FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Chichester Cinema’s Evolving Digital Projection seen through the eyes and expertise of Chief Projectionist Mark Bradshaw.
Digital projection, synonymous with being superior and better, is seen as progress, our cinema no exception. Until recently, projecting film onto a screen was an industry of make-do and mend. 35mm film the only motion picture format that could be played in almost any cinema in the world, until digital projection largely superseded it in the 21st century. 35 mm projectors were the staple and could be at least fifty years old, parts retro-fitted as technology evolved. Many working in the industry saw digital as an expensive fad with kit costing as much as £100K, saying it wouldn’t catch on, but we had to join the bandwagon or lose out with a diversity of film choices.
Digital meant the demise of film stock and the projectionist, he or she no longer needed. Technical operations are done by cinema managers and other multitaskers with limited technical ability, resulting in lost shows and other issues. Automation, not human, runs daily screenings. New Park is an exception and still prides itself on ensuring the best presentation experience with a strong team of four (James Stokes, Howard Johnson, Paul Stanley and me). I’m the youngest at nearly 50. Long live the projectionist! We went digital in 2012 but can run 35mm, Digi Beta and other formats. A wise decision, as the early series one digital projectors were somewhat flaky and proved unreliable on some sites.
Our projection box is tiny, not purpose built, careful planning needed to retain our Cinemeccanica Victoria 5 35mm projector alongside the digital equipment. I relocated and converted (with some engineering) the 35 mm film tower to a smaller single sided unit where the new large digital equipment had to go. The film path to the projector was changed to suit. It took 5 men to lift the heavy projector head into place. This was a baptism of fire for us going digital as our 2012 film festival around the corner as was training of my projection team in quick time. Digital projectors are networked to servers. We use Dolby servers, one is used for playback and the other is for storage only (Library Server) This kit is a godsend and allows us to store a great number of DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) which are made up of a group of files for cinema use only.
How do we get films onto the servers? Hard disc drives come from the distributor and we ingest these DCP packages. On each one there are often many different versions of the same film, different sound formats, hard of hearing and captions etc. We select what we need and require a special license to unlock the encrypted film. These are KDMs (Key Delivery Message) and are specific to each version of the film which can go wrong if the wrong one is sent, as sometimes happen.
People ask me what do you do up in projection now it’s gone digital? Projection is an art form and having a good understanding of all technical aspects of the equipment is essential for good presentation and being part of the magic. it’s not like putting a DVD in the slot. Chichester Cinema programmes for a wide range of films to suit all tastes. Since going digital, we screen and record live feeds via satellite: Opera, Ballet, exhibitions and many more. These events are very labour intensive for us and can push the technology beyond what it’s really capable of, so a fair amount of concentration and skill is required to get these correct. The public are blissfully unaware!!
But some streamlining is still required to operations regarding distribution of DCPs & KDMs. The cinema industry is moving towards downloading DCPs and phasing out HDDs. This could be technically challenging if you have a film festival and impossible to download more than a few films a day.
On a positive note digital has opened a new world of possibilities for the cinema goer including live events and restoration to classic films. If you want a 4DX immersive experience Chichester cinema is probably not for you. But it does offer a friendly environment with like minded film folk.
I can’t say I’m in love with this modern technology as it can be very stressful and quirky at times, certain aspects are extremely complex and scary, you do learn to work with it though!
How I see the future of cinema: The Projected image will eventually become a thing of the past. Large format LCD screens will be used setting new standards in brightness, with contrast ratios of 100,000:1 without requiring lenses or projectors and minimal maintenance needed, operational lifetimes of 100,000 hours. This will offer cinema patrons corner to corner pin sharp images in cinemas.
Samsung are currently developing Onyx LED technology which is being trialled in America. It certainly will be interesting to see, where this technological cinematic journey takes us, into the next decade and beyond.
I’m glad to have played a key part in the technical success of Chichester Cinema at New Park over the years.