FLASHBACK: Doug Darrow and Molly Mulloy, Texas Instruments DLP Cinema

Doug Darrow is currently CEO of Laser Light Engines.  Molly Mulloy is Vice President of Zeno Group.  At the time of this interview, they were Worldwide Brand & Marketing Manager and Global PR Manager, respectively, for the DLP Cinema division of Texas Instruments.  The interview was conducted on March 15, 2005 during ShoWest and originally appeared on the World Enteractive website.

Joe Kleiman: One of the key points at this conference is the progression to 4K digital cinema. Why are the presentations here at ShoWest utilizing 2K DLP projectors?

Molly Mulloy: We tested 4K against 2K and there was no discernible difference for the average viewer. If you got up close to the screen, you could potentially see a difference, but most of the feedback we got was “You know, there’s really no discernible difference.”

JK: Is DLP working on the 4K? We saw the SONY 4K this morning, which is not a DLP product.

MM: Yeah, SONY’s working on a 4K. Our position is that the industry does not need 4K. We’ve had years of working with the creative community and they’ve never said we needed 4K. It’s contrast and colors, it’s black levels, dynamic range. So that’s what after years of feedback, we’ve had the creative community come back and say that’s what’s needed. We’ve never had one person come back and say, “You need more resolution,” so I think it’s a qualifying factor for our competitors to try and sell their product. We have DLP technology in TV, we have it in professional venues. For all of those markets, we try to be the best in what we’re doing. But there is a discernible difference with DLP Cinema. I think if it goes to 4K eventually, the infrastructure’s not yet feasible. The cost of doing everything from postproduction to distribution’s astronomical.

JK: It was interesting to attend two different presentations on satellite transmittal, the first being in Singapore, which would be your high-end DLP Cinema, and then a low-end solution for Brazil, where the average ticket price is under $3.00. How involved were you with the DLP Cinema transmission to Singapore?

Doug Darrow: We’ve been involved with them from the beginning in introducing them to the full capabilities of the DLP Cinema product, and the things we’ve done to help an international exhibitor. So, from a systems level we think about this challenge as not just trying to make a good looking picture on the wall, but there are also issues concerning security and the ability to do digital subtitling. I think it was just helping them understand all the capabilities of the DLP Cinema product to facilitate their moving in the direction to where it is now, a 20-ish screen deployment throughout the city. And then our technical people will interact with the way it all fits together: a playback system, a projection system, etc. We’ve been a loose technical consulting partner, you might say, to help them through those sorts of things.

JK: When we last spoke at CES, you mentioned that the one existing problem now that DCI is complete is the financial issue and that the studios are currently speaking with financing firms on Wall Street and DCI is pretty much complete. So, is it just around the corner that the financial issue is going to be fixed? Is that the only issue at this point?

MM: Well, that’s actually a question that’s better answered by the financial community. We have had conversations with all the studios involved and they realize they are going to have to pay for a majority of the rollout.

DD: We’ve seen all the other major issues be addressed. When you talk to people in this show, you hear the same thing. The technology’s done. The product works in the venues. The specifications for DCI for the most part’s done. The creative community’s supporting it. The products can support the business model from a cost standpoint. Now it’s just a case of the studios deciding how they’re going to finance this. What is the mechanism by which capital comes into the equation? Why are systems and their payback on an as-you-go basis?

JK: Last night at the Orleans, we watched Dana Brown’s “Dust to Glory” on the Barco 2K. The Kodak Digital preshow was done on an InFocus DLP projector prior to that. Why were two different projectors used? Why wasn’t the preshow presented via the DLP Cinema projector?

DD: There’s a simple answer, and there’s a more complex answer. The simple answer is the Kodak and InFocus, through TSM are working on a preshow advertising solution and they wanted to showcase that capability. The more complex answer really is that studios haven’t decided to make a really legitimate digital cinema deployment happen and until they do, you’ll end up with a variety of quality of preshow advertising systems, instead of standardizing around one digital projector that could essentially do everything, and do everything better, mind you. You know what, that doesn’t take anything away from the 3 chip InFocus DLP projector. It’s a great machine. It serves that application extremely well, in fact better than anything else that’s out there. But what you have is a situation in which the studios are allowing and creating an environment that is not built around that movie playback solution. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be thinking about a DLP Cinema projector as the only thing that goes into movie theaters. Now that being said, there are some exhibitors that have said, “Well, gee, I kind of like having two machines.” And they’re more than welcome to do that. I’d love to sell two DLP projectors for every screen. But, until the studios get behind a major deployment, you’re going to end up with that situation.

JK: At CES, you mentioned that once the financial solution is resolved, IMAX may take advantage of the DLP solution for projection. A number of the people that I’ve talked to in the large format industry have stated that there are a number of technical issues that still need to be fixed with regards to large format digital projection, such as a shorter pitch from the projector to a larger screen than in traditional cinema and the need for brighter illumination.

DD: That’s really an optics challenge. You’d have to design a lens to do it because it’s a different aspect ratio than traditional movie theaters that are 1.85 or 2.4, but it’s not something that couldn’t be done. The light output of the projectors today are sufficient. I know that there’s been testing with today’s projectors on those very large screens and people have said they put up a fairly good image. The reaction’s been fairly positive. I think that if you want to develop a 70mm equivalent to a DLP Cinema system that essentially replaces a 35mm projector, you might do something totally different. To me, that’s how we make sense for that specialty venue. So, you really only want to do that once you have a legitimate volume of current digital cinema systems going in. It would drive the cost down and allow more R&D investment from whomever, whether it’s IMAX, another manufacturer, or a combination of that, to do that 70mm equivalent, which is even beyond what we can afford to do in a conventional movie theater. I mean, 70mm projectors are very expensive projection systems, so you have kind of this business model that can support some incremental advances.

JK: So it comes down to cost efficiency?

DD: Yeah, and you would gain cost efficiency by a several thousand screen deployment that would then be our starting platform for doing that higher end entertainment experience.

JK: This morning, SONY and Landmark Theatres announced that all 59 of Landmark’s theaters will be eventually equipped with SONY 4K projectors, with the first six being installed this Summer. Could you comment on this development? Didn’t Landmark have a deal a few years back for Microsoft’s d-cinema network that failed to appear?

DD: That was the Landmark before Mark Cuban bought Landmark. Today, there are roughly 315 DLP Cinema projectors in 26 countries. All of the major Hollywood releases that have gone out digitally have gone out on DLP Cinema systems. Sony Pictures will be premiering an hour of one of their upcoming pictures, “Stealth,” tomorrow night on DLP Cinema projectors. So, I think that it’s interesting that Sony Pictures is choosing DLP Cinema to showcase an upcoming release. So they’re going to try and find a way to get their product into practice and then we’ll find out how real it is.

JK: The presentation we’re going to see on Thursday with James Cameron, George Lucas, and Robert Rodriguez involves the single lens 3D projector that we spoke about at CES. We took a look at the projector earlier at the Christie booth and we understand it’s already been installed in a number of venues.

DD: It has. You know, from a projector standpoint, there’s not an enhancement that’s requirement. It’s just a software upgrade that can support the higher framerate. And you need to have enough light to deal with the 3D light loss.

JK: Am I jumping the gun here, or are we right around the corner from having 3D DLP Cinema releases? Cameron is talking about “Battle Angel” coming out in 2007. Will we see anything sooner?

DD: I think that it’s almost definite that you will see that happen. Let’s put it this way: for every digital screen that gets enabled by a 2K DLP Cinema projector, it is a potential 3D screen. If you do the other things that’s necessary to show 3D, a combination of adding capacity to the server, putting a modulator in front of the lens, or a silver painted screen to maintain polarization, or using LCD glasses, you have a 3D screen. But you don’t need to do anything else with the projector. It’s there. Our philosophy, way back when, was when we really felt the 3D community pushing for 3D, was let’s just enable every screen to be 3D.

JK: How long has this been in the works?

DD: We’ve been working on it for years with companies that are in the business of trying to create either 3D postproduction processes or 3D acquisition. We’ve been working with Cameron’s folks at Lightstorm who have been trying to advance 3D. In fact, our professional products have had a 3D version for years for industrial applications. So this is taking that same existing capability, moving it into the movie projector and having a 3D solution there.

JK: Cameron films with a 3D rigs, but it’s also possible to convert a 2D image into a stereoscopic one. Are there any considerations when it comes to this projector regarding the conversion process?

DD: None. You’ll see that on Thursday. It’s all about the postproduction process. If we’re showing left eye, right eye, left eye, right eye, 96hz data, the 3D effects are going to be driven by the postproduction process of those 3D effects, giving the depth and the foreground imagery a kind of treatment. As long as we get the frames in the right order, we’ve done our job right. I’m excited about the event on Thursday. It shows the support of the creative community in digital cinema and in digital 3D presentation.

JK: One final question. Is the 3D a gimmick to pull people in to see a digital presentation, or is this the real future of cinema presentations? Is this what will save the cinema-going experience by differentiating it from home theater?

DD: I think that digital cinema in general is what will sufficiently differentiate the theatrical experience in addition to a big screen, a great sound system and a big stadium seating auditorium. Digital cinema brings a perfect picture every time. It brings alternative content, because now anything that people see in a group they can experience in a movie theater. And 3D movies. So that complete set of things is what the technology ultimately helps enable. Where the 3D movies go and is it beyond a novelty? You know what, with the amount of creative talent that’s behind that – just about every major director is looking to release a 3D version of their movies in the future. There’s too much talent there to have that become a gimmick or a novelty and so I don’t see that happening. I think that with the quality you can present in a digital presentation and enough creative talent looking at how to present that in the right way, we’ll see things that we never thought possible before….really amazing presentations, and other versions of storytelling and movie presentation that we’ve never experienced before. The sky’s the limit.

Copyright 2005-2011 Joseph L. Kleiman

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