As the concepts behind digital cinema first began to gel in the early 2000’s, there were two camps: those who wanted cinema to adopt existing consumer content technologies, and those who saw value in maintaining a unique cinema medium. No effort was more visible than that of using MPEG consumer image compression and HDTV-formatted images for motion pictures. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
There are rational reasons for merging production workflows in cinema, broadcast, and electronic media. While digital cinema distinguished itself from other forms of media by maintaining unique pixel rasters for 2K and 4K, a larger color space than that found in consumer products, and, of course, the unique aspect ratios found in cinema. Technologists and managers fret over the additional steps required to convert motion picture productions to a format usable in other mediums.
But, in truth, it is the very isolation of motion picture workflow that is of high value to the business of exhibition. An isolated production workflow encourages image framing, color timings, and sound production unique to the cinema environment. It establishes the cinema product as a unique product, separate from other forms of content. Importantly, it invites the kind of experimentation that has given audiences new experiences, such as 3D, higher frame rates, and immersive sound.
There are less obvious benefits, as well. An isolated workflow requires a separate set of standards to support it. Digital cinema is supported by a unique set of standards that do not cross over into broadcast or electronic media workflows. The standards are maintained and updated in accordance with the wishes of the cinema industry. Should the standards for all of these workflows merge, then it is highly unlikely that cinema will have much of a voice in them. SMPTE, after all, is largely a standards body for broadcast and electronic media workflows. Merged workflows will only serve to dilute the specialness of cinema.
Traditionally, studio distribution executives, directors, and cinematographers have led the roster of those that understand the need to retain separate formats and workflows for cinema content. But exhibitors need to be vigilant, too. NATO’s recent escapade with consumer sound company DTS and its consumer MDA immersive sound format sent the wrong signal. Further muddling things, NATO’s technology advisor, a former supporter of MPEG and HDMI for cinema, also chairs the SMPTE IMF standards committee, whose purpose is to unify broadcast and electronic media production workflows using the same packaging concepts that were developed for digital cinema. Once IMF is in place, it will take a much smaller step to merge cinema workflows with that of other medias.
Adding to the worry is that attitudes in the studio community are showing signs of strain. Some studios have selected broadcast executives to lead their movie distribution divisions. Recently, a member of the Sci-Tech Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences openly suggested that the new 4K and 8K consumer technologies for compression, color, and workflows would one day merge with cinema. The Sci-Tech Council is the industry group that charts the future of cinema technology. As with the recent comments of Mr. Sarandos of Netflix, such statements should alert exhibition executives.