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The Next Picture Show - NAB Gets Digital

WK Bohannon

July 2001 | The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference, held in April, was supposed to be about broadcasting. It was also to have been about "convergence," which has something to do with the merging of "traditional" media with "new" media–home computers, home entertainment, and the like. All of that is very nice, but the things that turned me on the most at the show had little to do with either: the exhibits on electronic cinema and movies.

There were two types of digital movie projectors shown at NAB. One type tried to look as much as possible like the old-fashioned film movie projector–using the same mechanical size and shape. The other type went for the generic square-box large-screen projector look. One example of the first type was Christie's DigiPro projector ($139,000 including lens). Christie makes a large percentage of the existing film projectors and its DigiPro uses bits and pieces developed by Texas Instruments' DLP Digital Cinema program. To retrofit the local Cineplex with a digital projector, it would be easier if the new projector's lens height matched the hole in the projection room wall, and if it had the same foot print, and used the same kind of lamp house. All of the above are accomplished by the digital film replacement projectors sold by Christie and DPI (who makes a model similar to Christie's called the Digimax).

NAB also hosted demonstrations of the DLP Cinema Projector, which is installed in several theaters around the U.S. But no theater owners have plopped down their own hard-won money to replace a $25,000 film projector with one of the film-replacement digital versions that costs $150,000 or more and includes the "server" bank of disk drives used to hold the digital film's binary content. There are a lot of bankrupt theater chains these days and if they can't buy the raw material for making popcorn, then they aren't likely to buy expensive new hardware. What's more, outside of the few demo releases, there's no digital content and no plans for wide release of digital movies anytime soon. The film industry powerhouses have supposedly said they won't go to the expense of making a digital release until there are at least 1,000 digital "screens" in the U.S.

It might seem that a digital release would be cheaper than a film release. It's just bits so it's free, right? Bits found on the Web may be free for the taking, but making those filmic bits in the first place is expensive. It reportedly costs over $20,000 to make a digital master for archiving and DVD versus the $1000 or so a film print costs. However, those standard telecine transfers won't play on DLP Cinema machines. It reportedly costs up to $100,000 to make the kind of special telecine film-to-digital transfer required by a DLP Cinema projector. On top of that extra cost is the whole infrastructure cost required to transmit or deliver those bits securely to a movie theater and then to store those bits securely in between showings.

It costs more to make the Digital Cinema version of a film for several reasons, one of which is because the color range available in the dedicated theater Digital Cinema projector is much larger than that of the SMPTE HD color standards. The DLP Digital Cinema projector I've measured had a big color gamut, with greens in particular, way above SMPTE 709 color standards. This (together with different black levels) makes those projectors unsuitable for showing the typical bitstream from a commercial DVD. When people want to show a digital movie (as they did for Phantom Menace), they have to convert the film to digital using different color and black level settings than the standard digital master–hence, the extra cost.

But wouldn't it be nice if the same digital master used for archiving, HDTV, and DVD production could be used for Digital Cinema as well? Some think that the extreme color gamut, as provided by the Digital Cinema projectors sold by Christie and DPI (in which colors and color differences can be accentuated), should become part of the theatrical digital film experience. But more colors mean higher ticket costs; I estimate 50 cents to a dollar. If you want the digital version to look and cost the same as the analog film version, lay off the highly colored sauce while matching the black levels, gamma curves, and grayscales to the film's levels. This is how DVDs are made and how digital movies could be shown.

This is what NEC is attempting to do with one of its latest projectors, the SX6000DC (DC for Digital Cinema), which lists at $89,995 without a projection lens. The SX6000DC, based on NEC's line of 3-chip DMD, large-venue, rental, and staging projectors, is sold through NEC's normal large-venue distribution channel, thus providing for some volume (versus the more specialized film-replacement projectors). What's more, NEC's Digital Cinema produces great images with its three special image-processing algorithms (called TriDigital) that attempt to duplicate the dynamic range, black levels, and color balance of film using standard HD digital film transfers.

Personally, I don't care who wins the battle for the Digital Cinema marketplace. I just want someone brave enough to set up the first 1,000 digital theaters so that I can regularly see digital movies. I'm tired of going to the theater to watch a stream of scratches and blips flicker in front of my eyes. I might even pay a little more for the experience–especially if that keeps the noisy teen-aged gum-chewers away. But then again, cranking up the colors to a high level will probably draw an even bigger crowd of kids to see those colorful movies. It'll still be worth it.


WK Bohannon (manxrsrch@aolcom), founder of Manx Research, an independent evaluator of projection and display systems, has more than 25 years of experience in high-tech industries in areas from nuclear spectroscopy to high-energy laser systems and artificial intelligence. He worked as chief scientist for Display Products at Proxima Corporation from 1989 to 1994, and lived through the birth of today's small electronic presentations systems.

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