Electronic Cinema Debuts in Beautiful Downtown Burbank

I have seen the future, and it is digital. On June 18, cinematic history was made as Star Wars: Episode 1---The Phantom Menace became the first movie in the U.S. to be publicly screened from a digital source rather than a film print (see related story).

In the new process, called electronic cinema or e-cinema, the movie is digitized and stored on an array of hard disks. It is then projected onto the screen using a Hughes/JVC light-valve projector or a modified Texas Instruments DLP (digital light processing) projection module mounted on a standard theatrical-lamp housing. The experimental digital screenings will take place in only four locations: two in Los Angeles (AMC Burbank 14 and Pacific Theaters Winnetka Stadium 20 in Chatsworth) and two in New Jersey (Loews Route 4 in Paramus and Loews Meadows 6 in Secaucus), and they will be shown for only one month.

For this experiment, the hard disks were delivered to the theaters and protected by Brinks security guards. However, the ultimate goal is to beam movies to theaters around the country via satellite. The theaters will store the material on hard-disk servers, which can then send it to several projectors in a multiplex at once. This approach seems fraught with potential for interception and piracy, but the material is heavily encrypted until it actually reaches the projector.

The video portion of The Phantom Menace is compressed with a ratio of 4:1, using a custom algorithm developed for this experiment. In the future, a compression scheme from Qualcomm will be used to reduce bandwidth requirements. The soundtrack for this run is completely uncompressed 5.1-channel audio stored on another hard-disk array, but one or more of the standard surround-sound formats (e.g., Dolby, DTS, SDDS) will likely be used in the future.

Among the many advantages to this approach is the elimination of physical film prints, which cost the studios big bucks to manufacture and deliver to commercial cinemas. In addition, digital "prints" do not suffer damage, such as scratches, that physical prints accumulate as they pass through a projector many times during a film's run. Finally, video projectors require much less maintenance than film projectors. All these factors will dramatically reduce the cost of distributing and screening films in the future (although I suspect that ticket prices will not be reduced as a result).

So how is the quality of the digital image? During a press conference held on June 17 at the AMC Burbank 14 multiplex, a short clip was shown in a split screen: Half the image was from a new, high-quality film print, and the other half was from the digital "print." Once the two images were manually synchronized, the difference was remarkably clear: The digital image was much sharper, with much better color fidelity than the film print. For example, the Jedi council room has large windows through which the sky is visible. In the digital image, the sky and clouds were clearly delineated, but they were blurred into a bluish blob on the film side of the screen. Rick McCallum, one of the producers of The Phantom Menace and a press-conference panelist, said the digital version is a much more accurate representation of what they shot than the film version.

Other panelists at the press conference included representatives from Texas Instruments and THX, which has created a specification for e-cinema projectors as part of their Theatre Program and intends to develop standards for digital-transmission schemes and a certification process for digital masters. Also represented was CineComm Digital Cinema, which is heavily involved in developing the e-cinema delivery system in partnership with Hughes/JVC and Qualcomm.