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Sony puts record straight on high frame rates

Sony has hit back at perceptions that competitor Christie is leading the charge to introduce high frame rate projection systems into cinema exhibition, claiming that its systems are already advanced for HFR display today.

Sony has hit back at perceptions that competitor Christie is leading the charge to introduce high frame rate projection systems into cinema exhibition, claiming that its systems are already advanced for HFR display today.

Christie made headlines when it received the backing of James Cameron in demonstrations of HFR at Cinemacon and IBC earlier this year. It also signed a five year pact with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment to develop and market high frame rate systems.
 The series II projectors of Christie and its fellow DLP-based TI licensees, Barco and NEC, require a software upgrade and the installation of an Integrated Media Block (IMB) which overcomes the bandwidth limitations in the connection from server to projector. 
 Sony also requires a firmware upgrade but has an IMB already incorporated in the design of its SXRD 4K projectors. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit could be projected at 2×48 fps (96 fps) today with the addition of that firmware, Sony claims. 
 All that is missing is the revision of the DCI specifications, which currently only support 48 fps mainly for the purpose of 2×24 fps playback for 3D.
 “The current and upcoming Sony 4K projection systems are capable of projecting HFR movies already, however, there is no dedicated specification which format the DCP will have, which is why the required firmware upgrade will only be made available once this is sorted,” explained Oliver Pasch, head of european digital cinema sales at Sony Professional. “We are pushing [the DCI] for it [96 fps or above] to be adopted. Studios want to ship single inventory DCPs, not one for Sony and one for DLP-based projection systems.”
 HFR is claimed to improve the image quality, particularly over standard 24fps, on fast-moving scenes and camera pans by reducing visual artefacts such as motion blur, judder, and flicker. The effect is even more apparent on 3D features, since the human eye and brain are more sensitive to such artefacts when separate left and right images are projected, “in particular with systems using triple flash,” said Pasch.
 “HFR 3D playback up to 2K-60p (per eye) is available on Sony systems already today from external playback sources, due to the fact that Sony is not using triple flash but projecting two images in parallel at any time,” Pasch explained. “We have long been prepared for this [move to HFR] and we are the only ones who realised the DCI’s preferred realisation of the HFR spec.” All the major projection systems vendors are likely to offer the relatively simple HFR upgrades so that exhibitors avoid having to fund a full system replacement. One estimate puts the cost of an IMB plus firmware upgrade at US $3,000. “As far as Doremi servers are concerned, our hardware is HFR ready,” said Hervé Baujard, senior d-cinema business development, Doremi. “It will just require a firmware update. It is too early to say whether the market will accept to pay a premium for this functionality or not.” Mark Kendall, NEC’s business development, digital cinema, EMEA said: “The NEC digital cinema projectors (Series II) will require a small firmware upgrade in order to manage higher frame rates. It has not been decided as to this cost, but we do not believe it will be significant.” THX Senior Vice President, Rick Dean said: “High frame rate display is a critical cinema upgrade because it immediately differentiates the theatre experience from what is available in the home. This is an experience for which consumers will most likely pay more.” Christie has partnered with Doremi but is also looking to develop its own IMB. Richard Nye, Christie’s european cinema sales director, said, “With Sony you have a choice of one thing – Sony. The media block, RealD and the Sony system. It is a limited choice. With our system you can buy a 4K projector system, 3D system and a media block from whoever you wish.”
 Christie claims to be the pioneer of HFR. “Until now, all cinema HFR demos and experiments were conducted using two stacked digital cinema projectors; one for the left eye content and the other for the right eye,” adds Nye. “While this is suitable for proving the advantages of HFR, it is hardly a practical setup for the average exhibitor who is struggling to finance the acquisition of a single digital projector for each screen. The new partnership between Christie and Lightstorm will ensure that when Cameron is ready to launch a HFR feature film, the exhibitor community will be prepared to display it according to his creative vision.” 4K, Nye added, “feels like the emperor’s new clothes,” predicting that not more than 10% of all cinema screens will be 4K. “HFR is the next big thing, more so than generic adoption of 4K projection systems.”
 Matt Cuson, senior director of cinema, Dolby Laboratories, agreed: “Adding HFR to 2K is a much more dramatic improvement than moving from 2K to 4K.”
 In fact, the brunt of the cost of switching to higher frame rates will be borne by post production, which is required to increase disk storage space and allocate more time to render special effects. This increases again if 4K projection of 3D content (96fps 4K) is desired.
 The DCI specifies that films must be compressed using JPEG 2000 with a maximum bit-rate of 250Mbps. That would ramp up to 400-480Mbps for 48fps and 500-600Mbps for 60 fps. The size of the DCP will increase in similar proportions.
 Cuson notes that some industry studies suggest that an 8K resolution really starts to have a dramatic effect, but HFR will be the most dramatic visual improvement the industry will see in the short term.