Ten years ago, and for decades before, Kodak was the king of color. The motion picture industry didn’t engage in studies of color, because partners such as Kodak, Fuji, color science researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology and elsewhere, did the hard work. If a larger color space was introduced, it was possible for the film manufacturer to control the delivery of that color space all the way to the projector. Film distribution empowered the innovators of film material to control all of the variables for the delivery of quality images to cinemas. Those days, sadly, are now gone. The question is who will now manage color in the cinema?
Digital projectors handle color differently from film. Color values are coded in digital files, and the meaning of those color codes are defined by SMPTE ST428-1 DCDM Image Characteristics. So as not to limit a future expansion of color space, the coded values define the XYZ color space, which encompasses all colors visible to the human eye, and then some. In practice, the actual color space allowed by projectors is limited by the choice of projector color primaries, resulting in color spaces smaller than that allowed by XYZ. The color space settled on for the replacement of film is called P3, and was developed by Texas Instruments guided by its consultants Entertainment Technology Consultants. P3 receives high regard from many color experts. With the demise of film, the P3 color space, reproduced by xenon-illuminated projectors, has become the new standard for color in motion pictures. It is the color space in which first release movies are mastered.
The industry can deservedly pat itself on the back for doing a good job with P3. But the management of color in digital projectors is fundamentally different from that of film, and the success of P3 with xenon illuminators has allowed the industry to overlook the implications. With film, the maker of film material defined color. One company, Kodak, dominated the definition of color for motion pictures, and continuously pushed for better results. It could do this without engaging standards committees and such because film projectors simply projected whatever colors were on the film print. The projector did not define the color space.
With digital projection, the situation has flipped. The distribution material is now a digital file, and the maker of the projector now defines color. Texas Instruments drove the definition of color for digital cinema, and licensed the technology to three manufacturers of projectors. Uniformity was achieved through tight control of the DLP Cinema™ license. The challenge the industry faces today is that TI no longer tightly controls color space through its DLP Cinema license, having turned over the management of its core software to its licensees. For the first time since the advent of color in motion pictures, there is no longer a single champion that defines the color space of cinema.
In 10 short years, the industry has migrated to a new paradigm for color management. In the transition to digital projection, Texas Instruments took over from Kodak and Fuji, admirably exerting tight control over how color space was implemented in projectors. But TI has now stepped aside, handing the reins to competitive projector manufacturers.
More complication has emerged with the advent of new illumination technologies that exert their own impact on color quality. Such innovations coupled with the change in control by TI places a lot of power in the hands of competitive manufacturers over color space. The long term result could be no different than the diversity in color seen in consumer television showrooms.
The key to uniformity is collaboration. But competitive manufacturers do not collaborate naturally. Without collaboration on matters of color, unexpected and undesirable results could occur. If cinema is to remain the esteemed target for first release motion pictures, it will have to do better than home entertainment at managing uniformity in color. This is beyond the scope of DCI, who requires the accurate reproduction of only 12 colors to pass its compliance test plan.
The first effort to bring projector manufacturers together in a collaborative manner is now taking place in the ASC Laser Illumination Subcommittee. In its exploration of quality-related matters with laser illumination, as well as seeking common ground for a larger color gamut than P3, the committee is undertaking the drafting of a Request for Information, to be directed at the producers of laser projectors. This was discussed in last month’s report. Projector manufacturers are also engaged in this work, participating alongside independent color experts. A key part of this effort is to define a common color space larger than P3, without exposing proprietary methods for generating the required color primaries with lasers. The goal is constructive collaboration to the benefit of the industry without an impact to competitive efforts. It’s a good start towards what could become a much needed industry clearing house for all things color.