The concepts of uniformity, specifications, and standards can be confusing. Particularly in cinema, where there was a bubble of activity in standards and specifications over the past decade that led to uniformity. A long time reader recently asked me to explain my views in these areas.
Uniformity results from the distributor desire for efficiency in technology. Exhibitors are less concerned about uniformity, and more interested in competitive and fair pricing of equipment. Any concern for uniformity comes from the need to have access to content, which could be limited through a restriction in distribution. Somewhat paradoxically, neither party wants to be locked into a monopoly, either.
Specifications do not have a long history in cinema. The DCI specification is the one specification for cinema that successfully emerged to encompass the whole market. Otherwise, specifications are generally limited to branded experiences. Think Cinerama, IMAX, Dolby Cinema.
Standards are possibly the most misunderstood in cinema. This could be from their relatively short history. Standards in cinema existed prior to digital cinema, but only to dictate where sprocket holes were to be, and placement on the film of image and sound. The past decade of cinema standards are often associated with uniformity, but an examination of cause and effect shows that specification plus money led to uniformity, and standards played little role in it.
The history of cinema technology is full of innovation, rarely leading to uniformity in distribution. As an example, ponder why the industry has settled on two aspect ratios for picture. Sound has its own rich history of innovation, largely based on proprietary technologies. Bypassing in this discussion the rich history of sound that preceded it, it was Dolby’s use of matrixed audio on noise-reduced stereo optical sound tracks that brought four-channel sound to thousands of cinemas, driven by the low cost to produce the print. Dolby’s monopoly was tolerated for a few reasons: multi-channel sound was popular with audiences, offering an experience beyond the typical home stereo, and the intellectual property for the technology wasn’t bullet-proof, encouraging competition. The only standards that emerged to insure interoperability in distribution were those that dictated where the optical sound tracks were to be located on the film. There were no standards for how those optical sound tracks were encoded.
Digital 5.1 sound for film emerged in the 90’s, again with proprietary technologies. A host of new entrants hoped to duplicate Dolby’s earlier success by introducing new digital technologies for 5.1. Dolby, DTS, and Sony are the technology providers most people remember from those days, but there were others. This was a particularly messy period while multiple formats could not be printed on a single film print, leading to inefficiency in distribution. The situation was not much different from what we have today. Even when a single print was possible that could support all three digital sound formats, the cost of multiple encoding, quality control, and yield loss didn’t bring more love to proprietary technologies. As with optical sound tracks, there were no standards for how digital sound was to be encoded for film. There were no specifications, nor was there uniformity.
By the time discussion of digital cinema began in the late 90’s, distributors and exhibitors were geared up to avoid all proprietary technologies. A standards committee – the first of its kind for cinema – was formed in 2000. Recognizing that tighter control would be needed over technology, Digital Cinema Initiatives was formed by the then seven major studios. It was DCI that made the call for royalty-free JPEG2000 image compression and 16 channels of uncompressed audio. It wasn’t the most popular decision, as manufacturers at the time were building products using MPEG2 image compression and 8 channels of sound. But DCI could make its decision stick as it would be the studios that would subsidize the purchase of equipment, eventually to the tune of $4B or more. SMPTE standards that reflected these decisions emerged after. This is an important point. It was the DCI specification backed by studio subsidies, and not SMPTE standards, that led to the uniformity we now have in cinemas around the world.
The fact that SMPTE standards are not responsible for uniformity contradicts the understanding of many people in the industry. As an example of how ineffective SMTPE standards can be at creating uniformity: consider SMPTE ST427 Link Encryption, a standard introduced by Sony for use with digital cinema projectors. Presumably Sony felt the need to create its own link encryption so as not to use the one employed by TI projectors. But Sony didn’t need a standard to do that. If Sony executives felt that standardizing its link encryption would pressure TI to adopt it, they failed. DCI avoided any specification of link encryption, and didn’t really care as long as the method used passed the muster of its security experts. Likewise, there is the now infamous example of SMPTE DCP. Interop DCP exists because distribution executives don’t really care about SMPTE standards. At the launch of the digital cinema rollout, they were much more concerned that they could meet their company timeframes for eliminating film distribution, and non-standard Interop DCP was the technology that satisfied that requirement. While in the early days of digital cinema there were cases where a movie was withheld from an exhibitor because the equipment didn’t meet DCI (such as forensic marking), no movie has ever been withheld for not meeting a SMPTE standard.
We’re now in the post-digital-rollout phase for cinema. The bubble of the transition is past, and the uniformity it brought is waning. Studios no longer offer subsides that would give them clout to dictate a single way of doing things. And innovation is beginning to blossom. The industry is reverting to normality, where proprietary technologies drive change. This can be seen in laser projectors, high frame rates, the emerging potential for variable frame rates, and the multiple sound technologies that led to the question that instigated this report.
I’m asked why in this new environment can SMPTE not control the market by standardizing only one way of doing things. The answer is quite simple: SMPTE has no power of its own to dictate behavior in the marketplace. Not only does it have no power, but any attempt within SMPTE to advantage one company over another introduces anti-trust concerns. Distributors can attempt to enforce uniformity, but their bank accounts usually get the better of them, opting instead for widest footprint for their movies. The only hope uniformity has is a self-imposed restriction in buying pattern by buyers all over the world. But the odds of that happening are no different than that of world peace. One can guarantee with 100% certainty that buyers will never agree to limit their choices, particularly when its their own money that decides.
If uniformity is the result of mixing specifications with money, then what’s the role of standards? Even SMPTE has a difficult time with this question. A SMPTE committee is now struggling to decide how to handle multiple immersive sound technologies, as if standards alone dictate how the market operates. The struggle misses where SMPTE’s value lies. Standards alone may not lead to uniformity, but they are useful to buyers, as standards imply not only that a technology is stable, but that competitive manufacturers can supply it. It also means that the details of the technology have received peer review, a valuable point to all parties. Even when a manufacturer submits a complete work for standardization, it may be surprised to find that there’s room for further polish. The committee for immersive sound is weighing two technologies from two companies. It should standardize both. Any effort to block one or both companies from standardizing its technology not only steps into the muck of anti-trust, but deprives both company and buyers from the substantial benefits of the standardization process. Marketplace decisions take place in the marketplace, not in standards committees.
As demonstrated by the digital cinema rollout, uniformity requires more than standards: it requires a specification backed by money, the combination of which is no longer on the table. If standards are to be useful, then cinema standards bodies must recognize where the value of their efforts lie. That value is not as a controlling force in the marketplace. As cinema reverts to its historical pattern of innovation through proprietary technology, standards committees must either act responsibly, or simply be ignored. SMPTE should not forget how small its role was in cinema technology before the subsidized transition to digital projection took place.