Thread comes out of 'Button'

Digital-cinema questions and concerns surface as screening goes awry

An aborted screening of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" last week has raised concerns within the film community over digital projection.

On Thursday night at the DGA Theatre in Los Angeles, Paramount held the first major industry showing of "Button," David Fincher's widely anticipated drama that is expected to be one of the season's big awards contenders.

But about 25 minutes into the film, the image froze, the film stopped and the house lights went up.

Claudio Miranda, the film's director of photography, announced that there was a problem and rushed to the projection booth, where a 2K digital-cinema system was being used to screen the film. Forty-five minutes later, after a few false starts, Miranda returned to say that the show would not be going on that night.

There was a problem with the digital server — which had been rented for the screening — that resulted in the absence of the color red from the projected image, giving the film a washed-out look.

The screening was rescheduled for Saturday on the Paramount lot, where, with Fincher and Miranda in attendance, the projection went off without a hitch.

The Thursday screening, though, was not an isolated incident. There have been other snafus at recent digital screenings of "Che" and "Quantum of Solace."

If digital systems can break down in settings like the "Button" screening, where the industry is putting its best foot forward, a number of those present asked what might go wrong as digital cinema rolls out to local multiplexes.

Will the projectionist know that something is wrong? Will he or she know what to do about it? And if a system is unable to play a film, what will be the response of audiences who paid to see the latest blockbuster on its opening weekend?

"We are currently in a phase in d-cinema equipment development where there is a lot of fine tuning going on with the hardware and software," said d-cinema consultant Walt Ordway, who served as chief technology officer for studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives.

Jerry Pierce, chair of the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum, pointed to Projection Configuration Files, which are loaded into the projectors to interpret the data in order to put the right contrast/color on the screen for a given movie.

"There have been many conversations involving theater owners that are having trouble teaching projectionists and operators how to set up and maintain digital cinema systems, including PCF set up," Pierce said, adding that the ISDCF is exploring better training and the elimination of PCFs as a variable in the system.

"Film is not without the possibility of technical failure, but the digital cinema side has more opportunity for absolute failure," added Loren Nielsen, principal at Entertainment Technology Consultants.

Said Pierce: "It's hard to make anything foolproof. We have a complicated system in terms of security, color and configurations. It works really well most of the time, but on the occasions that it doesn't, it can be a disaster." (partialdiff)
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