The UK digital 3D cinema explosion
29th Nov 2009 | 10:00
The talk behind the tech that's changing cinemas forever
The digital revolution
Cinemas are going through something of a renaissance of late, with a little thing called 3D bringing the public back to the big screen in their droves.
With the launch of Avatar set for 18 December, the UK's cinema chains are geared up for what should be a three-dimensional Christmas. But, with 3D being the norm for most cinema screens up and down the country, what makes a particular cinema stand out any more?
There's one thing that's allowing the smaller independent chains to compete with the big boys and that's the advent of digital screens.
London saw the launch of its first Sony Ultra HD digital cinema system this week, with the Apollo Cinema chain unveiling the Art Cinealta 4K projection setup to journalists at its Piccadilly branch.
The move is a significant one for the whole of the cinema-going public in the UK, as it brings in unrivalled picture quality to the big screen, with it the ability to play 3D movies in the best possible way.
At the event there were a number of industry heads and analysts discussing the technology and the industry as a whole. Among them was film producer and politician Lord David Putnam who called the advent of 3D digital cinemas in the UK nothing less than game changing.
"The growth in cinema and box-office revenue is remarkable," Putnam explained.
"2008 saw £170 million in sales, the best since 2004, and 3D is part of this. There is every indication that when films are shown in 3D and 2D, 3D is favoured by the public four to one. I do believe that in every sense that digital and 3D projection in general is the game changer in cinema."
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So, what exactly does make digital cinema game changing? Despite the obvious draw of picture quality for the consumer, Putman believes the lowering of costs for the cinemas themselves is also key.
"Digital cinema means lower print costs, and the fact you can update trailers at short notice, say in the awards season. This is something that was impossible in the days of 35mm."
Others in the industry also put cost as a major factor, not for the cinema owners but from the cinema-goers.
3D in 2010
3D movies are hitting cinemas at an impressive rate. In 2010 there will more than 30 3D movies hitting the big screen. Given that the technology brings with it a premium viewing experience, the industry expects that audiences are willing to pay that little bit more.
"Being able to attract and maintain a higher ticket price for 3D is huge," says Bob Mason, Managing Director of RealD, one of the companies equipping cinemas with the tech to play 3D movies.
"It's bringing back people to cinema who haven't been for a very long time. 3D is completely beating 2D at box office at the moment, so that highlights how crucial it is."
4 PLAY: Sony's digital 4K CineAlta system
When it comes to digital cinema, the minimum specification for screen resolution is 2K. This was something that Hollywood agreed on back in 2005.
Since then, every man and his dog has bought a Full HD TV, which essentially brings the same sort of image quality to the home: 1,920 x 1,080 pixels compared to 2K's 2,048 x 1,080 pixels.
Sony is hoping that its 4K cinema systems – which boasts 4x the pixel count of a 2K setup – brings picture quality exclusivity back to the cinema screen.
"The Holy Grail of digital was to create a new standard for images in cinema. That is why the DCI [Digital Cinema Initiatives] standard was created," says Oliver Pasch, Head of Digital Cinema Europe for Sony.
"So, why has Apollo gone straight to 4K? The Apollo auditoriums are built so you are sitting close to a large screen, so you really benefit from the detail which can be seen."
Pasch was quick to explain that, despite Sony playing the pixel-count game at the moment, we aren't likely to see 4K surpassed soon: "We are not going into the digital camera arena where megapixel count is increased every Christmas – it's all about quality."
SONY DEAL: Apollo Cinemas is installing the tech into 83 venues
The CineAlta 4K digital cinema is very much a forward-looking creation, and one that goes against the whole 'further away you are, the better the picture' notion which is what is used in the home.
On-screen pixel size for 4K is extremely small, approximately one quarter the size of pixels displayed by equivalent HD and 2K projectors. Essentially this means that if you are in the front two rows of an Apollo cinema kitted out with this technology, then picture quality shouldn't diminish.
"Having 4K as an image is a differential to the quality you can see in the cinema and what you can see in the home," explains Robert Arthur, Managing Director, Apollo Cinemas.
"So, having a 4K image means the images are better than in the home. If you don't have a 4K image [in your cinema], then there is not much difference to what you will see in the home."
Digital (cinema) Britain
In all there will be 83 Apollo Cinema screens in the UK which will be equipped with the Sony CineAlta 4K systems, a third of these will be 3D capable.
When asked whether the screens would survive if 3D wasn't an option in the cinema, Arthur noted: "4K works without 3D, but it will help bolster the box office."
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Compared to the US, the UK digital cinema sector is a small one. When it comes to Sony-equipped screens, America's biggest cinema chain Regal announced earlier this year that it was installing the technology into all of its locations (all 6,763 screens) within the next three to five years.
Also AMC Theatres is another partner, with 4,628 of its screens to get the 4K treatment by 2012.
The UK is getting there. With 500 screens already digital-enabled and more to come, Lord Putnam is positive that digital cinema is key to the UK film industry, believing that the technology "will be at the heart of the digital budget due to be reviewed soon."
It's not just picture quality and 3D that are set to bring in audiences, however. Both Sony and Apollo Cinemas are thinking about other ways to entice the punters. It looks as if they are looking at what the US is doing and taking a whole new approach to cinema going.
"From a Sony point of view we are already in the States bringing in music artists to cinemas and the launch of games on the big screen in Sony 4K. The ability for people to see the game on the big screen in 4K is amazing," explains Pasch.
CLOSE CALL: Even close-up, the benefits of digital are there
While Arthur is looking at the indie market: "having digital makes it easier to get the independents in. This isn't just a recipe for Hollywood but a wide range of things."
Whatever steps are made to bring people kicking and screaming from their TV sets to the multiplex, Putnam is very much in awe with just how much cinema has changed in the last 20 years: "It was a cold November day back in 1985 when I cut the ribbon of the first AMC multiplex in Milton Keynes – how things have come on since then."