Interview: "What does quality mean in terms of digital projections?"

Thomas Hankel interviews Johannes Bernstein, CEO and founder of BIG cinema GmbH and native of digitalization in German cinema business.

Q: Mr. Bernstein, how was your impression about the cinema industry last year?
JB: Great. The selection of films is growing, more and more people go to the cinemas or open-air events. This is a great development.

Q: What changed in recent years?
JB: First of all the speed and availability of all kinds of films. This part of the logistics makes it especially interesting for smaller cinemas and open-air stages to respond to their target groups and their wishes. During the analog era this was possible for well-organized venues with a good knack for its visitors. But I am convinced that the quality of the screenings is highly important, since even small cinemas have 5.1 surround sound and a DCI approved image. Digitalization clearly increased the quality of the cinema experience. A similar effect happened in the eighties, when visitors experienced THX in the cinema and came because of that. Since only a very few own such a high-quality overall system in their living room, the visitors came home much more impressed.

Q: What is the most groundbreaking innovation for you?
JB: For me, it is the harmonization. The digitalization process in the cinemas is mostly completed. The technical differences between home, event and cinema equipment converge very quickly. Everything is interconnected and highly standardized. This creates great possibilities: UHD is available for the private end user in the home cinema. So now, the workflow is in demand throughout the entire chain.

Q: Chain? The projectors are still the weakest point, aren’t they?
JB: The quality of the projectors is judged usually by price, brightness and resolution. But quality in the area of cinema means first and foremost that the movie is reproducible "one-to-one"! In other words: the movie on the screen should just look exactly like the director has released it after postproduction. This is one of the major challenges, especially for multi-projections, projections in several halls or on several event days. De facto a newer, bigger and better projector is always nice to have. Bigger as well is indeed the challenge to control and to utilize this projector in the correct way. Even a system without a technical peak performance is capable of achieving outstanding results.

Q: How important are then higher resolution and brightness?
JB: As mentioned before – more is not necessarily better. It's about the reproducibility of the movie and the influence of the atmosphere, which affect the subjective impression of a projection experience. But within a certain framework it is possible to measure and control these impacts. Therefore many experiences and standard values within the cinema business exist that greatly help us. Concerning this development, we as a company have been a part of it from the very beginning.

Q: Keyword 4K - what is it all about?
JB: The development of 4K is similar to the one of HD ten years ago. Since Christie delivered the first 4K projectors in Europe in 2011, we observed the progress. Especially in the past six months several new products with lots of innovations have been released in the market. The standards in the cinema industry four or five years ago become currently relevant for the event and business industry – of course, with many enhancements. For the pure projection 4k more means more brightness and a much greater efficiency, because the 4K panel is slightly bigger than the 2K or HD panel. But, as mentioned before, this is just one aspect.

Q: Which factors are still relevant in terms of projection quality of 4K?
JB: In addition to the brightness – currently a laser illuminant can reach up to 60,000 lumens – a few other factors are decisive. First of all there is the increase of the frame rate, also referred to as “HFR”. The example “Hobbit” illustrates how a higher frame rate leads to a much more plastic and realistic figure. The appropriate HFR improves a previously good 2K content to an even better result. Latest projectors can do 4K with 60p or 120p. Another major improvement occurs within the camera technology. In this area HDR is an important issue, similar to photography where this is already standard. Basically, several exposure shots are brought together to one single picture – like a 3D camera rig but in the same perspective. In the meantime the apertures of the single cameras operate differently, in a way that they function simultaneously in the upper and lower exposure range. Therefore images arise that contains more details across the entire picture area. “Eroded” white and “flooded” black then belong to the past, except you want it that way.

Q: What are contras and current challenges in 4K?
JB: It changes the entire technical infrastructure. We need a lot more bandwidth, because a 4K image means likewise four times “normal” HD or 2K. So a string of consequences of preparatory work and rework is caused, which leads us again to the chain. At the time when HD emerged about ten years ago the make-up in the TV and movie industry became a lot more thorough. More and more details appeared and this circumstance generated disadvantages as well. From now on people who work in the field of broadcasting with 4K need to be forward-looking and conscious of the mentioned changes. Moreover good content that exploits the full potential of 4K is absolutely necessary. The entire effort within the chain changes exponentially, from shooting to distribution to presentation. For example Sony productions are way ahead within the cinema business, since a majority of Sony films are in 4K.

Q: Keyword “terminal device”: what is the impact of 4K for our normal lives?
JB: In the cinemas 4K arrived, in the business and event sector new products emerge currently and in the private sector the workflow needs to be created. Indeed, affordable UHD TV sets already exists, but we need to have a little patience concerning the appropriate players. There is definitely some room for improvement, but the developments are quite at speed.

Q: What is characteristic for professional projection?
JB: The reproducibility in terms of the screened content to a hundred per cent. All of the projectors have an extensive variety of settings. Usually the settings are adjusted in a way that everything appears subjectively well at the moment. However, the overall standard should be the one the director intended. In the cinema industry this is guaranteed thanks to the DCI concept. The implementation here happens with the help of special test patterns and measuring instruments. So white will always look the same white regardless of lamps or panel age. This standard also pervades the entire signal chain. In the event and business projection it is a bit more difficult. In these cases most of the time only settings are executed to harmonize different projector images (e.g. soft edges) in regard to color timing or brightness control. Especially at film festivals with several locations the challenge is that the movie causes the same impression no matter the cinema hall – the DCI standard is the only way to face this. A huge progress is the overall digitalization. For example, HD cameras at events are the rule rather than the exception. Besides the digital output formats align more and more: no one is coming to a festival with a PAL DVD anymore. In the cinemas the image and the sound are measured – we transfer parts of this experience to the business and event sector.

Q: What kind of equipment is used in doing so?
JB: Colorimeters, photometers and of course the measuring microphone for the sound. As compared to the dark cinema these items generate a huge advantage even under suboptimal conditions. For instance, the combination of event and cinema with music “live to projection” in concert halls. Stage lightning is an external influence that affects the projection. With the help of measurements these disturbing effects can be localized, reduced and ideally balanced. Thus films can be screened in an adequate quality even beyond familiar environments.

Q: That sounds like the typical harping on about norms and principles where only big players win.
JB: It is not only about norms and principles for distinction reasons. The great variety of opportunities will otherwise cause a vast and uncontrolled growth. So in the end, a standard based on DCI simply accomplishes better results. The viewer’s experience is thus the best possible which is a key aspect for the movie industry. The arising standards and workflows finally support the event and business projection to increase quality.

Q: How does the consumer recognize this advantage?
JB: That is quite easy. Technical and limiting factors become secondary, even at open-air cinemas the full attention is payed to the movie. If nothing distracts or disturbs the audience and the screened content prevails at any time so the audience immerses itself – then everything is fine.

Q: What is trend in digital projections?
JB: As with any technical development every new solution is affordable over time. But a lot more know-how is necessary to conceive the related quality gains. The trends are obviously system solutions, specialized operators and perfectly staged settings.

Q: Final question: Are you personally in favor of tightening the technology screw?
JB: Of course, because in the end the audience wins.

Factbox BIG cinema:
Johannes Bernstein worked as an individual entrepreneur in the cinema business since the nineties and founded the company BIG cinema in 2009. He is a pioneer and developer of system solutions especially for the mobile digital cinema projection technology. His company offers a comprehensive technical advice, the planning and implementation of professional digital cinema and projection events, such as drive-in cinema, premiere screenings, 3D screenings and film concerts with live music. The service portfolio also includes the rental and sale of digital projection technology by CHRISTIE.

Factbox DCI standard:
The DCI standard defines technical, quality, logistical and legal aspects of digital cinema. This is also known as the standard for "D-Cinema". These include quality aspects of projectors used, data rates and resolution, subtitles, copy protection methods, sound formats, color spaces and delivery methods and formats. The DCI is an umbrella organization of American film studios.