08 August 2014

Film-to-digital conversions in giant-screen cinema, GSCA and the "T" word

"Digital production of giant screen cinema remains controversial even as the 1570 film exhibition format on which the industry was originally founded is vanishing. Saying another's work looked like television was the big insult at the 2014 GSCA Film Expo." -- Judy Rubin
Steve Schklair at GSCA Film Expo. Photo: James Neihouse. ©GSCA 2014.

The GSCA 2014 annual conference convenes in Toronto Sept 20-23. In March, the 2014 GSCA Film Expo took place in Austin, Texas. This report by Judith Rubin was first published at IMERSA.org.

Of late, the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) Film Expo has been a showcase for digital technology as well as a market to bring together producers, distributors and exhibitors.

Within the giant-screen cinema specialty sector, the changeover to digital cinema technology is taking longer than it has in mainstream cinema. This is due to challenges in achieving a satisfactory digital replacement for the high visual standard of 1570 film plus the sheer size of the screen - and also because there is a powerful emotional legacy that the community struggles with.

Some giant screen theaters (mostly flatscreen) now have digital projection, but a goodly number still rely on film projection, and so the GSCA screening venue must accommodate 2D and 3D projection in both film and digital. Attendees were supplied with two different sets of 3D glasses (RealD and IMAX). This year’s digital projection system was a temporary installation furnished by Electrosonic in collaboration with RealD and Christie. The three companies have formed an alliance to provide giant-screen digital cinema systems for theaters converting from film.

Giant screen film domes have their own unique challenges when it comes to digital conversion. One of the companies specifically targeting this market is Evans & Sutherland. E&S touts the 8K edition of its new Digistar 5, recently installed and getting high marks at The Dome in the Science Museum of Virginia. An industry demonstration will be hosted in this location on Oct 22, 2014.

The technical session included a first-ever from 3ality Technica, the leading company in facilitating 3D live action capture for motion pictures and broadcast. 3ality Technica CEO Steve Schklair, who has a background in special venue cinema, appeared on camera himself in the premiere demonstration of a live 4K digital 3D theater broadcast. 

Production of giant screen content has likewise voyaged into the digital realm - not exactly a new development in the sector, but one that remains controversial, and the controversy seems to have intensified as the 1570 film exhibition format on which the entire industry was originally founded is on the point of vanishing. At this gathering, the worst thing one producer could say about another producer’s work was that it looked like television - and many were not shy about their use of the “T” word. What they are decrying is not the use of digital capture per se, but a lack of the sweeping visual language that characterizes classic giant screen cinematography. It takes more than a giant screen to make a giant screen experience.

(Cinematographer James Neihouse's Aug 12 article for GSCA, "Bring Back Our Wide Shots," addresses this directly.)

With the digital shift, there is new variety available to giant screen theaters - an array of choices that some appear to find a bit intimidating in its complexity. Distributors are likewise facing a brave new world in terms of competition for screen share. DCI compliant systems or inset projectors may be desirable in order to attain ultimate versatility. Some of those shopping for new digital systems view their spaces as something like today’s multipurpose performing arts centers – wanting accommodation for spoken word and traveling live shows as well as the ability to screen alternative content along with the main menu of educational shows.

The plenitude of titles presented with space and astronomy content - such as In Saturn's Rings, which will be distributed by Tina Ratterman's company, BIG & Digital - made it clear that giant screen distributors are actively cultivating the planetarium market, and most mentioned plans for their new titles to be available in fulldome versions. Planetarium operators were present – we spoke to representatives of Tycho Brahe and of Fels Planetarium. Lisa Samford of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival attended, looking for ideas, trends, and content to showcase at the Jackson Hole New Media Symposium in Boston, September 17-19, which will use multiple venues in order to meet its goal of screening everything in its native format – not just during the Symposium, but also for the judging of the Science Media Awards.

National Geographic's "Mysteries of the Unseen World" was a standout in its integration of science visualization and storytelling, with high production values. It is narrated by Forrest Whitaker.

nWave Pictures reported good success with its unique marketing approach for "Galapagos: Nature's Wonderland," a key element of which is a very active role for narrator Jeff Corwin, who has made numerous personal appearances to launch the film in theaters, and has enthusiastically promoted the film to his own following on social media.

At the National Geographic sponsored luncheon, Bryan Boehme of Christie, Tony Petruzziello of Electrosonic and Judith Rubin chat during the GSCA 2014 Film Expo in Austin, Texas