An Informal Discussion with Larry Jacobson - President of QuVIS' Entertainment Division
by Alex Billington
July 28, 2006
FirstShowing.net had the opportunity to interview Larry Jacobson, the President of QuVIS' Entertainment Division and discuss many aspects of digital cinema, theatre design, and the future of theatre in general. QuVIS is the manufacturer of a number of digital technology products, however most notably in the film industry a digital cinema server that is the backbone to all digital cinema theatrical experiences. FirstShowing.net was able to ask Larry about what exactly QuVIS is doing and how digital cinema works as well as a wide range of topics including the successes of digital cinema and its development over time. Read on for the full interview.
FirstShowing.net: So to start off, just a little introduction, what is QuVIS and what is your company's role when it comes to the process of watching digital cinema? And what is your role within QuVIS?
Larry Jacobson: Well, QuVIS is a leading digital imaging technology company. Our core technology is called Quality Priority Encoding (QPE®). This technology provides pristine image quality at exceptionally low data rates. Currently, we provide this technology in a line of high fidelity imaging servers. These servers provide images for large screen displays, themed entertainment, government applications, etc. When NASA launches a shuttle, QuVIS servers record and playback high resolution images for analysis. Digital Cinema is an excellent application for our technology- in fact, we've been providing Digital Cinema playback since 1999, with Toy Story 2. I'm the President of the Entertainment Division. My background is the exhibition community, including the designing and building of movie theaters. In fact it's been about 30 years, 31 years actually, in that business.
FS: Why is this QuVIS content server that you manufacture an integral part when viewing digital cinema?
LJ: I don't know how much you've been following the digital cinema business today, but we have an industry out there that's following a specification from a studio organization called Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI). So DCI has established a specification, if you will, a standard for the technical spec for digital cinema. QuVIS manufacturers a server that follows that technical spec. However the basic platform of the server goes beyond what that technical spec can provide. One of the uniquenesses of the [products] that we have is the ability to go beyond that specification. So for us the DCI specification, digital cinema as everyone refers to it, is a sort of beginning. And I think that's what differentiates QuVIS from the rest.
FS: Again, sort of an introduction to digital cinema, what are the main differences between digital cinema and regular film for those who don't necessarily know what that is?
LJ: There's hundreds of things that really separate it. First of all, I mean film is... you're limited by film. You know if you go into a movie theatre and you watch film you're looking at a couple of different formats: you see a flat movie and you see a CinemaScope movie; and it's been that way for probably 50 years. The image degrades over time; it's a beautiful picture initially. If you could go to a studio and you could see a masterprint, it would look gorgeous to you. But you don't see a masterprint in theatres, what you see is whatever generation of a print, and every time it plays it degrades a little bit. Unless you catch it opening night, odds are you're going to see some scratches and some specks on the film and you're going to hear some pops in the audio and things of that nature. In the digital world, the image and audio is pristine from opening night until the movie leaves the theatre. There's also a multitude of formats that you will see, that don't see today. The images themselves are just getting better and better. It's a whole new world out there in a digital perspective.
FS: Why do you think it has taken so long for theatres to start to implement digital cinema as opposed to film? Do you think this is an additional attraction for people to come to movies at the theatre?
LJ: It's definitely an additional attraction, and the rationale is, film's been around for 100 years so that attributes an awful lot to pure legacy defending. There's those advocates of film, who want to keep film, and they don't want it to change. It's that way in any kind of an industry that's going to convert to new technology. And its simply that simple, it's just moving and it's getting closer and closer - and we're just starting to see some installs now. We won't really see digital cinema until the conversion's completed - and then not entirely. Just the fact that you have a film theatre with a digital projector in place does not make it digital cinema. That's what the perception is, but digital cinema is more of a total experience: different environment, different formats, different programming, things we haven't even seen yet. And there's some images that we've attempted to develop in film that will be exceeded in a digital world.
FS: We see nowadays some digitally projected cinemas popping up. There's a local Cinemark here that offers one screen of DLP showings, and we see that advertised - that's sort of a familiar lingo to a lot of Best Buy shoppers. But how does your server play a role in that? Are they using your server or is that yet another step-up or how does that relate to what we see?
LJ: Yea, some Cinemarks are using the QuVIS Cinema System. DLP stands for Digital Light Processing, the patented display technology from Texas Instruments. There are different resolutions of projectors; the earlier DLPs were 1.3K, today it's a 2K projector. So it just has a higher resolution, the bit depth is higher than what you're accustomed to seeing. That's the Texas Instrument product. Sony also has a digital cinema projector capabable of 4K. You'll see some competing display technologies between the DLP and, say, the Sony technology, and who knows there could be others down the road - nothing on the surface right now, but could be. That's really what DLP is; and you see that on the TV a lot, you see Texas Instruments advertising their core display technology [DLP on TV].
FS: So that means that's the actual projector unit showing the image, but it's being driven by your server?
LJ: That's right. And so, not to take anything away from the importance of the projector - if you think about it, the projectors themselves are the display, the server is the brains of the system. Not only does the server directly determine the image quality, it provides audio, triggers for lights, curtains, etc. - among other things. The installed server will also directly determine what a theater can provide the movie goer - can it play 3D, can it play 4K, can it play multiple formats? Video gaming, sporting events, concerts - content from young aspiring film makers - all require the ability to play multiple formats. Because of our imaging experience in other industries, QuVIS is particularly well suited to meet these needs.
FS: So when we see a DLP system advertised, that means we're walking into a potentially a QuVIS digital cinema theatre?
LJ: Yes, potentially you are.
We're excited here at QuVIS - as a company, me as a movie goer. The new entertainment possiblities are phenomenal and the entire industry is making strides every day. Take Pixar for example - they've got a lot of depth in their animation. The movie file size on an animated film was typically a lot less than it was on a standard movie. But with Cars , it was right up there - a pristine quality image that doesn't degrade over showings. We're all moving forward-
Go to a seminar and sit down and listen to the colorists, as an example, talk about what they're doing. Last year they weren't doing nearly what they're doing this year, and so in four or five years this quality is just going to be far superior to what it is today. That's the beauty of it. We've sort of hit the wall with film. Kodak will talk about the improvements, and they've made some improvements over the years. But as far as visual improvements to the movie-goer, it's really been very little. The digital world is just beginning.
FS: Connecting in with that, do you see a push from Hollywood and the studios to use digital cinema as opposed to film or is it vice versa?
LJ: Absolutely. It'll be converting... right now, the industry as a whole has a committed to making all movies available in digital by the end of the year. I'd say it's probably running about 90% right now. It's like I said, it's just the beginning. Once the conversion occurs, then you'll see all the alternative content come into play. I think it's just going to have such a huge impact on the business - and society as the whole. There's a lot of parts of the country that don't see, be it New York plays, [or] they're not really privy to concerts and things like that. I mean you could do live streaming to all these theatres, various auditoriums, [of] whatever programming you want.
Digital Cinema can be a great opportunity for Independent filmmakers. Mainstream Hollywood really doesn't welcome all the independent modes that are available out there. They want to control their product, just like everybody else. Think about that - if you're an independent filmmaker today, you can go out to a theatre. I know theatre chains who, if I had a movie myself, and I could go out and shoot a movie independently, and I could go take it to a theatre and then show them that movie and cut a deal with them and play that in my theatre. There's a ton of opportunities, and it's all because of digital, it's not because of film. You couldn't go as an independent and go out and shoot a movie; and film, the expense would be astronomical; obtaining a camera - cameras are handmade, they're not mass produced. It's a whole new world.
FS: Is there going to be a network of potential distribution for that; not only did you show up at your theatre and cut a deal there, but do you see there being a sort of unbranded, by a studio, distribution center that could potentially distribute these to a thousand cinemas?
LJ: Well, satellite distribution is one up and however many you like down. You can upload a movie to a bird and download it to a thousand screens. In a film world today, if you distribute a movie... if I'm Paramount and I make a movie, maybe I've got a 3000 print run, so I will manufacturer 3000 to 2000 physical prints and send those movies out. Well, in a digital world I can take one movie, send it up, and get it out to 5000 if I wanted. There isn't any print break, there isn't any limitation for me.
FS: You were at the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest world premiere and it was shown using the QuVIS server on digital cinema. Were there any responses or feedback from any of the actors or directors or producers or anyone in Hollywood regarding the digital version of that film?
LJ: Yep, we always get reactions. I don't recall, I think it was at InfoComm this past year where we had a studio session. And, absolutely. There's an awful lot of commentary, positive commentary about it. It's almost like... it's no different than any other industry, but if you'd listen to the older guys talk about the film side, and then listen to the young ones talk about digital, and boy it's exciting. They realize that there aren't any limitations and where the future is. And you can just hear it, and they pontificate forever. They can go on forever and talk about [digital].
FS: What other new possibilities can be opened by having a digital projector, such as broadcasting the World Cup finals. Do you see a lot more of these other possibilities besides movies coming about in movie theatres using digital cinema and your server?
LJ: Well, digital cinema, we all think about pictures - what images we can see - and we all think in conventional terms, because that's what we know. But as an example, you talk about the gaming industry - you could develop an environment that would house a digital image that would be twice as resolute as anything you've ever seen, easily. You can become mesmerized by the picture.
A film is running 24 frames or 48 fields, and in the digital world you can bump that up, you can do 120 fields as an example in a digital image. A high resolute digital image with a frame rate like that, if you were in a game, at that kind of frame rate in a properly designed space, you'd stay mesmerized. There's nothing that's going to wake you up. In a film world, a scratch will wake you up, a little speck on the film, a pop in the audio. Boy I tell you what, in a digital world, in an environment like that, someone's going to have to turn on the lights [to wake you up]. It's exciting stuff... and you can just go on from there. That's what I say - it starts once the conversion's there and people start to work for the technology, [and] the audience becomes accustom to it. Today we're accustom to looking at very good images, and so we're spoiled. And we're going to become more and more spoiled as time goes on with the digital technology.
FS: Do you see this technology being miniaturized and packaged for commercial home use to potentially be a receiver for digital distribution or display on somebody's DLP home projector?
LJ: Right, I can see it hand-in-hand. The goal of the theatre industry is to provide an experience that exceeds what you can get in your home. And the goal of home theatres, it's been there for 20 years, is to make those images as good as possible or the experience as good as possible. And so you can see: one's going to develop, the other develops, one develops, the other develops.
FS: Is that something that your company, QuVIS, is potentially looking at as a product line?
LJ: Yes, we've gone through CEDIA, looked at the technology that's there. There is an opportunity there for us in the consumer market.
FS: As a conclusion, what do you see coming in the future with digital cinema and with QuVIS servers and what are you looking for in the future? What advancements are you developing?
LJ: What you're really going to see is a total change in the business model. I've commented a few times about having a movie theatre with a digital projector in it not being digital cinema. There will be a time in the not-to-distant future when you'll see that the movie theatres themselves won't look or function the way that they do today. They currently are designed for film: so you have an auditorium next to an auditorium next to an auditorium, and you do that because above those auditoriums is a mezzanine structure that has a projector next to a projector next to a projector. And if you want to run a movie onto three screens, then you take that movie, you thread up the first projector, take it over, the same physical print, to the second projector and to the third projector and you thread those all up together, and there is a little time delay between auditoriums. In a digital world you just transfer the movie, you can put it on one screen, or ten screens, or twenty screens - whatever you feel like. They don't have to have a proximity to each other.
What happens is you start opening up the theatre complex itself. When you do that you allow for the special venue type presentations, those extremely high resolute: gaming as an example, sporting events, NFL in 3D, all those sorts of things. They all occur within the confines of what is now defined as, not a movie theatre per se, but an entertainment center. That'll be the next progression - you'll go into an entertainment center, anything and everything that you would prefer or [that you] would want to see from a visual entertainment perspective will be there.
FS: What kind of developments as we move into this digital realm do you see coming along side the improvements in the video that relate to audio. Do you see any major advancements in audio coming out?
LJ: Sure. They're a little stymied from a movie-going experience because what's happened is we've gone... certainly digital audio's been there in the movies for a while. And now what's being mandated is the ability to go to 16 channels. So with the 16 channels we can all think about where we might put 16 channels of audio. I think what you'll see because it is digital is more manipulation of energy and phase relationships to where we can control the audio better within the confines of the space. Those auditoriums that I was telling you about that are going to change from a configuration perspective because they're not just boxes lined up in a row, will accommodate and allow a lot of that audio manipulation. You'll see some audio capabilities that you've never seen before. You'll be able to isolate a specific sound and put it specifically where you want to in a theatre auditorium - you'll be able to whisper in somebody's ear if you'd like to.
FS: So we're talking about changing the paradigm from theatres laid out in a row based on that mezzanine structure you talked about; what's the layout you envision being capable with this digital cinema?
LJ: You will see an auditorium configured in such a way that the audience... Bear in mind, to give a little history lesson. In the beginning, as far as the multiplexes were concerned, there was a design we call the "shoebox." Shoebox theatres were built in the back of shopping malls, they were built on a 32-foot column center. What you found yourself in [was] a space that had a deep-slope floor, that was 32-feet wide, that was 64-feet, 96-, 128- long. And they turned out to be real cash cows. The next phase was the multiplex, and the multiplex was actually built out on a pad outside of a mall; the developers figured out people would go to them and didn't have to go to the mall. What happened was those boxes changed shape, and you saw some take extremes even, where the picture was too wide for the auditorium - there was a lot of experimenting going on. After that, the megaplex was developed. The megaplex was stadium seating, wide bodied auditoriums, with more comfortable aspect ratios, technically correct. In the future what you'll see is some clusters of theatres. You'll have more pie-shaped auditoriums, more multiple variable-type 4-slope stadium seating combinations. The purpose of all that is to put the audience in proximity of where they need to be for the most effective presentation. That's really what the environment will be.
Thank you to Larry Jacobson and QuVIS for allowing us the opportunity to interview him and a company that will have a formidable impact on the way digital cinema technology develops in the future and on all of our theatre going experiences.