August 28, 2007 Cinema has been proclaimed dead by critics more times than James Bond has by evil masterminds – but, as in Bond films, it’s unwise to make a prognosis before seeing the body firsthand. Despite a debate surrounding the pros and cons of the shift from film to digital technology in the movie industry, digital cinema screens are beginning to take a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic and new technologies are being developed that will aid this transition.
Whether they praise or fear it, most commentators agree that the exclusively digital production and screening of movies is inevitable. The constant improvement of digital technology means that it will almost certainly become cheaper and better than its celluloid counterpart, as well as offering exceptional picture quality and color reproduction, no shudder, no scratches and no noise.
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The Fraunhofer Digital Cinema Network has recently announced the establishment of digital cinemas in England which can screen digital movies at 4K resolution - 4096 x 2160 pixels, or eight megapixels. The UK has 18 digital screens in total, while the US has 1400, 12 of which have a Sony 4K projector. 4K is a milestone for digital cinema in that, unlike the 2K resolution predominant in 2005-2006, it comes close to replicating the quality of film – in fact, many proponents believe that it surpasses it. The Fraunhofer Digital Cinema Network has also done extensive work on digital cameras that record in 4K, with their ARRI-D20 already being used for HD filming; data storage systems that can handle the immense load of digital filming, with their 2 terabyte Megacine able to record up to one hour of uncompressed footage; and digital movie distribution technology, with their Digital Cinema Package able to contain film data, sound and subtitles, in either an encoded or unencoded format.
The company’s new omnidirectional camera system - in which five HD cameras are integrated in a rack with a mirror - will be able to shoot live panoramic pictures with an angle of nearly 150° and a resolution of up to 5K. “These high resolution panoramic pictures are interesting for the transmission of soccer matches, for example. In a public viewing situation the audience could experience the game as if they were in the stadium,” explains Peter Kauff of the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich-Hertz-Institut, HHI. The modular concept, which can also be rigged to capture 360° images, will be shown at the IBC in September along with other advances in the field including the ability to project onto arbitrarily formed surfaces.
A number of successful digital movies have been released in recent years including Superman Returns, Bowling for Columbine, Star Wars episodes II and III, Sin City, along with Spiderman 3 and Ocean’s 13, which were among the first big movies to be made in 4K resolution.
Digital cinema would also greatly simplify the distribution process – potentially allowing unlimited copies of the movie to be instantly broadcast or uploaded to cinemas as needed. Even the hard copy delivery of movies would be far cheaper – the hard drives or DVDs which store digital movies are far below the cost of film prints.
Critics have labeled the emergence of digital cinematography as akin to the“decline of high art”, with directors like Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Oliver Stone, reportedly refusing to use digital cameras to capture their projects. On the other side of the ledger, big names like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have been quoted as saying that digital cinema is not an end for the medium we know and love, but just a continuation, and perhaps even a new beginning.
As with all modern movie trends it’s not the critics or the creators who steer the ship, but rather the millions of popcorn chewing punters. So the jury is still out… and the proof will be in the viewing.