) have all been designed to replicate and enhance the film experience.

Having achieved acceptable quality, the benefits and opportunities inherentin converting to a digital system will bring about an industry-widechangeover. There are many issues to still be resolved but one thing iscertain – there are going to be a whole lot of movie theaters (37,000screens in the United States alone) getting new digital A-V systemsinstalled.

Currently, some projector manufactures and content-delivery services areworking on ways to retrofit or replace equipment in existing theaters. Oncethe ball gets rolling, I would expect new theater designs to incorporatethe needs of digital cinema. Movie theaters may slowly evolve into more ofa media center where movies may be the primary but not the only media.

Before true multi-use capability can be achieved in the new digital cinema,some logistical considerations need to be addressed. For instance, how manytheaters today have high-bandwidth RGBHV interfaces into which laptops canplug? Anyone who uses a theater for a business presentation will certainlywant the ability to use his own laptop. How many theaters have A-Vpatchbays and routers? What about video-to-digital cinema upconverters tohave the ability to show material that is not available digitally? Howabout PA systems or audience-response hardware? Movies require dark rooms,but speakers and conferences want controllable lighting. Who is going todesign and install it? Each of these needs represents a new businessopportunity for the contractor as digital cinema begins to take hold.

Hotels, convention centers, universities and colleges are all examples ofinstitutions that have learned to accept and ultimately profit from A-Vtechnology. It may seem silly now to have an office supply counter next tothe popcorn stand, but if digital theaters begin to offer their space ashigh-technology presentation venues, staplers and paperclips could beplaced on the condiments cart next to straws and napkins.

The Internet is one of the better sources for information on digitalcinema. Texas Instruments (, Qualcomm (,JVC ( AndAction (, NEC (, Real Image Digital Cinema (, Barco(, Christie Digital Systems (, andDigital Projections ( and others provide goodinformation on digital cinema.

Understanding the basics of digital video, computer networking and computerA-V interfacing is also important. Take a moment the next time you are atthe movies to consider how you and your A-V experience can help bringtechnology into this new venue. It is always better to understand yourcustomers and their needs before those people even know that they are yourcustomers.

The economic, quality and control benefits of going digital are forcing aninevitable changeover in cinema distribution and display. With this changewill come the potential for new opportunities using the movie theater’sresources. A-V professionals who understand the unique needs of movietheaters could become an integral part of this evolution.

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