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Trygve's Digital Diary /
July 27th, 2000
the debut of the instant digital theater

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On July 17th, the "instant digital theater" was put to the test with the premiere of the independent film series at Denver's Bug Theatre ( ), a turn-of-the-century movie house now used mostly for stage plays and live performance.

Turning it back into a movie theater for one night a month presented some challenges--because its calendar was full, it was necessary that the projection system could be set up and torn down quickly, and it was also essential to support a variety of source formats including betaSP.

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(here's a picture taken during setup with the house lights on--including overhead lights which are off the top edge of the photo)

cabling and hookup of the JVC G11u DILA projevtor

I ended up getting a JVC-G11 DILA projector, a Focus Quadscan scaler, a Sony UVW-1400A betaSP deck, an assortment of audio gear, crossovers, a JBL B380 subwoofer, and a 700-MHz Athlon system with Diamond Viper 770 for computer-generated source material (the video card wouldn't have been my card of choice, but it was what I had on hand and was adequate for the task).

Overall, it went extremely well--the entire setup and calibration, including running the power and sound cabling through the theater took just over an hour and there were no mishaps or disasters. The sound was good and the video quality and brightness was excellent, especially considering that the "screen" was a seventeen-foot moveable canvas backdrop normally used behind the sets used for plays.

Teardown was quick and easy, and the whole setup fit in the back of a van with plenty of room to spare.

The main downside was that because of the limited throw distance of the projector and how far back the screen was set on the stage, it was necessary to put the projector near the front of the theater, where it's more distracting and in the way. The sound level of the projector, while it would have been obtrusive in a home theater setting, was not a significant problem in a theater with a hundred people.

I'm somewhat puzzled by the poor performance of the Quadscan when using the component outputs of the betaSP deck: image quality, noise levels, picture stability, and detail in the lightest and darkest parts of the picture were better using the S-video output; testing the Quadscan on a different, higher-end, beta deck and with different source tapes showed the same problems with the component outputs and no amount of fiddling with the settings on the Quadscan seemed to fix this.

Audience and staff reactions were extremely enthusiastic; while the image quality and detail was certainly short of what can be achieved with 35mm film, the consensus was that it still bordered on the incredible for what could be done with a video source.

I have hopes that future submissions for the series will include material that has been generated and rendered at high resolutions without being converted to video and can be delivered straight from a high-end computer. That should be something to see


It's only a matter of time before electronic projection technology becomes commonplace in public theaters; the price/performance level of the latest generation of DILA projection units may well be reaching the threshold where it becomes practical.

The advantages to the movie theater operator are obvious: compared to conventional film projectors, adjustment, calibration, operation, and general maintenance are much easier. For a recent showing of the locally-filmed and produced dramatic film, "Picture of Priority" [ ] the complete setup, testing, and adjustment of the projection and sound system took a mere thirty minutes, despite the different placement of the screen which had been moved to make room for the live performances scheduled on that stage for the nights before and after.

Once it's set up, it simply runs. No reel changes or switching of projectors, no film to misfeed, and the entire system (or multiple systems) can be controlled by computer. Promo slides, animations, advertisements, etc., to be shown before the feature were all edited on computer and assembled into a presentation that runs automatically without operator intervention or monitoring. Video sources and program material may also be switched automatically, and a single central computer system could control all the projection systems within a multiplex theater.

A standard DV-format data stream is about 3.5 megabytes per second; uncompressed D1 is about 14 megabytes per second. Even at that higher data rate, not taking into account how much that could be reduced through high-quality encoding and compression, an hour of broadcast-level digital video would consume about fifty gigabytes of space.

While that might sound like a tremendous amount of data, fifty gigabytes of hard drive space runs less than two hundred dollars at current street prices. Compared to the cost of a single 35mm print, hard drives are very cheap--and they're reusable, don't get dirty or scratched, and last several years of continuous usage.

Which means that a fairly inexpensive array of hard drives could easily contain all the films being shown in a multiplex theater at a given time along with any advertising, short films, trailers, or whatever else the theater wants to show, and and the whole theater complex could be served and controlled from there

servers with drive arrays
Cannon XL-1 with stock lens

The significance of digital video technology for the independent filmmaker is greater still. To begin with, this type of digital projection system can provide filmmakers with a theatrical showing for projects which may not even exist in completed form on a film print.

If a project is shot on film, the footage is normally digitized and the editing is done on computer whether the edited version is intended to be rendered directly to video or used as a guide for cutting the negative from which prints will be made. Cutting the film negative and creating prints from the negative is very expensive and time-consuming. Digitizing the film as it's shot and then editing and rendering straight to video is not only far faster and cheaper, it also allows more flexibility in all aspects of editing, image manipulation, and special effects.

Affordable, high-performance, professional-level 3ccd MiniDV video cameras such as the Cannon XL-1, Sony DCR-VX2000, and JVC GY-DV500U bring serious straight-to-digital broadcast-quality filmmaking within the reach of the low-budget and independent filmmaker. Affordable HDTV recording equipment looming on the horizon may eventually rival film itself in image quality and detail while eliminating the time and expense of film stock, processing, and video transfer altogether.

  • New digital formats and high-quality digital video cameras make capturing images simpler, cheaper, and easier than ever before. Emerging HDTV standards may push the level of performance that can be realized in video even further while at the same time creating a demand for HDTV-ready content.

  • Advances in video processing, real-time image enhancement, and digital projection technology make it feasible to bring features, documentaries, and short films to the big screen without the expense of producing a completed cut negative and multiple film prints for projection.

  • The sudden expansion of high-speed internet access into the homes of consumers, together with improvements in web-based video delivery (see the multimedia library [ ] for examples of movie trailers and music videos in the three main web-based delivery formats: Real, Quicktime, and MPEG) create an entire new advertising and promotional channel--not only for major studio films and television series to interest and excite potential viewers, but one that's equally accessible to the independent filmmaker.

    Though even the best over-the-net streaming formats are still well short of what the video consumer is used to on TV, internet-based delivery of video entertainment is undoubtedly going to become an increasing segment of the market.

  • The Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America are already on strike over the making of commercials; in 2001 the strike is expected to cover the rest of movie and TV production as well.

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