"To DLP or Not to DLP. That is the Question!"
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
Paul Rayton, Hollywood
Issue 65 - July 2001
Hamlet, the angst-ridden Prince of Denmark, was quoted speaking a line similar to the above in the classic same-named play by William Shakespeare. Today, major questions swirl around the motion picture business, as various parties and power groups try to figure out if/when/how and whether, the exhibition of "motion pictures" will shift from traditional film-based processes to some kind of electronic system. I.e., go to "video".
Variety, the daily trade journal that is indispensible to the business of movie-making in Hollywood would seem to be equally confused. About once a week or so, there is a new, but conflicting, report on the subject. On June 1, the headline read, "Digital Cinema Not Ready, Biz Vets Say", and it quoted a veteran, well-known cameraman observing that movies screened by digital projection still looked like "a CNN (show about) the Palestinian problem." Then, on June 12, there was a story headlined "Digital Fast Track: Studios ramp up for seismic projection shift". In this, we learned that several studios are interested in the process, motivated by the huge expected cost savings by not having to make so many film prints. (A typical major, US mass-market film will open nationwide on 3000+ screens, for the opening week engagements)
Yes, confusion reigns. And the fallout of the entire affair will also affect whether or not we ever see any more 70mm prints made of new conventional dramatic films.
To help focus attention on the issue, and to help everyone concerned get an up-to-date assessment of the status of everything, the Hollywood section of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers
(SMPTE), with cooperation from the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, sponsored, on May 18 and 19, a special seminar, "The Cinema -- Now and the Future". The agenda for the program (which was easy to overlook) stated it was to explore the premise that "it is neither possible nor desirable that film will disappear in the next 10 years. On the contrary, film and digital technologies will continue to advance and to enhance each other. How can industry professionals manage these advances in order to obtain the greatest quality, speed of operations, and cost efficiencies?"
The whole seminar program got started on the evening of Friday, May 18 with a comparative screening of the WB film, "Space Cowboys", with alternating reels projected by film and DLP video. The way it worked out, "reel #1" of the movie was projected by the DLP projector; reel #2 was projected via film, and so on, alternating through the film. During the day on Saturday, May 19, various panel discussions--and some other demonstrations--were scheduled. So, during the two days of the event, there were several opportunities to consider one process vs. the other, and it explored all facets: image acquisition (photography), post-production, distribution, and projection.
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The primary event, though, (at least to your humble reporter) was the Saturday afternoon conclusion, which was billed as "Demonstration: The Best Film Has to Offer. The Best Digital Has to Offer". What did they plan to show, I wondered. The answer was: 4 different pieces:
1. DLP: several minutes from animated show, "Shrek"
2. Film: trailer (in 'scope) for "Pearl Harbor"
3. DLP: trailer (in "'scope") for "Pearl Harbor"
4. Film: new dye-transfer reel (#7 or #8, don't know which) of "Apocalypse Now"
As I viewed the above things running, the first thought that came to my mind, during the film trailer for "Pearl
Harbor" was, " --- wait a minute. This is supposed to be 'the best of the best', and we are watching a trailer!?!? Trailers are notorious for being several generations away from the original negative, what with all the titles and other opticals inserted. Is this a fair test?" And then, during the "Apocalypse Now" sequence, I remembered that it had been photographed over 20 years ago. It was a nice commercial for Technicolor's recently reborn dye-transfer printing finesse, but as "state of the art" photography and projection... who was out there seeing that film gets a fair consideration of its capabilities in these tests? Anyone??? (Yes, Eastman Kodak Co. was a participant, even a partial sponsor, of the event!)
However, all was not lost: I'll grant you I'm a bit biased toward film, but any unbiased observers could not miss that, in the only direct face-off comparison, the trailer vs. the trailer, the limitations of the video system were quite apparent. Yes, DLP is bright. Yes, the DLP colors in some scenes are saturated. Yes, DLP is sharp on the screen. BUT the flesh tones, in the close-ups, of the actors & actresses -- oh, my God, they looked awful by comparison with the film version! The skin tones were dullish, lifeless, almost as if they'd been working in a cement factory and hod come out covered with a microscopic, thin layer of light white dust!
In conversations after the show, my observations were shared by several others. However, don't fool yourself into thinking that our agreement was universally shared! I'm sure that some digital projection advocates were telling their clients (and any other sympathetic ears they could find), "look, see? It's just as bright as film, and it's good enough to use".
The key words are those last four: "good enough to use". The trajectory of (American) film exhibition over the last several years has emphasized quantity instead of quality...with the result that many major U.S. exhibition companies are presently in bankruptcy proceedings! There was no 70mm projection of film in the entire 2-day SMPTE seminar, so it's clear that the level of quality acceptable for digital projection is only that of middling level, conventional 35mm film.
Influential camera people in Hollywood also have voiced serious objections to one aspect or another of this electronic adventure, but again the issue of the best quality seems to be not high on the list of priorities. For example, the present process uses 10-bit color resolution; and engineers involved will readily admit that it will have to improve to 12-bit (at the least), maybe even 16-bit. These are massive amounts of data. There are numerous other technical limitations too, in addition to amazingly complicated issues of storage, (secure) transmission, and standards.
For this observer, it seems that, at least for the time being, film is clearly the only way to go for "proper" presentation of movies that involve real people in naturalistic lighting. On the other hand, for animated programs, where flesh tones are not involved, you can quite successfully use the electronic/digital systems. Discerning film makers can still hold back the tide of "progress" by insisting on the quality of film. For example, the makers of "Pearl
Harbor" (Jerry Bruckheimer & co.) insisted on film, not DLP, for the key runs of their film at Disney's showcase "El Capitan" theatre in Hollywood, and you can imagine what a task they had there, as the Disney Co. is actually a strong proponent of electronic projection.
But the cost savings of eliminating even half of those thousands of film prints [not to mention being able to advertise it as being "digital", and isn't "digital" anything already "better", simply by definition...? pardon my
skepticism!] is too tempting a target for big business to pass up. Even though the costs of equipping a theatre for DLP are now up to an estimated USD$150,000 per screen (and that price is in the articles that are in favor of the process!), the desire to save money (on prints) will almost certainly overwhelm most other considerations, and we'll be subjected to more and more electronic exhibition, quality of image be damned. And we can expect that 70mm conventional prints will rarely if ever be made, except for trade shows, theme parks, and special venues. Again, it isn't the quality factor that is topmost anymore. There would seem to be no more visionary showmen like Michael Todd, not even Steven Spielberg.
The good thing is, it appears to me that, for a long time into the forseeable future, film prints will also be made and available, even if the mass-market, first-run theatres are converting over to this electronic
playtoy. For one thing, not every cinema will be immediately converted, and it's also important to not overlook the huge later-run market, such as film museums (such as NMPFT in Bradford, UK), film clubs, retrospective theatres,
cinematheques, and educational institutions which may wish to play films 10 or 20 (or more) years (not simply 10 weeks!) after the initial release.
And, knowing how technology evolves, film-based copies of the programs will also be almost a necessity, if just to protect against the potential loss of revenue if the original exhibition technology becomes obsolete. (And technology obsoletes technological things at an ever-increasing rate, as you well can see in your own life!) It's what is being called, among those who think about these things, "platform
obsolesence", meaning your available base of equipment able to reproduce the recorded material disappears or is
unrepairable. The film medium has remained available and stable for over 100 years, and it may thus realistically see its life extended in spite of the electronic experiments. The studios actually do have their officials in charge of "asset management", who will (hopefully) realize this before too many electronically-stored programs vanish into cyberspace!
Is platform obsolescence a valid concern? Think about it: 10 years ago, music (for home use) was about 95% on 33 1/3rpm records ("vinyl"). Today, you have to really actively search to be able to find a store that even sells new vinyl, and most players that remain in homes are collecting dust and progressively decaying. In another 10 years, most of them will be gone or inoperative -- and you won't conveniently find parts to repair them. After a few years in the home video limelight, laserdiscs are being buried by DVDs. How long will those laserdisc players remain operative?
Think this phenomenon affects only consumer-grade equipment? BKSTS has a wall chart entitled "Video Recording Techniques", illustrating them since the dawn of such recording 81928) - there are now 121(!) distinct formats pictured, and you can be sure there will be more. All of the latest are digital and require 1) moving parts and 2) proprietary chips. What happens when the makers stop producing the chips, and parts run out? It happens with automobiles, too, but when there are thousands and thousands, the "aftermarket" suppliers will keep things going for years. But if there are only 100 devices, or less, worldwide, the economic motivation to save (or ability to find) critical parts is missing.
And so, the electronic version of a movie may soon be playing "at a theatre near you", but it may not necessarily be progress. It will be launched by big business the same way they announce new costs that they plan to charge you, for services you previously may have been getting for free, such as for using the
ATM/bankomat, or cashing checks. Of course, it will all be promoted as "new and improved". Or, "to serve you better." Our local automobile club, for example, sent us a letter proclaiming "To serve you better..." --- and their "improvement" was to close several offices, including the one nearest to me. Their announcement might better have read: "to save us some money...")
And so, "To Serve You Better... we present today's program in Digital Projection!" Is it truly "better"?
Film is dead. Long live the film!
A final note: the location where the SMPTE seminar was held is of some interest: in the theatre building now known as the Digital Cinema Laboratory
(DCL). The DCL was founded by the "Entertainment Technology Center", which is affiliated with the University of Southern California and their school of Cinema/Television. There is assistance and input from a consortium of entertainment companies, known as partners in the "Entertainment Industry Development Corporation"
(EIDC). Partners in the EIDC include MPAA, SMPTE, NATO, Fox, Lucasfilm, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom Paramount, Sony, Disney, and Universal. The primary mission of the DCL is to serve as a big screen "neutral testing ground" for the studios and the equipment manufacturers, to test out the various technologies as they evolve; it is not open to the public.
The DCL is located in the former "Hollywood Pacific" Theatre, now owned by Pacific Theatres, and which was closed to the public following the 1994 earthquake. But the history prior to that is the most fascinating: it had originally been built in 1927-28 as the "Warner Hollywood" theatre, and its intended first film was the first "talkie", "The Jazz Singer". It was reconfigured in the early 1950s to be the Hollywood home of 3-strip Cinerama, and I personally saw "South Seas Adventure" [in 3-strip], and "2001: a space odyssey" [in single strip] at this site, back a few years ago. Okay, more than a "few" years ago! Looking around the interior today, even though it's been modified a few times since the 50s, one can still see traces of things done to enable the 3-strip images to get to the screen. The interior walls are all draped in red curtains, a bit time-worn but still much as I remember it from days gone by. Sadly, the curtain is not working. The lobby looks great, with several chandeliers and wall fixtures all lit up. In fact, I kind of prefer it to the lobby of my own historic cinema, the "Egyptian", which is about 5 blocks west of the
The equipment used on the date of the seminar was one of the Texas Instruments "prototype" DLP projectors with a Christie console lamphouse for the video, and a Kinoton 35mm PK 60 E with a Strong console lamphouse for the film projection. The screen size is now 51.5' x 26' and, typical of a former movie palace, there are still lots of seats available: 1170. They presently do not have capability of running 70mm, but hope to have it in the future. Any public performances are problematic and unlikely, however, since the required general safety improvements work would cost many millions of dollars.
Digital Cinema Lab
Entertainment Technology Center
Partners: USC/CNTV, MPAA, SMPTE, NATO, Fox, Lucasfilm, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, Paramount, Sony, Disney and Universal.
51,5 ft. x 26 ft.
Kinoton PK 60 E
Texas Instruments Cinema-grade prototype DLP
Digital Disk Recorder:
Avica "Moviestore" & QuVis QuBit
Panasonic 2000/2700 D5
Christie 6000 watts
Dolby CP650 &
Amps: Crown Theatre
3 JBL 5674 L-C-R,
8 JBL 3677 Surrounds &
4 JBL Dual 18" subs
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