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And the Oscar goes to… European digital cinema

Europe is the market leader when it comes to digital cinema. But only a small share of what is produced globally is not on film roll. Poor interoperability, lack of standardisation and high costs have, in the past, slowed down expansion. Researchers are now finding ways to make it easier and cheaper to produce digital film.

Some like it sweet. And some like it salty. The choice in popcorn is pretty simple. And so it is in world cinema formats. On one side, there is old-fashioned and standardised film roll. On the other, pioneering but sometimes fiddly digital data.

In fact, the dichotomy is not quite as evenly split. Big money Hollywood film still likes wheels of reels and digital only has a small share of the world market. But the format is on the up and has the capacity to change the way we make and enjoy film, whether for cinema or for TV.

European researchers are ensuring that the technology moves forward and digital film is already on the verge of entering the mass adoption phase. Global figures show that non-reel film represents about 3% of the market. This may seem somewhat insignificant, but only about three years ago the figures were closer to 0.3%.

And experts predict that the rise will be exponential, with around half of the market going digital by 2012. “There was a very similar evolution when we switched from vinyl to CD. Technologies developed now will eventually be mass-produced,” says Benoit Michel, IP-Racine project spokesperson.

IP-Racine is a consortium of some 20 partners from a variety of different countries. The project aims to develop and integrate technologies and workflows to allow the digital cinema industry to deliver a more complete production chain. The overall objective is to offer a more enhanced experience for cinema audiences and facilitate the use of digital cinema technology in other media.

“We want to create interoperable equipment along the chain with compatible metadata and significant cost reduction,” says Michel. IP-Racine is working towards its aim through contributions to standards, the development of procedural rulebooks and the creation of hardware and software products.

The EU-funded project is carrying out development in a variety of fields, from data handling, storage and processing, to camera, projection and 3D technology. IP-Racine adapted existing technologies and also carries out some more experimental work, such as in the audio field, where America is currently ahead of Europe.

Scene to screen
In one test bed, the project connected an image overlay system with a green screen directly to the camera and was able, only a few milliseconds behind real time, to create a composition of the virtual set and the real actors, clearly improving the way movies are shot, reducing the cost, making it faster and easier, says Michel.

“The difference between other projects and ours is that IP-Racine has been carried out with cost and interoperability in mind. We started at a time when standards were still not established and we were the only ones to look at the whole cinema chain, from scene to screen,” he tells ICT Results.

Another IP-Racine’s test bed in December uses a digital Viper camera, which is the result of previous project research, and a green-screen environment. “In only three days, we will have produced a short film, with the image shot, postproduction done, colour correction, cutting and compression done, with the whole chain fully tested,” says Michel, highlighting the cuts in time and costs when compared to classic film production.

The result of the test bed and the overall project will be on show in January 2008 at the International Digital Film Forum (IDIFF) in Paris.

Versatility first
IP-Racine is confident in the growth of digital cinema, which has progressed rapidly in Europe, despite certain obstacles. Upgrading, for one, is often a bit slow, due to having to approach hundreds of companies controlling relatively small numbers of theatres in dozens of countries.

Quality is a feature of digital, but it is not the greatest driver for producers and end users. The most important factor is definitely versatility, suggests Michel. “Take Titanic, for example, [where] you know it is likely to be a big movie, but you have no way of knowing if it will be a huge blockbuster. So let us say you print 200 35mm copies. The film then exceeds expectations and you want to display it in 1000 cinemas. It will take you two months to make the copies! By that time it is too late. In digital, it is as easy as pressing a button and you have as many new copies as you want,” he explains.

And the versatility of digital means that the format is much more democratic. “Let us say a small producer has three copies of classic film roll printed, which then circulate from city to city. By the time the film reaches smaller towns, the copy is completely worn. The whole film project has a limited shelf life. In digital, you can produce a small film and open with it in 100 cinemas on the same day and there are no extra costs,” says Michel.

The IP-Racine project, funded under the EU’s previous research framework programme (FP6), is due to end in March 2008 after running for close to four years. There are some plans for future commercialisation and many of the partners are already involved in FP7 digital cinema projects, which will certainly benefit from the standard-setting work of IP-Racine.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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