Too much ado about digital? - Digitalisation and Survival Strategies.
"Never change a running system" The cinema industry is rapidly adopting this old saw from Information Technologists. While the computer industry recovered much faster than expected from the Y2K shock, the main players in the cinema industry are facing a much more fundamental shock: substituting massive streams of bits and bytes for 35mm film. The film stock of the future is already a hard disc. That was the news from the Consumer Electronics Show CES at the start of the year and the recent Show West here in Las Vegas that brought the film industry to attention.
At the Digital Cinema Summit at the NAB 2005 in Las Vegas it became quite clear that every sector of the industry is now acutely aware that the issues must be intensively pursued and given full consideration for all contexts, The technical specifications should be known by the end of the year and there is general agreement that the economic benefits of the transition should be clear to see by the end of the decade. Towards the end of the debate, questions from the floor concentrated on this issue, though the Chair of the discussion didn’t pick them up. The decisive factors for this irreversible development are now economic rather than technical. The defining sense of the debate was that the invited speakers could offer no clear answer. Only once, when the cost of projection systems arose, did the Chair respond to the tension in the auditorium, seemingly irritated, as she appealed for calm, then suggesting the price would be around US$65,000.
On the positive side, an intensive discussion between industry representatives produced two days of absorbing debate around the key themes, firstly the development and application of ‘metadata’, and secondly the configuration of workflow models between every technical component of the system, from camera to projection.
Presentations and lectures highlighted the extensive research and development commitments required to assure digitalisation can be applied successfully at every stage of production, post-production, servers and projection. The remark that was repeated again and again was the enormous complexity of the systems in their totality. At the same time, with the increasing interdependence of related systems, the issue of user friendliness has become paramount.
A persistent theme in the background of all these discussions is that the film and programme makers, everyone involved in production, can have no control over the eventual quality and character of the finished productions as they are presented to the public in different contexts. Even with 35mm film, everyday experience already shows that this is a general problem. All the same, one of the demands of the paradigm shift that gives cause for concern in the future, is the whole issue of maintaining the quality of a studio standard completed production to the end user, best at lossless level of quality , but most likely in a miasma of reformatted contexts.
The second area of debate that dominated the final discussions of these two days of dialogue, brought even greater demands on the famous faces on the panels. In contrast to most other areas of digital development, the cinema industry has one over-riding problem. Where most new applications have been associated with the sale of new technology to the customer, be that an i-Pod, or digital camera, the cinema going public must continue to do what they have always done, that is buy a ticket for the cinema.
The common goal from all sides of the industry is the assumption that projection quality in digital cinema must at least be as good as 35mm and preferably better, so that the audience either fail to recognise any difference from their familiar movie going experience, or best of all, see an improvement in the general quality of audio-visual presentation. The replies that came from the panels to these question were unanimous. Quality will be decisive, both in production and exhibition. Other voices pointed to the potential of new areas for development, such as 3-D cinema.
The quality of this Digital Cinema Summit was such that it was possible for the outsider to pick up both the tone and feel of the insider’s concerns, on themes where nothing has yet been said officially in public. It was equally possible to sense the limits of debate. ‘State of the Art’ will be a goal that will only be recognised once the limits of its definition have been surpassed. This is a perplexing factor and it means it is impossible to fix on a single voice to encompass the debate.
We therefore need to create our own framework for debate and pursue informal sources of information and discussion, the better to understand and make the issues comprehensible. The mistrust that is engendered by the absense of an authoritative voice leads in many situations to researchers and participants in the wider process of creating digital cinema to concentrate solely on their own areas of technical development without looking beyond the limits of their own specialisation.
The majority of developers are working intensively and will great commitment towards what will become a epoch-making development. Meetings like the Digital Cinema Summit make an important contribution to the wider progress of the initiative, however, with so many levels of involvement it is vital that the common goal is kept in sight.
The lack of definition of such a general goal, which has lead to significant misunderstandings on several sides should neither be underestimated, nor ignored.
The decision future success of events like the Digital Cinema Summit will lie in their capacity to see complex technical solutions incorporate responses from the pubic arena which have been debated and considered, taking into account the concerns and opinions of those not directly involved in the technical development work, or the potential uses of the technology by people who have not even begun to consider its potential.
For the first time we can see cinema owners and information technology specialist coming together in a completely new context. Their common credo, ‘never change a running system’, but both sides know from experience that to evade change will bring stagnation and decline. That goes not only for them, but for the entire industry.
These thoughts should remain in debate, indeed they must.