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Charles Swartz on Digital Cinema

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By Jack EganCharles Swartz, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, recently discussed with Below the Line where the transition to digital cinema currently stands. As part of its mission, ETC runs the Digital Cinema Laboratory, housed at the historic Pacific Hollywood Theater. The state-of-the-art exhibition facility was used by the Digital Cinema Initiative—a group formed by the seven major studios to tackle standards for digital cinema—for testing of various technologies.Below the Line: How do you assess what DCI has so far accomplished?Charles Swartz: DCI represents a tremendous step forward; it’s probably the most important event so far in the rollout of digital cinema. The formation of DCI two years ago and the fact the seven big studios have reached consensus on so many of the specifications for digital cinema is really important.BTL: The overall goal is to come up with a “global interoperable standard” for digital cinema. What still needs to take place for that to happen?Swartz: Now that DCI is in the process of finalizing its specification documents with version 5.0 about to be published, the focus will shift to SMPTE [the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers], which sets actual standards. So the next major landmark will be when SMPTE completes its work and issues its standards documents. Those can then be taken up by other world bodies like the ISO [International Standards Organization]. SMPTE has already been at work on some of these issues.BTL: Is there a firm consensus that the industry needs to wind up with a single standard?Swartz: There’s pretty much a universal agreement. We only have to look at the problems we have in so many areas of entertainment where we have multiple formats like video production, television distribution, streaming media on the internet, cinema audio sound. Sometimes driven by manufacturers, sometimes by regulation, the result is multiple inventories and a lot of transcoding that ends up degrading content.The goal now is to come up with an interoperable digital system like we have today in film with 35mm prints that play on any projector. That hasn’t changed much since the early days of cinema. We’re now looking to replace that with a new digital system. But to work, the new system has to have the same functionality. If a cinema in India is to project in digital, it not only has to be able to receive a digital file but know it can play that file on its projection equipment.BTL: The changeover to digital can’t happen all at once. Aren’t the studios going to have to keep hauling film cans to exhibitors for some time to come, even with the advent of digital?Swartz: There will be a transition time where we’ll have both print and digital distribution entailing some added costs. Distributors and exhibitors—especially distributors—will be supporting two different formats. But that’s a motivation to plan the transition well. The faster you can make the change in its entirety, the more you minimize those hurdles.BTL: Another part of the goal is a scalable system. Could you explain what that means?Swartz: Think about it: film has been a scalable system ever since 4-perforation 35mm was made a standard in 1916. That’s the year SMPTE was formed, and one of its very first acts was to set that standard. In the first 20 years of cinema there had been many different formats and they were mainly proprietary. Companies would develop a 54mm film, and in order to use it you not only had to get the camera and the film from that company, but you had to get the projector from that company. It was a closed system. But once everyone agreed to the 4-perforation 35mm format you had an umbrella standard. What was under the umbrella was capable of constant improvement. Kodak and Fuji and Agfa could improve the film emulsions, lens manufacturers could improve the cameras, laboratories improved the procedures for processing that film. The result is the film negative we have today still fits within that 1916 standard, but the actual capabilities we have today are far greater. At the same time we can still see a film made in 1916—provided it’s been preserved correctly—on a projector made yesterday. That’s what a scalable standard provides.BTL: The Digital Cinema Lab has had a contract with DCI to serve as the exclusive site for testing. What happens to the center as DCI winds down?Swartz: The lab has a number of sources of income: manufacturers, testing activities, demonstrations and screenings. Their demands for the lab will probably grow because there are questions to be resolved that DCI has not yet addressed or completed. A lot of companies working on security and piracy will want to continue to use the lab to demonstrate their particular solutions.The lab will continue to exist as long as it can provide value to the stakeholders in the transition to digital cinema—the cinematographers, directors, studios, distributors, exhibitors and the technology companies that are developing hardware. If we reach some point in the future where everything is decided, there might be no need for the lab.BTL: But technology won’t stop advancing…Swartz: Technology never stops. We have created a showcase venue and we hope to keep that available. I believe we’ve created the best facility in the country for the presentation of film, digital cinema and digital audio. We’ve been fortunate to have had the support of smart people on both the studio and the vendor side, to create a one-of-a-kind facility to serve as a test-bed for digital cinema. And we’re open to manufacturers using the lab in order to evaluate their prototypes, to look at engineering work they still need to do.Also, image capture in digital is still up in the air. The lab can be a lot of value to the industry in assessing cameras, and looking at such areas as color management tools.

Written by Jack Egan

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