There are two SMPTEs that the cinema community perceives. The “old” SMPTE being the one under whose umbrella manufacturers, distributors, and exhibitors gathered to define digital cinema, beginning in 2000. It was an impressive time characterized by connected interests, but that era has passed. In its place, a “new” SMPTE is emerging, driven by independent and not necessarily aligned interests. This change underscored the quarterly meetings of the SMPTE Cinema Sound Systems (25CSS) and Digital Cinema (21DC) committees held early this month.
The highlight of this month’s SMPTE meetings were the formation in 25CSS of a new Working Group for Immersive Sound, and the decision by 21DC to move a new 3D subtitling standard forward for formal voting. While we provide our analysis of these efforts, specific details can be learned by joining the SMPTE group of interest at https://kws.smpte.org/kws/groups/stds_comm.
The 21DC effort to extend SMPTE DCP subtitles with 3D capability has been in progress for several years. In the course of this work, it was found that the original and little used ST428-7 for SMPTE DCP subtitles also needed revision. (Recall that Interop DCP continues to trump SMPTE DCP in real distributions.) Thus a lengthy, but valuable, effort ensued to create an improved version of 428-7. Following this month’s meeting, it appears that the new version is on track to become a standard by mid-2014. 21DC is also moving forward with a standard for an additional descriptive metadata file in the DCP, which one day could replace the Digital Cinema Naming Convention. (I say “one day” as installed products are not designed to display metadata beyond that of the Digital Cinema Naming Convention, and no transition path for moving away from the Digital Cinema Naming Convention has been discussed.) Don’t hold your breath – this is interesting work, but it will be many years before it produces a benefit in exhibitor operations.
Another 21DC project is the standardization of a synchronization signal for external media blocks used with immersive sound. The draft standard, proposed by Dolby, is in use today for Atmos. Another standard on the way, also proposed by Dolby, will define a new, non-specific track file within the digital cinema package for the carriage of proprietary essence formats, such as Atmos. No details have been given for how Atmos data will be stored within, and as constructed, the details are not needed for the standard to move forward in SMPTE. As many would agree, the usefulness of this standard to the industry remains to be explained. A parallel would be to standardize on a particular color of wrapping paper, without standardizing what is wrapped, and then handing you the package claiming it is standards-compliant. You may have no idea what’s inside, but the wrapping paper is well defined. As bizarre as this may sound, this is the grade of work that SMPTE is now geared to produce. There was no lengthy study effort to define a road map for standardization of new audio track files, and when such a study effort was suggested, it was shot down as SMPTE rules do not require it. This is an example of what I call the “new” SMPTE.
On a lighter note, with my recommendation and that of my fellow co-chairs, the Higher Frame Rate Study Group in 21DC was formally disbanded this month. A final report was produced, recommending future steps, and confirming that the current distribution environment for HFR in cinema is limited to 500Mb/s compressed image bit rates. As reported before, this limitation imposes a practical constraint of 48fps on HFR distributions, and is one of several reasons that will cause 48fps to be the upper limit of HFR in cinemas for some time. In fact, recognizing the limitations they face, Jim Cameron and Jon Landau announced plans this month to produce the Avatar sequels with “some scenes” shot in 48fps HFR, and not the Showscan-like 60fps HFR once hoped for. On a personal note, the HFR Study Group provided a wonderful opportunity to work with two passionate cinematographers as co-chairs, and made for a pleasant finale to 13 years of continuous service as a subgroup chairperson in the SMPTE digital cinema standards effort. Just in time to make room for my new role as secretary in the ASC Committee for Laser Illumination.
25CSS was formed earlier this year under a cloud of politics, and the cloud has yet to dissipate. In the 80’s, Ioan Allen, from Dolby, and Tom Holman, then with Lucasfilm, led the SMPTE standards effort for cinema sound, leading to standards such as ST202, describing how to align a cinema sound system. But SMPTE’s re-entry into cinema sound has exposed a leadership gap in the subject. The glaring example has been X-Curve, a response curve described in ST202, used when aligning an auditorium for flat response using a real time analyzer. Some vocal but misinformed committee members claim X-Curve is an equalization curve, and advocate its elimination as a standard measuring tool. SMPTE leadership, made up of broadcast industry experts, shrug shoulders and claim neutrality on the matter, not understanding the subject. As a result, a formal sub-committee exists to evaluate alternative methods to X-Curve, with talk of replacing it. In a move that would be humorous if not so sad, this same sub-committee recently conducted measurements at the Stag Theater at Skywalker Sound, revealing under flat-response conditions a measured curve which not-so-surprisingly looked like the X-Curve in ST202. But that glaring detail was overlooked in this month’s report from the group, just another mark on the credibility of 25CSS leadership.
Attempting to be productive, SMPTE 25CSS formed a new working group this month for developing an immersive sound standard. Its carefully selected chairperson, Pete Lude, is a long standing and respected member of SMPTE, with no background in cinema sound. As the former leader of Sony’s Broadcast and Business Solutions group, Mr. Lude cleverly convinced Sony’s Japan engineering division to allow his US-based group to redesign the Sony commercial 4K projector into a product that could obtain DCI compliance. Without his group’s effort, Sony projectors could still be struggling to obtain DCI compliance. Sadly, the reward for his success was the closing of his group earlier this year. Mr. Lude was selected by SMPTE for his management skills and neutrality in cinema sound. But this is a committee for which there could well be no winners, and Mr. Lude could find himself in an awkward position.
SMPTE’s entry into immersive sound is not short of challenges. Thanks to organizations such as NATO and DCI, there is a misguided expectation that SMPTE will create and enforce a single immersive audio standard. In fact, SMPTE, unlike other organizations such as the ITU, does not require single standards for given technologies. This point was underscored this month by SMPTE Engineering VP Hans Hoffman, responding to a query about the very real potential for multiple synchronization signal standards for immersive sound, which SMPTE would support. A finger pointing exercise is in the making. The DCI specification was amended to say it will support only one immersive sound distribution format, but DCI’s members want someone else to decide which one. SMPTE, however, can’t engage in a process that decides for DCI. In fact, no organization can decide, as it would be at risk of inducing restraint of trade in violation of US anti-trust law. The inconvenient truth is that only market forces can decide, which shines a light on what 25CSS is really up to.
Mr. Lude is well aware of anti-trust considerations, and outlined a direction for the group by taking a page from the MPEG play book. His goal is to harmonize seven different immersive sound formats, create reference bit streams, and standardize a synchronization signal for the new format. An ambitious set of goals. MPEG itself is keeping an eye on this committee. It wants a digital cinema standard that will merge nicely with its new consumer format, as indicated in recent correspondence with SMPTE.
A few outcomes are possible for 25CSS. One is that the group will successfully establish a distribution format that allows multiple immersive sound formats to be distributed within a single standard, solving the political and anti-trust issues, but leaving exhibitors and distributors with the same mess they have today. Another is that the work outlined will be so extensive as to take three to five years to complete, at which time a standard will be irrelevant due to a large installation base of pre-standardized equipment. Or another outcome could occur, where the standard opens the door for secret sauce to be carried, so that only those with the secret sauce will correctly decode the track, leaving those without the secret sauce to decode with mediocre results. Or some combination of the above will happen. This exemplifies the new SMPTE, where standards are designed to satisfy diverse and conflicting interests, but not the problem that led to the standardization effort in the first place.
How did we get here? Without fanfare, we have entered the post-VPF-rollout era for digital cinema, where different rules apply than in the past. In the 2000’s, the digital cinema standards effort played a unique role because: 1) the industry was creating something brand new with no parallel, and 2) the technology formalization effort needed a process that was open to all parties of interest. But while the standards effort was immensely valuable, it was not responsible for the success of digital cinema. That credit goes to the six major studios for agreeing on a common specification (DCI), and the individual willingness of these same studios to pay a subsidy (the VPF) to encourage the fast adoption of DCI compliant technology. This investment was made on a one-time basis, and no further capital is available to instigate the installation of revised equipment. Standards alone, without an economic incentive to drive them, are not very useful.
And therein lies the problem for the immersive sound effort in SMPTE – it has no financial backing. Barco can roll out Auro3D without a new standard. Dolby doesn’t need a new standard to succeed with Atmos. The wannabes in cinema sound that are driving this standards effort have no money, either.
This publication has consistently said that the immersive sound battle will be won in the movie mixing room. SMPTE can standardize a hundred immersive sound formats, but unless there’s a standard for the one in demand in the mixing room, it will be of little use. One can only think that directors such as Jim Cameron will be more impressed with Dolby walking through the door than with wannabe sound companies that manage to get their format included in a new SMPTE standard.