Whether the average moviegoer realises it or not, local cinemas are going through a major revolution, one that is perhaps as major as the one when cineplexes in shopping malls replaced the giant standalone inemas.
What we’re talking about here is the switch from analogue (i.e. celluloid film) projection to digital.
By the end of the year, the two biggest cinema chains in this country, TGV Cinemas Sdn Bhd (TGV) and Golden Screen Cinemas Sdn Bhd (GSC), will have completed the transition from traditional celluloid projection systems to 100% digital projection.
In fact, TGV, which has twenty cinemas across the country with a total of 164 screens, has already completed the move to digital projection, while GSC, which operates 28 cinemas across the country with a total of 238 screens, will be going 100% digital by year end.
The move will see the end of an era, where traditional projection systems using 35mm film, which has been used since the late 1880s, are being completely replaced by digital cinema projection.
With theatres now going digital, it won’t be long before celluloid film will be phased out forever and that’s something to think about.
Rise of digital
The switch to digital from a filmmaking standpoint has been inevitable — since the first Sony digital cine cameras were used to shoot George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Hollywood has been quick to adopt the technology.
Today, most American films are shot using digital cine cameras such as Skyfall, Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hobbit, The Avengers and Life of Pi.
Similar to how digital still cameras have completely replaced film cameras, the movie industry’s swift adoption of digital cine cameras means that manufacturers today are not introducing any more new cine cameras that use celluloid film.
In this era of special effects and digital editing, it makes sense for filmmakers to go digital — it simplifies the workflow because a digital file can be easily transferred to a computer where most of the work is now done.
If a movie was shot on film, on the other hand, the workflow would be far more complicated — once the footage was shot, it would have to be chemically developed, then scanned into the computer frame by frame.
From there, the special effects/editing would be done on the computer.
The problem is that once the edits and special effects are done, the movie would then have to be printed back onto celluloid frame-by-frame to be distributed to the movie theatres.
Just to give you some perspective, a typical movie takes up about 90,000ft of film and is stored in five to seven large canisters, each containing up to 12,000ft of film.
Multiply that by the number of cinemas and by the number of movies being released and you can imagine the logistical problems.
Unlike the switch from the traditional single hall cinema to the cineplex, the move to digital cinema projection yields real benefits to the moviegoer.
For one thing, having a digital file instead of celluloid film means that the quality of the projected movie never deteriorates over time.
Celluloid, being a physical medium, gets scratched and slowly degrades each time it is run through a projector, which results in a general loss of image quality with each subsequent showing of that film.
With digital projection, the movie is as clean and the colour accurate no matter how many times the movie is shown.
Digital projection also makes it possible for cinema operators to do things that were not possible before, such as to show films at higher frame rates. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was shown at its native 48fps (frames per second) in several digital theatres when it hit our shores at the end of last year.
This was not possible with traditional 35mm projectors, where the speed at which the physical medium runs through the projector is limited to 24fps because any faster would risk the celluloid actually ripping apart as it gets pulled through the sprockets.
While higher framerates themselves have had a mixed reaction — after all, moviegoers have been used to the “look” of a 24fps film for nearly 100 years — it’s undeniable that fast-moving action tends to look clearer at 48fps compared to 24fps, especially when it comes to digital.
Another advantage of digital cinema projection is that it simplifies the projection of 3D films.
While showing a 3D film was possible even before digital, it was technically difficult and showing it required two perfectly synchronised film reels to be projected at the same time.
With digital cinema projection the process of displaying a 3D movie is much easier and only requires a special synchronised filter in front of the projector lens.
Cost to convert
Converting a theatre with an existing 35mm projection system to a digital projection system is expensive. According to Gerald V. Dibbayawan, chief executive officer of TGV Cinemas Sdn Bhd, the cost of converting the company’s existing halls for digital projection is between RM200,000 to RM250,000.
Despite the slight savings in manpower (it takes fewer people to run a digital theatre), Dibbayawan says that there are no significant cost savings on the part of the cinema operator when switching to digital.
However, the conversion is a necessary step because the entire movie industry has simply moved to digital and 35mm film projectors are now no longer made.
The few existing film projectors still in operation can no longer be serviced adequately if they break down, simply because the company that makes them is no longer in operation.
“We actually have two 35mm projectors in our Sunway Pyramid theatre — one is still used while the other we are keeping to cannibalise from in case the one in operation breaks down,” says Dibbayawan.
The same goes for the Lotus Group, operators of one of the largest cinema chains in Malaysia showing Tamil and Hindi movies, in addition to the standard Hollywood fare.
“All our 24 cinemas around the country are already fully digital. We still have film projectors simply because you can’t resell them now even if you wanted to,” said Datuk R. Doraisingam, chief executive officer for the Lotus Group.
Currently 35mm projectors in local theatres are still used to show some local movies and advertisements, many of which are still distributed on celluloid.
This is likely to change however, as many local filmmakers, such as KRU Studios with their upcoming Vikingdom, are now switching to digital cine cameras to produce their movies.
Meanwhile, Hollywood productions are now almost totally distributed on a DCP (Digital Cinema Package), which is essentially a specialised encrypted hard disk drive.
The movie files stored on the DCP are transferred to the server residing in the projection room which will then be distributed to the digital projectors.
The use of digital files also means that the distributor has more control as to when the movie is allowed to be shown.
“With the DCP, the distributor can actually lock down the movie and set a date and time when it can be shown, say after midnight on a certain date,” says Dibbayawan.
Where in the old days, a projectionist would be responsible for switching film reels and spooling the film into the projector, now the modern digital projection system is largely automated.
The order of the advertisements, trailers and the movie itself are now set out for the entire week, with human interaction only when there is a problem or if there is something that needs to be changed.
The larger Digital IMAX theatres in TGV’s Sunway Pyramid and 1Utama branches are slightly different — apart from a larger screen and a more complicated sound system, Digital IMAX uses a two projector system which projects twin images on the screen to ensure a brighter image with better contrast.
For 3D IMAX movies, these projectors project slightly different images — one projector handles the left eye images while the other projects the right eye images which together produce the 3D image when viewed through 3D glasses.
On top of that, the IMAX Corp headquarters in Canada also gets a continuous data feed from the IMAX system here where the feed is constantly monitored and analysed to ensure quality.
Cinema of the future
The march of technology isn’t over yet for modern cinema — better audio systems and higher resolution projectors are waiting in the wings.
Even in terms of distribution, the DCP that is currently delivered from theatre to theatre may eventually go away in favour of a satellite transmission system that sends the digital movie files directly to the cinema.
It’s interesting to note that while cinemas have changed so much over the years, the number of moviegoers have only increased in recent years and so have the number of cinemas to support this increased demand.
Why do people go to the cinema even with movies now so easily available legally (and illegally), ready to be viewed on large screen TVs, tablets and smartphones?
“I always compare going to the cinema to going to eat at a restaurant. You’re not just there to satisfy your hunger, you’re also there for the company, the ambience and the experience,” says Dibbayawan.
“For a cinema, it’s all about the experience and it’s all about enhancing the experience for our customers. Piracy has been around for twenty-odd years but we’re still around. Enhancing the experience will help us to combat that.”
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