Digital Cinema is Coming!

And you thought it was already here. It's true that a number of films over the past few years have been digitally projected in a small number of theaters around the world, using primarily DLP technology (and occasionally LCoS). But these presentations have employed a wide range of formats. For example, 30 different release masters were reportedly made for the 30 theaters that showed Van Helsing digitally in 2003. This lack of standardization could never support the massive conversion to digital cinema (and the savings in print distribution costs) that the studios are hoping for.

But over the past few years seven studios (Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers) have collaborated in the Digital Cinema Initiative, or DCI. This has resulted in set of standards, released just this past summer, which will make Digital Cinema practical on a wide scale.

Last week I attended an industry showing of the first film transferred according to the DCI specs. Serenity, from Universal Pictures, was never projected digitally during its short commercial run. But it was chosen for this exercise because it had already been digitally scanned in 2K resolution, and a digital intermediate was available. It also proved to be a good test bed, employing creative photography with both very dark and very bright scenes (including one that was deliberately overexposed).

Yes, this was my third viewing of Serenity on the big screen. And, with the |DVD scheduled for a December 20, 2005 release, a fourth viewing is inevitable. But the picture looked terrific on a 20- by 50-foot screen at the DCI's LA research facility where the presentation was held. This facility, on Hollywood Boulevard, is run by USC in the old Warner/Pacific theater. That old movie palace is now considerably seedier than in its glory days (It was at one time the LA venue for 3-strip Cinerama presentations). Some even claim it's haunted! But it has been equipped with new, first-class sound and digital projection systems (and 35mm/65mm film projection, too, for times when digital/film comparisons are needed). When the lights go down, it's arguably the best theater in town.

The only ways in which the film presentations I saw were clearly superior to the digital were in black level and shadow detail. Digital theatrical projectors, paradoxically, remain inferior to many home digital projectors in those characteristics. (One reason that animation is so stunning in digital projection is that the video dynamic range of animation is more limited than most live action films, with blacks that are rarely as difficult to reproduce).

A panel discussion was held after the presentation, with representatives of several companies involved in the processing and presentation of the film (Fotokem, Christie Digital Systems, Universal Pictures, and Doremi Labs) participating. In accordance with the DCI specification, the video of the film was transferred using JPEG 2000 compression, at a data rate of 180-190 Mb/sec, in a 12-bit, 4:4:4 DCI XYZ color space using an HD-SDI link from the server to the projector. The film occupied approximately 165GB in the server. Both English and French tracks were available, along with Spanish subtitles (a brief demonstration of the opening scenes in French with the Spanish subtitles was presented after the full showing).

Other details in the DCI specs allow for either 2K (2048x1080, 24 or 48fps) or 4K (4096x2160, 24fps) presentations. For 2.39:1 wide aspect films, only part of the vertical dimension of the imaging chip is used, rather than employing all of it combined with an anamorphic lens. I found this a little disappointing (though the widescreen Serenity was sharp enough (even though the film had been shot in Super 35). This may have been a cost-saving decision to eliminate the need for theaters to buy an expensive new lens.

The audio portion of the standard calls for up to 16 channels (!) of uncompressed sound (the presentation I saw didn't go to this extreme and neither, I suspect, will many theaters). It employs Broadcast (PCM) Wave coding at 16- or 24-bits at a sampling frequency of either 48kHz or 96kHz.

The studios anticipate that thousands of theaters in the U.S. will be converted to the DCI standard by the end of 2006, though that still represents only a fraction of the theaters in the country. But if you live in a medium sized city not yet equipped for digital projection, you just might have one or more a D-Cinema screens near you before long.

If you want to read all 162 pages of the DCI standard, go here.

What are the implications of all this for the future of home theater? It was the launch of the LP, and the availability of amplifier and speaker designs originally developed for movie theater sound, that spawned the whole high fidelity movement in the early 1950s. Stereophonic sound in movies, beginning with the advent of Cinerama and CinemaScope, ushered in the stereo LP in 1958. Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital, along with the availability of program material on video tape and the laserdisc, inspired millions to invest in home theaters beginning in the mid 1980s and continuing today. And whether or not you think digital projection is a good or bad thing (some film buffs—including important industry folks like director Steven Spielberg—are not enthusiastic about it), the new experience of digital projection and uncompressed multichannel sound will awaken more potential buyers to the possibilities available in home theaters, including home projectors. And the more robust the home theater market, the better for all of us in increased choices, plus the lower prices that economies of scale can produce.