It was not a question of what but when, and after eight years of testing and research, Sony has effectively delivered on its digital-cinema promise. Developers negotiated their own twist with silicon and liquid-crystal microdisplays in direct competition with Texas Instruments’ DLP cinema technology. Sony’s 4K digital projector, the SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display), expands the choices available in the digital-cinema marketplace.
Sony’s currently available models include the SRX-R110 (10,000 ANSI lumens screening up to 40' wide) and the SRX-R105 (5,000 ANSI lumens screening up to 25' wide). Starting this fall, the company will introduce a 20,000-lumens version. For now, both SXRD models offer resolution of 4,096 horizontal pixels x 2,160 vertical pixels, currently four times the number of pixels in high-definition (HD) video.
Each RGB color panel in the SXRD has 8.8 million pixels embedded in 1.5" of silicon. It costs about $0.01 per pixel on a 4K projector, compared to $0.04 for a 2K DLP cinema projector (based on Sony’s SRX-110 and Christie’s CP2000H package price, respectively). The SXRD pixel density is a diminutive world only visible under a microscope, which is surprising, considering the entire gunmetal-gray chassis weighs 240 pounds and measures 18"H x 28"W x 52"L. Its noise level is 65 dB, making it equivalent to a normal conversation.
The imaging device is void of shifting brightness or colorimetry. The technology improvements result in color consistency within the display container. “The significance of liquid crystal is its super-high resolution, very high contrast, very fast switching speed, and 12-bit driver,” says Gary Mandle, senior product manager for professional displays in Sony Electronics’ broadcast and production systems division.
Mandle explains that the light passing through the liquid crystal twice is a result of reflective technology. This improves the contrast of the cell-gap depth, allowing for half the amount of flare, dramatically improving the blacks. The uniformity in the liquid crystal increases contrast due to less flare, which therefore increases resolution because there is no need for spacers in the optical area.
Part of the SXRD technology, Mandle states, deals with the VAN liquid crystal changing state, he continues. “It’s a vertically aligned neumatic [VAN] crystal that provides a complex vertical/horizontal rotation, offering very high light-control properties and very fast movement.” This reflective design lessens motion smear and perpetuates deeper blacks. For 3-D display, a much higher refreshing vertical scan) rate is necessary because images are being sent to both eyes. The projector output needs to switch at twice the speed of a 2-D display, in essence one 2-D display per eye. The faster the refresh rate the better the effect. Most systems run around 120 to 140 frames per second. With more calls for 3-D projection coming in, Sony’s SXRD will have the capability to refresh at 200 fps, which should yield a better image and better 3-D realism. The contrast ratio for the SXRD is specified at 1,800:1, but 2,000:1 is more typical.
“No matter how great the machine is, if those in the field do not employ the standards then digital projection will not deliver its promise of visual supremacy to film projectors,” remarks Daryn Okada, ASC, who worked on the DCI StEM Digital Projection Test Film and participated in the subjective DCI compression system evaluations. “The entire ‘system’ needs to be put in place with DCI specifications in order to build long-term success.”
Controlling the projected image so it remains repeatable and consistent is a shared goal for DCI and Sony. As of July 2005, the DCI version 1.0 specifications state the digital-projection system is essential: “Its job is to change digital image data into light that appears on the screen.” For the SXRD, a DCI-compliant projector, the throw distance is variable, depending on which lens is used, screen size, and so forth, but its average range is 30' to 140'.
However, digital projection might alter the look of the film if it isn’t used creatively. “If the post process is not accessible for cinematographers, [digital projection] could affect the overall image in negative ways,” notes Okada. “It might, for example, add harshness to an actor’s face. Picture quality on a digital projector for films not shot in HD is the largest variable in the industry. In terms of retaining creative intent, the workflow from camera negative to digital format isn’t an exact science yet.”
Some SXRD adopters include SkyScan; Full Throttle Films, Inc. (VER); the National Geographic Society and Silicon Graphics, Inc. Although most theater owners are still considering the possibilities of digital projection, Landmark Theatres jumped at the chance to incorporate digital projectors into more than 30 of its venues. “We wanted to roll out digital projectors that gave us the opportunity to gain experience with the best-of-breed projectors,” says Mark Cuban, co-owner of Landmark Theatres. “We rolled out both Sony and Texas Instruments’ digital projectors, and we’ve been thrilled with both.”
Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, released in January, was the first feature-length, “day-and-date”-modeled film projected with the SXRD. “Bubble was shot on HD, which enabled Steven to optimize a beginning-to-end digital experience with the look he wanted,” says Cuban.
“With digital cinema, the movie will look like what the director envisioned [because it won’t] have to go through duplications and printing processes,” says John Kaloukian, general manager for display systems at Sony Electronics. “The all-digital production allows the director and cinematographer the ability to produce what they see in the camera. Audiences get a first-run show.”
Some have speculated that digital cinema might reignite consumers’ interest in attending big-screen films, but Okada notes, “We have to remember that movies find success with an audience because the story affects the audience on an emotional level, and that cinematography is in large part what communicates the story.”