This year at the Technology Summit on Cinema, held during the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, there was a turn away from the now of digital transition to the future of what might come next. As the bulk of the world’s movie screens have been converted from film to digital projection, we are heading into a new phase in cinema. The Cinema Summit was the ideal place to get an idea of exactly where we are and what the industry is thinking.
In the first presentation/panel of the conference, Wendy Aylsworth stated, “digital conversion has been a good foundation on which to build”. This was followed by the mention of future developments such as SMPTE-DCP with better subtitle support, immersive audio, laser projection and high dynamic range (HDR). Finally Aylsworth brought it back to industry standards and how moving forward with all these technologies needs to be underpinned by common frameworks. Standards that are adopted by the entire industry will help studios and exhibitors to pick the correct technology. There is a desire to avoid returning to the days of screens having three different types of audio systems, not to mention the distribution headaches and costs that come along with them.
Unlike film projectors, digital has an unclear life expectancy. David Pflegl of Carmike, noted as being a significant contributor to kicking of digital cinema by ordering 2,300 projectors in 2005, stated that those early projectors are still in use today and he expects to archive significantly more than 10 years out of them before they will need replacing. That’s an important message that answers a questions asked every year at CinemaCon.
The panel went on to discuss if the industry had done a good job in converting to digital. The general consensus was “yes”.
The rest of the conference delved deeply into issues of laser projection, HDR and the problems being faced as an industry that must be overcome to move forward.
In addition, Barco demonstrated their single head DP4K-60L laser projector. This product is the most advanced laser projector unit on the market today, however, was still not considered HDR capable. It brings the brightness but not the contrast needed by HDR.
IMAX and Dolby have only recently announced proprietary systems that have the spotlight here. (Expect more news to come after CinemaCon.) Both systems are stated to bring HDR to cinema auditoriums, though, under their own proprietary methods outside of SMPTE or any form of documented standard. (No standards currently exist.)
Brian Vessa of Sony and chairman of the SMPTE Technology Committee 25CSS which is working on immersive sound stated, “Our goal is to develop an intraoperative audio-creation workflow and a single digital cinema package (DCP) that can be used to render to whatever playback format has been installed in the exhibition space”, i.e. Dolby Atmos, Barco/Auro 3D, DTS:X/MDA.
On the other hand, Will Files, a leading sound designer from Skywalker Sound best known for his work on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, “Thor: The Dark World”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, voiced an opinion that speaker layout is a key factor, but is currently variable in implementation according to 25CSS. This is not compatible with producer’s intent according to Files. This discussion shows that innovation and art can push against each other and much still needs to be done before a compromise is accepted.
After NAB I ended up with a contingent from the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF), a group largely made up of exhibitors who have recently invested in converting to digital. There is concern within this group on how all the new technologies being discussed at events such as NAB will ultimately arrive. How much will it all cost and will they have time to get a return on their recently installed digital cinema investment?
These are legitimate questions as vendors continue introducing new technology. Since Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) established the requirements and a roadmap for the digital transition, do we need a similar effort again in the face of all this uncertainty?
CinemaCon may shed more light on this but my personal opinion is that DCI never really stopped. Like with the recent addendum and errata from DCI on immersive audio that kicked of 25CSS at SMPTE, I expect we will continue to see similar messaging from DCI in the not too distant future that gives us the appropriate direction we presently require.