During NAB 2012, the annual convention of the National
Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas (www.nabshow
com), the Society of Motion Picture and Television
) will once again produce
a dedicated program on digital cinema. SMPTE will
provide an in-depth global view of the new wave of technology coming
soon to your local multiplex, the organization noted in the program
announcement, with an eye toward how it might later affect the
broader media ecosystem.
Founded in 1916 to advance theory and development in the motion-
imaging field, it is not surprising that SMPTE takes a decidedly
grounded approach in describing the current state-of-engineering.
Cinema technology has historically been in the forefront of motionimaging
invention. Over the years, revolutionary new technologies
were first tested and proven in the movie theatre, only later to become
mainstream in television broadcast or gaming.
Until last year known as the Digital Cinema Summit, the April 14
and 15 series of events has been renamed the 2012 Technology Summit
for Cinema (TSC), presenting Advances in Image and Sound.
SMPTE president Peter Ludé feels the name change is emblematic of
the progress made over the past decade. In his view, the basics of digitalcinema
projection have been firmly established, so it is now time to look
at additional improvements and benefits to be drawn from the technology,
with help from the engineering and creative communities.
Film Journal International had the opportunity to speak exclusively
with the noted technologist in advance of the Summit about some of
the topics to be discussed and emerging trends to be analyzed there.
As our conversation readily confirms, with his day job as senior VP
of Sony Solutions Engineering overseeing all U.S.-based engineering
efforts for digital-cinema systems, software development and other
professional media solutions, Ludé is also very much in tune with the
practical side of implementing innovations.
In line with our February issue's report on the Moody Gardens
Digital Cinema Symposium, co-presented by Barco and D3D, Ludé
confirms upgraded sound environments, higher frame rates (HFR)
and laser projection to be among the main topics. Hey, all of this is
exciting to us technologists, Ludé enthuses. I spend a lot of time
talking to exhibitors and they have confirmed their interest in all of
these possibilities as well. From an audience participation impact, in
my mind, it is a tie right now between HFR and laser.
Beginning with the latter, almost everybody that you talk to would
like to see brighter 3D images. Now that this will soon be possible
with laser technologies, what should the new standards be? Drawing
the comparison to current DCI-defined 2D and de-facto 3D brightness
levels, he puts that range probably somewhere in the middle
between 14 or 4.5 foot-lamberts coming off the screen.
You could take a projector today that is already in the field, he
continues, take out the Xenon lamp house and cold mirror and replace
all that stuff with lasers and it could work just fine. Obviously,
there are complexities in optical interface, control, cooling and many
other details, but in theory it can be done. On the other hand, a laser
projector designed from the ground up will enable the use of different
optics and overall system design, which would have advantages in
brightness efficiency, contrast ratio, lower costs and smaller size. It will
also facilitate a greener environmentwith less power consumption,
fewer cooling vents and less carbon emission.
That whole bunch of benefits with laser illumination includes an
expanded range of available colors as well, Ludé adds. The wonderful
thing about the DCI specs is that they can accommodate virtually any
white points and color gamut. Now that we have lasers that allow us
to represent colors that are not possible for Xenon, those need to be
established in order to support the overall workflow from capture to
exhibition. Sometimes, when everything is possible, it is more difficult
to manage all the variations and to establish the foundation.
While lasers do not have to be different, Ludé makes a case for
creative expression. It is very easy to engineer a laser system to exactly
match the current P3 color gamut that you see today. It's very readily
done. The interesting question that comes into this is whether we really
want to limit ourselves, he muses. Specifically in the deep reds and
cyan regions, with lasers audiences will be able to see something on the
screen that has not been possible before. Until someone from Pixar, for
example, decides, I would love to use that color because it would help
my storytelling.' Then the engineers will scratch their heads: OK, how
do we redefine that expanded gamut beyond P3?' Technically, it is not
so difficult, he assures once again. But in order to have a universally
accepted new standard color gamut, we have to get our heads together
and decide what exactly we want to extend it to.
Creatively, it's similar to 3D, Ludé asserts, drawing another comparison.
You don't need to use 3D, but now that it is available, you
could choose to use it if appropriate for your movie. Color gamut
is the same way. It is very simple to replicate what we have today, if
that is what is desired. But now there is this new, tempting, unique
enhancement allowing you to extend color range. Let's work through
that and enable the filmmakers to do what they want to. As a matter
of fact, they can still display a black-and-white movie just as well when
there is a laser in the projector.
Given the need for an industry-wide consensus, not to mention
that costs have to come down significantly, is Ludé not taking a rather
optimistic view? Maybe I'm biased, he admits, because another one
of my night-and-weekend jobs is being the chairman of the Laser
Illuminated Projection Association. Realizing just how much work
needs to be done from a regulatory reform standpoint too, LIPA
was set up earlier in the year (www.lipainfo.org
). We need to clarify
the laws that apply to laser projection as opposed to standard lasers,
because they are both very different. A laser-illuminated projector
doesn't really represent any more optical hazard than the Xenon
projectors that we have been using for over 50 years. And carbon arc
lamps before that. Yet, they are subject to entirely different rules under
the FDA and OSHA regulations, Ludé has observed about the Food
and Drug Administration's Occupational Safety and Health Impact
Assessment. Those government agencies recognize that discrepancy.
However, they really don't have a mechanism in order to create the
proper updates to their rules that would make laser-illuminated projectors
more practical in theatrical exhibition.
Moving on to another improvement on the horizon, just how practical
will the implementation of higher frame rates turn out to be?
When James Cameron and Peter Jackson say that it looks better, you
have to pay attention to them, Ludé states up front. Technologists
as well have been noting for years that the use of 48 or 60 frames per
second, especially for 3D, provides a very perceivable benefit, such as
less eyestrain and more fluid 3D motion, he says, naming but two
improvements. I think audiences will be excited about both of those.
Laser-illuminated projectors and HFR are very possible in the near
future. Again, it is a matter of having the industry come together
studios, exhibitors and manufacturersand agreeing on what the new
target is. The engineering community is probably not the best one to
answer that. Technically, all are quite feasible.
Asked to elaborate, Ludé ventures, You could make an argument
from the scientific data that retinal retention has been proven to be
pretty strong up to around the 60 fps rate But I have also talked to
some people who say it needs to be much higher, like 120 frames per
second. Other people feel, practically speaking, 48 fps is virtually as
good as 60 fps, although 60 fps might be ideal. Ludé defers to noted
filmmaker Douglas Trumbull, the founder of Showscan, among many
other accomplishments, and the 2012 recipient of the Academy's Gordon
E. Sawyer Award for his lifetime of technical contributions and
leadership in the motion picture industry. He actually did very exciting
tests many years ago, Ludé tells us. Using electroencephalograms
and galvanometers, Trumbull measured people's perspiration, heart
rates, EKG while they watch movies to gauge their emotional reaction
His results indicated that the human visual system and brain
respond incrementally as you raise the frame rate up somewhere in the
mid-60s. After that, raising the frame rate further only tends to make
a tiny bit of difference. That's why Trumbull came up with 60 as being
a good target number. By happenstance, so did James Cameron when
he made his announcement how he would like to do Avatar 2. At the
same time, for practical reasons, among others, Peter Jackson settled
on 48 fps for The Hobbit.
Along the same lines, Ludé acknowledges that many filmmakers in
Hollywood and elsewhere see 60 fps as too similar to television. They
prefer to be at 24 frames to maintain the well-established aesthetic of
cinema. So this is one of the techniques that a director should be able to
continue to use to create a certain effect. From a technology standpoint,
we can't get ourselves in the middle of the crossfire in that discussion.
I think there is a very valid artistic dimension to the discussionit's a
filmmaker's choice. You should be able to do 24, or 16 frames for that
matter, 60 or 120 frames per second. You pick what you want. Some
folks, Trumbull notably, say why should the entire movie be at the same
rate? Run those emotional dialogue scenes at 24, and when there is a car
crash, do that at 120 fps. So the question to the technical community is:
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Could we have variable frame rates within the same movie?
To tackle all this and more, a new SMPTE study group was established
under its 21 DC (Digital Cinema) Committee. Over 60 people
are participating in this discussion of how good is good enough,
Ludé says. How do we decide what is practical? And reflect what is
already installed and what we might need to upgrade? How do we assure
backward compatibility? Even if a film comes out at 48 or 60 fps,
some theatres still want to run it at 24 fps because they haven't been
updated yet. How do you accommodate that?
While a variety of frame-rate conversions are already standard on
television, this is not something that you would commonly go to see
in a movie theatre, he notes. Perhaps frame-rate conversion can be
accommodated in the post-production pipeline. But we really have
to be sure that it works before we move any further. In doing those
conversions, you have to be very careful not to introduce anything
contrary to what the original creative intent was.
Another one of the key messages in advance of the Technology
Summit is that cinema is the original place for technological innovations.
Ludé provides examples: The introduction of sound, then
multi-channel sound. Widescreen images going back to anamorphic,
the use of special effects, fast cutting, computer graphics, stereoscopic
3Dall these innovations were originally implemented in theatres. A
more recent example is 4K imaging, which incorporates four times the
resolution of high-definition television. 4K was pioneered by Sony in
digital cinema, and has now become the premier standard for the best
exhibitors. But at this year's CES show, it is clear that 4K is heading
for the home theatre as well.
Ludé thinks this will continue to apply, [although] cinemas will
not be the only mechanism of getting new things into the home. The
strength of movie theatres lies in the simple fact that it's not that hard
to control the entire chain. Say Peter Jackson decides to shoot his movie
at 48 fpsa whole new standard in 3Dand he could work out with
his distributor to get some 4,000 screens to exhibit it in that way. Boom,
it's out there. You try to do that with television and you'll find huge obstacles.
Getting a new standard into 100 million homes in the U.S., and
billions worldwide, is a very big challenge to go through with all the
different set-top boxes, cable systems, satellite delivery, home recorders,
Blu-ray/DVD players. This is a much more complex infrastructure
that is much slower to change. He brings up Disney's decision to go
3D with Chicken Little back in 2005. They made that happen in some
80 theatres in just about six months. It takes five years to get that same
level of functionality into people's living rooms.
What does Ludé personally think about the movie theatre? My
own view, and that of many of my peers, is that the cinema is the gold
standard in terms of imaging technology. It is, in fact, the highest standard.
Cinema is used for the most important stories told by the biggestbudget
producers. So when a studio wants to produce a good movie and
they are spending $40 or $50 million in production cost, they are going
to be very persnickety about the creative as well as technical aspects.
They are going to spend a lot more time on the lighting, on the lens selection,
on exactly what film stock or digital image to capture on, every
detail of color correction and so on. A lot more effort and thought, and
creative intent and brilliant engineering, go into the creation of those
movies. You contrast that with a typical television program, a reality
show or the nightly newscastjust for practical reasons, you don't have
the budget. It's good but just not that extravagant.
Although we didn't even talk about sound systemsand you will
see a lot of new thinking on the acoustical frontit is a very exciting
age for cinema now, Ludé concludes. I think the whole movie
experience is going to continue to evolve. We currently have Digital
Cinema 1.0 up and running. Now we are working on version 2.0,
which will offer additional enhancements to main