Review of the May 1999 SMPTE/USC Seminar
The Future of the Cinema: A Real World Progress Report

By Michael Karagosian
© 1999 MKPE Consulting  All rights reserved worldwide
Published in the June 1999 issue of System Contractor News

Electronic cinema has caught the attention of Hollywood. To bring the dialog out into the open, the SMPTE, in conjunction with USC (University of Southern California), held a seminar for electronic cinema on the USC campus at the Norris theatre May 22. Titled "The Future of the Cinema: A Real World Progress Report", the all day seminar was widely attended by the technical professionals of the industry.

The day began with a 30-minute demonstration of selected cuts from feature films using both film electronic projection methods. The electronic projection demonstrations employed a Texas Instruments prototype DLP and a Hughes/JVC ILA projector using source material stored on a Panasonic D5 recorder. The images from these projectors were compared with those from a state-of-the-art electronically-controlled Kinoton film projector. As described so far, the setup was identical to that of the ShoWest demonstration earlier this year. The material shown, however, was not as coordinated as at ShoWest. Clips that were optimized for each format were shown, but in the first demonstration of the day, no material was shown that would lead one to understand the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the formats. Whatever the comparative qualities, though, it was clear from these first demonstrations that it would be a rare audience that would walk away from an all-electronic presentation as viewed in that theatre.

Two excellent keynote addresses were delivered by speakers John Bailey, representing the ASC, and Phil Barlow, of Disney. Bailey, a famous cinematographer, talked about the art of cinema, bringing to focus what the business is about. I can best summarize his talk by quoting themed entertainment producer Bob Rogers, who has so often said that the "the medium is not the message: the message is the message". Phil Barlow, former president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, was recently appointed by Disney as Executive Vice President of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, with the charter to examine the viability of electronic movie distribution for Disney. Barlow put on the table the number one goal of electronic cinema: to reduce distribution costs. His example was the estimated $10M in distribution costs for Phantom Menace in North America, where the estimated cost for a similar all-electronic format would be around $1M. Barlow also made it clear that electronic cinema will not introduce a new distribution model into the cinema world. Rather, as clearly intended by Disney with the creation of his new position, the studios will retain control over their products through the current distribution channels. This was a direct jab at CineComm, whose backer, Qualcomm, has their eyes on taking over the distribution of entertainment products.

Several discussion sessions followed, where selected panelists from the industry were engaged in discussions that affect all aspects of motion picture production. It was clear from the discussions that not every task in the process can be readily performed by all-electronic means for every style of production. Certainly, animation features are a natural. But maintaining the quality and detail of facial imagery was of concern, and interestingly some special effects still require film, particularly slow motion sequences and high contrast scenes, such as explosions. Archival quality is a big concern in Hollywood, and film is very much the king here. As one panelist put it, "all you need 50 years from now is a light source and a lens to restore the image." The simplicity of the light source and lens for the image makes one wonder about how future technicians will reproduce those tiny binary bits for printed digital tracks in 50 years time…

Prior to the lunch break, an unexpected surprise was presented by Technicolor with the first public showing of their new dye transfer process for high speed duplication of films. A film presentation was given of footage printed at 800 ft/min, which while fast, is still slower than the 3000 ft/min used for most prints in feature-film theatres today. It was difficult to appreciate the quality of the footage without a side-by-side comparison with standard high-speed printed film, but those scenes that were rich in color were obviously wonderful. The presentation did not receive the attention it deserved, but it was significant none-the-less. One of the banes of film distribution is the low print quality that results from lower cost, high-speed printing. Technicolor is looking to improve that considerably by bringing their dye transfer process into the world of high-speed printing. There was some talk among professionals about using dye transfer for archiving. But Technicolor has their eyes on more than just archiving. In terms of real near-term improvement in feature presentation quality, this demonstration will probably have more impact on the movie-going experience than anything else that was discussed that day.

Several of the afternoon panelist sessions touched on the systems required to support electronic cinema. Among these was a paper delivered by your author. (You're invited to visit to view the position paper and presentation.) If there is a driving force for the system design, it is security. It is clear that however the image and sound data are delivered to the theatre, whether by satellite or by disc, that the data file has to be securely locked when it leaves the distribution house and remain locked right up to the projector. This imposes some operational problems, such as interim viewing of the image in the projection booth to validate that the file is intact. But these are solvable issues. Of prime importance is that the system be inherently secure, else the industry will never buy into the format. Secure formats involve high technology, and for there to be compatibility among systems, there has to be some agreements made among competitors in the industry. Agreements mean standards, and one of the messages for the day was that electronic cinema isn't going anywhere until some standards exist.

Another issue raised was the question of quality of the actual data format. Certainly, the D5 storage format used in recent demonstrations is not a realistic method for storing images in electronic cinema. While it will be the format used for the electronic release of the Phantom Menace, one can imagine a chain leading from the video cartridge in the D5 player to the wrist of the armed guard standing next to the machine. Not a practical means of security. Nor does the format provide the compression needed for the practical delivery of electronic cinema. The use of the D5 format certainly offers a wonderful way to observe the best of electronic projection, but it does not represent the more than likely lower quality of image that will occur with higher compression ratios.

At the end of the day, some side-by-side comparisons were presented of film versus electronic projection. Unfortunately, this was sprung late in the installation stage on the projector manufacturers who were not prepared to interlock their systems. Thus, the images were far enough out of sync that in some cases it was too distracting to make a wothwhile comparison. (Apparently, a similar showing later that evening was in sync, with better comparative quality.) If one were to walk away from the seminar with the intent to buy an electronic projector, the choice of brand from the demonstrations appeared obvious. However, it was explained to this author that not everything was apples and apples behind-the-scenes, and thus it would be unfair to say in this article that there was a clear winner. But winners were not supposed to be the issue. By the time electronic cinema is implemented on a large scale, both electronic projectors shown will probably be obsolete. What was disappointing throughout the day was the lack of significant discussion concerning the point of these demonstrations. That being that the projector is not the problem in the path of electronic cinema. Now all that is left to do is to develop a business model that clearly identify the reasons for moving to an all-electronic format; develop a new compression format that meets the quality requirement and economics of electronic cinema; and develop standards that cement an industry-wide agreement as to the format and security of the electronic data. There is much to do before electronic cinema becomes a reality.