Interview: Don Shaw of Christie answers HFR 3D projector questions; talks future of HFR, collaborations, new demo

The hype surrounding The Hobbit‘s 48 fps release has naturally generated numerous questions about the technology behind HFR 3D and the future of high frame rate movies. There’s a lot of murky information out there, and answers regarding the details of HFR projection have been in short supply.

I’m therefore very happy to have had the chance to talk to Don Shaw, Senior Director of Product Management at Christie Digital, the company that has been the biggest trailblazer regarding HFR 3D projection. Don is someone who knows digital projection technology inside and out and has been at the forefront of Christie’s HFR initiatives.  See below for details on Christie’s HFR projectors, collaborations with filmmakers, the HFR marketplace, future upgrades, and more:

James Cameron and 3 Christie executives at CinemaCon 2011, where Cameron used Christie projectors to show the first ever HFR cinema content to the world.

1) How do you expect industry projection standards to evolve? James Cameron seems to still be shooting for 60 fps 3D for the Avatar sequels, and is reportedly shooting them at 4K+. Do you think there is an ultimate “endpoint” for both resolution and frame rate for film projection? NHK in Japan is working on 8K capture and display and Douglas Trumbull has talked about making a 3D movie at 120 fps. How far ahead does Christie look in terms of it’s R&D?

Don Shaw: I think the industry projection standards will evolve rapidly over the next few years, but I’m not convinced that exhibitors can afford another large-scale technology evolution just yet, except in their “premium experience” theaters… these will be spectacular. We are actively engaged in research with James Cameron’s team, Peter Jackson’s Post House (Park Road Post), and directly with Douglas Trumbull on a number of frame-rate related initiatives. I can’t say much right now, but watch for an exciting HFR demo from Christie at the upcoming NAB and CinemaCon tradeshows.

2) Some of my readers are asking whether any digital projectors (or dual projector setups) are capable of showing a 48 fps 3D movie at 4K resolution (in other words, a 48 fps 3D movie where both the left and right eye images are at 4K). From my readings it seems no current projection systems from any company can project a movie at both 48 fps and in 4K due to bandwidth limitations either in the IMBs, the projectors, or both. Please correct me if I’m wrong. If 4K per eye at 48 fps / 60 fps is not yet possible for either single projectors or Christie Duo setups, what would be required to enable it? How soon could we expect it?

Don Shaw: You are absolutely correct, there are no cinema projectors capable of exceeding 30 fps (total) with 4K content for the precise reasons that you suggest below. That means that you would need two 4K projectors to play 4K 3D just at standard frame rates. Obviously, a 4K HFR projector would require up to 4X the input bandwidth of our current cinema projectors (up to 120 fps total)… this would be a forklift upgrade (i.e. new projector) and the reality is that none of the current cinema infrastructure (IMBs, servers, routers, content delivery systems, etc) can handle this bandwidth. It will be a long time before we see 4K HFR in theaters and we currently have no plans for building such a projector for general Cinema usage. With that said, all of our 4K projectors can take 2K HFR content (up to 60 fps/eye) and will upscale to 4K. While this does not produce as sharp of an image as a true 4K source, it does provide some additional benefit and also goes a long way to reducing the “screen-door effect” that is seen when you are close enough to the screen to perceive individual pixels.

3) What has been the demand from theater owners for HFR 3D capable projectors and Integrated Media Blocks (IMBs)?

Don Shaw: Demand for HFR 3D equipment had been solid among exhibitors (globally) leading up to the Hobbit. However, I think this will calm down over the upcoming months and will probably ramp up again when we next see another HFR film release.

4) Which Christie projector models are capable of projecting at 48 fps 3D?

Christie’s latest digital cinema projector – the Christie Solaria One – which comes with the pre-installed Christie IMB.

Don Shaw: All Christie Solaria projectors (CP2210, CP2220, CP2230, CP4220, CP4230, Solaria One/One+) are capable of HFR at 48/60 fps/eye, assuming that a suitable IMB is installed.

5) In terms of how Christie’s products are sold to theaters, are there any projectors which are sold with HFR 3D-enabling IMB’s pre-installed, or do theater owners purchase them separately?

Don Shaw: Currently, only the Solaria One/One+ projectors are shipped with a standard IMB. All of our other projectors have an option slot where one can be easily installed by the customer or their integration partner.

6) Will future Christie projectors have the software update required for HFR 3D pre-installed?

Don Shaw: All Christie cinema projectors currently have the HFR-enabling software installed at the factory. Also, any older Series 2 Solaria projectors in the field can be upgraded with the latest software free of charge. With that said, however, you still need an HFR capable IMB.

7) I read in this The Hollywood Reporter article that Christie has an upgrade program to make older “Series One” projectors HFR capable. Could you elaborate on this? The article didn’t really explain how this works. Has it been a popular solution for Series One owners?

Don Shaw: This is incorrect information, there is no way to upgrade a Series 1 projector to HFR. At one point we explored this notion, but after realizing the huge number of parts, including all of the electronics, that needed to be redesigned/replaced, we determined that it was simply a better option (technically and financially) for our customers to replace their entire projector with a Series 2 projector.

8) What was your personal response to seeing The Hobbit in HFR 3D?

Christie Duo configuration in use at Hoyts Australia and other theatres.

Don Shaw: I loved the effect of HFR 3D for the Hobbit… especially for all of the panning landscape and mountain range scenes that really helped the audience see something that was never before possible in a movie theater.

9) What do you think is the future of HFR? Will it be relatively niche, or will everything (from Youtube to TV to movies, etc) begin to adopt it as a standard?

Don Shaw: I can really only speak from a cinema perspective and I believe that the future will see growth in HFR. However, this will require effort from the entire movie ecosystem, including studios, exhibitors, filmmakers, and equipment suppliers; everyone needs to come together to ensure HFR always means a spectacular experience and then figure out how to really educate the audience about this, rather than just throw the 3-letter acronym at them.

10) Is Christie still working with James Cameron on HFR tech? Any updates on this collaboration?

Don Shaw: Yes, we continue to work with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment on HFR. Unfortunately, I have no further updates at this time.

11) If HFR at 4K isn’t in the near term future, is there anything you can say about what what Christie is working on for their upcoming products?

Don Shaw: We are focusing on three main areas:

a. High value solutions for small market cinemas and emerging market economies. As you know, with the looming end of film, all cinemas are being forced to go digital or shut out the lights; we are doing everything we can to help these guys out.

b. Total system solutions – ranging from IMB to TMS to audio processors and everything in between. We aim to become the only “total solution” cinema equipment manufacturer; leading to greater system integration, simplicity, enhanced support, and overall better value for the exhibitor.

c. Ultra-Premium cinema solutions (i.e. laser projection).

Many thanks to Don Shaw, and David Paolini at Christie for arranging this interview.

More about Christie: Christie Digital has been at the forefront of digital projection since the beginning: they helped spur the 3D revolution and are now pushing high frame rate tech forward.  As some of you may know, Christie partnered with James Cameron at CinemaCon 2011 to facilitate the presentation of footage (medieval feast and sword fighting) at 24 fps, 48 fps, and 60 fps. See this reaction from FirstShowing.net for a representative example of the universally positive response to Cameron’s demo.

In September 2011 Christie extended its partnership with Cameron with a five-year agreement to “exchange research, testing, development and technical support on the industry’s most exciting new technology.” This will include technical assistance from Christie in Avatar 2 and 3.