Digital Cinema at 20: Celebrating the Pioneers of a New Technological Revolution

Rick McCallum, the film’s larger-than-life producer, trumpeted, “This is a milestone in cinematic history… Like the introduction of sound and colour, these digital screenings represent the beginning of a new era in film presentation.” But the battle for this ‘new era’ had in fact started long before the opening salvo had been fired, with the ‘Star Wars’ digital opening very narrowly avoiding being pushed into historical second place by an ambush screening of a rival film, from a rival studio using a rival technology in a cinema, just across the river in Manhattan.

The Rank outsiders

It was Brian Critchley, appointed in 1986 to the post of technical and new ventures director of the cathode ray tube and valve manufacturer Rank Brimar, who raised a somewhat troubling question for the sister company Rank Laboratory: “What are you going to do when film is gone?” he asked. The search for an answer eventually took him to a research lab in Plano, Texas, which belonged to the well-known semi-conductor company Texas Instruments. The team there under Dr Larry J. Hornbeck had been experimenting with ways to deform mirrors to create an analogue lens. Originally envisioned as fibre-optic repeaters, these Digital Micromirror Devices (DMD) showed very early potential for pixel-based image reproduction.

In the UK, the Manchester-based Digital Projection International (DPI) division formed by Rank in 1987 began its R&D and by 1991 Rank Brimar was sufficiently convinced to sign a deal with Texas Instruments and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): TI would develop the DMD chip while Rank would develop the projectors, optics, circuitry and other pieces of the system. But the work proved complex. “Rank’s interest was cinema,” stated Critchley. “Therefore we needed a device that was bright, had high image resolution and deep [colour] bit depth. But at that time TI couldn’t make a device with all of those characteristics.”

By 1994, the first prototype projector was ready. Just three years later the American Motion Picture Academy choose the DLP technology to project that year’s Oscars. While it was only used to show brief clips from “The English Patient” and that year’s other winners on the big screens in the Kodak Theatre, TI had arrived in Hollywood. It was no ingenue that had just stepped off the bus, however. TI had been preparing for the big screen for years.

Pioneering Hollywood days

If Hornbeck and Critchley were the fathers of the DLP technology then its midwife was the small plucky and aptly named Entertainment Technology Consulting (ETC) company. Matt Cowan and Loren Nielsen were the pair who negotiated the long and delicate journey of getting Texan microchip engineers to win the trust of Hollywood studio executives and creatives.

In the early 1990s Matt received a telephone call out of the blue from Brian Critchley. “I’ve got something that I want you to see. Get on the next plane over to Manchester and I’ll show it to you.” That ‘something’ was DPI’s implementation of TI’s DMD technology. The prototype device that Matt saw had a resolution of just 864 x 600 pixels (roughly SVGA) and produced just 1,000 lumens of light output. If it was a camera rather than display technology, it would equate to 0.3 megapixels. Yet Cowan saw the potential and understood that this technology was headed for the big screen.  According to Loren Nielsen, “Rank Brimar had the original idea of using a DMD to make a projector, pairing the device with its lamps.” Yet developing a projector and convincing a wide constituency of cinemas, directors of photography and film distributors to abandon 100 years of analogue film were two very different tasks. Critchley knew the former could be achieved out of Plano TX and Manchester UK, but the latter would require somebody that could take it to the heart of movie making — Hollywood. And this is where Matt and Loren’s quest began.

When Loren left her job at Technicolor and joined Matt at ETC in 1995, Rank had been continuously working on enhancing the DLP technology to the point at which, by late 1995, Cowan felt “the quality was good enough to show to the Hollywood people”. But before a single frame could be projected Matt and Loren needed to get their hands on Hollywood films to use as demo material and then undertake the complicated process of grading the digital version of the film in order to make it look as it would when projected on 35mm film.

In 1995 Matt began setting up what would be the first digital colour timing post-production suite. Calling it “colour timing-by-walkie-talkie”, Cowan had to set up an intercom between two colourists comparing film print and digital versions of the same clip where one colourist was at the controls in one room and the other was looking at the picture in the other. After tapping into Loren’s extensive Rolodex
of Hollywood contacts they had secured permission to use clips from Universal’s ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘The River Wild’, as well as support from Warner Bros’ Tad Marburg.

Thinking big? Start small…

DLPs initial big screen outing was deliberately small. On a 640 x 480 resolution device, Cowan and co. managed to achieve 16ft/L, but on a screen just 16ft (5m) across, using the European television standard PAL resolution (625 lines) running off a D1 Sony professional video tape decks. Nevertheless this was an improvement over what Hollywood executives were used to seeing, which was film mastered for the native NTSC television format, thereby causing the jerkiness that is visible when viewing film-based material on a US television system. Here the projector showed truthful 24fps with no interlacing and with a 200:1 contrast ratio between the darkest and lightest area of the image and “a lot of work to make black look good and clips carefully selected so that we didn’t have ones with deep, dirty, murky blacks stuff.”

The first major demonstration and test of Hollywood’s reaction to the new technology was the 29 February 1996 demo at the Universal Sheraton hotel in Los Angeles. Once Universal’s studio’s legendary head Lew Wasserman had agreed to come along, “everybody significant decided they had to show up too,” Cowan remembers. The first time Loren saw the demo was in the set-up the day before. “It looked fresh, it looked new, it didn’t look like the video we were used to seeing,” she remembers. The outcome was, according to Matt, “a belief that this was a technology that could do what was necessary to break digital projection into cinema.”

Enter Smith, Darrow & Breedlove

What was needed now was more films. So Loren picked up the phone and called the person that would be the single-most important studio person for the following two years, Paramount’s Garrett Smith. “Garrett started bringing in cinematographers,” Loren explained, “and that was a really key development. Because getting the directors of photography involved provided some real credibility.” If Paramount could trust the task of handling the interaction between creatives and the new digital projection technology to anyone, it was going to be electronic imaging veteran Garrett. As he himself observed, “there’s only going to be one chance to get this right.”

Smith was joined in this mission by two men freshly arrived from Texas (Instruments): Doug Darrow and Paul S. Breedlove. With his clean-cut looks, Doug fitted right into Hollywood and got on well with both Matt and Loren, while Breedlove was clearly not made for the off-screen vice-ridden Hollywood. Neither a smoker nor a drinker, Cowan remembers that Breedlove was the type who would not even pass along a beer bottle from one guy to another if they were out drinking. Yet when it came to handling TI, Cowan continues, “he was the magic guy. He had the ability to go into TI’s board and say, ‘trust me, I’ve got this really great idea to do some wonderful stuff in Hollywood. We’re not quite sure how big it’s going to be or when it’s going to happen, but I need some resources — and he managed it.”

The Universal Sheraton semi-public demo was followed by several one-on-one demos with studios, cinematographers and directors, primarily driven by Garrett out of Paramount. The AMC Burbank multiplex was one such setting where studios were invited over three to four days and would come in groups of two to six to see what was still an optics board with a host of things bolted on, rather than what you would view as an actual projector.

The blacks in the image were a particular issue, but since neither TI nor ETC were “trying to do anything with the technology at this point” in Loren’s words, “so nobody felt threatened.” TI next invited the key Viacom/Paramount executives to its headquarter in Plano, Texas, flown over in two LearJets in August 1998, for a demo of its new 1280 x 1080 chip on a large screen. Also flying over were Owen Roizman and Vilmos Zsigmond, president and vice-president respectively of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).

“That demo we felt was a success,” Doug Darrow remembers, “but we needed to do better.” Having shown it to key inside people from Hollywood, the teams at TI and ETC knew that word would leak about the work that was going on, so the next demo would have to be large and public. This was the 1998 demonstration on the big (52-54ft across) screen in Paramount studios. “The demonstration was to prove that we could put a cinema-credible image up onto the big Paramount screen,” Matt remembers. Unlike the previous outing for the technology, “this demo was side-by-side with film. Paramount wanted to satisfy themselves that they could replicate the look-and-feel of film.” And screening clips from films such as ‘Grease’ and ‘The Truman Show’ did just that.

A trip to Skywalker Ranch

Dave Schnuelle had been tracking projector development for many years as part of his broad remit for George Lucas’ technology certification division when he came to see the Paramount demo. Loren remembers asking Dave directly as they sat in the Paramount theatre, “When can we show it to George?” Having previously always replied, “That’s good, keep working on it,” this time his reaction was “There’s nothing wrong with that picture.”

“We managed to get 15 minutes of George’s time in December of 1998,” says Schuelle, which was about as generous as Lucas was going to be with his time at that stage, given that he was putting finishing touches to the then much-anticipated first episode of the new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. The whole demo was 20 minutes, but nobody was prepared to guarantee that Lucas would even sit through the whole thing. “Don’t take it personally if he leaves the room or walks out early,” they were told.

The night before, Lucas’ producer Rick McCallum came to look at the demo set-up. Schnuelle recalls “The one I remember he was looking at was “The Truman Show”. It ran for about 10 seconds and he leapt up out of his seat turning around, looking at the projection port and says ‘What is this? What is this??’” Schnuelle convinced him that this was digital and not a piece of film. According to Darrow, who was watching the scene from the back of the theatre, expletives came flying out of McCallum’s mouth; he was convinced that digital was good enough to show George.

The following morning was the annual THX get-together. George Lucas arrived through a side door to the theatre with Rick and a few other key people. Having allotted quarter of an hour to the 20-minute reel, they ended up watching the whole reel and staying an hour-and-a-half in total, mainly talking to Darrow and Breedlove from TI. George Lucas was impressed, but would he commit to releasing his latest “Star Wars” in digital?

In February, Dave Schnuelle got the telephone call from from McCallum saying, “we want to do the film on four screens.” However, it was not quite the news that ETC and TI had hoped for. The screenings could not just be on the TI system, McCallum explained, because Lucas did not want to be seen to be showing favouritism to a particular technology or solution. According to Schnuelle, Breedlove did not want a shoot-out, but Lucas was adamant; it had to be screened on two competing digital technologies. One was TI’s DLP, the other was the Hughes Aircraft company’s Image Light Amplifier (ILA) projection technology developed with JVC.

A shoot-out in New Jersey

Perhaps even more worrying for TI and ETC at the time was that there was a business team behind the Hughes-JVC technology that was gearing up to roll out the technology: CineComm. Lucas and McCallum had been in touch with them and this nascent start-up saw the forthcoming digital “Star Wars” screening as the ideal launch platform for its pitch to Hollywood for converting cinemas. What was supposed to have been a triumph for TI getting to showcase its technology by screening a first-run major Hollywood blockbuster had now become a shoot-out between two very different and competing technologies.

The idea was to have one pair of cinemas on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, each equipped with both systems. CineComm’s presentation took place at Loews’ Route 4 Paramus multiplex while TI’s presentation was at Loews’ Meadows 6 in Secaucus, both in New Jersey. In Los Angeles the CineComm digital screening was to take place at Pacific Theater’s Winnetka Theater, while the TI presentation was at the AMC’s Burbank 14 Theater — where TI had already held many of its previous demos for Hollywood people. Because of the time difference, the cinemas on the East Coast would end up being the ones to open the digital version of “Episode 1” first. George Lucas’ announcement that “Star Wars: Episode 1” was going to be released in digital caused major waves both in Hollywood, the trade press and even with the wider public. One of the major reasons why it became a ‘death-of-film’ talking point was because George Lucas took the opportunity to announce at the same time that he would be shooting the next “Star Wars” on digital cameras. 

According to Cowan, TI spent close to $1million getting “Episode 1” ready for digital release, because it had to spend a painful three weeks colour timing it, with Hughes-JVC most likely having had to spend a similar amount. Everyone involved knew that not just a paying public, but the eyes of the industry would be on the outcome.

It was around this time that TI got wind that they would be facing competition from JVC on more than one front. The company was approached by Miramax about releasing its film “An Ideal Husband” in digital. TI saw the inherent risk in releasing a film by a rival studio around the same time as “Star Wars”.

“We aren’t going to upstage George,” was how the company declined the request. Unperturbed, Miramax then turned to JVC, who had no such reservations about serving more than one Hollywood master. Quoted in the “New York Times”, the president of Miramax’s Los Angeles division, Andrew Gill said that the company had chosen a traditional film, a period piece with subtle cinematographic touches, so that audiences would understand that the method can be used with any movie. “‘An Ideal Husband’ is the antithesis of a digital movie,’’ he said. But it was transparent that Miramax was trying to upstage Lucas’s efforts in New Jersey and Los Angeles. Miramax also deployed two systems, one at Clearview Chelsea 9 in NYC and at the Laemmel Sunset 5 in LA, with the film set to open on the same day as the “Star Wars” digital screenings.

Finally pressing ‘Play’

“Star Wars: Episode 1” was never going to start screening in digital the same week that the film opened across the world. For one thing, the schedule of getting both the two projector systems ready, mastering the film and preparing the theatres between the go-ahead in February and the film’s premier on 19 May was simply too tight.

To the people preparing the digital screenings, the additional time or even the negative reviews of the film hardly registered. Matt, Loren, Dave, Doug and a small army of TI engineers and cinema installation staff were working all out to get the film ready in their two locations. They were getting good support from people such as Ted Galliano, head of post-production at Fox. They were not just trying to prove that digital could play alongside film, but that their system was better than the rival system down the road.

Finally, all 60GB of finished and graded film arrived on 20 HDDs that would play off a Pluto-array. The night before the first showing there was a preview for journalists, many of whom fell over themselves to praise the new technology. “I have seen the future… And it is AWESOME!” wrote David Creighton at iDexter. Some of the assembled journalists even filmed the digital version and the film print of it screening next door, with the jitter of the print being the most noticeable thing to set it apart from the steady digital image.

On the morning of 18 June everything was ready for the first public screenings in New Jersey, when word reached the CineComm team that they were about to have their world-first scuppered by their own JVC colleagues in New York. The Clearview Chelsea 9 cinema in Manhattan showing “An Ideal Husband” was putting on an earlier morning screening. CineCom’s Doug Olin remembers it as a “bizarre little horse race who would be first screening [a digital film] to a paying audience. To mess with us, they [Miramax] were going to start 11am, so they could claim to be first.” Olin and his colleague Russ Witner contacted their cinema’s manager and got the go-ahead to start the screening at 10:50am.

Over in the Seacaucus multiplex, the TI/ETC team did not know out about this intra-JVC one-up-man-ship and thus started the film at the previously agreed time. Though TI lost the race to be a digital cinema ‘first’ by quarter of an hour, the technology eventually won the battle against JVC, and is today found in the majority of cinema projectors worldwide.