Director's Intent or Someone Else's Intent?

by Michael Karagosian
©2009 MKPE Consulting LLC All rights reserved worldwide
originally published in the 15 August 2009 issue of Digital Cinema Report

The desire for tiers of digital cinema equipment has plenty of roots with film systems. Modern day film systems are the beneficiary of decades of improvements, but not all film systems have all improvements. So while high-end film systems may be fairly uniform in quality, there remain a sizable number of screens that evolved differently, having varying degrees of lesser capabilities.

An easy of way of describing this is by example of cinema sound. 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems require 6 and 8 speakers, respectively. But there remain cinemas today with screens that have 2 speakers. These systems didn't make the upgrade to a modern sound format. But these legacy systems are still supported at the distribution level. Two channel sound, albeit matrixed with the intent for multi-channel sound, is still delivered. Notably, these screens still get movies to play, even though they may not perform to the director's original intent.

The challenge with digital cinema is that one of the criteria, from both studios and exhibitors, was that digital projection needed to be better than film. So the minimum quality levels have been set. Digital cinema, by design, was not meant to have tiers of quality levels other than support for both 2K and 4K resolutions. There isn't a "2-speaker" equivalent, so to speak, leaving those who are willing to settle for less seeking ways to get it.

This leads to suggestions of using 1K systems, home theatre projectors, relaxing of the DCI specification, and so on. But unlike film systems, which improved over time, this conversation is about how to cut corners.

If the desire is there to cut corners, then which corners to cut? Resolution? Brightness? Contrast? Color space? Security? Show me the movie director willing to forgo such qualities.

This reminds me again of cinema sound. When matrixed audio was popular, I was approached by several inventors who had matrixed audio systems that "made films sound better." It was an interesting concept. What they meant by "better" was that it sounded "different." I would point out that "different" wasn't OK for 1st release, as it wasn't what the director signed off on. Different means we're subjecting ourselves to someone else's intent, not the director's.

A recent article in the Guardian focused on an HD home theatre projector that was used by the makers of Tied to a Chair to present their movie. The projector used is only capable of 2000 lumens. At best, the projector could only light a 20-foot screen while meeting SMPTE light levels. It's a fair bet, however, that the screen used was larger than 20 feet. The effect would have been the equivalent of watching a film system with an old bulb - which is probably the most common complaint heard from film directors. While the presentation may have worked for these particular movie makers, the images from the projector used would be substandard for most.

Instead of how to cut corners, a better place to start this conversation is director's intent. Are we following a path where 1st release movies are shown in a manner that meets the director's intent, or someone else's intent?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question doesn't help those seeking low cost systems. Digital cinema was designed to be equal to or better than film. That's why it has the resolution, contrast, brightness, color space, and security features that add to the price tag.

"Dumbing down" digital cinema isn't the answer to the cost issue. Improved engineering is. In fact, lower cost systems are more likely to come about through cost improvements in optics than in any other area.

For those who want to display their movie by means of a laptop computer and a home theatre projector, there are plenty of laptops and consumer projectors to choose from. But for those whose livelihood depends on presenting the director's intent in their theatres, the number of choices is less. If you want to keep your film projector for as long as possible, you may have your opportunity. Digital cinema isn't growing at hyper speed, after all, the primary reason being the high cost of equipment. So the incentive to reduce the cost of equipment is strong. If the cost of equipment is a concern, rather than seek corners to cut, my advice is to simply wait.