The Future of Digital Cinema

In my spare time I fix vintage Swiss watches. I love old mechanical things and I’m especially  fascinated by the study of timekeeping known as “Horology”. One of the reasons watches are interesting is because, as a solution to a problem, they are completely solved. That means the Swiss watch industry is one of the few that doesn’t look forward. It looks backward. It studies tradition spanning centuries and techniques passed down through generations. The Swiss watch story is of a manufacturing process that has transitioned from being developmental to an established art form. That’s why I love it. It’s not about new ideas. It’s about mastering techniques and seeking perfection. There are so few technologies nowadays that we master. Instead we disrupt and dispose of things before they’re finished. All in our never-ending per-suit of “the next big thing”. Not so the mechanical Swiss Watch. It’s consumer technology you buy to pass down to your children. Or inherit from an age that’s otherwise unrecognisable, aside from sharing the same horological techniques as today.

Much of this can be said about cinema. And in particular there are parallels between the invention of digital cinema and electrically powered quartz watches. Everyone thought the “Quartz Crisis” would put an end to the Swiss watch industry. Quartz watches were more accurate and cheaper. But where the quartz watch failed, and perhaps digital cinema has succeeded, was the element of emotion. Quartz watches, whilst popular, were considered mass produced and made without any love. Whilst a hand made Swiss watch is something to marvel at and cherish. A quartz watch, or a smart watch for that matter, is a mere transient convenience.

Digital cinema has been more successful in outdoing its analogue counterpart. For one, the love and emotion is in the story, the performance, the photography, the music and all the other art forms that make up the grand symphony of film. Digital cinema’s job has been to continue projecting great artwork onto the big screen, make it look as good or better than 35mm, reduce costs, improve security, make it more accessible for deaf and blind people, introduce alternative content such as live theatre, make 3D films commonplace and make cinema open to more film-makers. I believe it’s done all these things admirably.

Quentin Tarantino disagrees with me. He says digital projection is the “death of cinema as I know it”. He longs for the days of 35mm projection and says cinema has basically become a big TV. But I think that’s a compliment. High end HDTVs are beyond amazing. With their near P3 HDR OLED displays. The colour gamut, the resolution, the contrast ratio is all phenomenal. You can do anything with it. Film makers today are immensely privileged to have such a canvas to work on. And the fact you can have all those things on a gigantic screen, in a darkened sound proof room, with amazing sound, shared as a communal experience with an audience… to me, that’s cinema and it’s worth paying a premium for.

As for the look of a flickery 35mm projector with all its dust, cigarette burns and scratches. You can still have that if you’re shooting 35mm. Not as a ropy old third generation print, but as an unbelievably detailed 4K scan of the negative itself. Digital cinema, done properly, exploiting the full colour gamut and resolution available, can absolutely reproduce the look of 35mm on the big screen better than it’s ever been reproduced before.

In looking to the future, we have to ask, what more do we need? Sure, projectors will display more colours and have better contrast ratios and dynamic range. Sound will get ever more immersive, 3D films will get easier on the eyes. I think VR and holograms are a very different product and will exist alongside traditional cinema. And the way we get content to cinemas will improve with Internet speeds so vast files can be transferred across the planet in seconds. But this isn’t really innovation, is it? It’s more the perfection of an established process. And I think that’s a great thing to be a part of.

So, to put on my futurology hat for a moment, I don’t think digital cinema is going to change substantially for the next century. And that doesn’t mean it’s stagnated. It’s very cool to think a digital technology has progressed so far that now we just need to perfect it. It runs like a Swiss watch. It has all the emotion of a Swiss watch. And audiences still cherish films like Swiss watches. So if the Swiss watch industry is anything to go by, we can expect things to stay as they are for a very long time. I think that’s something to smile about.

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