Higher calling: Christie takes China and frame rates to the next level
“Christie recognized a number of years ago that China was in a perfect position to move very rapidly from analog 35mm to digital,” notes Jack Kline of Christie Digital Systems USA (www.christiedigital.com). As president and chief operating officer of the global visual technologies company, he can add with authority that the People’s Republic is “probably better positioned than any other country in the world because China needed to refresh their technology. And the government was very much behind any conversion that was going to take place because it would allow them to transmit their message much more easily. We have been working with all the key players both at the government and exhibition levels, and at the technology level,” he assures. “We really took it seriously.”
Film Journal International had the good fortune to catch Kline at the tail end of a busy two-week business trip to Asia, calling in from Beijing. “I was in Japan for corporate meetings with our parent company Ushio,” he notes. “Here in China, we have the first board meeting of our new joint venture.” With all the activity across the region, we asked Kline to refresh our memory. “It hasn’t been announced yet,” he teases. “But it will be very, very exciting and includes some key people over here who are the real movers and shakers.” With Kline promising a “sure heads-up” to our readers beforehand, you will find the update here.
Christie itself has done some moving and shaking as well. In late August, Christie announced agreements with seven companies for more than 1,200 Solaria projectors: Beijing Film Equipment (for Beijing New Film Association Cinema), Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Co., China Film Group, Henan Oscar Film Group, Time Antaeus (TA) Media Group, United Circuit (a subsidiary of Shanghai Film Group) and Wanda Group.
“As we had hoped, the market has really taken off,” Kline confirms. “China will be 100% digital very, very shortly at all the theatres,” he predicts. “There are varying comments as to how many screens will eventually get built in China. Depending on who you are talking to, with 30,000 to 40,000 screens, we are looking at a digital network the size of the United States, which is of course very compelling.” In addition to having come in early, Kline believes four main initiatives contributed to the success of Christie in the marketplace. “We created a lot of infrastructure here, doing development work, training and education work…with our customers about the technology. They look forward to visits by us to tell them about the latest developments.”
Handling “a number of high-profile events” certainly helped with promotion and branding that “Christie was the leader in cinema and projection technology,” he believes. “Our teams did the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, which was probably the most technologically advanced visual display of projection technology that anybody has ever seen. That really put us on the map as far as China was concerned.” Not to mention that the display stunned the entire world.
“We were also called upon to deliver a tremendous amount of projection technology for the Shanghai Expo. Christie provided over 500 projectors and displays for many of the China exhibits. So, our branding had been going very strong when we opened up our manufacturing facility in Shenzhen last year. Ramping up our capabilities very quickly—as part of our overall development plans for China—allowed us to meet not only the domestic market demand but also to ship projectors around the world.” Today, Christie has four offices throughout China to provide sales and service support. “We really see China as the future and they see us as a leader in the cinema space.”
As an example of that leadership, Kline spoke in-depth about higher frame rates during his visit with Wanda Group on the day of our interview. Already the largest operator with 71 premium cinemas and more than 600 screens across China, Wanda has plans for adding another 120 cinemas and 400 screens by 2012. Like everybody in exhibition who attended and/or has heard about James Cameron’s plans for High Frame Rates (HFR) at CinemaCon 2011, “they are looking for someone who can find them the path through that next technological advancement.”
Christie went from participating in that first, multiple double-stacked projector demo, which Cameron cautiously prefaced with the “very real possibility of a big white flash” and nothing else to show, to launching a server prototype at ShowEast (see below). “We see the creatives as the ones who will actually drive improvements to the technology that we at Christie feel are really necessary,” Kline elaborates. “As the deployment started, there really wasn’t a strong value proposition…at the exhibition level. With our very first Christie/AIX deployment already, we had promised that this technology would provide value to the exhibition community. It took some time, but then we started to see 3D, which obviously was a real boon and a real advantage to theatres that helped drive the viewer experience as well. And now we’ve realized that we really need to move the bar again by moving towards higher frame rates. With the support and the initiative that people like James Cameron and Peter Jackson have shown,” he foresees, “this will become the next 3D-type of experience where people go to the movies and will actually see a difference. They will see something astonishing and stunning. It’s a very compelling image…”
Therefore, Kline believes, with higher frame rates “the promise of digital cinema is now being realized.” That said, “It’s probably a bit disheartening,” he admits, “more discerning, perhaps [at the exhibition level.] There is a lot of concern about which way the technology is going.” Not to mention the speed at which it’s moving. “We can propose to the exhibitor a safe haven—from both the projector and the integrated media block standpoints—that they are not going to be obsoleted,” Kline assures. “We feel that is a commitment we need to make because of our history in the business.”
After all, “one of the advantages that Christie has is that we are the only projector manufacturer that has a history in cinema. So we know how concerned exhibitors are when the fear of obsolescence is looming. We really worked hard to address that issue. Already with 4K, Christie has made all of our Series 2 projectors retrofittable, if exhibitors choose to do so.” So far, he hasn’t seen much interest however. “It really has not provided the value proposition that warrants a widespread deployment of 4K. And consequently, we really haven’t seen a lot of 4K deployments taking place. But higher frame rates do add higher value,” Kline reiterates. “Again, our Series 2 projectors will be capable of 48 and 60 frames per second with just a firm- and software upgrade with no additional hardware modification. The embedded media block, which will be required and is the only way in which you will be able to show higher frame rates,” he assures, has been future-proofed as well “by accommodating any of the frame rates that become standardized.”
Kline truly wants to “reassure the install base that they made the right decision and that moving into this technology is really going to provide dividends now and in the future.” Christie’s standing in this business and the relationships that they have developed should allow “everybody to have confidence in the fact that we are looking after them,” he feels. “The real fear has always been about the computer technology, which constantly obsoletes itself as it moves forward. But that is really not the case in digital cinema. Christie is working very, very hard to ensure that our customers have confidence in our technology strategy as we continue our leadership role in developing a better value proposition for them and for the movie theatres.”
“With digital technology,” Kline summarizes, “we are able to do things that we were never able to do with film. And now, those capabilities—whether 3D or higher frame rates, along with so many other great things that are happening in theatres—are just creating a better experience for the patrons. Hopefully, they will enhance the value proposition and revenue position for exhibition as well. We’re looking out for the stakeholders in this investment,” he adds, reassuring not only our readers. “They have invested a lot of money in creating the digital network. Now we want to try and find ways to continually enhance it. That’s really why we are doing this: making things more valuable.”
HFR at Warp Speed: Christie Goes From Test to Prototype in 7 Months
In the early morning hours of March 31 at CinemaCon 2011, James Cameron delivered proof-of-concept for projection at higher frame rates of 48 and 60 frames per second, for both 2D and stereoscopic 3D images, in a variety of speeds and types of scenes photographed (recap here). “With broadcast (rather than cinema) servers and unencrypted, chroma sub-sampled color data,” the delivery setup was “a customized solution that used two Christie projectors,” according to the manufacturer.
IBC Amsterdam later hosted “the world’s first mass-audience demonstration of a 3D High Frame Rate (HFR) digital-cinema system using a single projector—the Christie Solaria Series CP2230 projector—in combination with other currently available components.” That setup “was not intended to be duplicated in cinemas globally when the latest digital 3D content in such widely anticipated movies as Avatar 2 and The Hobbit is released.”
Instead, “exhibitors are looking for complete systems that can be readily installed in cinema projection rooms to facilitate the rollout of these and other 3D HFR cinema productions,” noted Dr. Don Shaw in his presentation at the same RAI auditorium that CineEurope called its home for many years. To do so, the director of product management at Christie Entertainment Solutions continued, “Technology manufacturers need to step up with cost-effective solutions that seamlessly integrate projectors, servers and 3D cinema equipment. The next step in the 3D HFR solution is for vendors to develop and market new, more powerful and more versatile Integrated Media Block server technology to provide the performance and security that exhibitors demand.”
Flash-forward to late October in Hollywood, Florida, where Christie has done just that. At ShowEast, Shaw and his team previewed their prototype Integrated Media Block (IMB) for the Solaria series projectors, “creating a secure, high-bandwidth connection that can manage HFR and 4K content without compromising image quality.” While the IMB has already become a requirement for the amount of data encryption and bandwidth that 4K resolution requires, Shaw tells FJI, “the real question is going to be which ones of the IMBs are going to be able to handle the advances in technology that are taking place like high frame rates.”
Just as Christie has designed a 4K upgrade kit to accommodate the new light engine and integrator rod necessary for the higher resolution, the IMB will be made future-proof. “Someone who is reasonably technical should be able to install it within an hour,” Shaw assures about switching to 4K. “The media block is something that you can integrate within minutes. As long as you make sure that you have the most recent software, you are good to go.” On that same note, Christie announced that Solaria V.2.2 software updates include the new Christie Previsto HFR technology, among other firmware upgrades, which allows the projectors to accept video content as high as 48 and 60 frames per second (FPS) per eye in 3D and up to 120 FPS in 2D.
Given the speed with which advancements have been made, what might be in store for CineAsia? “Plans are coming together well,” Shaw confirms. “We will once again be teaming up with Lightstorm Entertainment to bring the now-famous James Cameron HFR demo to that side of the globe.” Christie will also be running “short yet compelling HFR demonstrations on our booth throughout the show. We are not yet ready to say where the content is coming from, but I’m certain that it will be a crowd-pleaser.”
While Shaw doesn’t believe that Cameron will actually be there to present this one, “it will be just as compelling as his original CinemaCon demo. What makes this one unique from a technology perspective is that we aim to do it with a single projector and IMB—an actual setup that can and will find its way into projection booths around the world.”
Jack Kline, president and chief operating officer of Christie Digital Systems USA, concurs. “CinemaCon was more of a proof-of-technology demonstration and now we are moving into the launch and production phase. We will have HFR capabilities available in the first quarter and will be way ahead of any releases that will happen from Peter Jackson, James Cameron, or anybody else for that matter. We’ll be well ahead. CineAsia is really going to be the launch of the technology saying: This is what it is. This is how it works. This is the future.”