Digital Cinema: Manufacturers on the Cutting Edge

"The year 2007 has been a good one for many digital-cinema vendors, with a number of significant milestones reached. For the first time, all movies grossing over $100 million were released in the DCI-specified digital format. According to Texas Instruments (TI), the leading projection technology provider, many of these titles were released simultaneously to more than 1,000 theatres and projected using their DLP Cinema technology. Such titles as Spider-Man 3, Meet the Robinsons in 3D, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Shrek the Third, Ocean’s Thirteen, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Transformers and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are now thrilling audiences with full digital-cinema projection. By the summer of 2007, more than 4,300 theatres worldwide were equipped with projectors incorporating DLP Cinema technology.

At ShoWest 2007, TI announced a significant cost-saving development, a smaller, easier-to-implement version of its original 2K display device. Known as the .98 chip, the new device offers the same high-quality image as the previous 2K DLP Cinema chip, but is housed in a smaller, more efficient package, thereby reducing the overall cost of the projectors. Texas Instruments licenses its DLP Cinema technology to Christie, Barco and NEC, and each has expanded their product lineup to accommodate a wider range of screen size, thereby better matching the projector to that particular cinema’s needs. The new .98 chip enables TI projector partners to become more competitive by providing a variety of projector options at lower cost.

Barco Digital Cinema has already adopted the TI .98 smaller chip in its new DP-1500 and DP-2000 models. The DP-2000 is for large and mid-size venues, and is designed for screens up to 20m (65’) wide with a lumen output of 18,000. The DP-1500 is designed for screens up to 15m (49’) wide with a lumen output of 14,000. In particular, the DP-1500 is ideal for smaller projection booths that could not previously accommodate a full 2K system.

Barco's new DP-3000 is the brightest “large-venue” digital-cinema projector in the industry, with an extremely high screen illumination of 30,000 lumens. The DP-3000, with a 2000:1 contrast ratio, new lenses, a new optical design and high-efficiency 6.5kW lamps, is designed for screens up to 30 meters (98’) wide. The DP3000 debuted at ShoWest and had its cinema introduction with the world premiere of Transformers in L.A. this summer.

Christie Digital has also introduced a lower-cost version of its legendary CP2000 2K projector, which is now installed in over 3,000 cinemas. Christie’s new CP2000-ZX is intended for small to mid-sized screens, but is approximately 50% the size of the standard CP-2000. The CP200-ZX can accept a standard Christie bulb, which can be easily replaced at a cost similar to conventional 35mm bulbs. Brightness levels can be customized from 9,000 to 17,000 lumens, for screens up to 14 meters (45’).

NEC also completed its DLP Cinema projector family lineup with the introduction of its mid-sized NC1600C projector. The NC1600C ensures that midsize theatres with screens from 26 to 49 feet wide have a cost-effective, high-quality projector with the latest technologies designed specifically for their requirements. NEC is also particularly proud to point out that Regal Cinemas installed over 100 of its large NC2500 projector for the 3D presentations of Meet the Robinsons in March 2007. The systems were installed and setup verified by Strong Digital, NEC’s master reseller and system-integration partner. NEC has also supplied Technicolor Digital Cinema (TDC) with over 120 NC2500 projectors for the ongoing deployment with National Amusements, Wehrenberg Theatres and Zyacorp.

In the spring of 2007, the excitement surrounding 3D digital projection continued to grow with in anticipation of Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. This single title provided the impetus for exhibitors to increase the number of 3D cinemas to over 725 cinemas in time for the March 30 release. According to Real D, the leading provider of 3D equipment, 3D movies are a worthwhile investment for theatres because tickets are typically selling at three times the level as the same movie projected in regular 2D format. The next big 3D event will be the release of Beowulf in November; Real D already has commitments that will bring the total to over 1,000 3D screens.

All new 3D projection systems start with a standard 2D DCI-specific digital-cinema system. The current resurgence of 3D titles is made possible by the sharp and stable image delivered by today’s digital projectors. The stability of digital eliminates the classic problems associated with older 35mm 3D equipment. One single 2K DLP Cinema-grade projector can be easily converted to 3D with the addition of outboard equipment.

Sony continued its push for 4K with its SXRD technology with the release of Spider-Man 3 in 4K resolution at selected cinemas. Spider-Man 3 is the latest of a series of titles have been mastered and projected in full 4K resolution including Ocean’s Thirteen, The DaVinci Code and Poseidon.

In March 2007, Sony announced that Muvico Theaters will be equipping the new Chicago Entertainment complex with its newly announced SRX-R220 series projectors as the first step in equipping the entire chain with Sony equipment. The new Muvico 18-screen facility, scheduled to open in August 2007 in the suburb of Rosemont, Illinois, will have all of its theatres equipped with SXRD projectors using a combination of the SRX-R210 unit, a 10,000-lumen model, and the SRX-R220 model, an 18,000-lumen unit, as well as its LMT-100 media block system.

Sony has also been deploying trials installations of the SXRD 4K projectors with Cathay Cinemas in Singapore, with Odeon/UCI Cinemas at Guildford U.K., and also with the Norway Digital Interoperability in Cinemas (NORDIC) project.

Dolby Laboratories, the well-known cinema technology leader, has developed a multi-faceted approach to digital cinema. Not only is it an equipment supplier with its Dolby Digital Cinema system, Dolby is developing what promises to be a more economical approach to 3D. Dolby Labs has been quietly beta-testing its Dolby Digital 3D system with Malco Theatres in Madison, Mississippi. The new Dolby Digital 3D system is also being tested in various European locations in association with the Kinepolis Group in Belgium. Dolby hopes to have its 3D system ready for initial deployments with the fall release of Beowulf.

Currently, there are more than 400 Dolby Digital Cinema systems installed worldwide in 22 countries. Theatre chains such as National Amusements, Malco Theatres, Megaplex Theatres and Premiere Theaters have installed the Dolby Digital Cinema server in many of their primary locations. In addition, TDC has ordered 190 Dolby Digital Cinema servers for the North American digital-cinema beta test and for Belgium-based Kinepolis Group.

To facilitate creating movies in the DCI-specified digital format, Dolby has developed its DCC-2000 Secure Content Creator, a scalable mastering solution for JPEG 2000 digital cinema compression, encoding, packaging and encryption. Recently, the China Research Institute of Film Science & Technology (CRIFST) selected the DCC-2000 for its facilities, and additional installations are scheduled for the U.S., U.K., Japan, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Kodak has been busy deploying its JMN3000 Digital Cinema Content Player along with its new Kodak Theatre Management System with a number of key customers in Europe. Empire Cinemas, one of the U.K.’s largest privately owned cinema chains, has installed the Kodak JMN3000 along with the new Kodak Theatre Management System (TMS) for its six-screen multiplex in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, U.K. In addition, Kodak announced key installations with Supercinema Clarici in Foligno, Italy, and also with Village Cinemas in Greece.

Doremi continues to lead in JPG2000 DCI server installations, with well over 3,000 cinemas equipped with its DCP-2000 server. In the U.S., their installations have been propelled by their strong relationship with AccessIT. Recently, TDC also purchased 150 Doremi DCP-2000 servers to be used in various installations.

In Europe, Arts Alliance Media, the digital-cinema provider for the U.K. Film Council project, recently adopted the Doremi DCP-2000 for its 240 installations. Other recent European installations include the Odeon Surrey Quays complex and many of the systems deployed by XDC. In addition, Doremi has installed its DMS-2000 mastering system in post-production facilities in Norway and Russia, bringing their worldwide total of content-mastering facilities to over 25 locations.

XDC of Belgium has announced the development of its CineStore Solo G3 digital-cinema server. This hybrid JPEG2000/MPEG2 system supports the current DCI specifications and will be the central core of future XDC deployments in Europe. The XDC CineStore Solo G3 is the first commercial product to use the new intoPIX Field Programmable Gate Array, which integrates JPEG2000, MPEG decoding, DCI-specified security and a host of other features into one flexible and easy-to-upgrade module. XDC’s CineStore G3 playback server is part of a full family of XDC products that provide end-to-end content preparation, asset management, technical monitoring and theatre operations.

DTS Digital Cinema announced in mid-2006 that they were entering the digital exhibition market by acquiring exclusive rights to the technologies and products from industry pioneer Avica Inc. Previously, DTS had also made a move into digital exhibition by announcing the purchase of a software company. The acquisition led to the launch of the DTS Digital Booking System that was quickly adopted by customers such as Cinépolis and Goodrich Quality Theaters.

Building on Avica’s previous work in MPEG servers, DTS upgraded the original FilmStore line to full DCP JPEG2000 capability and expanded the product line to include the FilmStore Content Management System designed to provide end–to-end solution for management of digital content within a multiplex. The system consists of three interrelated components: FilmStore Director content-management software, FilmStore Central ingest and storage system, and the FilmStore Digital Cinema Player, together providing a powerful digital-cinema management system.

Another digital-cinema pioneer, QuVIS is still very much in the market and has been quietly testing a new server product with several exhibitors in the U.S. According to announcements made at ShoWest 2007, both QuVIS and Barco are working closely with Digeserv, a new company offering a unique financial plan to assist exhibitors with the digital conversion.

In Asia, server pioneer GDC of Singapore continues to lead with systems being installed in China and Korea. In March 2007, GDC announced the SA-2100 DSR Digital Film Server, which is 33% smaller in size and designed to meet DCI specifications such as Texas Instruments Cinelink 2, forensic watermarking, and FIPS-140 security features. GDC also announced the DCI-2000 Digital Cinema Integrated Projection System that conveniently combines the server and projector in one easy-to-deploy and operate package.

In March 2007, both GDC and Barco announced a major commitment from China Film Group for the supply of 700 Barco 2K DP-1500 and DP-2000 projectors along with GDC servers for cinemas in China.

Qube Cinema has been active in expanding its European presence by supporting the recent Lisbon Village Film Festival with a number of digital screenings. Sathyam Cinemas has chosen to integrate the DCI-capable Qube XP-D digital-cinema server for all screens at its flagship multiplex at Chennai, India.

The first digital cinemas being deployed in Kuwait are also using the Qube XP-D server. The Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC), one of the largest theatrical exhibition companies in the Middle East, and Qube Cinema, Inc. have partnered to bring the first digital cinema to the Middle East and Gulf Region. A pilot DCI quality digital cinema is under installation in KNCC’s theatre (Cinescape) in Kuwait City, using a Qube XP-D and a 2K Barco-based digital projector.

Overall, digital cinema vendors should be pleased with the progress they have made in the past few years. The projector manufacturers have transitioned from basic designs to now having complete families of DCI-specified 2K projectors that address a wide range of screen sizes and operator needs at more reasonable price points. The server manufacturers also have done an extraordinary job keeping up with evolving requirements, moving their original products from incompatible MPEG formats to those now universally supporting the DCI-specified interoperable JPEG2000 format. While the equipment prices may still be higher than desired, we should keep in mind the significant R&D commitments made by these companies to bring us the products that now deliver the image quality and overall reliability required to move the cinema exhibition industry into the future."

By Bill Mead, FilmJournal International