Technicolor Goes Back to the Future with Its Latest 3D Cinema System

Conventional wisdom has it that it took digital technology to solve the problems experienced by film-based 3D approaches and enable the current cinematic 3D renascence. Apparently Technicolor begs to differ.

Let’s start with a few words on the way things were. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, film-based 3D was famous for causing visual distress. One of the means used to implement 3D was to take a conventional 4-perf 35 mm frame and split it horizontally. The top half contained the image for one eye and the bottom half the image for the other eye. This is called the over-under approach. The top half is polarized in one direction, and the bottom half is polarized orthogonally. A special split lens projects both overlaid images onto a polarization-preserving screen. Viewers wear glasses with passive polarized lenses to see the image in 3D (Sony does the equivalent of this for its digital SRDX 3D projectors using 4K imagers).

The problem with this approach was, at least in part, that the film fluttered as it moved through the projector. This caused the image to flutter too. Other factors that degraded the 3D image quality included wear and tear on print.

That was then. Ahmad Oury, Technicolor’s President of Strategy, Technology and Marketing believes that these problems have been solved in Technicolor’s new 3D projection system. He explained that the new system is based on "the use of the latest and greatest materials vs. what was there decades ago. We use the most advanced glass in the lenses, the most advanced polarizing materials, both in the lenses and in the glasses, to optimize the picture."

The lens costs $5,000-$7,000. The plan, however, is to lease the system and thus the cost to cinemas will not be incurred all at once. Another favorable financial aspect of the Technicolor 3D Solution is that it can be installed quickly and without significant modification to the projection booth.

Technicolor 3D projection system

Not everyone in the industry thinks this is a good idea, of course. Specifically, companies with a strong interest in seeing the rapid adoption of digital cinema systems are particularly negative. RealD and Cinedigm, for examples, expressed their dislike of the idea at the 3D Entertainment Summit this week noting that this will distract exhibitors from investing all their money in digital (no surprise with this position).

On the other hand, initial consumer testing of the Technicolor system is reported as encouraging. Tests administered by an independent service reported that 65% of moviegoers polled after viewing The Final Destination in Technicolor 3D said the overall quality of the image was at least good. This is identical to the results from digital 3D exit polls.

But others in the industry are worried that such results are not indicative of how the majority of theaters will be operated. As Nick Dager, editor of the Digital Cinema Report points out, most theater projectors are run by minimum wage personnel who don’t care about image quality that much, many exhibitors will not opt to buy the silver screen and film still has the issues of stretching, scratches and dirt. "I’m very concerned that this development could turn off an entire generation of movie goers."

Oury said the company hopes to have the 3D system ready for use in November and to have "a meaningful number" of installations by the end of the year.

What was not addressed by Technicolor, or in any other commentaries we reviewed, was the issue of flutter and how that may impact 3D image quality today vs. the 1950’s. We can assume film projectors are better in this regard, but are they good enough?

The interesting part of the story is that Technicolor is positioning its’ new product offering not as a permanent means to replace digital 3D projection but, rather, as a means to address the fact that there is currently an insufficient number of 3D screens. This insufficiency is a result of the slower than expected roll out of 3D capable digital projectors, which is due to the recent financial crisis.

This leads us to report a second item in this week’s news. We read that the credit crisis may be ready to go into remission as far as the digital cinema industry is concerned. JP Morgan is poised to initiate a $525 million financing program that is intended to enable up to 15,000 digital cinema installations over the next five years. The program is targeted at the nation’s three largest movie chains: AMC, Cinemark and Regal.

So, in adition to the usual technological and business risks associated with a new product offering, Technicolor will need to deal with added uncertainty regarding the duration of the window of opportunity. Who says that the world of business isn’t exciting?

By Art Berman, Display Daily