Y4K: Is Super D-Cinema In Your Future

A few years back everyone was wondering if our civilization would come crashing down around our keyboards. All of our computers stored the year as a two-digit number, and 00 did not compute. Best case: Aunt Ellie wouldn't get her airline reservation in time for that visit, or better yet might end up in Sri Lanka. Worst case: an extinction level event.

We got through that one. But now we have 4K, and it has nothing to do with the year. It's all about digital cinema.

Recently there was an industry presentation of The DaVinci Code at the Entertainment Technology Center in Los Angeles. The ETC, run by the University of Southern California, conducts research into digital cinema—that is, theatrical presentation of movies stored on digital data files instead of film, run on digital projectors. It's located in the old Warner Theater in Hollywood. The Warner was a movie palace built in Hollywood's Golden Era, and it later served as the LA venue for 3-strip Cinerama. (The Cinerama Dome, still very much an operating movie house, was built in the early 1960s. It was not equipped for 3-strip Cinerama in its early years and only installed it in a recent remodel for occasional revivals).

In its waning years the Warner was sold and renamed the Pacific. Closed to the public for years now, it has become a tattered old diva that somehow managed to escape the wrecking ball. I saw Dragonslayer there in 1981, and it was in need of work then. But the ETC has equipped it with first class projection and sound facilities, including top-line DLP projectors and (for comparisons) the best film projectors money can buy.

But the DaVinci event was not a DLP showing. Instead, Sony had brought in their candidate for D-Cinema fame and fortune, an SXRD projector with a native resolution of 4096x2160—roughly twice that of the best DLP projectors in current commercial use. I saw this projector at the ETC a couple of years ago, in prototype form. At that time two versions were under development. They were identical apart from their rated light output: 5K Lumens and 10K Lumens. The model used this time was a new, high output prototype, said to produce a peak output of 18K Lumens. The result, we were told, was a light output of 14.6 foot-Lamberts on the ETC's 52-foot wide, 2.35:1, slightly curved projection screen.

Of equal importance was the source: a data file with 4096x1714 pixels. This file was apparently derived from the DI or Digital Intermediate, a transfer of the filmed elements to higher than high definition digital video for use in post-production.

More tech details for those into the nuts and bolts: a specified contrast ratio of 1900:1, a video refresh rate of 96 frames per second, XYZ color space, JPEG2000 video compression, a Sony LMT-100 Media Block Cinema Server, uncompressed 5.1-channel audio, Crown amps, and JBL speakers. The compressed data files required 210GB of storage on the server (the uncompressed files of the finished film occupied 10 Terabytes).

I'd like to say that this was the best-looking theatrical "film" presentation ever, but several elements worked against it. The main limitation was the source itself. I have not seen the movie on film, but in the presentation at the ETC looked a bit grainy. And that's not including several stylized flashbacks, which were, most certainly by design, even more obviously riddled with grain. But the compression was nicely done; neither the film nor the flashbacks showed visible compression artifacts from the grain.

This is also a very dark film, and for the most part lacking in bright colors. The film was also shot in Super 35, a technique that does not use the entire film frame when projected at 2.35:1 (unlike anamorphic 2.35:1, which does). The smaller the area of the film frame used, the lower the resolution and the more pronounced the film grain, everything else being equal (which, of course, it never is).

The presentation, at 4096x1714, did not make use of all the available pixels on the 4096x2160 SXRD chips. An appropriate anamorphic squeeze on the storage side, and a suitable lens to unsqueeze it (which may not have been available) would have added nearly 2 million pixels to the projected image. By my calculations, using all of the available pixels would result in a resolution increase of nearly 24%. But even as it was, the Sony projector still projected more than three times as many active pixels as you'll see in a fully anamorphic, 2K DLP display.

Within these limitations, however, the image looked fine: generally sharp and detailed, bright, but just a little two-dimensional. According to the Q&A held after the presentation, however, the digital projection accurately replicates the original film elements, and I have no reason to dispute this claim.

Whether or not 4K projectors will see widespread use in commercial theaters is still to be determined. At $98,000 for the 10K Lumen model, the price seems competitive. In a post-showing telephone Q&A with Andrew Stucker, Manager, Sony Electronics Digital Cinema Systems Group, I neglected to ask if this price includes a lens. I suspect it does not.

Currently, three of the projectors (the 10K Lumen model) are installed for test runs at the Century City AMC in Los Angeles, the Regal Pinnacle in Knoxville, Tennessee, and The Meadows in Littleton, Colorado. As I write this, these theaters are showing Click a movie that was shot with Sony high definition video cameras rather than on film. The files used in these presentations are, however, 2K, with upconversion to 4K performed by the projector—the most likely scenario for future 4K D-Cinema presentations.

I also asked Mr. Stucker if he thought that the 4K SXRD chip would ever find its way into Sony's high-end home displays, such as (I said, salivating) a possible replacement for the Qualia 004 projector. Though he does not work on the consumer side of the Sony house, he thought that would be unlikely, since the benefits might not be evident on home sized screens.

But since when has that ever kept a manufacturer from grabbing a tantalizing idea to get the jump on its competitors! I can see the ads already: Super High Definition!! See It Now!! More than likely, however the factors limiting such a development will be the yield on the 4K chips, and whether that and the other costs add up to a viable commercial proposition.