Inaugural UK Digital Cinema conference assesses the state of digital cinema
150 companies from 14 territories were represented at the conference, which featured thirty of the most knowledgeable speakers in the business of film distribution and exhibition.
On Feb 7, cinema exhibitors, technologists and business people converged on London’s Vue Westfield for the inaugural UK Digital Cinema Conference, hosted by Digital Cinema Solutions, to discuss the challenges and opportunities that have come with one of the biggest transitions in media history – the move from film to digital projection in cinemas.
Presentations and discussion panels ran throughout the day, featuring thirty of the most knowledgeable speakers in the business of film distribution and exhibition. The conference had originally been set up with a focus on the UK and Ireland, but became a truly global forum with 150 companies represented from 14 territories.
David Hancock, head of film and cinema at IHS Screen Digest, started off by giving an in-depth look at where the industry stands in terms of digital deployment. Looking at the data presented made even asking the question ‘is film dead?’ seem quaint and out of touch. According to Hancock’s data, in early 2011, 35mm film became the minority format in cinemas. The numbers are based on averages however, so while the UK is almost 95% “completed”. Other regions still hold onto a preponderance of 35mm projection screens.
Government funding has generally been responsible for accelerating the deployment of digital screens. In Europe, Norway has already completely switched to digital projection, due to government incentives, whereas countries without adequate government assistance – Greece, Spain, Italy are still far behind.
Latin America has been one of the slowest regions to adopt the digital transition. “In Latin America, there was a lack of understanding about what is happening,” said Hancock. There are currently 90,000 digital screens worldwide with Europe and Asia taking off rapidly. Mexico is the country with the least digital screens, though they are converting quickly. Next in line are Spain, China, Italy, Turkey and Brazil.
The second issue addressed was distribution. “We’re not fully digital until we have means of getting films into cinemas,” said Hancock.
Satellite and broadband delivery are gaining momentum, but they are still having to compete with hard drives, and hard drives are still the most effective way to deliver films. Hard drive distribution effectively replicates the 35mm system where packages had to be physically delivered, signed for and picked up.
Hancock concluded his presentation with the melancholy pronouncement: “By end of 2015, 35mm will no longer exist in cinemas and that’ll be the end of that.”
David Monk, introduced as “The Godfather Of Digital Cinema”, noting that “the job is nearly done” and looked to the future with an in-depth presentation the challenges and promises of laser projection. Some people, he noted, are concerned about the safety of laser projection, but the truth is that todays lamps can be quite dangerous, emitting lots of ultraviolet light and a great amount of heat.
The most important element in cinema projection is brightness. Without an adequately bright projection, all other issues of colour and resolution become irrelevant. Laser projection offers the promise of greater brightness and has additional advantages, offering a large dynamic range, new 3D possibilities, a bigger colour space and potentially lower running costs.
Yet there are many tough issues to overcome before laser projection is adopted widely including perceived safety issues, costs (currently laser projectors are four to five times what they should cost), problems with laser speckle artifacts, size and noise issues and viewer metamerism, an issue where two audience members sitting next to each other in the cinema might see different colours.
There have been several demonstration milestones in the past year that show promise, but Monk doesn’t predict significant deployment of laser projection for another five years.
Jim Slater, editor of Cinema Technology Magazine gave an overview of immersive sound technologies for cinemas, starting with a brief introduction on the history of sound in cinema. We think film sound in 2013 is complicated, but an optical track, DTS, and SDDS soundtracks all crammed onto one piece of 35mm film has been common for a long time.
Slater covered IOSONO’s spatial sound technology, Barco’s Auro 11.1 system (“the last of the channel-based systems”, he called it), imm sound, developed in Barcelona, and finally Dolby Atmos. Dolby acquired IOSONO last year.
Technicolor’s Richard Welsh, discussed the issue of Higher Frame Rate (HFR), beginning with a discussion of the history of frame rates, including the interesting revelation that it was cinema sound that pushed cinema into using 24 frames per second. Until the 1920s, film had been shot – generally hand-cranked – and projected at roughly 16fps. 24fps was found to be about the lowest frame rate possible that would allow dialogue and music to be coherent.
Peter Jackson promised the studio that cost for HFR would be the same as for 24fps. He really was talking about his own visual effects and post costs, but the truth was that doubling the frame rate affects everything right through the entire train from shooting right to exhibition.
Richard Welsh believes HFR still has much to offer. Higher Frame Rates reduce motion blur and reveal texture much more clearly, though this is double-edged sword makes every part of the production design process (including hair, makeup, costumes and set design) that much more closely scrutinised. Flaws or inconsistencies that would be invisible at 24fps, can become glaring at twice the frame rate.
HFR also seems to enhance audience response to colour, which may be a result of the brain’s having to work less hard to fill in missing motion information between frames.
Audiences came out of The Hobbit often indifferent or hostile to HFR, but Welsh is convinced that it’s largely a problem of conditioning. Many high-end computer gamers are regularly playing games playing at 120fps or higher. James Cameron’s Avatar sequel will be shown at 60fps. Welsh guesses that HFR will be here to stay and that the standard when it is used may be higher than even 60fps.
Rich Phillips, CTO of Arts Alliance Media, spoke for cinema owners about the challenges of the digital transition. They are coming to the end of what has been a significant change in the way they do business.
There is a feeling of “great, we’re almost done”, but then they are bombarded with a whole new set of questions and issues, like HFR, laser projection and 3D formats. Rather than a continuous reinvention of the industry, Phillips believes that “a lot of these new technologies should be seen as layers of enhancement above the baseline”.
A panel discussion went into the questions in greater depth. It was brought up that all of this technology is only any good if consumers respond to it and like it. There is a leap of faith among producers that these new experiences will actually have a positive effect, but it’s not guaranteed.
Exhibitors have in some ways been forced to take the technology presented to them by the studios. With all the possible innovations on the horizon, the industry ought to focus on keeping a single set of consistent standards and the exhibitors voice should be loud in terms of the choices being made and the standards being chosen.
But does the rate of change and innovation have to remain so aggressive? This generation is used to rapid change in technology and rapid change in the experience they get from their entertainment. The cinema industry will always face these threats so, as an industry, it must remain ready to adopt change reasonably rapidly.
An audience Q&A included a question about RED’s Crimson laser projector project. RED claims the 4K 3D laser projector will be available in six months and will cost $10,000. The panel agreed that claims seemed quite extraordinary, but that RED has pulled off the extraordinary before.
Other sessions in the day included Steve Pullinger of dCinex UK explaining the differences in cinema troubleshooting in the digital age. With 35mm projection, most problems could be dealt with in-house or had some degree of predictability. In digital projection, problems can occur without warning and maintenance must almost always be done by third party.
George Eyles of Technicolor chaired a panel [pictured] of Paramount’s director of international sales & distribution Richard Aseme, Rod Wheeler of Unique Digital and Gerald C. Buckle, digital development manager of Odeon/UCI Cinemas.
The panel focused on cost efficiencies and the general consensus was the industry wasn’t being nearly as efficient as it ought to be. Buckle noted that while full digital distribution is probably preferable, “the reality of our business is we like to have something physical that we can get hold of. Having a hard drive in a cupboard somewhere gives a sense of comfort.”
Aseme said that Paramount, and other studios, want to eliminate the middlemen and depots and get to point-to-point distribution as much as possible.
Other sessions included ‘Past, Present and Future’ (an industry overview featuring representatives from production, distribution and exhibition) and a discussion on alternative content in cinemas featuring Tim Plyming, formerly of BBC now of the British Museum, Alastair Roberts of the Royal Opera House, Tony Jones of the Cambridge Film Trust, Marco Tinnirello of Arqiva and representatives from The Comedy Store.
At the end of the day an industry award for outstanding achievement in digital cinema was presented to Steve Perrin, chief executive of the UK Digital Fund Partnership, for his work in the digitisation of UK cinemas.