Projecting films digitally in theaters (2K and 4K)

Reader’s question:

Please explain the process of putting digital footage on to a medium for projection in theaters.

My answer:

Projecting a film digitally is conceptually very simple (I will get to the details below): the film itself is simply a digital file stored on some sort of server that is connected to a digital projector. It is essentially the same as connecting a laptop to a digital projector and projecting a QuickTime file on the screen — the only difference is that if you’re projecting a film in a theater with 2K or 4K resolution, the file itself is absolutely enormous, the data rate is correspondingly huge, it requires a server that can handle these enormous files, and of course a projector of sufficient quality and power to project a high-resolution image directly on a large screen.

That said, in principle you can simply connect the projector to a Blu-ray player or even a laptop – in which case the laptop or Blu-ray player is acting as the playback server. You should check with the venue beforehand to determine how you will be feeding the data to the projector — if they have a high-end playback server, ask them what file format they want. Preparation is essential.

You can project films digitally at one of two resolutions: 2K (2048×1080) or 4K (4096×2160). There is widespread agreement among experts in this area that most audience members simply cannot tell the difference between a 4K image and 2K image, so there is an inherent preference for the 2K image because the file is smaller and it will be easier and cheaper to project.

Additionally, since the image is focused by the projector’s lens, the limiting factor in the image quality when you are dealing with such huge data rates tends to be the quality of the lens itself.  There aren’t many lenses around that can do justice to the 4K resolution, so even if the human eye can intrinsically distinguish between the quality of 2K and 4K, the difference can be made imperceptible by the sharpness of the lens if it cannot resolve the difference.

In summary, to project a film digitally, you need the following elements:

– the playback server, which is the hardware that stores and plays the video file (Sony calls this the “media block”);

– a digital projector;

– the video file itself;

– you must decide whether you will project from a laptop or Blu-ray (easy options) or from a massive file stored on a specialized playback server (in which case you must liaise with the venue, as I have heard that this approach, while undoubtedly the best, can also be a real mess.)

With digital projection there are no reels to change, no film print to wear out, no scratches, no dust, no release print costs – none of that.

I will conclude with an anecdote that is particularly close to my heart. My very first project was a 30-minute film that had its world premiere at the Houston International Film Festival in April 2003.  I shot it on Mini DV with a camera that was a decade ahead of its time and produced an unbelievably beautiful look (the JVC DV700, which was discontinued early because it posed an insurmountable threat to the subsequent explosion of the HDV format). My film was projected on a large screen in a movie theater, and before the screening I was sweating bullets because I thought that projecting Mini DV footage on a large screen would make the pixels look as big as my hand, destroying the cinematic effect.

As the screening began, my fears melted. I had never seen my film in such glory: the color was beautiful, the image sharp without being video-like, and the texture was velvety, with absolutely no pixels visible, which I found very surprising.  It was both velvety AND sharp, which may sound like a contradiction in terms: it has to be seen to be believed. To this day I have not seen my film at such high quality.  I even remember the name of the projector, which back then was the hottest and most exciting thing in digital projection: it was the Wagner Media/Christie Digital Roadie DLP 6000 digital projector for video. I went up to the booth to take a look at it and it was beautiful.  I was 24 years old and the nine days I spent at the festival were like a dream. But I digress!

There can be absolutely no doubt that digital projection is the future and the clumsiness and cost of 35mm film prints is quite simply no longer acceptable.  I should clarify that the only reason I support shooting and projecting digitally is the sheer beauty of footage shot with the RED camera, which in my opinion competes extremely successfully with a look of film. Before the RED camera, there was no substitute for the look of 35mm film; it was the pinnacle of beauty for me. This is no longer the case: we have moved on and the RED camera is extremely empowering to cash-strapped filmmakers.

I hope this helps!

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2 thoughts on “Projecting films digitally in theaters (2K and 4K)

  1. Just what I wanted to know! Now to find a good digital projector. Thanks so much for this valuable information.

    • My pleasure! If you are projecting in a room rather than a big theater, hooking up a laptop to a good projector will produce great results, if the video is well produced.

      Keep me posted!

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