4K television, 4K phones, 4K streaming… the buying public is pretty familiar with the concept of increased resolution. Enrico Ferrari, regional sales head South and East Europe at Sony Digital Cinema 4K, explains why the cinema industry now needs to outpace technological evolution to retain its “ultimate viewing experience” reputation.
From the development of the first films in the late 1890s, through to the introduction of colour film, digital projectors and 3D technologies, our sector has often been ahead of the curve. In fact, compared to television broadcasters, the cinema industry had a near two-decade lead on providing colour content to viewers. More recently, we’ve been slower in transitioning from analogue to digital, while innovations in consumer technologies accelerated. If cinemas wish to retain a reputation as the home of the ultimate viewing experience — against competition from streaming services and UHD smart TVs — returning the focus to new technological innovations is essential.
Dawning of a digital age
In the second half of the 20th century the film industry faced the challenge of determining how to streamline film distribution while maintaining — and boosting — the quality of the images it could project. It was not until the 1990s, when the first Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector was publicly demonstrated, that the industry began to move into the digital age. When, in 1998 the first feature films were entirely shot, edited and distributed digitally in cinemas in the US, the technology was by no means mainstream. Films that ushered in this new era were a mix of oddities — including 1998’s “The Last Broadcast”, a “Blair Witch”-esque found-footage horror flick. A year later though, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was shown on a DLP projector and the technology was quickly seen as the future.
Refining and defining 4K
As one technology enters the market, its replacement is hot on its heels. In this respect, 4K projection made its first commercial debut in 2003, just as cinemas were starting to convert to the first wave of 2K projectors. Eight years on and 4K entered the cinema market with force — and began to appear in home televisions at a similar time. Cinema had comfortably led television on almost all advances in image quality previously, but as the 4K era dawned, that gap was closing dramatically.
Despite the advent of 8K, today we’re living in the age of 4K. Adoption in the home entertainment market has accelerated (in some cases faster than the move from standard definition to high definition) to the extent that 4K is now a staple of the modern consumer’s technological arsenal. Today, 4K resolution is commonplace in consumer televisions, in games consoles, and even in our smartphones.
Research from IHS Markit’s 4K household forecast expects the number of households with a 4K TV to grow to 335 million in 2020. In the UK, around one in five households is thought to own a 4K television — a figure that is growing rapidly. As appetite for 4K on the small screen gathers pace, and with more titles captured, distributed and promoted in this format, it is now for cinemas to capitalise on demand for 4K on the big screen, too. Many exhibitors have been treating audiences to the best 4K pictures for a number of years, nevertheless currently only around one-third of cinemas in the UK is 4K capable. To keep the crown as the ultimate movie-watching destination, cinemas should not ignore the power of 4K in future-proofing their business.
The theatre owner’s guide to 4K today
With the impending introduction of 5G streaming and rising internet speeds, as well as major leaps forward in large-scale 4K broadcasting, 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range technology, image quality is set to define the next era of cinematic innovation and consumer demand. By arming themselves with 4K, HDR-capable projection technologies, exhibitors will be set for years ahead. With many operators coming to the end of VPF deals made at the start of the digital transition, the timing is right, too. There are options to suit any theatre’s needs — whether that’s a super-size 26m screen or a more intimate and cosy local art-house site.
As cinema operators will appreciate, laser projectors are currently leading the Premium Large Format market for 4K thanks to improved contrast ratios (such as on the Sony SRX-R815DS which has a contrast ratio of 10,000:1), brightness levels and HDR abilities. Such dual-projector set-ups are the leading solution for the biggest PLF screens in large cinemas looking to wow. But smaller cinemas don’t need to feel short-changed. Lamp projectors offer reliable operation, simple maintenance and low running costs and are able to deliver true 4K images on a smaller scale. Such systems provide lower cost light sources and easy lamp replacement. Models such as Sony’s SRX-R515P use six High Pressure Mercury (HPM) lamps that provide fantastic brightness as well as peace of mind: if one lamp goes the system operates with the remaining lamps, reducing the risk of lost shows.
What comes after 4K… 8K?
It would be naïve to think that 4K marks the end of the journey into improving the movie magic. Laser projection will continue to grow in popularity, and screen technology is evolving. Down the line we will see increasing diversification of the projection systems used in the cinema — Crystal LED, for example, provides incredible colour reproduction, and near 180-degree viewing angles. As the PLF sector grows, new forms of screen technology such as this will become a further option for those looking to offer the largest, most immersive system. And in the future, such screens will be able to scale to resolutions beyond today’s 4K systems.
Beyond the image, we can expect to see experimentation with other technologies such as peripheral screens to the sie of the main screen, and 4D experiences. These provide a twist on the classic cinema experience, but the defining factor for the future of cinema will remain the improvements in image. Ultimately, one of the most rewarding reasons to work in the industry is to be a part of its evolution. Cinema itself has been the home of innovation in imagery since the moving image sector began — it would be a shame if it loses the title to television. To avoid this, theatres must not lose sight of the importance of remaining at the cutting-edge. We know that the next era of film-making, distribution and viewing will be more competitive but also more exciting, than ever before. Theatre owners should channel the spirit of technological innovation of the past to remain pioneers at the forefront of the cinematic revolution in the future.
Selling the benefits of 4K
A 4K image on a cinema screen contains 4096 × 2160 pixels. That level of detail means pixilation is a thing of the past. Audiences can see the difference — especially when combined with technology such as HDR. Polling conducted by Sony suggests that 81% of viewers prioritise 4K screenings over other formats (Sony audience poll, Nov-Dec 2017). But not all 4K screens are created equal, however. While the 4K image on a cinema screen and a television screen may have a similar (though not identical) number of pixels, that doesn’t mean equivalent detail — cinema servers use a higher bandwidth. For example, a Blu-ray film might be encoded at 48Mbit/s while digital cinema can be encoded at 10x that, at 500Mbit/s. Cinema has greater detail in each pixel per frame — making for a more impressive image, a point not always conveyed to audiences by the simple addition of a “4K” tag.
Image quality aside, 4K offers greater flexibility and revenue opportunities especially when you add content including 4K live for theatre, music, sport, opera and gaming. Today’s raft of 4K projectors are energy-efficient and reliable and higher-end PLF dual projectors (such as those supported by Sony’s FINITY branding) come with marketing materials to help educate audiences.