Illuminated path: From Burbank to Las Vegas, Christie demos commitment to cinema
“I think we could have a handful of laser projectors installed at premier cinema sites around the world by the end of the year,” predicts Dr. Don Shaw, senior director, product management, at Christie Entertainment Solutions.
Dr. Shaw is counting on feedback from the world’s first public field trial with laser-illuminated projection of action-adventure sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation at AMC Theatres in Burbank, Calif. “It went wonderfully,” he confirms. “We played five shows a day which brought us close to 100 shows for the entire run. There were no failures… It was a great learning experience for us. These showings were a good way for us to prove just how robust and reliable laser projection technology can be.”
Fresh from this two-week run in the real world, Dr. Shaw then took some time out at CinemaCon for Film Journal International to provide our readers with exclusive insights into what the world’s largest manufacturer, installer and servicer of DLP Cinema projectors has in store for the cinema experience.
As evidenced in our CinemaCon technology recap in this issue, much of what is being developed in projection these days—and that includes laser illumination—centers around brightness on the screen. While Christie’s Managed Services group hosted a version of its 24/7/365 Network Operations Center right at the tradeshow booth and showcased “revenue opportunities from in-lobby digital signage” as well as their “turnkey boothless solution” that places the projector on a customized lift, other Christie solutions on display were shining much needed light onto bigger and bigger screens.
In addition to those hotly anticipated laser light sources, that also means new and improved, 30% longer-lasting 2kW and 3kW lamps in Christie’s Superior Performance Xenolite series, which are capable of maximum outputs from 9,000 to 19,000 lumens, for 3,500 hours and 2,000 hours life, respectively. The 4.5kW and 6kW CDXL-versions are expected to last for 1,500 hours and 1,100 hours, and are designed to achieve light outputs of 24,000 to 34,000 lumens, Christie informed. As the “brightest in small projection class,” the Solaria One and Solaria One+ are designed to bring 8,000 and 9,000 lumens, respectively, to screens up to 35 feet (11 m) wide.
Thanks to its automatic calibration software and full integration kit for two projectors that can accommodate all booth spaces, Dr. Shaw proposes the Christie Duo “as an alternative to current ‘name-brand’ large-format projection for exhibitors who are developing their own premium-experience brands.” While laser illumination is being readied, “our Christie Duo solution is cost-effective with low upfront costs and no ongoing revenue sharing to worry about.” The angled positioning with either single- or double-mirror designs, alongside the option of stacking one projector on top of the other, allows for maximum brightness and superior sharpness in 2D and 3D, he adds. In the patented single-mirror configuration that was shown at CinemaCon, one Christie projector is aimed directly out of the port hole, while the other is placed perpendicular to the first projector and projecting through the around-97% reflective mirror at a 45-degree angle. This brings the images closer together optically to converge across the entire screen.
How entirely powerful 14 foot-lamberts (48 Candela per sq. m.) can be on a 3D screen CinemaCon guests could experience with their own (XpanD glasses-covered) eyes, demonstrating the difference in light levels between current 3D illumination (three foot-lamberts) and what higher frame rates and laser power would facilitate. While the content was shown side-by-side on a 18-foot screen at Christie’s “Innovation Theater” during CinemaCon, the laser-lit showings at AMC’s ETX (Enhanced Theatre Experience) auditorium at Burbank 16 maintained that same 14 fL on a screen width of 65 feet (20 m). Powered by the RealD XLW system, Christie called this level of screen illumination a first in the world of commercial cinema projection.
“We wanted to do a real-world test,” Dr. Shaw explains. “We wanted to see how the laser projector would stand up, doing five shows a day, day-in, day-out in an actual cinema projection booth—and not in our lab, but in a neutral spot where everyone could come and have a look.” Burbank “was selected in part due to its proximity to the filmmaking community. We also knew that AMC would be a great partner for supporting the demo,” he gratefully acknowledges. “They like to remain on the cutting edge when it comes to new technology. The ETX theatre is also a comfortable environment, with a huge screen and great sound system already installed.” While more than 350 industry people attended an invitation-only screening, there were “probably thousands more that came during the regular engagement,” Dr. Shaw estimates.
This brings up the question whether moviegoers needed to sign waivers. From previous reporting, our readers will remember permits and other hurdles due to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “regulates laser projection as if it were a laser light show, which it is clearly not,” Dr. Shaw attests. “There are some regulatory issues in the U.S. and, of course, we had to work within these constraints. That meant seeking assistance from legal and laser-light show safety experts who have experience with this type of demonstration. Among other things, they helped us to determine if the selected auditorium was right from a sightline perspective as well as making sure that everyone was properly trained to operate the equipment. When this is all done right, there is no need for anybody to sign a waiver,” he assures. “We’re actually quite surprised that other manufacturers have done this in the past, as it only serves to reinforce the falsehood that there is some type of real danger here. In fact, we believe that laser projection is no more dangerous than conventional lamp-based projection; and in neither case would you want someone to be able to look right into the lens.”
Providing a closer look at the architecture, Dr. Shaw says Christie has chosen “to use external laser modules that are fiber-coupled to the projection head. That has a number of benefits. It makes the system very scalable in that we could make a laser projector from 5,000 lumens to maybe all the way to 100,000 lumens. We’ve had projectors in our lab running more than that,” he acknowledges. “And there is no smoke coming off of anything.”
Dr. Shaw chuckles at our suggestion that nothing melted either, not even the screen. “This does not mean that we will have that powerful a product,” he cautions, “because we do not know how the optical components and DMDs will be holding up under such power dissipation. But we certainly believe a 66,000-lumens projector is well within our reach, and we had 72,000 lumens running on the AMC Burbank ETX screen.”
“So far we have been retrofitting our existing 4K projector models,” he continues. “By taking out the lamphousing and integrator rod, it becomes pretty much a standard projection engine, with white light coming in from the fiber.” Looking ahead, he can confirm our assumption that “Christie will be building a more compact and versatile projection head that doesn’t have all that space for a lamp and lamp power supply. The laser model will likely be less than half the size,” Dr. Shaw reveals to the benefit of our readers.
Another engineering feat is how Christie has responded to the so-called “speckling” problem inherent to laser illumination, particularly when projected onto a silver-coated, reflective screen as is required for polarized 3D images. “This is something that is not visible to everyone, and to those who can see speckle, it is not distracting,” he assures. “Nonetheless, this is something we all need to address to have laser become a respected standard for cinema. At Christie, we have a number of countermeasures in place already, and we are working on developing others.” While these remain proprietary at this point, he discloses how it was done at AMC Burbank 16. “Very simply, we had a few dozen small vibrators attached to strategic points across the screen. These mechanical devices, which use about the same frequency as the vibrate mode on your cell-phone, do break up the coherence of the light. It’s simple, effective and reliable. It’s not audible, it’s not visually detectable. All these devices do is break up the coherence of the laser light just enough to stop the speckle.”
Seems like nothing can stop the advancement of laser projection now. “Since our AMC Burbank 16 demo,” Dr. Shaw proudly confirms, “the phone has been ringing off the hook.” Vibrating or not.