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NAB: Reporting from the Tech Summit on Cinema

By Tim Spitzer

What did I hear about digital cinema at the Technology Summit of Cinema during NAB? That the future of digital cinema is bright (pun totally intended)!

Projection at the Summit was provided by Barco on a single head 4K Laser projection system on a new RealD Silver Screen technology. Indeed it was bright. Barco’s largest laser projectors are approaching 60,000 lumens, and new screen coating technologies are making screens more uniform and higher gain. Now there will be no reason that screens cannot be at the desired nits in both 2D or 3D! (Hey, what was wrong foot-lamberts?) The future of Digital Cinema seems bright, but wait! The EPA regards the laser light sources as lasers instead of lamps. This is days away from placing onerous bureaucratic, physical and economic constraints on use of laser projection technology.  I’m sure industry will correct this as it has done overseas, but ouch.

The Future of Digital Cinema is Dark!
Improvements in Dynamic Range of content and projectors, reduced ambient light in theaters and improved flare characteristics in lenses all will help make “darks” dark. But how dark? Reflection of light off the audience apparently imposes real limits, which won’t go away easily. One strange thought which has been nagging at me: Why not have the surround curtains of the Digital Cinema Screen be 18% gray instead of black? The black reference of today’s curtains provides a constant reminder to the viewer that the screen blacks are gray. If the screen surrounds were gray, then the screen darks would seem appropriately darker than they are.

Even on the amazing projection seen with HDR images, perceiving what seems to be a true black is evasive.

The Future of Digital Cinema is Colorful!
The implementation of 2020 color-space over P3 color-space will allow for more colorful images and a broader color gamut, most readily apparent in the arena of red and orange colors. OK.

The Future of Digital Cinema is Past!
In the early days of film-based cinema, both the camera and projection frame rates were intentionally variable to suit the dramatic content of the material. In Digital Cinema, although the original DCI spec tied projection to 24 fps, cameras and projection are capable of variable frame rates starting far slower than 24 fps and going up to 120 fps. This provides a huge set of tools for image manipulation. This was elegantly demonstrated by Richard Erland of the Pickfair Institute, who, in his tutorial, extracted multiple frame rates of playback from a single 120 fps capture with appropriately varying levels of motion silkiness. He also introduced variable amounts of motion blur based on frame blending to differing artistic effect, and demonstrated excitingly how we can now use our new digital toolset to re-enable the creative flexibility we lost when film projection became tied to a constant playback framerate.

The Present of Digital Cinema is Worrisome!
Here are my personal prognostications:

At SMPTE, IBC and NAB conferences, a real pervasive undercurrent of fear about the future of cinema theater experience has been in everyone’s voices for a decade.

At first 3D, enabled by digital projection technology, was posited to be the savior of cinemas. It wasn’t and isn’t. No surprise: 3D is a technology, not meaning.

Broadcast, cable television and Internet usage eroded the market base of film-based cinema. The shrinking of Kodak to a shadow of its former self, and the closing of most of the Motion Picture Laboratories has been a depressing end to the analog century of film as distribution media. A whole set of artist’s tools have just disappeared, as will the knowledge base of the scientists and craftsmen who worked daily in the film medium.

Similarly, for Digital Cinema, the development of 4K consumer technology with bright screens, the ready availability of binge (on demand) viewing of HD and 4K quality programming, the failure of 3D to truly draw audiences to the Cinema, the lack of a viable business model for independent film theatrical distribution, all erode the business base.

HDR and expanded color gamut will help and variable frame rate will make for new visual experiences, but these are just tools. Honestly, what does the Digital Cinema experience do better or much more compellingly than Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Showtime or Youtube? The answer isn’t popcorn.

If the answer is “not much”, if we don’t provide more compelling experience that draws audiences, not just for the thrill, but for its social/political/artistic significance and emotional value to the viewer, then the Cinema Theater experience as a business will fail.

What directors, cinematographers, scriptwriters, designers, etc., are complaining that television is failing them?   Filmmakers will always make movies. The overarching question is how with their content be distributed? Digital Cinema distribution has principally been outside the realm of all, but a handful of films.

There are no more “B” movies.

Tim Spitzer, principal of Timescape,LLC a post production services company, has been a fixture in the New York post production landscape establishing digital lab services, from dailies through digital intermediate finishing,  film scanning, library restorations and digital finishing for a wonderful worldwide roster of socially conscious and visionary filmmakers.

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