Pictures of the Secaucus installation - taken 6/26/99:
More DLP pics! These were taken on 5/29/00 at the GCC Framingham (MA) 16, where "Dinosaur" was shown in DLP in auditorium #9:
Wow! This page gets a bunch of hits from the ti.com domain! I'd be interested in hearing from some of the TI and/or Quvis people, particularly about plans for future DLP screenings. And, for what it's worth, I still like film, too; I fill in in this booth occasionally.
Well, I finally got the chance to see the much-hyped DLP system in action today. After reading all the glowing reviews about it, I decided to drive to Secaucus to see Star Wars (for the first time in any format!) and check it out for myself.
The long version:
The town of Secaucus is located just off the NJ Turnpike, within easy driving distance of NYC. The town itself is the home of a Panasonic service facility, depots for UPS and US Mail, and what is either an outlet-mall heaven or outlet-mall hell, depending on how you view such things. The downtown area seems generally a bit run-down, and doesn't give off the appearance of being a location that one would choose for a demonstration of a piece of equipment which will likely turn an entire industry on its head.
The Sony/Lowes/Cineplex Odeon/whatever they're calling it this week Meadow Six Theatre in the "Plaza" shopping center, however, is indeed the site of such a demonstration. Much to my surprise, the theatre employees and management actually seemed to have a clue about the significance of the demonstrations which were being done in their theatre--the telephone recording, the roadside marquee, and the box office all prominently announced "DLP" or "digital projection" for Star Wars, and clearly distinguished which showtimes were for 35mm and DLP. The theatre itself is little more than a rather nice standard mall-style multiplex, with at least one really big screen. The exterior is totally nondescript and dull.
I attended the 12:15pm show, the first of the day, for the "bargain" matinee price of $5.50. Regular ticket prices for shows starting after 6:00pm were listed as $8.50 (!), which seems a bit steep, even for such a rare screening. Near the boxoffice were several banners touting "The Future of Cinema" and featuring the DLP logo.
The DLP screening was held in auditorium #1, which I assume is the largest in the complex. It probably has 800-1000 seats, with a very slight rake to the floor. The screen was filled with advertising slides (isn't this against the SW exhibitor contract?), and did not have curtains. It was a standard matte-white surface and not the type of high-gain screen often used for video projection. It was mounted fairly high on the wall, which is not my personal preference, but seemed to work in this case, given the longish auditorium. The width of the screen was roughly 40 feet.
I took my seat in row eight, which was slightly closer than I would normally sit, but which would (I hoped) allow me to see some of the details of the image.
The regular projector was a 35/70 Century JJ, using a Christie AW-3 platter and 3kw Christie lamphouse. This was mounted directly on the centerline of the screen. The DLP projector was mounted slightly to the side of this, and it projected through a separate porthole. I couldn't tell if this was a new porthole cut specifically for the DLP screening or if it had existed previously for a slide projector or other device. The slide projector (standard Kodak Ektagraphic, not bright enough for this size screen) was mounted in yet another porthole to the booth.
At almost exactly 12:15, the house lights dimmed, and a faint dark-grey outline appeared on the screen. Like most video projectors, the DLP projector appeared to be incapable of producing a true "black" (absence of light), and instead showed a dark grey, much like a standard Eastman print, but not nearly as opaque as IB Tech or even Vision Premiere. The MPAA "green band" for the first trailer appeared. My first observation was that the image was nearly perfectly sharp (enough to show slightly jagged edges on the lettering), rock steady (the green band looked more like a slide than a film), and very bright.
The first trailer was for "Anna & the King," and looked darn impressive, although the 20th Century Fox logo was a bit washed out. I'm not sure what elements were used for the digital scans of the trailers, but this one had very little of the dupey/grainy quality normally associated with trailers. Film grain was clearly evident in the trailer, but it looked just like a film print would, and not at all like video noise or compression artifacts. From my seat in row eight, individual pixels were visible on titles and other fine lines, but they were easy to ignore and not at all objectionable. If I had been sitting a few rows farther back, I doubt that I would have noticed them. In addition to the brightness mentioned earlier, one of the most interesting features of this screening was the perfect focus from edge to edge and corner to corner. Every single region of the screen was in razor sharp focus, which is a rare treat for most moviegoers.
Afterwards, a brief series of three teaser trailers for "films now in production" (from 20th Century Fox) was shown, also using the DLP projector. Picture and sound quality were equally impressive. The Lowes/Cineplex "Feature Presentation" trailer came next. As with the 35mm version, this one wasn't particularly sharp or detailed, but the black and red letters on the pure white background (the end title) were clearly visible and the background was pure white and free of the dust and scratches that one usually sees there. I had always thought that it was a pretty silly idea to put all that mostly-clear film at the end of a trailer where it would be handled quite frequently...
Finally, before the feature began, there was a brief tag explaining that this was a DLP screening, and a DLP trailer (which resembled a sound-format trailer in content, style and length). Both of these were quite obviously generated direct from a digital source rather than from film elements, and both looked a bit too sharp for my taste, complete with slightly jagged edges on the letters. The steadiness, though, was amazing. They looked just like photographic slides, with zero jump and weave.
Then, of course, the feature began. The "20th Century Fox" logo looked perfect--much better than the one in the trailer, and the "20th Century Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension" sounded great. The opening titles ("A long time ago..."), however, looked a bit jagged on the edges of the letters, and there were barely noticeable motion artifacts (different from what one sees on projected film), but none of this was objectionable, and was even barely noticeable from my seat. I suspect that none of this would have been noticeable at all had I chosen to sit in a more reasonable location.
The first "reel" of the feature generally looked good, and it was obvious which scenes had been printed from the original negs versus the ones which had been digitally processed. The original scenes looked sharp, and the digital ones looked slightly out of focus (I have run a 16mm print of "Pleasantville" which looked sharper than many scenes). Unfortunately, image quality went downhill from there, as the rest of the film had been digitally processed and most scenes looked slightly soft. Pixels were not visible in most scenes, although extremely bright areas (like the desert sand) revealed them in some areas. Contrast was generally on the low side, but I suspect that this was a result of the film itself rather than any failing in the DLP system; the trailers looked fine. The only real deficiency in the DLP system seems to be that it tends to wash out really bright areas, like windows and skies. I don't know whether this is a failing of the projector or of the digital scanning process or of the original film. Otherwise, though, most scenes looked very much comparable to 35mm film (though with slightly more grain than most features have), with improved brightness and image steadiness.
One area which does need improvement is the sound sync. Now, admittedly, I am very sensitive to out-of-sync sound, and will definitely notice if it is off by even one frame. Strangely, though, some scenes were in perfect sync with the soundtrack, while others appeared slightly off, as if the lower loop on a film projector had been slightly too large or too small. I doubt that the average audience member would have noticed this or cared, but I found it to be rather distracting in a number of scenes. I have no idea whether this flaw also existed in the 35mm prints. The "subtitles" for several scenes were quite obviously not on the film master which was used for the digital transfer, but were generated through some digital process. These were razor-sharp, but also were bright enough to make jagged edges and individual pixels quite visible.
The final credit crawl was a real disappointment as far as image quality was concerned. All the lettering looked rather un-sharp, as if it had been scanned slightly out of focus. After the "regular" credits, there were a couple of titles related to the digital presentation; these were quite obviously generated through some digital process (and did not go through a film output and scanning stage), and looked much sharper.
After the film, I took a tour of the booth. As might be imagined, there was a lot of concern about security and piracy, which necessitated a guard and sign-in book at the entrance to the projection booth. The DLP projector itself wasn't much to look at, but it was interesting to see the machine which was able to produce bright, sharp, film-like images. They had a complete spare DLP machine as well. The source for the picture was a 300-gigabyte RAID array of hard disks, which was synched to a separate hard-disk system for the sound. The sound was played through the Dolby Digital input on the CP-65 processor. They also had a CP-200 in the sound rack, although I'm not sure what purpose it served; maybe it was used only for 70mm mag presentations...they still had the mag preamp in the rack.
For every digital show, they were running a complete 35mm print of the film as a backup, although this has not yet been needed. There is no sync between the film projector and the DLP system, so the film is off by a few seconds from the DLP projector. I was rather saddened to see all the wonderful 70mm-capable equipment (AW-3 platter, Century JJ, mag penthouse, Dolby mag preamp, etc.) which hadn't been used for that format since 1989. They have both SDDS and DTS on that screen, but do not have the DTS-70 reader.
This same theatre was also showing Star Wars in 35mm on two other screens, and I saw a few minutes of a nearly new print through the booth window. It was very depressing, and looked even more un-sharp than the DLP presentation which I had seen only moments earlier. I was told that the digital picture information had been slightly compressed, although I did not notice any compression artifacts at all (and I am very sensitive to this).
Was I impressed? Yes! Was it worth the four-hour drive to see this machine? Yes! Did it look like film? Well, I would say so; it certainly didn't look a bit like big-screen television. In some ways it was better--the registration was amazing, and there was no visible flicker.
Was the picture quality equal to 35mm? It's hard to say. It was certainly far more watchable than a standard Eastman 35mm release print with even light scratches or more than a couple of repair splices, which means that it easily beats out the typical 35mm presentation. Judging by the trailers, though, I don't think that Star Wars did the DLP system justice. "Lawrence of Arabia" or "2001" would both be great test films. I would be very interested to see a film whose 35mm prints are known to be razor sharp projected through the DLP system. I would also like to see 16mm original negative transferred to a digital format and projected with DLP, since the weak link in the 16mm "chain" is very often the projection system.
In short, judging by this one presentation, I'd definitely prefer to watch a mint-condition 35mm EK print (off the original negatives) or IB Technicolor 35mm print than the DLP system. I'd also take even a slightly beat-up 70mm Eastman print over DLP. That said, the DLP system as it exists now is easily superior to 35mm as it is normally seen by audiences in a typical multiplex environment. It holds up beautifully on a fairly large screen, and would be a great replacement for 35mm in a typical mall-type theatre with medium-size screens and (usually) less- than-wonderful projectionists. DLP versus 16mm would be no contest; a 16mm print would look like super-8 by comparison.
If I were a theatre owner with unlimited funds and a good 35mm system, I'd definitely buy myself a DLP projector to put next to the 35mm projectors. I'd run film whenever I received a pristine print, and run DLP with film backup whenever I received a print which was less than mint. (Of course, this assumes that films would be available to theatres in both formats).
I am standing by my statement that 35mm release prints will be with us for another twenty years. However, I suspect that DLP projectors will begin to appear in special venues and limited theatre use well before then. In any case, I am confident that this system will be a good thing for the industry and will help to raise the quality level of motion-picture presentation for all formats. Hopefully, it will serve as a notice to the labs and to Kodak that they need to continually improve the quality of standard release prints and intermediate stocks, and will encourage theatre owners to properly train their projectionists to maintain prints in top condition throughout the entire length of the film's run. It is saddening to me that IB Technicolor prints from the 1960s look far better than today's Eastman prints, and I hope that DLP will encourage better quality release prints in the short term and eventually be developed to the point where it looks better than 35mm and ultimately replaces 35mm and smaller gauge film. With any luck, more 70mm prints will be made for the very largest theatres, although I have my doubts that 70mm will ever come back in a big way.
All in all, DLP (or its successors) will have a huge impact on the future of the production and exhibition industries. The show in Secaucus was a bit like "The Jazz Singer" must have been to viewers in 1927. This is the start of something big. The baseline level of image and sound quality is amazingly high, and it's only going to get better from here (despite the large numbers of really cheap theatre owners out there).
After seeing "Star Wars" last summer and "Dinosaur" earlier this spring in DLP Cinema, I had the opportunity to see "Perfect Storm" in the format on Monday evening at the GCC Framingham 16 in Framingham, MA.
Since the Star Wars screening, I had been looking forward to having the opportunity to see a more conventional motion picture--shot on film and scanned from film to the digital format, without passing through multiple layers of scanning and electronic manipulation--presented in DLP. This type of production, which represents the majority of mainstream commercial motion pictures with respect to its postproduction process, is probably the best test that I have seen yet of the ability of the DLP hardware to function in a typical motion-picture-theatre environment.
I will add the following editorial comment here: to a certain extent, I feel somewhat reluctant to criticize the DLP system since, thoughout all of the screenings which I have seen, I have been continually amazed that the thing works at all, much less as well as it does. That said, I also believe fairly strongly that the last thing that the motion-picture industry needs right now, in an age of high-definition television sets and increased competition from other entertainment forms and venues, is to accept a reduction in picture and sound quality from 35mm film, which has set a very high standard over its past century of use. Thus, I have been very picky when reviewing the DLP presentations in the past; I will continue with this pattern here.
The GCC Framingham 16 is a fairly decent theatre, considering that it is basically a mall-area multiplex type place. The building is relatively recent (circa 1994/95) and replaced the original GCC Framingham theatre. The DLP machine was installed in auditorium #9, originally for screenings of "Dinosaur"; it has since been used for "Fantasia 2000" and, now, "Perfect Storm." Although this is one of a relatively small number of cinemas to test the DLP system, there has been almost zero publicity about its use. During the "Dinosaur" screenings, the newspaper ads and phone recording listed the DLP screenings separate, under "Dinosaur - in Digital Projection." Now, there is no mention made of the DLP screenings in the newspaper ads, the boxoffice, or even the theatre lobby, save for one cardboard "standee" (the "see the movie, not the film" version) in a corner of the lobby. Perhaps this lack of publicity is by intention; in any case, the average audience member would have no idea that he was going to see the movie in DLP instead of 35mm.
The #9 house is (along with #6) the largest auditorium in the complex; it is a THX house which seats about 400 or so and the screen is roughly 40 feet wide for scope, with side masking. The seating area was modified for a stadium- style configuration relatively recently. In order to observe the show from the point of view of the "typical" audience member, I sat in the second row of the rear "steep" section of the theatre, which placed me roughly halfway back in the theatre (row twelve or so). An interesting aspect of stadium-style seating is that customers tend to sit farther away from the screen (in terms of feet from the screen to the seats) than they usually do in theatres with conventional seating configurations.
Before the show, the typical NCN slide show was shown with a standard 35mm slide projector. I will not comment on screen advertisements, other than to say that I was surprised that these were not being shown using the DLP projector. At least they would have been brighter than the tungsten-bulb slide projector.
A few minutes before the show, the screen curtains closed and then re-opened as the movie started. The show was preceeded a fire exit trailer (required by law in Framingham), the GCC Coming Attractions tag, a "102 Dalmations" trailer, and the GCC Candy Band Feature Presentation tag. There were a couple of interesting features about the pre-show material: first, the sound for the fire-exit and policy trailers appears to have been transferred directly off of optical track material, with no attempt to decode the Dolby matrix or noise reduction. Thus, the sound quality is really strange--the sound plays through the left and right channels only for this material and the GCC tags sound very odd without the matrixing or SR decoding. Perhaps more interestingly, all of these tags had a slight "unsqueezed" look to them. I would guess that all of this material had been scanned from flat/1.85 film elements (probably positive prints) for "Dinosaur" and the same digital files were being used for "Perfect Storm" (a CinemaScope film, which was being projected using a less-than-2:1 squeeze ratio on DLP). Most of the audience probably had no clue about this, but it certainly did look "odd" to me.
Immediately before the feature, a "history of movie milestones" tag and a "DLP Cinema" snipe (which was pretty good, compared to most of the sound-format tags that I've seen) were shown.
When the feature began with the "new" CGI WB logo, the most obvious problem that I noticed was how incredibly dusty the preprint material was. I am guessing that an interpositive was the material used for the digital scanning, as it had quite a bit of obvious negative and positive dust that was visible on screen. For a process which is being promoted with the tagline "see the movie, not the film," I would have expected that a better-condition film element would have been used for the transfer. Presumably, there is no such thing as a liquid-gate film scanning machine....
In general, the DLP picture quality was pretty good. I will say here that I thought that the garden-variety 35mm release print that I saw of this film was not very good. The film was shot in super-35 (CORRECTION: it wasn't; it was regular scope), and the release prints were grainy and had timing problems. For some odd reason, the timing problems seemed far worse in the DLP presentation. I am not sure if this is the fault of some limitation of the DLP system or of the original film material, but it nonetheless looked quite bad. Some scenes were fine, while others (mostly the nighttime bar interior scenes in the first reel) just looked awful, and did not even come close to matching from shot to shot. In many scenes, primary colors (mostly reds and yellows) were highly exaggerated, while cooler colors like greens, blues, and browns seemed far too muted. In general, the contrast was lower than that of the 35mm film prints.
Judging from this show, the DLP system does not appear to be capable of producing anywhere near the contrast range of film. It appears to be incapable of producing a true black (so are some film stocks, but Kodak's Vision Premier print stock and dye-transfer Technicolor prints produce beautiful blacks) and there is a large amount of shadow and, especially, highlight detail that was visible in the film prints which is completely lost in the DLP presentation. I do not know whether this is a problem with the film-scanning equipment or operator or whether it is a limitation of the DLP system itself.
Unlike the Star Wars screenings, in which the movie was stored on a 300-gig Pluto RAID array with minimal compression, the current DLP shows are stored on a "Qubit" hard disk playback device and take up about 40 gigs or so of storage space with much more aggressive lossy data compression. Compression artifacts were definitely noticeable, mostly in finely detailed background objects, although the compression is nowhere near as noticeable/objectionable is it is on many DVDs. Basically, I probably wouldn't have noticed the compression if I hadn't been looking for it, but it _is_ visible and it _does_ detract from image quality.
Much like the Dinosaur screenings, Perfect Storm suffered from overly aggressive "edge enhancement" processing. At first glance, images appear to be very sharp, yet, when one looks more closely at the image, there is substantially less "texture" and real detail than exists in a film print. This is perhaps my biggest objection to the current incarnation of the DLP system. Interestingly, this did not seem to be as much of a problem with Star Wars, although its image quality suffered severely from low-res digital postproduction techniques and its intentionally uncommon look.
Since each "reel" of the film is stored as a separate file on the Qubit, there were slight "glitches" in picture and sound at reel changes (with no cue marks to announce them, though). These were barely noticeable and not much more objectionable than a changeover or reel change splice, but were still evident.
One area in which DLP has definitely improved since Star Wars is the final credit crawl. The credit crawl for SW looked dreadful, but the one for Perfect Storm looked nearly as good as film from the typical audience position. Individual pixels were not visible at all from the back half of the auditorium, although they were objectionable from the first half-dozen rows of seats, and visible back to at least row ten.
Overall, I was impressed with DLP, particularly when compared with other large-screen electronic projection systems, but I am somewhat disappointed that it does not seem to have improved significantly since the Star Wars show that I saw in New Jersey last summer. I am getting the impression that the real weak points of the process are the film scanning process and the data storage/compression end of things. Star Wars probably looked pretty good because so much effort was put into the scanning and compression process. With a (presumably) lower-level scanning job and a much higher compression ratio, Perfect Storm looked noticeably worse in many respects.
Would the average audience member notice or care about any of this? Maybe. The onscreen picture definitely looks "different" from film, and is superior in some ways, with its complete lack of flicker and focus drift. I would definitely prefer DLP over a film print with any significant amount of physical damage. I do think that the low contrast range would be noticed, at least on a subconscious level, by the average audience member, and that may be an issue that TI needs to address.
As I have said before, film will not be going away anytime soon. DLP is interesting and will have many important non-cinema applications in the short term, but I would say that it is "not quite there yet" on an image quality level when compared with 35mm film. Since no delivery mechanism has been set up yet for digital cinema applications, I will not bother discussing that end of things here.