Giant screen looks for standards in digital projection
by Joe Kleiman
This article originally appeared in InPark Magazine's 2012 IAAPA issue (#44)
Ben Stassen, founder of film production company nWave Pictures, has long been a pioneer in film-based attractions and giant screen cinema. He was one of the first to embrace film-based motion simulator attractions, with involvement in early breakthrough content such as “Devil’s Mine Ride” and the subsequent conversion of the simulation film library to digital and 3D formats.
|Crane in IMAX lobby for removal of film projectors and installation of digital projectors to second floor booth. Courtesy Marbles Kids Museum.|
But while nWave and other leading special venue producers have advocated digital projection for years, many giant screen exhibitors have stayed on the fence. Image quality is one issue: Current digital projection systems on the market do not match the high resolution or light output of traditional giant screen film systems. But changes in the business, such as the decline in the number of film prints struck each year, the desire to implement alternative and Hollywood content, and rising costs are prompting many to reconsider. Now, there’s an urgency to convert. I spoke with the director of one of New England’s most successful IMAX theaters, who summed it up, “Right now, ‘digital’ is the word on everyone’s mind. We’re here [at GSCA] because we know we need to do it and soon. But we need to figure out how we’re going to do it.”
|Extreme Screen booth at COSI Columbus after removal of Simex-Iwerks 870 projector and during prep for digital system. New wider port window is being installed. Courtesy COSI.|
The hit-and-miss digital revolution in giant screen exhibition started as early as 1999 when IMAX purchased Digital Projection International (DPI) as a wholly owned subsidiary. IMAX/DPI went on to sign a partnership with DLP Cinema. After the development of a number of digital products, including the sale of DIGIMAX projectors, designed to project a 3-chip DLP image at 1080 resolution on a 50-foot wide conventional cinema screen, IMAX sold DPI in 2001.
IMAX would not introduce a giant screen projector to the digital market for another seven years, but some theaters chose not to wait. In 2006, as 2K digital projectors began rolling out to conventional cinemas, theaters such as Cinecitta in Nuremberg, Germany, began converting from IMAX film systems to digital projection using dual Christie 2K DLP projectors. Cinecitta’s sister company, Fantasia Film, began distributing digital 3D product, starting with “Haunted Castle,” to cinemas throughout Germany. By 2007, its customers included former IMAX theaters in Wuerzburg, Frankfurt (both operated by Fantasia Film), and Munich, all using the same dual Christie approach. The digital projection system launched by IMAX in 2008 uses similar equipment at its base combined with proprietary technology that enhances image and brightness.
|Screen being delivered through hole inside of theater at Peoria Riverfront Museum for installation in giant screen theater. Courtesy Peoria Riverfront Museum|
(As an aside, I consider Hazlehurst and his Chief Projectionist Tim Rectanus not only as colleagues, but selfless heroes of the industry. In former days as Director of Attractions at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia USA, I received a call in 2009 that my IMAX print of “Star Trek” would not be available for a Friday opening at my theater due to a lack of shipping cases, I pulled together three of our own cases, rented a cargo van and made the 9-hour drive to Raleigh. Hazlehurst and Rectanus worked overnight unspooling the film from its platter and preparing it for shipment. To give you an idea of the work involved, a single second of IMAX film is about 5 1/2 feet long. And Star Trek is a 2-hour movie. “We wouldn’t have that problem anymore,” Hazlehurst noted, “Everything’s stored on hard drives now.”)
|Wortham Giant Screen 3D Theatre, Houston Museum of Natural Science. Conversion from IMAX 1570 to dual 4K digital by D3D. Courtesy HMNS.|
Marbles has had no complaints from patrons regarding the new digital format, and finds one of the advantages of going digital is the ability to show a wider range of content. “We can show non-IMAX content on our system, but when we do we only use one of the two projectors.” That content has included National Geographic titles such as “Forces of Nature” and “Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West.” “As a children’s museum, we’ve done very well with our kids program that we get from distributor Big & Digital,” Hazelhurst told me. “Right now we’re showing “The Gruffalo.”
|IMAX QTRU (left) and Mark II (right) platter units for 1570 film being removed from Raleigh booth. Courtesy Marbles Kids Museum.|
|Qube-XI media block for 3d - integrates directly into projector. Used by Global Immersion in the GSX system at Peoria Riverfront Museum in conjunction with REALD 3D. Courtesy Qube.|
National Geographic plans to distribute a minimum of 2 new digital 3D films per year and partner museums receive exclusivity on these films for their immediate market. Under the program, qualifying theaters may run Nat Geo content on any of their existing systems. “Museums not only gain access to the film library,” said Katz, “but they also gain unique access to the entire National Geographic organization, including our television, print, and exhibition divisions, and, most importantly, our members.”
|Grand re-opening ceremony of the Putnam's newly re-branded National Geographic theater. Courtesy Putnam Museum.|
D3D has since installed a number of digital systems in giant screen theaters worldwide, including the Putnam, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Millennium Point in Birmingham, UK. In 2011 and 2012, D3D co-hosted the Moody Gardens Digital Symposium in Galveston, TX (in 2013, this event will be combined with GSCA’s spring cinema expo). Kempf told me, “We’re proud to have helped pioneer these symposia and facilitate many industry ‘firsts,’ including: first 4K giant screen demonstration, first 4K 3D giant screen film presentation, first back-to-back 3D technology showcase, first giant screen 1570 vs 4K shootouts (16:9 and 4:3), first high frame rate demonstration on a giant screen, first 3D audio demonstration in a giant screen theater, and first giant screen laser light engine demonstration.”
READ THE FULL Q&A WITH DON KEMPF AT THEMEDREALITY.COM
Another option is Global Immersion introduced its GSX system for flat giant screen theaters, placed into service on October 20, 2012 with the opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Peoria, Illinois USA. According to Global Immersion’s CEO Martin Howe, “We use a two-projector system that easily switches between aspect ratio - 16:9, 1.85:1, 1.89:1, 2:39:1, and what we call True 4:3. The system is capable of projecting in 3K x 4K resolution for a total of 12 million pixels.” In 3D (using technology from REALD), the GSX system can output 6-foot lamberts of light, a brighter 3D image than the Christie 2K-based IMAX digital projector (IMAX is expected to introduce a new digital projector using dual Barco 4K projectors at its core shortly). Global Immersion calls its GSX the “world’s highest performance and most versatile” digital giant screen projection system and believes the Peoria theater to be “the highest resolution digital Giant Screen theater in the world.” The theater is fully DCI (Hollywood studio’s digital cinema standards) and DIGSS compliant.
|Global Immersion Giant Screen Theater at Peoria Riverfront Museum. Courtesy PRM.|
Artwork for nWave's newest giant screen film. Courtesy nWave.
According to Casey Stack, co-managing director of the Laser Illuminated Projector Association, the major hurdle in bringing laser projection systems to cinemas is government regulation. In the US, lasers are regulated by the FDA, with a number of states having additional local regulations. One of the big advantages to laser projection is the overall cost savings to the exhibitor. Whereas a xenon bulb usually has a life expectancy of 500 hours, lasers can operate up to five years at reduced operating and maintenance costs.
In 2005, Ben Stassen told my colleague Ray Zone (as documented in Zone’s book “3-D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures”), “. . . I am absolutely convinced that the Large Format industry will not survive unless it converts to digital projection technology within three to five years.” It’s no longer a question of when – it’s an issue of how. • • •
Joe Kleiman (www.themedreality.com) is a journalist, PR and marketing professional with a background in museums and special venue cinema.
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