PROJECTIONS: Digital Cinema
The higher and brighter revolution
January February 2011

by Courtland Shakespeare

The most radical change in the history of cinema is happening right now behind our very backs. In the projection room high up at the rear of the movie theatre, behind the audience, exhibitors are facing an amazing future the old movie moguls never saw coming.

Since the 1890s when Eastman Kodak sold the first commercial celluloid film stock and Georges Méliès became the first great experimental genius of filmmaking, movies have generally been made the same way. There have been incredible technical advances, but it was always a reel of film inside a camera that captured images in order to be projected on a big screen.

All that changed forever when George Lucas announced back in 2000 that Episode II of Star Wars would be shot 100% digitally using a high definition camera developed by Sony and Panavision. Today, they call it the CineAlta and it doesn’t use film.

Although Attack Of The Clones wasn’t actually the digital first, it was a radical step for major motion pictures with extraordinary advantages. What the camera captured could now be output to a variety of HD formats. While this provided a superior new potential for special effects and integrated animation, it was also a signal flare of a seismic eruption in the sea of cinema and the consequences would be a digital tsunami.

Not only are cinematographers now switching to digital cameras, but production studios, distributors and exhibitors are all switching technologies too. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have agreed digital is far superior to film. For audiences, the most important reason it’s better is because the millionth screening of a film will be as perfect as the first. There is no film to get scratched or worn or dirty.

Of course, we still have to preserve our valuable and threatened heritage of film from the past century. The Film Foundation headed up by Martin Scorsese and a host of some of the most successful directors are trying to save and restore our historical records for future generations. It is an alarming tragedy that more than 90% of films made before 1929 are gone and lost forever. Half the films made in America before 1950 are gone too.

All the same, one of the most significant improvements in preserving cinema history is the arrival of personal computers and digital media. It is now possible for anyone to have their own personal film library. What is coming, however, is even more amazing than Blu-ray discs.

The resolution of cameras and projectors is about to double. Currently, we call an image 2048 pixels wide “2K” (2,000). This refers to the width of the image in cinema. In video, we usually identify the vertical resolution (1080p), but in the theatre it’s all about how wide you can go. They are talking about movie screens in the near future 100 feet wide. The current biggest and best is IMAX, but their standard screen is only 72 feet wide.

The next generation of projectors is actually four times the resolution at 4K (4096 pixels). Don’t forget, not only is the image twice as wide, it is also twice as tall. It is not a matter, however, of making the movie screens bigger. If they did that, we would all have to start sitting further back. Instead, it is about the quality of the image. There are major complications with sharpness and brightness especially in context of the incredible increase in 3D movie production.

The glasses we wear in the theatre accommodate an incredible amount of truly remarkable technology. Not only is the image doubled up and shifted for each eye, but there is an “electro-optical crystal modulator” placed right in front of the projector. It “polarizes” each and every frame of the movie. The frame for the right eye is rotated clockwise while the frame for the left rotates counterclockwise. Not only that, but each frame is projected multiple times to reduce flicker. In RealD 3D Cinema, they call it a triple flash system.

What that means is the frame rate is really, really high, but it is so fast you can’t see it. It also means, even if you turn or move your head, you will still see what each eye is supposed to see which is why objects can seem to come right off the screen and appear right in front of you. The only problem is, it also results in a loss of image brightness. The new projectors promise to solve that problem and more.

Exhibitors are now modifying and converting their existing projection systems. Not only that, moviemakers are now shooting their films with 3D cameras instead of converting to 3D later, during post-production. They call it stereoscopic filmmaking or fusion 3D. The current 3D master of all is director, writer and cameraman, James Cameron, who used a hand-held camera called a “mini beam splitter rig” specifically created to shoot Avatar. You can see a video clip (on the web) of Cameron with his rig when he appeared on g4TV’s Attack of the Show to show it off.

Meanwhile, there will be at least 25 new 3D movies coming out this year including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It comes out May 20 in IMAX 3D as well as RealD 3D.

The same month (May 6) will see the latest Marvel comic book hero get the 3D movie treatment with THOR. In what seems an unusual choice, the director is Kenneth Branagh. It won’t actually be shot in 3D, but converted.

Green Lantern is another film that was actually shot in 2D, but converted to 3D. It comes out June 17. Also, the final chapter of Harry Potter Deathly Hallows Part 2 will be in IMAX 3D, although it was not actually shot in 3D either. At this point, not many are…yet. The film is due out on July 15.

Regarding 3D conversion, in an interview in Home Theater magazine with David E. Williams, James Cameron said, “I know from our tests it can be done well.” They will be converting Titanic and probably T2, but as far as less commercial titles go, he says it’s a matter of economics, because the process is laborious. The studios are planning to go into their libraries, too, and convert some of their more popular films to 3D including all the Star Wars films. All six are scheduled to be done by 2017.