Abandoning Analogue: Ster Kinekor theatres are getting a digital do-over

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“This is the global landscape of cinema,” says Ster Kinekor Theatre CEO, Fiaz Mohamed.

He’s talking about digital technology, and his company’s progress in upgrading its theatres to the next generation of audio-visual equipment – a process the company started 18 months ago. That’s not to say the upgrades started 18 months ago, that’s just when the technical team started evaluating what was needed. In the US and UK the upgrade to digital theatres started years ago, but the Hollywood films studios only started consulting with local cinema houses more recently in order to adopt the new tech. If its own aspirations aren’t enough motivation, there’s another looming deadline: Ster Kinekor Fujifilm has said it will stop supplying celluloid film at the end of this year.

The first Ster Kinekor digital cinemas opened at pilot sites in Sandton City, Gauteng, and Gateway Shopping Centre, Durban, last year, and by December 17th this year – a date Fiaz Mohamed says is a worst case scenario – all of its 438 theatres will be converted to digital. On top of that, it’s currently building new cinemas at a number of new locations. To see how digital is better, and what technology is used, htxt.africa visited the Ster Kinekor screening theatres at its head office in Sandton. There, the company has a theatre with a soon-to-be-phased-out 35mm film projector as well as an all new digital cinema.

Back to back, the changes are obvious. Fans of celluloid film won’t be impressed that analogue is being phased out, but it’s also hard to see how the new digital system is not impressive. Film reels wear out over time, and anybody who’s been to watch a film near the end of its life of circuit will have noticed how scratchy the visuals are. Not only that, old analogue audio doesn’t hold a candle to the prowess of digital systems.

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All of the new theatres will have digital projectors supplied by a company called Christie Digital. The projectors, the smallest of which is bigger than a fully-packed holiday suitcase and weighs 111kg, will be capable of either 2K or 4K resolutions – the choice depends on the size of the cinema. Naturally, all of them will support 3D, as well as high frame-rate video. Going hand-in-hand with the digital projection systems is a digital sound system. All theatres will support Dolby Digital 7.1 sound, but smaller cinemas will get 5.1 systems – the acoustics in smaller cinemas will just lead to boomy sound that is unpleasant. Speakers for new installations are from JBL‘s cinema division, and amplification is also from a specialist company, Crown Audio.

At home we used 50GB Blu-ray discs. Cinemas use 500GB hard drives.
At home we used 50GB Blu-ray discs. Cinemas use 500GB hard drives.

Obviously, with a full digital AV system there’s nowhere to plug in the old analogue film reels. That’s where the biggest upgrade of all comes in. SK theatre sites will be equipped with a theatre management system (TMS). This is a centralised server that stores all the movies available at a single site. Instead of sending over a number of film reels for a big release, a movie studio now sends a digital copy of the film on a hard drive.

With analogue, cinemas needed a reel per projector. With digital, a single hard drive sent to a cinema is ingested in its TMS server and served up to every projector over a network. The hard drives contain both the 2D and 3D versions of a film, in 2K and 4K formats, as well as Dolby Digital soundtracks for the theatre’s audio setup.

The projectors copy the movie off the server to play it. This way it’s possible for the cinema to program every theatre to play the same film at once, without multiple hard drives or film reels required.. Everything is automated, too: a theatre can run itself for an entire day and power down at night, all without human interference. It’s even possible to control the TMS remotely, should the need arise.

N’re du Toit, technical manager at Ster Kinekor Theatres, says that projectionists will still be needed. Things can go wrong, and humans will be needed to oversee operation. Projectionists have also been trained and given new skills, he points out.

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The ability to playlist files and have a theatre run itself is just one of the hidden advantages of going to digital. No longer will punters have to complain about sound being out of sync or the projectionist not starting the film. There’s also the option to have a movie open on more screens than usual, to accommodate the opening weekend rush, and then resume normal programming once the crowds have subsided.

Ultimately, this is being done to draw bigger crowds – to lure people out of their homes and show them 4K movies on a big screen, with an impressive sound system. In the UK, last year, the films companies saw an impressive growth in attendance. South Africa hasn’t seen a decline; Fiaz Mohamed points out that recently each cinema house Ster Kinekor operates has broken its previous box office records. But the hope is that newer cinemas, with visuals that never fade and sound that always punches, will make it seem worthwhile to consumers.

Mohamed says that he predicts the adoption of the technology to accelerate, likening it to the adoption of smartphones. Those devices weren’t even around until a few years ago, but are now ubiquitous. Theatres have been analogue for the last 120 years, and the future holds promise.

One of the new technologies, currently very limited due to price, is Dolby’s Atmos sound technology – see the column to the right. Another is laser projection. Current projectors use high-power xenon bulbs, but laser light systems will be even brighter. Christie Digital’s recent demo showed that a laser projected movie, in 3D, is more than four times brighter than current technology. A laser light projector will also have a longer service life. Estimates put it at 125000 hours – or 14 years of continuous running.

Digital file formats and the new hard drive distribution model also means that we’re likely to see current movies on cinema for longer. With film reels that needed to be rotated to different locations it wasn’t possible to have some films showing for as long as consumers wanted. With a digital file it’s as simple as ingesting a hard drive into a server and sending it to the next cinema. It’s possible – though unlikely – for a single major release to play on every single Ster Kimekor screen in the country, for as short or long as needed.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get movies sooner, though. Fiaz says that major blockbusters have seen day-and-date releases with international markets, but other films rely on better timing, something that’s often seasonal – or simply dictated by film studios.

Wanna lay your eyes and ears on the latest in cinema tech right now? The following theatres have 4K projectors right now:

  • Sandton City, Johannesburg – Cine 9
  • Gateway Shopping Centre, Durban – Cine 18
  • Cavendish Mall, Cape Town – Cine 3

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Dolby Atmos – the future of cinema sound

sk-dolbyatmos

Most home audio installations will have six speakers – a centre, two front channels, two surrounds, and a subwoofer. If you’re lucky, you have a 7.2 channel system, which adds two rear surround speakers and another subwoofer. The Dolby Atmos installation in Ster Kinekor’s Gateway Cine 3 has 48 speakers, and two subwoofers.

And that’s just the surround speakers – including 20 drivers in the ceiling. To get a total count, we need to add the five speaker stacks and subwoofers that are placed behind the main screen of this 400+ seater cinema.

Announced in April 2012, Dolby Atmos aims to take surround sound to the next level. While viewers can get Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 – or even 11.2 – sound at home, Atmos is a cinema-exclusive technology that is more like a programming language than a sound system, and it allows for up to 128 channels.

With clever speaker positioning and recording, it’s possible to create the illusion of complete immersive sound. Things that happen off screen will happen in your ears – arrows flying overhead, bullets whizzing past your ears, and hyperrealistic explosions. As its name implies, Atmos attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the movie inside the cinema.

To achieve this, Dolby engineers flew out to South Africa to oversee the installation at Gateway’s number 3 cinema. Precise measurements were taken with laser instruments, and each speaker’s location marked. Within that, there’s only 5cm of leeway to position the driver at a precise angle. When everything’s set up, the experts from Dolby equalise the system and calibrate each speaker. Creating the illusion of individual objects flying around in a cinema isn’t child’s play, it’s science.

It’s not even a matter of adding lots of speakers to a cinema, either. Each Dolby Atmos installation is powered by a dedicated sound processor. While the digital movies that arrive on hard drives have their own Dolby 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, Dolby Atmos movies have their soundtrack arrive on a separate hard drive. This expensive setup is the reason there’s only one Atmos-specified theatre in the country, and a mere 156 worldwide.

With the level of sophisticated technology and complex installation required (seriously, speakers in the roof) it’s unlikely that Atmos will be ready for home use in the near future, if ever. But experiencing it is something that makes us think that cinemas now have a big draw card.

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