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Close Only Counts In Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (serenity mentions)

Monday 13 March 2006, by Webmaster

A discussion thread on digital cinema that appeared on Slashdot earlier this morning reminded me that I hadn’t yet written up a last-fall digital projection experience that I’d earlier promised. Last November 7th, I flew down to Burbank, CA Airport and, as a guest of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center, attended a screening of Serenity at the Pacific Hollywood downtown theater. This was the only planned public showing of the first feature film mastered in compliance with Digital Cinema Initiatives specifications (with the notable exception that watermarking of the projected images was not enabled). The screen was 20 feet tall and 50 feet wide, and I was in the 9th row of seats (approximately 50 feet away), dead center.

Here are the technical specifications, from a handout supplied to me that evening:

* Projector: Christie CP2000 using Texas Instruments DLP Cinema (2048x1080) chip running dual-link, unpacked, 4:4:4, 12-bit, unity XYZ color space, gamma 2.6, x=.3140 y=.3510 white point, 14 ft-L, with internal scaling and anamorphic lens to fill the 50’ screen.

* Data: Six reels sourced from Digital Intermediate DPX files. DCI DCP with image and audio encrypted in a MXF file. 2048x872 (1:2.35) picture in 2048x1080 container. 186 GB package size, VBR JPEG2000 encoded at 190 Mb/s average, 220 Mb/s peak. Subtitles are from 1700x125 PNGs.

* Playback: Doremi DCP2000 Server decrypting and playing a DCI DCP from RAID 5 storage using a Key Delivery Message (KDM).

* Audio: Uncompressed 5.1, 48 kHz, 24-bit played through Dolby CP650, THX 1138 Crossover, Crown Amps, JBL Speakers.

Within the prior week, I’d already seen Serenity via a traditional film projection arrangement. Admittedly, the earlier venue was completely different (in Sacramento, in a smaller theater with different ambient lighting, screen size, screen-to-viewer distance, etc) but I felt it’d still provide a useful comparison data point. And, unfortunately, I was quite underwhelmed with the digitally projected variant.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as some prior experiences. But I still saw very noticeable projector-induced (I believe, not lossy compression-induced) flaws, as did other audience members. There were distracting stair-step aliasing artifacts at the edges of the subtitles, as well as in other rapid luminance transition scenarios. And throughout the film, the digitally-projected frames were filled with visual ’noise’ which I’d explain, for any of you who are photographers, as being similar to the ’grain’ you’d see if the film had been shot with high ISO (ASA for us old-timers) film. Unfortunately, as my earlier experience with Serenity had already revealed, it hadn’t been.

A panel Q&A session at the conclusion of the film was moderated by Charles S. Swartz, Executive Director of the Entertainment Technology Center, and featured:

* Paul Chapman: Senior Vice President, Technology, FotoKem Film and Video

* Brian Claypool: Senior Product Manager, Digital Cinema, Christie Digital Systems

* Wade Hanniball: Director, Content Technology, Universal Pictures

* Camille Rizko: Technology Director, Doremi Labs, Inc., and

* Bill Schultz: General Manager, Digital Film Services, FotoKem Film and Video

I learned lots of interesting factoids, only a few of which I have room to share here. First off, the wavelet-based JPEG2000 compression scheme produced a bit stream roughly twice as large as the high-resolution MPEG-2 alternative used, for example, in Chicken Little. Panelists also admitted that the presentation we’d just seen was at the high end of the bit rate range that a DCI-formatted feature would typically be encoded to; a typical film bit rate would be ’somewhat smaller’ (no more specific value was offered). Finally, the estimated contrast range of the projection I witnessed was 1800:1.

Ironically, I traveled from Hollywood straight to the iSuppli Flat Information Displays Conference in San Francisco. There, I heard a Texas Instruments representative proudly proclaim that ’DLP Cinema image quality exceeds the best that film can deliver’. I beg to differ, and frankly, I even thought the standard-definition DVD on the 30" widescreen CRT in my livingroom looked better than what I saw that night in Hollywood. Digital Cinema is getting close to film, but it’s not even at parity, far from being better.

I was originally scheduled to attend a Entertainment Technology Center screening of The Wizard of Oz in December, projected using Sony’s ’4K’ (4096x2160 pixel resolution, 2000:1 contrast) SXRD system, but Sony backed out at the last moment. I was quite disappointed, as the LCoS technology that SXRD employs is supposed to be more smooth and film-like in its projection characteristics, and I therefore might have been better able to discern to what degree the artifacts I saw were projector- versus compression-induced.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, ’cause nothing’s changed. Digital cinema has clear benefits for studios: low-cost duplication, region-customization and distribution of content, in a piracy-suppressing manner. The benefits for viewers are less clear, aside from the fact that they won’t see aging film defects any longer. And given both the retrofit cost and the image degradation of a digital system, the benefits to theater owners aren’t clear to me (and, I suspect, to them) at all.