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The first LED cinema screen in the U.S. was unveiled Friday at Pacific Theatres Winnetka in Chatsworth, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where Warner Bros.’ Ready Player One will be the first movie offered on the new exhibition system, starting Saturday.
The Samsung LED Cinema Screen marks a radical shift from the theater projection systems that have been used since the birth of cinema. Instead, the LED screen is more akin to a giant television screen, and its use would render the projection booth a thing of the past.
At its unveiling Friday, Samsung shared new details about content creation for the screen — and what it might mean for both studios and filmmakers.
Why switch to LED screens? Samsung vice president Stephen Choi argues that “there hasn’t been anything new to draw audiences into the theaters” and they need “a new experience, to provide the ‘wow’ factor.”
So far, the images that the screen produces have impressed many in Hollywood, including Jerome Dewhurst, senior color scientist at postproduction facility Roundabout Entertainment. He contends that the LED screen’s “pure black is much deeper” than other systems.
It remains to be seen whether the non-expert eye of the average moviegoer will see a noticeable difference, and whether audiences will then be willing to pay a premium for it. At launch, Pacific Theatres Winnetka is not charging a premium for the LED auditorium. But, in time, theaters may choose to charge a premium ticket price to watch movies on a LED screen.
In order to prep movies for exhibition on the new LED screen in theaters, Samsung hopes to outfit postproduction facilities so that filmmakers can view their work on an LED display. The first color grading (digital intermediate) postproduction suite to offer a Samsung LED Screen in North America has now opened at Roundabout’s Santa Monica facility. It offers a 17-foot screen that can play 2K resolution, standard or high dynamic range, 7.1 surround sound and offers a Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve color grading system. Samsung hopes to add its screens in more post houses.
According to Samsung, its Cinema Screen can play a standard DCI-compliant Digital Cinema Package (the digital equivalent of the film print) if the images are standard dynamic range. But for a high dynamic range (HDR) grade, it would require a separate version, meaning that the studios would need to make another deliverable. Studios are already creating multiple versions of their films, including digital 2D, digital 3D at different light levels, Imax, Dolby Cinema and local languages. The more deliverables, the more time and expense films must spend in postproduction.
The reason for the new HDR version — meaning that the images have a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks — is that the LED screen is brighter than what is typically projected in theaters, which is 14 foot-lamberts (a measure of luminance in cinema). In comparison, the LED screen has a peak brightness level around 300 nits (a measurement of brightness), which Samsung estimates could display roughly 88 foot-lamberts.
The new Samsung LED Cinema Screen in Chatsworth is 34 feet wide and 18 feet high, with all of the features of the smaller screen at Roundabout, but it can additionally support 4K resolution.
When introduced to the press on Friday, the theater presented trailers of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time in standard dynamic range; various Amazon trailers including Life Itself in HDR; and some ARRI-provided demo material shot with its new Alexa LF large format camera, also in HDR.
Ready Player One was screened in its entirety in standard dynamic range, and Samsung confirmed that it therefore didn’t create a new version of the film.
But on the HDR front, this screen does underscore a concern voiced by many cinematographers last week at NAB Show, that in the digital realm, their images can be manipulated and changed all too easily in postproduction. In fact, Ready Player One cinematographer and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski lamented that cinematographers are losing control of the images they shoot.
The cinematographers’ participation in color grading can vary, as some lensers have guaranteed involvement in their contracts while others do not.
Roundabout’s Dewhurst emphasized that he encourages the DP’s involvement. “It’s Roundabout’s view that an HDR theater requires a dedicated grading session, not an automated system, to create the deliverable,” he added, recommending that the LED HDR grade could be the master version, used as the starting point for other versions of a movie.
Dewhurst also revealed that Roundabout has already started to invite members of the American Society of Cinematographers to see the screen and discuss the creative work.
Samsung has additionally been showing their LED screen to filmmakers and Hollywood studio execs. The screen might be of particular interest to James Cameron, Ang Lee and other filmmakers exploring the use of higher frame rates. Ready Player One was screened on the Samsung system at 24 frames per second, the standard in cinema. But the tech manufacturer contends that it’s working to get the system up to a high frame rate of 60 frames per second.
The question of how to handle the sound has been a topic of discussion for the past year, since Samsung first announced its LED Cinema Screen plans. This is because in traditional cinema, there are speakers directly behind the screen, which is not doable with LED panels.
For this theater auditorium, Samsung-owned Harman International developed a JBL Professional cinema sound audio system that can accommodate up to 7.1 Surround Sound. Harman’s cinema solutions manager Dan Saenz explained that the new configuration places the front speaker directly above the screen and incorporates some filtering technology, designed to make it appear as though the sound was coming from the screen; and it places an additional speaker in front that bounces high frequency sounds off the screen and into the audience, also aimed at creating the sonic experience of a traditional theater.
Still, the biggest hurdle to a rollout could come down to the cost. Samsung said the cost of a screen could run anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000, a hefty price for a theater owner. Pete Lude, chief technology officer of engineering firm Mission Rock Digital, estimates that in comparison, top-of-the-line laser projectors generally cost between $150,000 to $300,000.
Samsung argued that there are other benefits that could help offset some of the cost, citing as an example that the LED Cinema Screen’s life span is estimated to be 17 years. “And we’re looking at financial companies to see if there are options available,” said Samsung’s Choi.
The company also pointed out that unlike projection systems, a LED screen could be used with ambient light in the room, potentially making it an attractive option for dine-in theaters, gaming or other such users.
While Pacific Theatres Winnetka is the first U.S. theater installation, the Samsung LED Cinema Screens are available in several international venues, including two in South Korea and one each in Zurich, Bangkok and Shanghai. Samsung expects to have at least 10 installed worldwide by the summer, and roughly 30 by the end of the year.
While currently focused on 34-foot screens, Samsung is also working on a 46-foot 4K LED screen, which it aims to introduce in late 2018.
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