THE BIG BRIGHT 3-D SCREEN

A third of theatrical release revenues since the opening of Avatar in December have come from a handful of 3-D films and when you consider that 125 features have been released in the same timeframe I’d say it’s all over but the shouting for 2-D. Call me bullish but the same pattern emerged when sound was introduced. Given that as background let us consider that the biggest source of revenue comes from the largest theaters with the biggest screens. So let’s consider the subject of the biggest 3-D screens. 

There are several methods that the movie industry uses for achieving big screen 3-D projection.  The biggest is IMAX™ 70mm which is in a class of its own because they use the biggest screens out there, up to 100 feet wide, and also because IMAX 70mm installations are so costly – far more costly than installations using 35mm or digital projectors.  Feature film print cost is one indicator:  A 3-D digital print is inexpensive; the hard drive might be a few hundred dollars, and it gets inspected and reused and distributed to theaters by means by a delivery service.  A 35mm 3-D print is about $800.  An IMAX 70mm feature 3-D print is about $45,000.  If the print makes money nobody is complaining, but we’re talking about a different animal with a different cost structure and ticket pricing. 

But there are other way to project on big theatrical screens, maybe not as big as IMAX 70mm, but up to 70 feet.  I’ll define anything from 50 to 70 feet as a big screen.  The average or median size screen in this country is something like 40 feet.  The great majority of theatrical screens fall into a range of 20 to 70 feet. 

The IMAX brand once meant “big,” but with the passage of time and the success of the stereoscopic cinema in general and stereoscopic release in IMAX in particular, give the costs involved in installing IMAX theaters using 70mm film (or actually two reels of 70mm for 3-D), IMAX made a decision to refocus their brand on 3-D and to offer a digital projection setup for relatively big screens – but screens that not as big as 70mm IMAX.  So they created a new IMAX 3-D system based on a 3-D digital theater.  A while ago there was a brouhaha from IMAX fans and observers who said, “Hey, you can’t call it IMAX.  It’s not 70mm, it’s not as big.”  But nonetheless IMAX has successfully rebranded itself as a 3-D format.   

Next let us next (seemingly) change topics and talk about the DCIP Initiative.  Digital Cinema Implementation Partners is essentially a buying consortium of the major theater organizations:  AMC Entertainment Inc., Cinemark USA, Inc., and Regal Entertainment Group.  They control about 40% of the theatrical theater screens in the United States.  These large chains were created through a succession of acquisitions and the DCIP Initiative is a way for them to have a group buying power combined with a scheme involving the studios and an investment bank to help finance digital projectors – not to finance stereoscopic projectors, but to finance digital projectors.  The DCIP companies are almost certainly going to use any new digital projectors that they purchase for stereoscopic projection because 3-D movies are making a lot of money and digital projectors are scarce. 

Important shows that are likely to draw big crowds open at multiplexes in the auditoria with the most seats or in several auditoria to optimize the film’s instant marketing momentum. It’s obvious that people like big screen projection; the sense of excitement is great and the term immersion is often bandied about for this kind of projection. Projecting on big screens is a key element to distinguish movies from home viewing and it makes the cinema exciting, not just because the screen is big, but because the audience is there to resonate with the event. Think sporting event. 

There is a way to project on big screens in these DCIP cinemas using a single projector, rather than two as used by IMAX, and that’s using the RealD™ XL ZScreen™ system.  I should point out that I was the Chief Technology Officer of RealD, and I played a part in the early days of development of that system. The RealD XL ZScreen projection system recovers lost polarized light that’s intrinsic to the use of polarizers for stereoscopic image selection, and the XL device is truly twice as bright as the original RealD ZScreen-based product.  It is at least twice as bright as the XPand™, Dolby™, and MasterImage™ products. That extra light is being used to project movies onto the largest theatrical screens. 

Whereas IMAX uses two coordinated digital projectors to project on a big screen RealD can do the job with one.  IMAX also claims that they have some way to improve the apparent sharpness of the image and they have some smart scientists working there and I bet they can; but let’s be clear about this: They have two 2K projectors, and the RealD XL system in effect has two 2K projector apertures. I cannot tell you which is better.  RealD uses circular polarization (with channel noise reduction) and IMAX uses linear. Both work well.  RealD uses 144 field-sequential repetitions per second and IMAX uses the standard digital rep rate of 24 fps. IMAX may have somewhat smoother motion because it satisfies the temporal symmetry requirement and it does not have the second order temporal artifact that can generate spurious parallax values when a horizontal motion vector of object points is generated. Pretty obscure this but there it is all the same and not too easy to notice. 

In terms of what the systems actually cost, I just can’t compare them because I don’t know enough.  Both require so-called silver screens. IMAX uses two projectors, and RealD uses one but the way to compare the financial impact on the exhibitors must include other factors such as the sale or licensing terms.  

Recently the DCIP companies jacked up the ticket upcharge.  3-D movies are shown for an additional charge compared to 2-D movies because they’re considered to be a special event. The average upcharge I’ve read is about $3.00 per ticket.  But the DCIP companies decided that they would charge an even bigger upcharge, and my surmise is that the rationale for this may be, in part, that they’re using RealD XL systems for bigger screens, and they figure (my interpretation) that these images are comparable to what IMAX is doing with its digital stereoscopic dual projection setup. IMAX imposes a relatively steep upcharge too based on its brand and image quality so maybe the DCIP exhibitors decided to follow IMAX’s lead because the RealD XL ZScreen can also project on big screens.  But of course the new upcharge is in place, so I believe, for all auditoria in the multiplex without regard to screen size.  So maybe the justification is based on image quality, or brightness, or that the movie is in 3-D, or just because the public will pay. 

As the reader may have surmised I am deeply concerned with the projection of stereoscopic films and in particular with projecting them as brightly as possible on the biggest screens.  Toward that end I helped start Oculus3D, the company I cofounded with Marty Shindler and Al Mayer, Jr. to bring 35mm-based stereoscopic projection to the many exhibitors who don’t want to go the digital projection route or pursue digital projection exclusively.  

There are two parts to the Oculus3D system: a new efficient 3-D print format in which rotated images (sideframes) occupy the entire Academy aperture, and an optical system.  The OculR™ optics use efficient lenses, plus a reflective section that rotates the sideframes, polarizes their images, and superimposes them on the screen.  We measure, open-gate for a 35mm projector running at SMPTE spec, an awesome 10- to 11-foot-lamberts (at the eyes through projector and eyewear polarizers).  That puts the Oculus3D systems on a par with the XL ZScreen and the digital IMAX solutions. 

Al Mayer, John Rupkalvis, and I designed the reflective portion, and the refractive optics are the work Mike Thomas of UniqueOptics.  There is no brighter stereoscopic projection coming out of a single projector.  Believe it or not, compared to the IMAX 70mm projection system, it’s also steadier.  That’s because the IMAX system uses two intermittents.  In the OculR system both images are moving in the same direction instant-by-instant, and the same amount. 

The quality of the Oculus3D image may seem unlikely when you consider that the 35mm infrastructure has been around a century.  So how can it be that at last there’s a way to project excellent 3-D using just one projector? It may be hard to believe that inherent in this infrastructure is the ability to project such a bright good quality 3-D image. Yet we have demonstrated it in many theaters and screening rooms in Los Angeles. 

The Oculus3D system is as bright as it is for a couple of reasons.  In the first place the sideframe format is efficient.  Next, it uses efficient optics that create, in effect, two optical systems using one big light pipeline for the refractive stages.  It’s like getting a two-for-one coming out of the single refractive pipeline, with the reflective portion of the system looking back at the lamphouse from two slightly different positions resulting in a very bright projected image.  

Given its high quality and given that the Oculus3D system doesn’t require buying an expensive digital projector; it’s a technology and a product that has significant advantages.  It can project on the largest theater screens with a 3-D image that will be brighter than that offered by most 3-D digital projection products. Exhibitors and studios have a choice.  Spend a lot of money on a digital system to fill a big screen, or lot less to get a 35mm system that will do a comparable job.  Since the biggest theaters have with the biggest screens have the most revenue potential, it seems like a no-brainer.

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