Digital cinema

Digital cinema refers to the use of digital technology to Capture, distribute, and project motion pictures. A movie can be distributed via hard drives, optical disks (such as DVDs and Blu-ray Discs) or satellite and projected using a digital projector instead of a conventional film projector. Digital cinema is distinct from high-definition television and, in particular, is not dependent on using television or high-definition video standards, aspect ratios, or frame rates. Digital projectors capable of 2K resolution began deploying in 2005, and since 2006, the pace has accelerated (2K refers to images with 2,048 pixels of horizontal resolution).



Digital media playback of hi-resolution 2K files has at least a 20 year history with early RAIDs feeding custom frame buffer systems with large memories. Content was usually restricted to several minutes of material.

Transfer of content between remote locations was slow and had limited capacity. It wasn't until the late 1990s that feature length projects could be sent over the 'wire' (Internet or dedicated fiber links).

There were many prototype systems developed that claim a first in some form of digital presentation. However, few of these had a significant impact on the advance of the industry. Key highlights in the development of digital cinema would likely include: demonstrations by TI of their DMD technology, real-time playback of compressed hi-resolution files by various vendors, and early HD presentations from D5 tape to digital projectors.

Standards development

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers began work on standards for digital cinema in 2000. It was clear by that point in time that HDTV did not provide a sufficient technological basis for the foundation of digital cinema playback. (In Europe and Japan however, there is still a significant presence of HDTV for theatrical presentations. Agreements within the ISO standards body have led to these systems being referred to as Electronic Cinema Systems (E-Cinema).)

Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) was formed in March 2002 as a joint project of many motion picture studios (Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios) to develop a system specification for digital cinema. In April 2004, in cooperation with the American Society of Cinematographers, DCI created standard evaluation material (the ASC/DCI StEM material) for testing of 2K and 4K playback and compression technologies. DCI published their specification in 2005.

Claims to significant events

The development of Digital Cinema was a broad-based industry project involving many companies and development teams. Many instances of video or digital playback occurred during the early 2000s and claims to significance for the development of the industry vary.

[There is insufficient context and verified history to determine the influence and impact of many of these early demonstrations. However, presented herein are claims for significant developments]

Technology Demonstrations

One claim for the first digital cinema demonstration comes from JVC. On March 19, 1998, they collaborated on a digital presentation at a cinema in London. Several clips from popular films were encoded onto a remote server, and sent via fibre optic for display to a collection of interested Industry parties.

The Last Broadcast apparently made cinematic history on October 23, 1998, when it became the first feature to be theatrically released digitally, via satellite download to theaters across the United States. An effort headed by Wavelength Releasing, Texas Instruments, Digital Projection Inc. and Loral Space, it successfully demonstrated what would become a template for future releases. In 1999, it was repeated utilizing QuVIS technology across Europe, including the Cannes Film Festival, making The Last Broadcast the first feature to be screened digitally at the Cannes Film Festival.

Several feature films were shown in 1999 using DLP prototype projectors and early wavelet based servers. For example, Walt Disney Pictures Bicentennial Man was presented using a Qubit server manufactured by QuVIS of Topeka, Kansas. DVD ROM was used to store the compressed data file. The DVD ROMs were loaded into the QuBit server hard drives for playout. The file size for Bicentennial Man was 42 GB with an average data rate of 43 Mbit/s.

System Prototyping

In 2000, Walt Disney, Texas Instruments and Technicolor with the cooperation of several U.S. and international exhibitors, began to deploy prototype Digital Cinema systems in commercial theatres. The systems were assembled and installed by Technicolor using the TI mark V prototype projector, a special Christie lamphouse, and the QuBit server with custom designed automation interfaces.

On February 2, 2000, Philippe Binant, technical manager of Digital Cinema Project at Gaumont in France, realized the first digital cinema projection in Europe with the TI mark V prototype projector.

Technicolor manufactured the DVDs for uploading on these test systems and was responsible for sending technicians out to the locations for every new feature film that was played. The technicians would typically spend ten or so hours to load the files from the DVD to the QuBit, set up the server to play the files, and then set up the projector. A full rehearsal screening of the feature was mandatory as was the requirement to have back up DVDs and backup QuBits available should something fail.

The systems were eventually replaced or upgraded after TI made improvements to the projectors and Technicolor developed a purpose-built digital cinema server in a venture with Qualcomm. The new systems were called AMS for Auditorium Management Systems and were the first digital cinema servers designed to be user friendly and operate reliably in a computer-hostile environment such as a projection booth, especially some union booths[citation needed]. Most importantly, they provided a complete solution for content security[citation needed].

The AMS was originally designed to leverage Technicolor's DVD manufacturing and distribution arm but when the first feature came to post production too late for reproduction Technicolor leveraged the AMS removable hard disk drives to the transport the files. This eliminated the time required to upload the DVD ROMs to the local hard drives and provided the ability to switch programs quickly. For security, the AMS used a media block type system that placed a sealed electronics package within the projector console. The server output only Triple DES encrypted data and the media block did the decryption at the point just before playout.

The first secure encrypted digital cinema feature was Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones by Cinecomm Digital Cinema (then led by Russell J. Wintner). This first digital delivery and exhibition of a full-length feature film to paying audiences is widely considered to be the defining moment for digital cinema's commercial viability. The film was transmitted and then shown digitally in theatres both in Paramus, New Jersey and Los Angeles, California. The system functioned well but was eventually replaced because of the need to create a standard data package for D-cinema distribution.

The First Digital Cinema Network enabling digital delivery directly to the theaters was built by Digital Cinema Solutions in 2002. The company was founded by James Steele. The network was built as a vehicle to play the BMW Film Series The Hire in movie theaters . In a partnership with Microsoft , Steele connected 28 of the top Independent Art Houses in the United States including many Landmark Theaters, The Angelikas in New York and Houston, The Charles in Baltimore and many others. The first film to be distributed through the network was Artisan Entertainment's STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN. MOTOWN had its digital debut at the historical Apollo Theater in New York City . Following MOTOWN, Digital Cinema Solutions electronically distributed over a virtual private network close to 100 films until it was sold in 2005.

The first DCI-compliant DCP to be delivered Universal Pictures used their film Serenity as the first DCI-compliant DCP to be delivered shown to an audience at a remote theater, although it was not distributed this way to the public. Inside Man was their first DCP cinema release, and was transmitted to 20 theatres in the United States along with two trailers.

Stereo 3-D images

In late 2005, interest in digital 3-D stereoscopic projection has led to a new willingness on the part of theaters to co-operate in installing a limited number of 2K stereo installations to show Disney's Chicken Little in 3-D film. Six more digital 3-D movies were released in 2006 and 2007 (including Beowulf, Monster House and Meet the Robinsons). The technology combines a single digital projector fitted with either a polarizing filter (for use with polarized glasses and silver screens), a filter wheel or an emitter for LCD glasses. RealD uses a "ZScreen" for polarisation and MasterImage uses a filter wheel that changes the polarity of projector's light output several times per second to alternate quickly the left-and-right-eye views. Another system that uses a filter wheel is Dolby 3D. The wheel changes the wavelengths of the colours being displayed, and tinted glasses filter these changes so the incorrect wavelength cannot enter the wrong eye. XpanD makes use of an external emitter that sends a signal to the 3D glasses to block out the wrong image from the wrong eye.


To match or improve the theater experience of movie audiences, a digital cinema system must provide high-quality image and sound. Additionally, theater managers require video server controls for managing and displaying content in multiple theaters, and movie studios want their content encrypted with secure delivery, playback, and reporting of playout times to the film distribution company.

Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a joint venture of the six major studios, published a system specification for digital cinema. Briefly, the specification calls for picture encoding using the ISO/IEC 15444-1 "JPEG2000" (.jp2) standard and use of the CIE XYZ color space at 12 bits per component encoded with a 2.6 gamma applied at projection, and audio using the "Broadcast Wave" (.wav) format at 24 bits and 48 kHz or 96 kHz sampling, controlled by an XML-format Composition Playlist, into an MXF-compliant file at a maximum data rate of 250 Mbit/s. Details about encryption, key management, and logging are all discussed in the specification as are the minimum specifications for the projectors employed including the color gamut, the contrast ratio and the brightness of the image. While much of the specification codifies work that had already been ongoing in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the specification is important in establishing a content owner framework for the distribution and security of first-release motion picture content.

Digital cinema conforming to the DCI Standard is referred to within the film industry as D-Cinema while all other forms of digital cinema are referred to as E-Cinema. Thus, while D-Cinema is a defined standard, though one that is still partly being framed by SMPTE as of 2007, E-Cinema may be anything, ranging from a DVD player connected to a consumer projector to something that approaches the quality of D-Cinema without conforming to some of the standards. Even D-Cinema itself had evolved over time before the DCI standards were framed. However, the current DCI standards were made with the intention of standing the test of time, much like 35 mm film which has evolved but still retained compatibility over a substantial part of a century.

In addition to DCI's work, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) released its Digital Cinema System Requirements. The document addresses the requirements of digital cinema systems from the operational needs of the exhibitor, focusing on areas not addressed by DCI, including access for the visually impaired and hearing impaired, workflow inside the cinema, and equipment interoperability. In particular, NATO's document details requirements for the Theatre Management System (TMS), the governing software for digital cinema systems within a theatre complex, and provides direction for the development of security key management systems. As with DCI's document, NATO's document is also important to the SMPTE standards effort.

Digital capture

Further information: Digital cinematography

As of 2009[dated info], the most common acquisition medium for digitally projected features is 35 mm film scanned and processed at 2K (2048×1080) or 4K (4096×2160) resolution via digital intermediate[citation needed]. Most digital features to date have been shot at 1920×1080 HD resolution using cameras such as the Sony CineAlta, Panavision Genesis or Thomson Viper. Cameras such as the Arri Alexa can capture 2K resolution images, the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company's Red One and Red Scarlet can record 4K, the Red Epic 5K, and Sony's F65 CineAlta camera can record 4K down-sampled from 8K. The marketshare of 2K projection in digital cinemas is over 98%. Development of the 4K Dalsa Origin was terminated by Dalsa Corporation in 2008.

Digital post-production

Further information: Digital intermediate

In the post-production process, camera-original film negatives (the film that physically ran through the camera) are scanned into a digital format on a scanner or high-resolution telecine. Data from digital motion picture cameras may be converted to a convenient image file format for work in a facility. All of the files are 'conformed' to match an edit list created by the film editor, and are then color corrected under the direction of the film's staff. The end result of post-production is a digital intermediate used to record the motion picture to film and/or for the digital cinema release.

Digital mastering

When all of the sound, picture, and data elements of a production have been completed, they may be assembled into a Digital Cinema Distribution Master (DCDM) which contains all of the digital material needed for projection. The images and sound are then compressed, encrypted, and packaged to form the Digital Cinema Package (DCP).

Digital projection

Early DLP projectors, which were deployed primarily in the U.S., used limited 1280×1024 resolution or the equivalent of 1.3 MP (megapixels). Digital Projection Incorporated (DPI) designed and sold a few DLP Cinema units when TI's 2K technology first debuted but then abandoned the D-Cinema market while continuing to offer DLP-based projectors for non-cinema purposes. Although based on the same 2K TI "light engine" as those of the major players they are so rare as to be virtually unknown in the industry. They are still widely used for pre-show advertising but not usually for feature presentations.

There are currently two types of projectors for digital cinema: TI's Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) and Sony.

Digital Cinema Initiatives

The DCI specification for digital projectors calls for two levels of playback to be supported: 2K (2048×1080) or 2.2 MP at 24 or 48 frames per second, and 4K (4096×2160) or 8.85 MP at 24 frames per second.

Three manufacturers have licensed the DLP Cinema technology developed by Texas Instruments (TI): Christie Digital Systems, Barco, and NEC.

  • Christie, long established in traditional film projector technology, is the maker of the CP2000 and CP4000 (4K) line of projectors—the most widely deployed platform globally (approximately 20,000 units in total).
  • Barco designs and develops visualization products for a variety of selected professional markets including digital cinema. Their DP2K-32B digital cinema projector holds a Guinness World Record for the brightest projector with a brightness of 43,000 center lumens. Next to the DP series of 2K digital cinema projectors, Barco has a range of 4K digital cinema projectors, including the DP4K-32B (for screens up to 32 meters), the first DCI-compliant enhanced 4K DLP cinema® projector on the market.
  • NEC currently manufactures the Series II NC1200C, NC2000C and NC3200S 2K projectors for large, medium and small screen respectively, and the NC3240 in 2011 to represent the first generation 4k NEC DCI projector. NEC's Starus Digital Cinema Server system, as well as other equipment, is used to connect PCs, analog/digital tape decks and satellite receivers, DVD, and off-air broadcast, and so on, for pre-show and special presentations.

Other manufacturers have been developing digital projector technology, but these have not yet been deployed into cinemas and are not commercially available in versions that conform to the DCI specification.

While NEC is a relative newcomer to Digital Cinema, Christie is the main player in the U.S. and Barco takes the lead in Europe and Asia. As of January, 2009, there are more than 6,000 DLP-based Digital Cinema systems installed worldwide, of which 80% are located in North America.

Sony (SXRD)

The other technology is made by Sony and is labeled "SXRD". The projectors, SRXR220 and SRXR320, offer 4096×2160 (4K) resolution and produce four times the number of pixels of 2K projection. Included in the system is a playback server (LMT-300) along with the ability to show alternative content through the system's 2 input options. Sources could be anything from a Blu-ray Disc player to satellite feeds, yet Sony's systems are priced competitively with the lower resolution 2048×1080 (2K) or 2.2 MP (megapixels) DLP projectors.

Live broadcasting to cinemas

Digital cinemas can deliver live broadcasts from performances or events. For example, there are regular live broadcasts to movie theaters of Metropolitan Opera performances.

In February 2009, Cinedigm screened the first live multi-region 3D broadcast through a partnership with TNT. Previous attempts have been isolated to a small number of screens.

In December 2011, the series finale of Strictly Come Dancing was broadcast live in 3D in selected cinemas .


Impact on distribution

Digital distribution of movies has the potential to save money for film distributors. To print an 80-minute feature film can cost US$1,500 to $2,500, so making thousands of prints for a wide-release movie can cost millions of dollars. In contrast, at the maximum 250 megabit-per-second data rate (as defined by DCI for digital cinema), a feature-length movie can be stored on an off the shelf 300 GB hard drive for $150 and a broad release of 4000 'digital prints' might cost $600,000. In addition hard drives can be returned to distributors for reuse. With several hundred movies distributed every year, the industry saves billions of dollars.

The film industry has been dominated by a small number of distributors for many years due to a high barrier of entry for new competition. This is caused by high costs and a lack of access to well-established production and distribution networks. By replacing film prints with hard disks the barrier to entry is significantly reduced, opening the market to competition.

The digital cinema rollout was stalled (as can be seen by major equipment purchases and future commitments to new equipment during this time); exhibitors acknowledged that they would not purchase equipment to replace projectors since the savings would be seen not by themselves but by distribution companies. The Virtual Print Fee model was created to address this (some claim by Frank Stirling at Boeing - Boeing was involved in digital cinema deployment at that time) and this was successfully done, accelerating the rollout of this technology and with it the reduction of the barrier to entry. Given that digital projectors make low volume distribution at last an economic possibility it is the studios' support of the VPF model that has accelerated the introduction of competition, both in terms of alternative distributors and also alternative content including cinematic series.

Alternative content

An added incentive for exhibitors is the ability to show alternative content such as live special events, sports, pre-show advertising and other digital or video content. Some low-budget films that would normally not have a theatrical release because of distribution costs might be shown in smaller engagements than the typical large release studio pictures. The cost of duplicating a digital "print" is very low, so adding more theaters to a release has a small additional cost to the distributor. Movies that start with a small release could scale to a much larger release quickly if they were sufficiently successful, opening up the possibility that smaller movies could achieve box office success previously out of their reach. Alternate content is also finding a market in 3rd world countries in which the higher costs and quality of DCI equipment are not yet affordable.

Greater protection for content

A last incentive for copyright holders for digital distribution is the possibility of greater protection against piracy. With traditional film prints, distributors typically stagger the film's release in various markets, shipping the film prints around the globe. In the subsequent markets, pirated copies of a film (that is, a cam) may be available before the movie is released in that market. A simultaneous worldwide release would mitigate this problem to some degree. Simultaneous worldwide releases on film have been used on The Da Vinci Code, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Mission: Impossible III amongst others. With digital distribution, a simultaneous worldwide release would not cost significantly more than a staggered release.


On the downside, the initial costs for converting theaters to digital are high: $150,000 per screen on average. Theaters have been reluctant to switch without a cost-sharing arrangement with film distributors. A solution is a temporary Virtual Print Fee system, where the distributor (who saves the money of producing and transporting a physical copy) pays a fee per copy to help finance the digital systems of the theaters.

While a theater can purchase a film projector for US$50,000 and expect an average life of 30–40 years, a digital cinema playback system including server/media block/and projector can cost 3–4 times as much, and is at higher risk for component failures and technological obsolescence. Experience with computer-based media systems show that average economic lifetimes are only on the order of 5 years with some units lasting until about 10 years before they are replaced.

Archiving digital material is also turning out to be both tricky and costly. In a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be "enormously higher - 1100% higher - than the cost of storing film masters." Furthermore, digital archiving faces challenges due to the insufficient temporal qualities of today's digital storage: no current media, be it optical discs, magnetic hard drives or digital tape, can reliably store a film for a hundred years, something that properly stored and handled film can do.