The factory of dreams

From Cinechrome to 3D: we look back at 100 years of innovation in cinema projection engineering.

For over one hundred years the technology of 'throwing' a moving picture onto a wall remained largely unchanged, enhanced only by such developments as sound and colour. But in May 2002, 'Star Wars Episode II, Attack of the Clones', entered history as the very first all-digital live-action feature film. Not a single roll of film was exposed during production, and in digitally-equipped cinemas only a USB external hard-disk was needed to show the movie.

Not all cinemas, however, were equipped with digital projectors, and for many, particularly the smaller independents, the costs of upgrading to them were - and still are - prohibitive. Also, it was easy to overlook the benefits when the old method of film distribution and projection seemed to work perfectly well and had done so for the whole of the 20th century.

No matter, the digitisation of cinema has continued. According to cinema analyst company Screen Digest, at the end of 2007, 5.5 per cent of the world's modern screens were digital. Predicting that by 2012 this will rise to 48 per cent, Screen Digest says the digital conversion will cost approximately $10bn worldwide over the next ten years. The current standard, 35mm film, is a technology in its autumn years.

This is not the first time a disruptive technology has required the overthrow of existing cinema equipment. While shining a bright light through a celluloid strip has been the enduring cinema technique, the 20th century is littered with machinery and equipment that emerged at the wrong time, or didn't quite work. 

The importance of cleanliness

At the Curzon cinema in Clevedon, UK, resides a branch of the National Museum of Cinema Technology (the main collection is at Bletchley Park). Beneath the cinema-goers seats, deep within the red-brick fabric of the picture house, Maurice Thornton, the curator, lovingly cleans and displays the wealth of vintage projectors, lamps, cameras and sound systems.

"Almost certainly, it's the oldest continuously operated cinema in Britain," he explains as he cranks the handle of a 1916 Cinechrome projector known simply as 'The Cinchro'. In front of the projection lens, the whirring, unguarded shutter, like a high-speed fan, is a hazard to a projectionist's fingers. The shutter smoothes the projection as the film moves between frames, but the then standard of 16 frames per second makes the picture flicker and dance. Modern film runs at 24 frames per second, he explains.

Even in 1916, the technology fundamentals were pretty much as they remained until the advent of digital, says Thornton, and adds: "There was no change in principal from the 1880s onwards." He points to the "intermittent mechanism" that pulls the film from the reel and exposes one frame at a time to the light source. The frame is held static, momentarily, before the next one is advanced.

Thornton has worked as a cinema projectionist since leaving school and recalls the projection rooms in big-chain cinemas like Odeon or Granada had to be kept spotless with daily cleaning regimes and severe reprimand, or even firing, for transgression. "Floor polishing was my first job," he recalls, "We used a great big bumper, just like we'd done in the Navy." It was a discipline necessary for the profession of projectionist at the time. Some films required several spool changes, involving switching from one projector to another with precise timing to synchronise the picture.

Such practices ended at the Curzon with the advent of single-reel films. Each reel contains 13,500 feet of film, or approximately 140 minutes. At about four feet across, the reels look like wagon wheels stuck on the side of the projectors.

Thornton is unimpressed by the new and compact NEC 800C digital projector the cinema has in place of a second reel to reel. For him, something of the magic has been lost since, "anyone can do it now". He's disparaging of the technology believing, for all the expense, it will break down more often. "That won't be here in 100 years," he says, unlike some of the other working projectors in the collection.

Cinema in revolution

He won't stop the revolution however. The future belongs to digital projection. "The financial benefit is clear-cut, in print cost savings of around $1.5bn a year, and this explains the emphasis on distributor savings in the financial models being built to finance the digital conversion," according to Screen Digest.

Charlotte Jones, cinema analyst at Screen Digest, describes the additional flexibility digital cinemas can achieve, "They can screen alternative content - live opera or live sporting events, and these are proving quite popular with audiences. They can also use the screen during 'downtime' for a matinee session, or a on a Monday morning. Rather than just a film schedule in the evening, they can target whenever the audience is there."

In digital projection, each pixel is formed by the wobble of a tiny mirror in a bright light directing the reflection towards the screen. Rather like the flashing mirror signal seen in old cowboy films, the more the mirror reflects the light towards the screen, the brighter the pixel, and with an array of mirrors (2048x1080 or '2K') an entire picture can be created.

Currently, Texas Instruments produces the market leader, the DLP chip licensed in projectors manufactured by NEC, Christie and Barco, but Sony has engineered a so called '4K' projector (4096 x2160px), with the ability to project four times the information.

Triple flash

And one more cinema comeback is on the horizon - 3D movies. Digital 3D is set to become all the rage, with a number of big-hitting movies from Pixar already announced for a 3D release. As Jones explains: "This is really what is appealing to the exhibitors at the moment, it's really their business case in order to proceed with digital rollout."

You might think "Oh no! Not that rubbish, red-tinged nauseating cinema experience again?" But the DLP projectors are capable of producing flicker-free 3D, and you watch movies wearing polarising lenses - not through red and green cellophane. "You are using a digital projector and you have a much higher refresh rate between the left and right eye images. You are eliminating the previous side effects," explains Jones.

These digital 3D films can be projected at 144 frames per second, known as 'triple flash' . "It's much higher quality," claims Jones.

The technology has become so alluring that DreamWorks Animation, the studio famous for such hits as Shrek and Antz, has committed to only 3D production by 2009. "I believe that this is the greatest opportunity for movies and for the theatrical exhibition business that has come along in 30 years," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive officer of DreamWorks Animation. "Stereoscopic 3D technology gives us a real opportunity to significantly enhance the theatre experience."

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