Sidestep: The Technologies Of the Movies


For two days prior to the annual National Association of Broadcasters show last week, 600 or so of the movie industry’s technological brain trust gathered to talk about the state of the state.

(The two days were a Saturday and a Sunday, and the venue was Las Vegas — yet for both days the room was packed.)

In the movie industry, tech people hang out in a group called the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, or SMPTE. It was SMPTE that hosted the two-day gathering, called the “Digital Cinema Summit.”

Here’s how it’s different, right off the bat, from the tech activities on the cable/broadband side of the house: 3D glasses were distributed early on, for the movie clips that interspersed the deep-dive presentations. Lots of clips. Very nice touch.

For me, a newcomer to the tech-Hollywood scene, the big revelation was this: 3D (or “stereoscopic imaging,” as it’s called in the trade) is no-joke for-real this time, especially on 40-foot or larger screens.

Theater owners love it, to differentiate themselves against the home-theater movement. Movie makers like it, because it deepens the tools of dramatic storytelling. And, finally, digital camera and projector technologies are powerful enough to do 3D without it looking gimmicky.

Some numbers: Of the 29,000 movie screens in the U.S. right now, about 5,000 are outfitted to receive and display movies digitally. Of those, 1,200 can display 3D movies. From the viewpoint of theater owners, who bear much of the cost burden of going digital, 3D is probably the best reason to do it. Why: Box office revenues for 3D events last year were two-to-three times higher than for the 2D versions of the same titles.

On the creative side, a handful of movies will be done in 3D this year. Upwards of 10 major motion pictures will be in 3D in ’09. The race will be in getting more cinema screens outfitted to display them.

My favorite bit of a rampant amount of tech-talk from Digital Cinema: “Cross-talk,” which has nothing to do with the cross-talk we talk about in signal distribution.

In 3D, cross-talk happens when images meant to be interpreted by one eye bleed into the visual space of the other eye, which, as one speaker pointed out, “can cause immediate nausea.”

Maybe it’s the newbie factor, but, the Digital Cinema Summit was one of the better tech events I’ve attended in a long time. Finding technologies on the brink between nausea and nirvana? Sure beats polarization modal dispersion.

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