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Shootout in Galveston

 

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Posted 5/18/2011. Originally published in LF Examiner, February 2011.

 

by James Hyder

More than 160 people attended the giant-screen industry’s first Digital Symposium, hosted by Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX, Jan. 24–25. The meeting included demonstrations of five 3D technologies, two panel discussions, and digital screenings of a number of films, trailers, and alternate forms of content. 


But the highlight was the world’s first side-by-side comparison of 4K digital and 15/70 film images, projected onto Moody Gardens’ 60x80-foot (18.3x24.4-meter) screen. This report will not follow the conference schedulers’ lead and save the main attraction for last, but will get right to the heart of the matter.

 


Moody Gardens' Giant-Screen Theater

 

 

The shootout


Next to the theater’s 15kW IMAX GT 3D projector, technicians from Barco USA, assisted by Moody’s Brandon Compton and Art Mercurio from D3D Cinema, installed a new Barco 4K DLP projector, equipped with a 6.5 kW lamp. (Two identical Barco units were used for the 3D demos, but only one was used in the film shootout.) The digital projector’s image was adjusted to nearly fill the width of the screen, but because its native aspect ratio is 1.9:1, not 1.33, it didn’t fill the height of the screen. 


A 4K Doremi Labs server provided 4K content: a trailer from Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey and the first reel of Wild Oceans, both of which were shot on 15/70mm film and scanned at 11K resolution. The digital images were flipped left-to-right so that they were the mirror image of the film, then each projector was masked so that it only showed half of the full image, film on the left and digital on the right. 

 

Every effort was made to match up the source material and the projectors so that the comparison would be as fair as possible to each format. The Pulse trailer was a new print, made, as most release prints are, from an interpositive/internegative (IP/IN) pair. (Although the best quality is obtained by printing from the original negative, no such material was available for this demo.) The Pulse digital file was made from the digital intermediate (DI).

 

The Wild Oceans footage was filmed out from a 4K DI using a CRT film recorder (the only type that is available for 70mm film), and the digital version was made from the same DI. As Fotokem’s Andrew Oran pointed out, that made the digital version one step closer to the original than the film.

 

Both projectors were calibrated to optimum performance by their respective technicians. Although Imax Corporation did not participate in the program, two days before the event it sent technicians to tweak the system up to spec. Light output from the IMAX projector was set to the standard 21 foot-Lamberts and from the Barco at 14 fL.


The clips were synched up and run twice, the second time with commentary by RPG Productions Rick Gordon, who highlighted what he saw as the strengths and weaknesses of each image. He characterized the results as “a mixed bag. I find there are shots I prefer on the [film] and there are shots I prefer on digital side.” However, by a show of hands, the vast majority of those present preferred the digital versions of both clips. The general consensus seemed to be that the digital image, if not significantly better than film, was virtually as good in all important respects. 


Paul Fraser of Blaze Digital Cinema Works told LF Examiner, “To the lay consumer walking in and seeing a full-screen image of 4K content in 2D, the only noticeable ‘inferiority’ is the shorter image due to the 1.85 aspect ratio. Brightness has been the biggest problem for digital on giant screens, but those Barco 4Ks produced a decently bright image.”


Tim Kennelly of Moving Image Technologies said, “I was really impressed with 4K on the big screen. I think it held its own against IMAX film. Have to admit I was a skeptic until I actually saw it. If I were forced to name a weakness, I might say the blacks weren’t quite as deep and subtly gradient as film. But wow! 4K has arrived in a big way.”

Amy Louise Bartlett of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI, which has a GT-equipped IMAX 3D theater, told LFX, “The best take-away for me was a new level of comfort that there are good, quality digital solutions coming, if not already here.”


Fotokem’s Oran is co-chair of the GSCA’s Technical Committee, which will be arranging a similar demo for the Film Expo in Los Angeles in March, but was not directly involved in setting up this event. Commenting on the aspect ratio issue, he said, “I find myself more and more on the side of the ‘4:3’ contingent, which is to say, I find that widescreen images projected on the giant screen leave me more than a little wanting.”


Although only a handful of people were present to see it, on the day after the symposium, Barco technicians put a short-throw lens made for Moody’s 2K Christie projectors into the Barco 4K unit, and adjusted it to fill the height of the giant screen. They repeated the side-by-side demo with film, using pillarboxed digital prints of the Pulse and Wild Oceans clips. (Pillarboxing places a full 1.33 image in the center of a wide-ratio format, leaving black bars on the sides of the image. Because it is throwing away pixels on the sides, the resulting image is about 2.9K.) 


I was able to see this test, and in my opinion, the image appeared nearly as good as the full 4K picture, despite the loss of information. It was a little bit softer in some of the more finely detailed scenes, and the light level was a little lower, but in general it looked quite good.

 

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The rest of the symposium

 

The meeting started out with a demonstration of 4K digital, projected on the Barco 4K system, including a flashy, fast-paced reel from the makers of the Red One digital camera, which is increasingly being used to shoot music videos and feature films. Also featured were 4K trailers for several giant-screen films, including Pulse, The Last Reef, Mystic India, and Tornado Alley.


The top 3D systems were demonstrated: Dolby, MasterImage, RealD, and Xpand. Company representatives explained the advantages of their respective systems and screened a series of trailers with them. The linear polarizers used by Imax were also demonstrated, although the company did not participate.


Each system had its pros and cons, and no one system emerged as clearly superior. Some systems appeared to be brighter or have less ghosting than others; some use less expensive passive glasses, compared to more expensive, but eco-friendly, active glasses; some require a silver screen, others can use a standard matte white screen; some systems can be purchased outright, others are leased. 


RealD, which is in roughly 80% of North American 3D multiplex theaters, premiered its newest technology at the symposium, the XLW Cinema System, intended for short throws to screens up to 82 feet (25 meters) wide. According to the company, the XL and XLW systems “capture light lost by other 3D projection technologies and recycle it back onto the screen for a brighter and more immersive 3D experience.” The 2K NEC projector RealD used presented nearly as much light to the eye (after passing through all the filters and glasses) as the two Barco 4K projectors yielded for the other 3D demos. 


One notable aspect of the RealD presentation wasn’t technical. RealD vice president Kevin Faul made a pitch that seemed clearly aimed at luring IMAX customers to his system. Without mentioning IMAX by name, he referred to theaters’ concerns about the weakening of brands that “were formerly exclusively available to giant-screen locations.” He described how RealD is building worldwide awareness of its brand as a “premium experience,” and added that RealD supports the Giant Screen Cinema Association’s “Bigger. Bolder. Better.” campaign. “We’re committed to differentiating your location as having the best experience available.”


(Moody Gardens invited Imax Corporation to demonstrate its digital projection system, but the company declined. At one point, Imax agreed to have a representative participate in one of the panel discussions, but that offer was withdrawn. In the end, two Imax employees attended to observe only.)


Panel: The business of digital

GSCA president Toby Mensforth moderated a panel discussion on “The Business of Digital,” that focused on the financial, technical, and programming aspects of switching from film to digital projection. Don Kempf, of Giant Screen Films and D3D Cinema, said that hardware costs for a giant-screen theater range from about $125,000 to $450,000, but can be as low as $50,000 to $100,000 for a non-DCI-compliant system in a small auditorium. 


Moody Gardens’ president John Zendt showed a table with the initial and operating costs of the 2K digital system compared to the IMAX system. In short, the IMAX system cost $2 million to buy and the digital system cost $380,000. Annual operating costs for IMAX are $305,000 (assuming the standard maintenance contract) and for the digital system are less than $60,000. (This doesn’t count power consumption. Cinema Group’s Richard James reported that when the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City replaced its IMAX film system with IMAX digital, its electric bill dropped between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.) 


Kempf predicted that the growth of museum digital theaters — of all sizes — would result in the production of more short-form documentaries at significantly lower cost than has been possible with film systems. 


The issue of giving up the IMAX brand was discussed by a number of theater representatives in the audience, with some, like the Pacific Science Center’s Diane Carlson insisting that the IMAX name was still valuable. Richard James countered that the unique advantages IMAX theaters once had — giant screens, great sound, stadium seating — are now common in multiplexes, and that the IMAX brand has been diminished. He said that content is what counts, not the medium. 

(Moody Gardens dropped the IMAX brand name from its theater a few months after the symposium.)


Panel: Future of Cinema Tech


Ed Lantz of Vortex Immersion Media led a discussion that covered a number of technical aspects of digital cinema technology. He pointed out that for a viewer in the first row of a GS theater with a screen the size of Moody’s, matching the resolving power of human vision would require the equivalent of an 8K projector. However, using today’s technology, that would take six edge-blended 4K projectors. He asked the panel if going beyond 4K was necessary for the largest screens. Barco vice president Todd Hoddick said that for flat screens up to 80 feet wide, 4K should be acceptable to most customers. 


Bill Schmidt of Global Immersion said that his company is installing a six-projector, 8K system in a dome theater on the West Coast, and that the client felt that the higher resolution would provide “a significant boost in the audience experience.” Lantz agreed that 8K was not overkill in that situation. “A dome is a lot hungrier for pixels.” Hoddick said that Barco has done installations that edge-blended as many as 30 projectors.


Lantz asked if it’s possible to maintain the encryption required by the DCI spec in multiple-projector installations. Michael Archer of Doremi said that his company’s products currently support two-projector setups, and will handle even more in the next year or two.


The question of aspect ratio was raised: is the 1.33 ratio of traditional 15/70 essential to the giant-screen experience? RPG’s Rick Gordon said that in flat-screen theaters, most audiences accept the black letterbox bars at the top and bottom of a giant screen, but in domes, “a letterboxed show not sitting on the bottom of the screen looks awful” because of the “bow-tie effect.” 


Seattle’s Carlson said that for her audiences, the aspect ratio is important: when trailers go from the letterboxed green “approved for all audiences” card to filling the full screen, “the audience gasps.” She admitted that research was needed to prove the significance of the taller ratio.


As the conversation turned to laser light sources, Hoddick said his company is working on lasers, but he does not expect them to be commercially viable for three to five years. From the audience, Laser Light Engines Bill Beck spoke about some of the advantages of laser for digital projectors: eliminating the cost of film prints and lamp replacement, improving image color and contrast, and reducing power consumption. LLE is developing a light source specifically for IMAX projectors, not the general cinema market, but he expects that once that has been accomplished in the next year or two, it will be possible to adapt it to other products.


Doremi’s Archer said that one of the advantages to giant screen theaters of digital cinema generally, and Doremi servers specifically, is the ability to generate subtitles digitally in multiple languages and in 2D and 3D without burning them permanently into the image. Distributors can provide multiple language packages that can simply be attached to the digital cinema package. Doremi also provides a closed-captioning system for theaters. 


Conclusions

In a conversation with LFX after the symposium, National Geographic’s Mark Katz neatly summarized what many people at the meeting seemed to feel: “The museum community wants new leadership. Clearly the company that was the default leader has moved in another direction and doesn’t really care about the museum world that much anymore. And that’s fine. It’s not a criticism, it’s more of a fact. It’s like saying that automobile manufacturers don’t make station wagons anymore. I think the institutional world wants another leader to step in. But it needs to be something with substance and long-term vision. I don’t know what it will be. All options are on the table.”

 

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