The biggest splash was made by box-office king James Cameron, who presented an early-morning program devoted to his new cause: film production using higher frame rates. To make his point, Cameron shot test sequences with his Titanic cinematographer Russell Carpenter on an elaborately dressed medieval set with actors in period costumes laughing it up at a banquet and engaged in a fierce swordfight. Each 3D sequence was shot at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second, and Cameron used a laser pointer to illustrate how panning the camera invariably produces strobing of people and objects at the traditional 24-frame speed. Both the 48 and 60-frame clips were markedly superior, eliminating strobing and bringing greater clarity to objects captured by the moving camera.
Cameron said he's "agnostic" about whether 48 or 60 fps should be adopted, but he reiterated his plans to shoot Avatar 2 at a higher frame rate. Lensing on that much-anticipated project, which he is still writing, is at least 18 months away, he revealed.
The tech-savvy director assured the crowd that the new generation of digital projectors is already capable of accommodating higher frame-rate content with a minor software upgrade, and he also argued that increases in production rendering budgets could be kept to a reasonable level with "smart coding."
Most ominously, Cameron warned the cinema community that live 3D TV sports programming is already produced at 60 fps, so increasing the frame rate for theatrical features would ensure that movies are keeping up with the state of the art that high-end consumers can already get at home.
The demo was held at the Caesars Palace Colosseum theatre, using double stacked Christie DLP Cinema projectors, Doremi servers and RealD 3D.
Aurally, too, the movie community isn’t resting on its laurels. Dolby Labs introduced its new Surround 7.1 audio format (adding new Back Surround Left and Back Surround Right zones) last summer with the release of Toy Story 3, a format now on 1,300 screens worldwide. At CinemaCon, Dolby cinema technical marketing manager Stuart Bowling offered a look at Dolby’s evolution from 5.1 to 7.1 and a glimpse of the next step: an even fuller sound experience created by going vertical and installing additional speakers high above the audience. Bowling revealed that Dolby has done a 12-channel “concept mix” of Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles and a 14-channel remix of Avatar, and predicted that the new format could be rolled out as soon as 18 months from now. Meanwhile, summer blockbusters Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Transformers: Dark of the Moon are all being released in the 7.1 format.
Leading 3D company Barco is also exploring the richness of vertically enhanced audio, partnering with top European sound facility Galaxy Studios on a new format called Auro-3D. Audio innovator Wilfried Van Baelen conducted a private demo in a hotel room at Caesars Palace fitted out with nine speakers (two less than the Auro-3D norm), playing both audio and video clips in various channel configurations. “3D sound needs height,” Van Baelen argued, and the robust sound produced by the extra, higher speakers dramatically made his case. Even a mono recording of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” sounded markedly richer with the added speakers.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Dave Duncan, DLP Cinema manager at Texas Instruments, was celebrating the fact that TI’s OEM licensees, Barco, Christie and NEC, had installed more digital-cinema projectors in every region of the world in the last 12 months than in the last 12 years. In the period between March 2, 2010, and March 2, 2011, the number of DLP Cinema screens showing 2D Hollywood content worldwide grew 101% to a total of 33,110 (up from 16,446), and 128% for 3D Hollywood content, rising to 22,287 (from 9,758). These counts do not include IMAX’s digital installations powered by DLP Cinema, which separately grew 91% for a total of 296 screens. “After all the struggles we went through for so many years, this payoff is really cool,” Duncan beamed.
“Even though we had a very successful 2010, this year is going to be even bigger,” Duncan predicts. “Two of our three customers have opened up new facilities in China, and they’ve all rapidly expanded their capabilities with regard to production.”
Duncan notes, “China is a place we’re paying particular attention to. The number of screens being built there on a monthly basis is incredible. We’ll be over there several times this year. We want to help them grow that market as fast as they intend to grow it.”
Texas Instruments’ three OEMs all introduced 4K projectors in the past year, so we asked Duncan for his perspective on the role of 4K in today’s cinemas. “You have to look at your theatre and determine what your needs are, based on screen size and type of seating. I’ve seen them side-by-side on a 65-foot-wide screen. Where my wife and I sit in a movie theatre, I think they’re both incredible images. I wouldn’t be disappointed with either 2K or 4K. But if I got to the theatre late and I had to sit in the front couple of rows of the theatre I usually go to, I would notice the difference. I think every exhibitor needs to make their own decision based on the demographics of their screens and what the typical load of those houses happens to be… I still think 2K moving forward will be the de-facto standard, and 4K will be reserved for more premium houses.”
Duncan points out that “with DLP Cinema, you have a choice. With a .98 2K projector, you can fit a fairly small bulb and you can have a killer, energy-efficient product for 60 or 70 percent of the screens in your theatre. Moving up, a bigger 2K chip is still unbelievably energy-efficient and will light up the biggest screens—Barco just broke the Guinness Book world record with 43,000 lumens of brightness. But if you want the 4K experience, now you can buy it from Barco, Christie and NEC.”
For Jack Kline, president and COO of Christie, “The excitement around CinemaCon is that digital cinema not only is permanently embedded, it is also going to become the standard. We have reached far beyond the tipping point. Digital-cinema deployment is being embraced on such a global basis now that the total transition from film to digital will be completed in a much shorter time frame than we ever anticipated.”
Studios and distributors are being “very clear that everybody needs to get a partner and get their systems switched over,” Kline warns. “Sooner rather than later, because the support that they are going to be able to supply in terms of film is going to end. That is putting a lot of pressure on all the deployment entities and on the manufacturers.”
In response, Christie has nearly doubled its manufacturing capabilities. “We anticipate that the next two years, which will be the top of the deployment period, are going to be very hectic.” Reassuringly, “we’re telling customers that we are the partner they ought to work with because of our history in the business, the solutions that we have and our global acceptance. We are very excited about 2011-12.”
The groundwork for the coming boom was laid early in 2010, Kline reviews. “We embarked on establishing a DLP manufacturing facility in Shenzhen, China, and were able to ramp up that process from scratch in about six months. They are now fully producing our digital-cinema projectors there, as we continue to do in Kitchener, Ontario.” Since the projectors and all parts made in both factories are identical, Christie has “capacity to flex our manufacturing so we can increase Shenzhen as our demand in Asia/Pacific requires, all the while still having the ability to increase manufacturing in Canada as well.”
Speaking of the former region, “the excitement in China for building new theatres and for completely digitizing the existing ones throughout 2011 is nothing short of amazing. We think the market will continue to expand rapidly over the next ten years. India is moving to digitization as well. And, with support from our parent company Ushio, we just announced a deployment program in Japan that will digitize 80% of the screens there in about 18 months. There’s a lot happening in Asia/Pacific and VPF agreements that we are working with in the United States will be available shortly,” Kline anticipates.
Europe, the Middle East and Africa have been equally important regions for Christie. “Over the past few years, we have become a market leader over there with our partners Arts Alliance Media and XDC. It is a challenging market because, unlike some other areas, it is many different countries with many different types of deployment plans. Some of them are supported by the government and others by deploying agencies.” While Europe represents “a very complicated business solution,” he feels, “it is moving very rapidly now.” As the more “neglected region for deployment” until this point, Kline sees Latin America as “the next big growth opportunity.”
On the subject of the megapixel mania that overtook digital photography being repeated at the cinema, Kline remains realistic. “Christie is always going to continue to work on developing advanced systems and improvements. However, the core system of DLP Cinema, 2K or 4K, is now and will continue to be the standard. I don’t think that there is a visual advantage in higher resolutions. There certainly is no cost advantage… We really are at a very good place in development and continue to enhance our system, but it is not going to be made obsolete by anything that we do.”
What about increasing frame rates? James Cameron gave Christie more than a shout-out during his much revered demonstration. “Yes,” Kline confirms, “those are the types of enhancements that we are going to see over the life of digital cinema.” He credits DLP Cinema for enabling opportunities “that weren’t there in the film world. With higher frame rates, we can get better images and actually increase the light output. Christie is working very closely with Lightstorm, James Cameron and Jon Landau to actually develop solutions that will give moviemakers more tools to enhance their storytelling.”
Kline proudly states that “we were the first licensee of DLP Cinema; we were the first ones to develop it; we were the first ones to have a scalable business model and major deployment It was all about the belief that digital cinema was going to be good for the cinema industry, good for exhibition and good for distribution. It is very refreshing and rewarding to see that the divisions that we had at Christie ten years ago are now fully embedded not only in North America and Europe, but across the entire world.”
“Innovation is accelerating at a faster pace than ever before,” declares Dolby Cinema senior product manager. David DesRoches. A case in point is Dolby’s latest Digital Cinema System Software optimization to DCSS v.4.3, “which at eight months was the shortest release cycle yet.” Quicker turnover means delivery sooner, including such features as automatic 3D mode switch and support for dual-projector 3D, alongside improvements of Dolby’s web application programming interface (API).
During his CinemaCon presentation, DesRoches expertly guided exhibitors and other interested parties through “The Present and Future of Dolby Digital Cinema.” Beginning with the “elephants” of 4K and DCI compliancy in the room, while testing for the latter “is not a technological but more of a business concern,” the former would carry limited availability at first along with a price premium of 20 to 40%. There were only seven 4K titles last year and four have been announced so far for 2011. Together, that represents less than the number of Dolby 7.1 mixed and released films, he noted, despite the surround format having launched only last June. Nonetheless, DesRoches reassured attendees that Dolby’s 4K solution with a 2K/4K Integrated Media Block will be available in the fall.
From the look and the design of it, the DSS (Dolby Screen Server) 220 will be worth the wait. At half the weight of the current DSS200—the majority of its “market-proven” install base can support 4K after a coming software upgrade, by the way—and only 17.7 inches (50 cm) deep, DSS220 will include a heavy four terabytes of net storage (3 x 2 TB RAID 5 for those in the know). Of its other technological advances, better left to the experts and detailed brochures, the mention of “affordability” always catches one’s attention.
“Optimized for centrally managed network installations,” Dolby summarizes, “the DSS220 includes everything necessary to manage a screen, and leverages the library server for other capabilities shared across multiple screens.” After all, to “fully exploit capabilities of an IP network-based digital infrastructure to lower acquisition and operating costs” is a core element of Dolby’s cinema strategy, DesRoches affirms.