How GVG got involved with the movies is a story close to any exhibitor’s heart. “With some of our products, we have long been connected to the post-production side of filmmaking,” explains Beth Bonness, GVG’s director of digital cinema. “Working on the high-definition version of our Profile digital-video server, one of our engineers, who had been reading up on the latest developments in digital-cinema projection, suggested that we develop this technology further and leverage it for this emerging sector.” As it turned out, the person responsible for this insight used to be a projectionist of good old-fashioned 35mm film. As an engineering student, Dr. Jim Clark worked in college theatre booths, running tandem projectors with synchronized-transition, 5,000-foot reels and even carbon-arc light sources on some of them. How could he not miss celluloid? “It was a second job for me,” he says, “so it was a fin challenge to show up for a new movie with 30 minutes to spare and get everything spliced together correctly What I miss is running individual reels and synchronizing the transition from one reel to the next.”
Many experiments and technical upgrades later, the Emmy Award winning GVG Profile XP Media Platform now accommodates full-length feature films on a single server, with enough storage capacity to run movies of Titanic-size proportions. No more juggling of reels–or even computers, for that matter. While previous digital presentations for multiple screens have featured several servers routing the same signals to different theatres, Jurrasic Park III plays from a single Grass Valley digital-cinema server. The technical key is that up to four channels can be routed to as many theatres in an appropriately networked multiplex.
With an average compressed density of 80 to 100 Gigabytes per film, the GVG Media Platform employs ten hard disks with capacities of 72 Gigabytes each, eight of which can be used for content storage. Coming from the broadcast industry, where a glitch in airing an advertising spot during the Super Bowl or Academy Awards becomes a matter of someone’s life or death, the GVG server offers proven reliability and safety features. “The information is stored across multiple disks in such a way that any one disk can fill without losing data, because the lost data can automatically be recovered from the remaining drives,” assures principal engineer Mike Bruns. “Modem RAID units [Redundant Array of Independent Disks] are so sophisticated that the failed drive can be simply slid out and replaced with a new unit-while the disk system continues to send out data continuously. The new disk is then automatically programmed as the system continues operation. In other words, the system heals itself after the disk replacement. GVG RAIDs run with five disks in a group and redundant power supplies. In cases of multiple RAID drive failure, we tend to automate the recovery if possible. ”
These disks capture high-resolution digital audio and video that can be accessed in a variety of compression formats. Beth Bonness explains how this “enables exhibitors to program alternative content and advertising all on the same server. While film uses higher-quality compression and those standards are still experimented with, other digital entertainment could already be in place, starting to generate revenue. Our multi-format server will not become obsolete, but can be upgraded as the ultimate cinema presentation standard becomes available. As you retain 90 percent of your investment, it simply becomes a question of a new board and software.”
Jurassic Park III uses MPEG+ compression that is based on the same format that we know from the MPEG2 standard of many consumer applications, including DVD. “For the first time in the release of a major motion picture, very high-quality images can be scaled to varying bit rates and file sizes,” Bruns states. Warning that there is still no compression standard that allows interoperability between competing device manufacturers, the project’s principal engineer explains that the JPIII initiative means an enhanced picture quality with a widely deployed format. “MPEG+ uses the standard MPEG2 toolkit, but removes the constant bit-rate restriction and allows the compression to focus on constant quality instead. More complex scenes use more bits than simple scenes. In a constant bit-rate scenario, less complex scenes get more bits than they need, and complex scenes may not get enough, thus resulting in lower overall quality. Thus, the size of a Constant-Quality MPEG compressed file of a film will depend on the visu al complexity of the various film scenes, not just on the length of the film. Also, since a given quality level can be guaranteed, the specific run of an MPEG+ encoder can optimize quality versus file size for a given application.”
Driving for even more interoperability, all equipment during the Jurassic trial used the emerging Digital Theatre Interim Mastering format (DTIM). “The DTIM standard relates to the resolution and color depth of the digital master that the studio releases,” Bruns explains. “In this particular case, the digital master was 1920 x 1080 deep, but the projector was only 1280 pixels wide. The projector electronics performed the down conversion, and the projector optics expanded the image back to the correct aspect ratio.”
“This interchange format enables one digital master to be played on multiple projectors from different, manufacturers,” says Universal’s Pierce, describing the advantages that make DTIM suitable for digital-cinema field trials. “Designed to be supported within current post-production system architectures, the DTIM sets the resolution of how images are captured off film, and ensures that proper color spaces are defined so that the final product is true to the original material.”
How long this material stays with the cinema operator is more “a question of business model in the relationship between exhibition and distribution than it is one of technology.” Bonness addresses the issue of conditional access diplomatically. “It’s a hotly debated topic with clearly drawn lines. Exhibitors want to retain as much control as possible to let the show go on, when and where, no matter what. On the other side, the studios prefer to authorize each showing individually. As an equipment manufacturer, Grass Valley would like to respond to whatever policy the industry can agree upon and provide the best possible infrastructure.” At the end of the digital engagement, physically speaking, data of the old film will be deleted while preserving the changeover-night tradition of readying the new film while the current program is still playing. Several software applications are already at work, beginning with the simplest level of actually starting the projector, reaching across networking and scheduling ca pabilities on the theatre level, to wide-area booking and delivery interfaces such as the one provided by Hollywood Software. Currently, exhibitors are masters of their multiplex domain, once the print is in-house. Future contracts will most likely include authentication models and address access issues that involve digital watermarking, signal scrambling, self-erasing and other such finely tuned programming code.
There is one thing, however, that everyone can agree on. “The industry does not want a closed, proprietary system,” Bonness continues. “They may want a turn-key system, but they want a choice of qualified manufacturers. Free enterprise and universally accepted standards will make the transition to digital projection possible.” Envisioning the future while drawing from events as they developed in the broadcasting industry, in her opinion, “we are looking at another year or two of experimentation, private demonstrations and full commercial try-outs. More vendors will be competing and offering their latest technology both on the projector and the server sides. In addition, we will see movie plexes where more than one screen is equipped for digital projection, so that exhibitors and distributors gain more experience as they follow the commercial life cycle of a film. Business models will finally be agreed upon. At the same time, interoperability questions will be worked through as quality standards are achieved and costs come down. All this will have to be resolved–and it will be–before we see installations surging to thousands and thousands of screens.”
Remembering what the original Jurassic Park did for the launch of digital sound or Star Wars Episode I for Dolby Surround EX or, further back The Robe for CinemaScope, Beth Bonness rightly foresees a wild card in the release of Star Wars Episode IT. “George Lucas has been known to want to see his film on more than just the existing digital installations.” May “the Force” indeed be with us all.