The Digital Cowboy 

Digital Cinema

Cinema – Analog to Digital, Old to New.


The film industry collectively known as “Hollywood” has been resistant to technology changes, perhaps in fear of disrupting the status quo as much as lack of “vision”. That reputation is somewhat unfair, since the industry venerates pioneers Walt Disney, Pixar’s John Lasseter, George Lucas and many others although not always within their lifetimes.

By the mid-1920’s an entertainment industry built upon Thomas Edison’s motion picture invention was well established and “silent picture” Stars such as Charlie Chaplin. Mary Pickford and others were known throughout the world..

In September of 1927, The Jazz Singer became the first feature-length talking picture offered to moviegoers. Al Jolson’s prophetic opening line, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!" were the first words spoken on a widely distributed film by a movie actor. The revolutionary concept film was produced and distributed by Warner Bros. although with less than the complete support of the company’s executives. H. M. Warner, one half of the studio’s brand name, is best known for asking, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" about the time of The Jazz Singer’s release.

In the 1930s, motion pictures began screening in color after some 30 years of very competitive development.

One of the earliest examples of cinema color, a frame from a test clip of the Marx Bros. Animal Crackers (1930)

 

Subsequent significant developments though the end of the 20th Century are numerous to list, but a few milestones include “Cinerama”, an early effort at visual surround, stereo audio, Surround Sound,and 70 mm IMAX.

In the late 1990's, a few experiments with digital efforts led to field trials based on Texas Instruments imaging technology, Wavelet image compression, supported by Disney, and Technicolor. While industry pundits debated some of the virtues and drawbacks of digital cinema (and continue to do so this day), audiences supported dcinema's legitimacy with the purchase of tickets.

With a history of more than 75 years, the films-based industry clung to idea dcinema images weren’t comparable to 35mm film for clarity (resolution) and contrast range. At that time, dcinema projectors could only reproduce measured resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. No standardized measurement directly equates digital pixel resolution to film resolution, but the perception was fairly valid.

 

Above is one standardized test pattern for measuring resolution. This image has been compressed for inclusion here and is for example only. The chart contains alternating black and white lines, in different orientations. These lines decrease in width until apparently merge to gray. At that point, peak resolution is measured.

The contrast range concern was, too. Contrast range is a measurement of the number or “levels of gray” between 100% back and 100% white. The contrast range of film varies based on the film stock, processing, the projector used, projector optics and more. The more steps of gray which can be reproduced on-screen, the greater the contrast range.

Above is one standardized contrast chart. There 23 gradient steps from black to white in the middle of this chart, and a gradual sweep black to white above and below the gradient steps.  You may not be able to see all 23 steps, an indication your computer display may not support the contrast range of this chart, or your display not be adjusted to span this range.

While dcinema projectors tend to more consistently reproduce images, 35 mm film does indeed support higher contrast ranges.


One counterpoint to these concerns, resolution and contrast range, is the stability of the digital image over time. Presentation of 35 mm film stock in based on a chemical and mechanical process. Chemistry is the foundation of the images on the long plastic strip of stock, traditionally known as “celluloid” although that material is no longer used. Over time, as each image passes through the projector and is hit with brilliant light from the projector lamp, the chemistry is affected. Over time, colors fade, contrast decreases.

The mechanical process of moving the long plastic strip of stock through a film projector takes its toll as well. Dirt, dust and other impurities adhere to the film surface. Mechanical wear of the projector mechanism can cause scratches and chips to the film stock’s surface. 

By comparison, a digital “print” remains pristine, unchanged regardless of how times its screened. When compared to a copy of a 35 mm film which has been screened 6 times per day, for ten weeks, (420 shows) it’s arguable the digital copy exceeds the worn film print in all references of quality.

Obvious from the very beginning was the requirement for image compression. A typical length feature film when digitized would require about 1 1/2 Terabytes of storage in not compressed. Although Internet multimedia and Broadcast video have long used MPEG (Motion Pictures Engineering Group) image compression based on sub-dividing each image into blocks or tiles, dcinema required higher quality than possible from this approach.

In 2004, Digital Cinema Initiatives, a consortium of 9 US studios, began work to define technical recommendations for the young industry. Since those 9 US studios produced the vast majority of the blockbuster titles and revenue, DCI's recommendations moved quickly toward becoming global standards and practices.

Image compression based on wavelet was designated by DCI instead of MPEG. Wavelet compression is based on frequency compression and does not suffer the tiling & freezing artifacts of MPEG compression. Below is an industry reference image scaled to fit this page.

 

 

Below is the same image compressed using a wavelet process. Wavelet retains the essential fundamental image components even under maximum data reduction.


 

By about 2005, dcinema image quality had reached resolution very close to 35 mm postproduction requirements, 2048 x 1080 pixels. In addition, the DCI's efforts included future industry requirements of higher resolution and other potential technical advances. In addition, significant provisions for IP network and satellite delivery, show control and anti-piracy and content security are defined, far beyond the ability to secure film-based content.

At about the same time, digital 3D development reached the demonstration level and Schiffman conducted the majority of his company's international 3D demonstrations.


By 2006, the Industry’s vision had turned to “4K” image resolution, 4096 x 1550, 4096 x 2160 and beyond.

In 2002, JVC introduced the first projector offering 4K resolution, 4096 x 1550 pixels at the time. Colorimetry and other challenges deterred cinema acceptance of the product, but the interest in high resolution was strong.

In 2005 Sony introduced the first 4K Cinema Projector. There was little to differentiate the product from the Texas Instruments-based projectors unless the higher resolution could be demonstrated.

AT IBC 2006, interest in 4K was even greater. Schiffman’s company showcased a new mastering server, supporting 4K DCI compatible JPEG2000, 4K playback, real-time 2K extraction from a 4K master, and the ability to author DCI compatible DCPs at both 2K and 4K.

Finally, 4K display was available from Sony, 4K mastering and postproduction tools were available from Schiffman’s company, and a new US company, “Red” offered a 4K camera. High resolution was available to “film-makers” from the beginning to the end of the production process.

Note - Presentation of 4K images isn’t possible in this document. The image sizes and quality far exceed how the viewer is accessing this information.

At IBC 2006, Red demoed the camera, and Schiffman screened a demo clip of the camera’s performance to viewers in the packed RAI auditorium.

 

 

As with synchronized players, and digital 3D, Schiffman became the “go-to” resource for successful 4K demonstrations at International Trade shows, special events, demonstrations in China, Korea, Europe and elsewhere.

A frame from Eros, the first 4K feature film produced and shown in Korea, and one of the first 4K features globally. Schiffman assisted business partner Benhur Corp. and the Dong Young production company to assure success.

 

 

A frame from an IMAX 4K demonstration reel. Schiffman and his associates worked closed with the Canadian-based company to ensure their digital presentations were up to the company’s reputation.

 

US studios quickly picked up interest in digital 4K. Not all felt it necessary to use cameras.