Network: The end of the silver screen?

Digital technology is poised to revolutionise the film industry. Audiences will benefit with scratch free images, sharper soundtracks and the quicker distribution of films. But, after a century of the projector, is the industry ready to change? By Chris Lakeman Fraser
For a century, images have been projected on to the big screen through the medium of film. Within the immediate future, though, the infrastructure could be in place to beam movies by satellite to cinemas around the world for showing on digital projectors.

In the United States, the public has already had the chance to see a limited run of a digitally projected Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace.

Staging the showing were the two big players at the cutting edge of this new field - Cinecomm (a consortium of Hughes-JVC and telecommunications giant Qualcomm) and Texas Instruments.

George Lucas facilitated the operation through his company, THX, which oversaw the creation of the digital film masters and technically aligned each of the four theatres that were showing the film.

Reports vary from ecstatic to cautiously welcoming. Gary Reber, writing in Widescreen Review, said: "What will first impress you are the absolute focus, clarity and resolution of the images being projected, exhibiting all the qualities of image brightness that is all too often lacking in most movie theatre presentations."

Scott Norwood, a film buff who attended the screening said: "Pixels were not visible in most scenes, although extremely bright areas like the desert sand revealed them in some areas.

"The only real deficiency in the DLP [Digital Light Processing] system seems to be that it tends to wash out really bright areas, like windows and skies. Was I impressed? Yes!"

DLP Cinema is an enhanced version of the Digital Light Processing technology which Texas Instruments has been marketing over the last three years. At the heart of the system is the Digital Micromirror Device, an optical semiconductor with more than 1.3 million microscopic mirrors, each of which is capable of switching a pixel of light. The digital image is built up by switching the mirrors on or off more than 5,000 times per second.

The technology is being leased out to companies around the world, including the UK-based Digital Projection, where the system has been incorporated into its projectors. The company made a small piece of movie history in October 1998 when a feature film, The Last Broadcast, was successfully beamed by satellite to five North American cities, and projected on the company's DLP-based projectors. It was the first time that a movie had been digitally created, transmitted and projected from the first scene to the last.

The CineComm consortium is working on producing a complete transmission and projection system, using Qualcomm's expertise to provide the compression, encryption, transmission and computerised theatre management systems while Hughes-JVC supplies the projectors. By an ingenious blend of old and new technologies, Hughes-JVC has produced a projector which generates a digital image for the big screen.

The small cathode-ray tube within the projector produces a high-quality image which is not in itself bright enough for the large screen. But combined with high quality optics, a xenon arc light, and boosted by light amplifier technology (ILA), the complete system produces a bright, high-resolution image with high contrast ratios, rich colours and a broad band width.

What are the likely benefits of this radical change in distribution and transmission of feature films? Audiences will see images with a quality close to, or exceeding, normal 35mm projected film, free of dirt and scratches and with a superior soundtrack. With sophisticated encryption techniques and simultaneous release of feature films all over the world, distributors will benefit from the reduced risk of piracy.

Directors and producers are also likely to appreciate the fact that digital copies of their movies can be made and dispatched much faster than film prints, and will not be subject to rapid deterioration over time. Exhibitors will benefit from cost-efficiency for smaller venues and being able to channel special events through the system.

But how soon is it likely to happen? "All the technology needed to make digital cinema happen exists today," says Steven A Morley, Qualcomm's vice-president of technology. The two major contenders appear to have similar timescales in mind. Doug Darrow at Texas Instruments estimates: "It will be a couple of years before all the elements of digital distribution and projection are in place". Michael Targoff, CEO of CineComm, adds: "We expect to have commercial roll-out by the first quarter of 2001."

However, even with established technology, glitches are constantly emerging. This revolutionary new system will require agreement on worldwide standards for equipment, building reliable backup systems, and the retraining of staff. There is a marked difference between a prestige showing of a major film supervised by a raft of high-powered technicians from THX, and a small cinema in the sticks showing the same film with the aid of a hastily re-trained projectionist.

Moreover, a major cultural shift will have to occur. Exhibitors will need to be convinced that the system works and that the massive financial outlay will pay off in the end. In the United States, exhibitors have had a chance to see the system in action, whereas their European counterparts have not.

"When we do demonstrate it, we will rapidly win over the doubters and convince them that not only can we equal the image quality of film, we can improve on it," according to Dave Monk, manager of Texas Instrument's digital imaging division in Europe.

Possibly. But acceptance may be slower to materialise than manufacturers would like. A more likely scenario is a roll out in the two-year period in a limited number of prestige theatres, then a slow worldwide take-up over an extended period.

On the basis of the success of the digital showings of The Last Broadcast and Star Wars and the long-term benefits of adopting the system, it does seem certain that digital cinema will be coming to a screen near you.

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