Big action on the big screen - TechCentral

Big action on the big screen

Primedia-owned cinema chain Ster-Kinekor is investing R180m over a 12-month period in decommissioning all of the 35mm film projectors in its movie houses around the country and in replacing them with newfangled digital projectors — and, in some cases, fancy new surround-sound audio systems, too.

Most of these cinemas are getting 2k projectors, supplied by US company Christie Digital. This is the technology most employed by cinema chains worldwide and offers cinemagoers a screen resolution of 2,2 megapixels, which is only slightly higher than the flat-panel TVs in most modern lounges — though it must be said the two technologies are quite distinct. Slowly but surely, however, cinemas are starting to install 4k projectors, which offer four times the resolution of 2k systems. 4k images, not surprisingly, are noticeably better, especially when viewed close up.

So far, Ster-Kinekor has installed 4k projectors at only two cinemas — at Sandton City in Johannesburg and the Gateway Theatre of Shopping north of Durban. CEO Fiaz Mahomed says the company’s plan is to install 4k projectors in all the big cities, though most of the chain’s screens will continue to employ the cheaper 2k technology for now.

Another significant development is an industry-wide move to higher frame rates, offering more lifelike images, especially in 3D movies, with none of the flickering and strobe effects that occur at lower frame rates. Avatar director James Cameron is a leading proponent of moving the industry from the standard 24 frames per second to 48fps and 60fps. He believes that before the industry starts pushing beyond 4k to 8k projectors, it needs to bump up the number of frames per second and improve projector light output.

Avatar 2, due out late next year, is likely to use 60fps technology and be shot at 4k resolution. Mahomed says this should enhance the 3D version of the film significantly, making it much more immersive and lifelike. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit should give SA audiences a glimpse of this 3D future this month. The film will be shown at 48fps at the Sandton City and Gateway theatres. The investment in 3D is not surprising given consumer demand. The chain plans to add another 40 3D screens, from about 70 now.

Of course, the quality of the sound also plays a huge role in the cinema experience, and here, too, technology is making great strides. Ster-Kinekor’s 4k theatre at Gateway has also been upgraded to Dolby’s new Atmos sound technology. According to Dolby, Atmos allows filmmakers to “move sounds anywhere in a theatre — even overhead — to heighten the realism and impact of every scene”. Every loudspeaker can be addressed individually. Dolby provides support to cinemas wanting to install the technology to ensure the optimum density of loudspeakers. Life of Pi, based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, will be the first movie shown at Gateway using the Atmos system.

Mahomed says Ster-Kinekor will have a minimum of Dolby 5.1 at all its theatres next year, with many offering Dolby 7.1 “with some tweaks”.

The cinema chain will be hoping investments in new technologies drive up attendance figures. Competition from pay-TV and other types of stay-at-home entertainment, especially in recessionary times, is intense. Piracy is an ever-present challenge, too, especially as broadband prices tumble.

But if 4k technology, higher frame rates and better audio systems live up to their promise, expect to see a lot more bums in movie seats in the next few years.  — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media

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