Anthony Doesburg: Focus on digital cinema takes the film out of the movies

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With many cinemagoers up in arms at finding themselves watching inferior electronic screenings of movies rather than the 35mm film of old, must we give up our celluloid dreams?

Yes, although it shouldn't be at the cost of the quality of the movie-watching experience.

Nor is it going to happen overnight. But with Hollywood studios providing the impetus, digital technology is guaranteed to change the face of cinema.

Anyone with misgivings can be pretty confident that they won't have to put up with the poor quality of some of today's E-Cinema screenings for long, as high-quality digital - or D-Cinema - spreads.

E-Cinema is the low-rent end of digital cinema, although it's still capable of very good quality.

The difference between E and D is that the studios - Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros - have created a standards body, Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), to ensure that D-Cinema's reputation for quality is kept intact.

No such standard exists for E-Cinema, which encompasses systems as basic as a DVD player hooked up to a data projector, just as many people have at home.

Although a set-up like that might be fine in your lounge, when projecting images on a screen of more than about 2m, pixelation can ruin the experience.

Dozens of Auckland cinema patrons showed their intolerance of poor-quality digital pictures and sound in postings last month on the Herald website.

That moved John Davies, part-owner of Auckland's Academy cinema, to write a detailed explanation of E-Cinema on the Academy site. For one thing, it's rare for a cinema projection system to use standard DVDs (the Academy's 16-seat Encore theatre plays DVDs, but not for much longer - it is about to be upgraded).

More typically, E-Cinemas have a media server that stores and plays back a movie as a computer file, through a digital projector that is more powerful than the home-theatre type.

The Academy's main theatre has a 35mm film projector and a top-of-the-line E-Cinema system.

E-Cinema has some compelling advantages. Like a vinyl LP, every time a film is played its quality is slightly degraded. But when a movie is stored and played as an electronic file, it will be just as good the thousandth time it's viewed as it was the first time.

Also, Davies points out, movies can be much more readily distributed electronically than as reels of film.

That has two benefits. It means that arthouse films, for instance, can be economically screened for small audiences, since a computer file is cheap to transport. And it means tens of thousands of reels of celluloid aren't ending up in landfills at the end of a film's run.

If that's not enough to persuade movie buffs of the virtues of E-Cinema, it probably doesn't matter, since its higher-quality sibling, D-Cinema, is on the way. D-Cinema, like E-Cinema, relies on a media server and digital projector.

Hoyts has opened the country's first DCI-compliant cinema at Sylvia Park and, says Glen Bullen, whose Auckland family firm has been selling projection systems for 50 years, one in Wellington is expected by the end of the year.

SkyCity Cinemas is also considering D-Cinema gear for its Albany and Manukau cinemas, which will open next year.

It's been a long time coming - the DCI came up with its standard more than two years ago - because it costs a packet.

Davies said the Academy would be up for $250,000 to convert its main theatre to D-Cinema. And that equipment might be obsolete within five years, making it a marginal proposition.

A 35mm projector costs $50,000 and although D-Cinema quality is as good as film - as a side-by-side comparison staged by Bullen at Epsom's Lido cinema last month demonstrated - personal preference is the final arbiter.

Davies voted for the digital form of the demo movie Conversations With My Gardener, finding it clearer and the colour more realistic than the 35mm film version preferred by the Lido owner.

But there will be no stopping D-Cinema, which is being driven by the studios' desire to cut distribution costs.

Ultimately, Bullen says, cinemas will take delivery of movies through a satellite feed. Until then they will be distributed as 300GB computer files.

That doesn't mean film will become extinct. Bullen continues to sell 35mm projectors and a good film print is hard to beat. D-Cinema wins in consistency but cost will limit its adoption.

What sort of rating does it get from a reviewer?

Simon Morris, who presents At the Movies on Radio New Zealand National, says film versus digital is a rerun of the vinyl versus CD debate. "The thing about CDs is that you get amazing clarity, but sometimes amazing clarity isn't the point of the exercise."

Rather than be a purist about it, Morris says what counts for him at a movie screening is that the reels be shown in the right order. With digital, there's no chance of disappointment on that score.

* Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland-based technology journalist

Coming attraction

* Major studios formed Digital Cinema Initiatives to set standards for digital movie projection.

* New Zealand's first DCI-compliant cinema has opened at Sylvia Park.

* Advantages include elimination of wear and tear on film, and lower distribution costs.

* Ultimately, movies could be downloaded by satellite.

* The cost of converting to digital means 35mm film is likely to be around for a while yet.

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