The Digital Cowboy
Particularly in a small company, there are similarities between Product Management and Sales Engineering. The primary difference is system integration. Product management is closely focused on the suitability and functionality of the product line. Sales engineering is more broadly focused on how to integrate the products into an application or system. Digital Cinema is unquestionably an integrated system. The image below depicts the modular integration of a single dcinema playout system. In practice, a working system system isn't quite as complex as the generic model below
In practice, regardless of brands, the system is comprised of a dcinema projector, a playback server, house audio, and a house automation control system. Sub-systems may include I.P. networking, and monitoring and reporting (SMS). Today, there are 4 major brands of dcinema projectors, about twice that many play servers, and several different automation control systems. Dolby audio systems are by far the most common audio processors, due to a very large installed-base of film projection.
From the introduction of dcinema at the beginning of this decade, integrating the various brands of products into functional systems which serve the needs of the cinema customers has been an on-going challenge. In the absence of industry standards, each manufacturer strove to have their technologies and implementations accepted as de-facto market standards. Over time and from the efforts of DCI and SMPTE, standards evolved and were accepted.
Even with standards in place, integration issues still challenged sales engineers from all manufacturers. Occasionally SEs from different companies cooperated to resolve issues, sometimes they found themselves in adversarial positions. CineCanvas sub-titling, discussed in detail elsewhere on this site, was one such situation. Texas Instrument's CineCanvas software sub-titling quickly became an de-facto industry standard. The application worked well with most the available servers but Schiffman's product exhibited some intermittent and challenging failures primarily in Asia. Although each company claimed strict adherence to the internet protocols used for CineCanvas, Schiffman's cinema players occasionally failed to forward the sub-titles to the projector in response to the projectors "calls" for the files. Schiffman and other company SEs used I.P. "sniffers" (analyzer software) to uncover some illegal protocols in the CineCanvas software. Initially, TI was resistant to accept responsibility for the problem, correctly noting only one brand of player failed to perform properly. Eventually, documentation of the illegal protocols, combined with pressure from exhibitor TJoy brought both sides together to resolve the issue.
In Korea, workmanship, not product was the cause of a serious problem with the house automation system. Exhibitor Megabox purchased several dozen of Schiffman's players. When title was screened, commands from the players were sent to the house automation system to dim the lights, open the curtains, switch the audio and other functions. At many sites, these functions failed to occur on cue, or not at all. The problem could not be duplicated on other players or automation systems. Each manufacturer pointed a finger at the other as the source of the issue. Upon inspecting some of the sites where the problem was most frequent, Schiffman discovered the interconnect cabling between the servers and automation input panels was very crude, inadequate, and unreliable. Believing his system integrator was responsible for the work, he took them to task for their poor efforts. At that point, he learned the exhibitor technical staff had provided the cabling and installation in an effort to reduce the cost of the purchase. When the performance issue appeared, the staff concealed their involvement fearing for their jobs. Of course, the rework effort to recable the faulty systems cost much more than the correct initial installation price.
In the earliest days of dcinema, few theaters were equipped to process the digital audio output of the early cinema players. Initially, we integrated 2 RU-AEC1 Digital to Analog Converters to convert the 6 digital audio channels to 5.1 analog surround. At that time, the existing player had two analog channels out and integrators were confused with the use of two dual channel converters managing six audio streams. Later, Yamaha introduced the DA 824, which provided the the digital to analog conversion in a single unit.
For the China project, we the systems included the Dolby DMA 8. This unit was already integrated in there existing film projector audio, and could switch audio from the film projectors to the digital cinema players with a touch of a button. The DMA 8 also supported an external General Purpose Interface, as did Schiffman's players. Schiffman designed a custom interface cable and some script commands. When the play button of the digital server was pressed, the DMA 8 was switched to the dcinema input automatically. The cinema players were not always located near the audio system, and this integration saved the projectionist steps around the booth, and avoided starting the show without audio due to an operator oversight.
Possibly the most complex and critical integration Schiffman was involved with was for Dreamworks SKG at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, described in details elsewhere on this web site. The project was 2 screenings. One was a "basic" digital playback of the film, "Spirit; Stallion of the Cimarron." The film's soundtrack contained very little dialog, consisting mostly of music. The producers decided to have the musicians perform the entire musical score live during a second screening. To accomplish this, sub-tracks of the music were sent through a monitor audio system to each musician along with a "click-track". The sub-tracks and click-track source was a high powered MacIntosh computer, mixed through a multi-track digital audio board. The challenge was frame accurate syncing, using time code, of the the computer to "Spirit's" sound track sourced from the cinema players. The issue was that "Spirit's" cinema audio (and image) ran at 24 frames per second and the computer would only "chase" or track at 30 frames per second.
Fortunately, time code can be treated as an analog audio signal. The solution was to record 30 FPS time code to the cinema players first and second audio channels, and record the other 6 digital audio tracks on channels 3-8. While this is not the standard channel map for digital cinema then or now, the result was a frame accurate time code signal for the computer and frame accurate audio of the movie's audio.
Finese or Success?
There are occassional moments when innovation must supercede convention; when the end justifies the means.
At CinemaExpo 2005, critical demonstration content was hand-carried to Amsterdam on a USB drive. As rehersal time approached, it was learned the drive's external power supply had been left behind in the US. The show crew and executive frantically searched the RAI Convention Center for a compatable power unit but none could be found. The drive manufacturer had used security screws to prevent tampering with the internals of the portable drive. Schiffman observed he could probably resolve the problem if the plastic drive enclosure could be sacrificed. Using a pocket knife and other light tools, Schiffman carefully, gradually broke apart the drive case without damaging the actual hard drive. Once the core drive was freed, it was plugged directly into Schiffman's server and show went off successfully and on time. Traditional thinking had stymied the show crew. Only Schiffman recognized distroying the drive case could save the show.
The remains of the drive case.
In 1998, Sony’s Display Products factory in Osaki Japan launched a program to boost display products sales in N. America, particularly professional projection products.
The Osaki factory management offered funding support to the US Sales group to hire 2 Sales Engineers to support the effort. The Vice President of the US Sales division specifically recruited Schiffman to make up that team.
American and Japanese Display Products team members pose for a group photo after a successful presentation at the 1999 Sony National Sales meeting. The unique demonstration was a "Projection Wall." 12 Sony projectors were arrayed behind a custom-made rear screen to show content previously only achieved with "Monitor Walls." Time has dimmed memory of everyone's name. Mr. Koguri, Display Product Manager is at the far left. Schiffman is 2nd from the right, the Director of Osaki Factory Group on Schiffman’s right.