A couple of weeks ago, I got to conduct my first interview in a cinema (and I now wish all my interviews could take place in that environment) as I got to sit down and chat with David McIntosh who is the Vice President of Sony Digital Cinema. We met up in Vue Cinema in Fulham surrounded by billboards of upcoming movies which set the scene nicely for our topic area.
He’s an extremely knowledgeable chap and has worked for Sony for nearly 25 years. In that time he has moved from Chief Financial Officer to the technical side of the business to Sony’s Vice President of Digital Cinema.
I got to chat with him about how technology has changed, where we see it going and he gives me the full low-down on their newest cinema technology Sony 4K which Sony believe is the future of cinema. Since it’s inception, 47% of all US 3D screens are now running Sony 4K so this has been a huge step for them and David talks us through how Europe is now embracing 4K cinema systems.
How long have you been in your current role?
I’ve been with Sony since 1988, a life serving Sony-guy and until two years ago, I was the Chief Financial Officer for Sony’s B2B business as opposed to consumer business for Europe, Middle East and Africa and it was only two years ago that I got to get involved in Digital Cinema and now I head up Digital Cinema in Europe.
Are you a big fan of movies and do you get to watch movies as part of the job?!
What’s difficult is persuading people that watching films is part of the job! I’ve always been very fond of films but since I’ve become involved more deeply, I have become a real fan. I like happy films, anything that’s happy. I’m not so good in terms of horror but anything that’s a happy film, I really enjoy!
Here’s an insight into me…. My favourite film is ‘Local Hero’ which is the most fabulous film. It’s the Bill Forsyth film about the oil guys who come to Western Scotland who want to buy up the beach to build an oil terminal and all the locals think they’re going to get mega rich overnight but it doesn’t turn out to be like that and it’s a wonderful tale of humanity.
The story for Sony Digital cinema started around four years ago when we signed up AMC and Regal in the US; the two largest exhibitors in the world signed to adopt Sony 4K technology in all of their sites. At that point, from a Japan point of view they were very happy signing that sort of a deal and then they looked to Europe and asked what we were doing here. At that time, I was chief financial officer so it was quite a shift but one I’ve enjoyed very much but we had a small team but they were struggling to get going so what I brought was my network and experience at Sony to get the digital cinema guys involved in the business and get them more support. Over the ensuing two years, I’ve got involved full time now because I’ve found it such a fascinating area, the way it’s changing and the rate of change and the financial models behind it.
What’s the technology behind the 4K projection system?
The technology is our own system that we have developed; SXRD is one of our core technologies that Sony has developed. One of the reasons it works so well in cinema is not just that the resolution is 4x high definition or 4x 2K, it’s the way that the optical block is built leaving very little space between the pixels. That gives a very immersive and film-like feel to the digital image as opposed to it looking like a digital projection.
We’ve done some screenings where Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures have restored old films. We showed Dr. Strangelove and The Bridge Over the River Kwai where they’ve been restored into 4K because 4K is the closest to pure 35mm. What you get on River Kwai is that it retains the beauty of the film but you also get the digital 4K image quality. In a sense, you’re seeing the film almost as David Lean saw it as he was looking through the camera.
With this new technology costing a lot of money, was it a struggle to convince the cinema chains to spend on this new system?
It’s a very different conversation opportunity by opportunity. For each different exhibitor or chain, the priorities are sometimes different or the infrastructure is already different. For some of them, the financing is the most important issue and for some of them, it’s other things. Here at Vue, it was more about the overall tie-up with Sony so that we can have the overall best resolution and best quality. Without speaking for them, it was about the overall Sony relationship.
How have smaller cinemas taken up the challenge of 4K?
Everyman was a really good one for us because it follows up that niche application. Working with Sony gives them the chance to differentiate their proposition in what is quite a cultured environment. I think what’s happened with the digital transformation (which I think is quite unique in the business environment) is the way that people like Sony plus the studios and the distributors and the exhibitors have all got together to make it happen. So three different groups of people to make one thing happen has actually happened in cinema and to everyone’s credit has actually come together to make it happen.
How has 3D changed things for Sony 4K?
In Europe, I think it’s fair to say that the driver of digitisation was 3D. What we saw first starting around 3 years ago, was the drive of good digital visualisation so that really good 3D could be shown as opposed to the coloured 3D. What we’re seeing now is people having done that, moving towards full digitalisation on the back of it.
For me, 3D is a really good example of one of the real benefits of digitalisation because without a digitialised environment, you can’t show good 3D, it’s just not possible…. or not possible in an exciting or immersive 3D. The way that Sony do their 3D is different to the rest of the market. The rest of the market adopt something called triple-flash 3D.
To have a 3D image, what that means is that you have two separate images which the brain amalgamates to make one 3D image so you need two images to make a 3D picture. In terms of triple-flash, they show you a left eye image, then a right eye image at 24 frames per second three times. So you get 144 images per second shown at you. At Sony together with RealD, is we take our chip and split it into two and show both images at the same time. So our 3D is via 2 lenses not one, so it’s left eye through one lens and right eye through the other so that actually on-screen, you’re getting the left and right eye simultaneously and constantly. It’s a very natural way of doing 3D because it’s the way we’re looking at each other now. At Sony we believe that gives us an incredibly immersive 3D and 3D that’s very natural. I believe that’s why Vue and all the others went for the Sony option as it’s a superior 3D experience.
Do you think in 10 years 3D will still be here with us?
Undoubtedly. I think what we’ll see is a continuation of what we have now. I don’t know the exact figures but a lot of cinemas including Vue offer films in 2D or 3D. I think that’s good because that’s about giving the customer what they want and people can decide for themselves.
So 3D is here to stay, where will Sony 4K be in 10 years time?
My belief is that we’ll be in a fully 4K environment by then. Sony believe and I believe that we’ve moved from (in the broad word) standard definition to high definition and the next step is moving to 4K. I think for cinema, it’ll be about that higher resolution experience and a more immersive experience for the cinema. I’m not sure that we’ll get further than 4K resolution because in a cinema environment, once you’ve got 4K, the majority of people are not getting pixelation. I think in another 10 years, and something we’re involved in, will be the wider range of content coming to cinema.
What do you mean by wider range of content?
I mean things like opera, music, football. Something we did in Norway was live endoscopic surgery! What digital does is allow all those different types of content to come into cinema for people to see. Last year, we did Wimbledon into cinemas live in 3D and we’re going to do it again this year. It was a great experience because the wonderful thing about cinema the than being at home is the social experience. You come to cinema to laugh with everybody else, to cry with everybody else and to experience the emotion. Cinema for me will always have a strong future with all this new content and that for me is part of the future of cinema.
When we did Wimbledon live (and to be honest with you, I wasn’t sure it was going to work) but it was actually overwhelming. Watching people cheers when people cheer in Center Court and clapping in time with hawk-eye, being quiet in the cinema when it was quiet on the court. The emotion and the experience transferred completely from center court into the cinema. We’ve just got to find a way to make it work more widely and that’s something from a Sony point of view that it’s something that we’re focusing on. As you can imagine, for Sony is a much wider digital entertainment experience, not just about putting great projection into cinema, it’s about how do we engage with exhibition and our customers in a wider entertainment experience.
I think we need to look at these experience is not doing it for the sake of it but looking for those experiences that are transformed by bringing it into the cinema or 3D. One example which is a terrible example but if you see it, you’ll understand what I mean….. Golf in 3D is transformed! Because for the first time you get the sense of distance, and depth and curvature of the green and hills that you just do not get at all in 3D! So I’m not saying that there’s a great demand for golf in cinemas but for us it’s about finding the pieces of content which are really transformed that we can take into the cinema environment.
Having got involved in this business, my motivation is that the digital story is a really positive story. I know that there are some slightly negative parts to it but for me, it’s an incredibly positive; about bringing the best image quality, accessibility to the cinema about fabulous 3D and all those things were not possible before digitalisation.
Is there a 4K camera that is in the field for Directors to use at the moment?
We’ve just released what we believe is the world’s first true 4K camera called the F65. It’s a cinematographic camera and what that gives, we believe is the first true end to end 4K resolution production. So film acquisition in 4K, post production in 4K and display in cinema in 4K and that’s been shipping in Hollywood since January. I believe that Sony Pictures have shot Will Smith’s new movie ‘After Earth’ has been shot on it and I believe we’ve already shipped over 150 of these cameras into Hollywood in the last three months. The reality I think is that we’ll see the real adoption of 4K acquisition and that will drive the creative community being able to get that quality and we’ll see the number of 4K films exponentially rise over the next couple of years.
Finally, when can we see 4K in the home?
We’ve actually just brought out our first home cinema 4K projector which is very high end made for people with a cinema in their house. It’s called the VPL-VW1000ES and you can find out more information on it here.