Satellite cinema refers to digital distribution and projection of motion pictures using satellite transmission. Satellite cinema is a fast growing technology replacing the traditional film reel cinema production and distribution techniques.
The content which is distributed through satellite is in digital format. Digital cinema systems provide high-quality image and sound. Unlike traditional film prints, the quality of digital content does not deteriorate with time. This is because the content is not stored in physical formats like film reels which can get scratched with use. The content is transferred from sender’s point to theater system over satellite and the data rates for content transmission are decided on the basis of network configuration of the receiver. Once the digital content is entirely received at the theater’s system it is then projected using special projection system.
Satellite cinema is gaining more popularity in the later 2000s. With improvement in technologies and satellite communications, digital cinema is emerging and replacing the old film making and distribution process in more and more countries.
Though there are various challenges for satellite cinema like technological issues, expensive cost of setting up infrastructure, complexity in implementing and understanding process, etc.; there are also many advantages like just-in-time, higher security, improved quality, reduced costs, etc (discussed in further sections) because of which all the big movie production house and cinema groups are heavily investing in digital cinema.
How is it different from traditional process of cinema?
The process of post production and distribution for digital cinema is very different from the traditional film reel cinema. The older technology relied on printing film reels and impressing sound on them and then distributing the final prints to cinema hall. The film reels are then projected on the screen with the help of projector. Satellite cinema technology uses satellite to transmit or distribute content to the devices in cinema halls where it is projected using special digital projector.
The digital content is prepared by scanning the film negatives on high resolution Telecine. (Telecine is the equipment through which motion pictures captured on film can be viewed with standard video equipment – televisions, video cassette, computer, etc) Digital content obtained from the digital motion picture cameras are then converted to an image file format which is then used during post-production activities. The output obtained as a result of post-production activities is a digital intermediate. The content is compressed to reduce the file size for transmission on the uplink process to satellite. After the content is downloaded at the receiver’s (theater) end it is then decompressed.
Satellite/Digital Cinema has the capability to present a theatrical experience better than what can be achieved with a traditional 35mm print. The system is based around global standards, or DCI specifications. The content can be distributed and played anywhere as is the case with a 35mm film print. These are open standards that are widely accepted by various national and international standards bodies such as: ISO/IEC, ANSI, SMPTE, etc. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
Satellite TV is one of the earliest communication technologies introduced in the early 1990s. It is a wireless system which delivers TV program directly to a subscriber’s house through radio signal broadcasting. Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers collect the programs available through satellite and provide them to the subscriber.
In the transmission process, original broadcasts are modified into high-quality, uncompressed digital streams. These are transmitted at a speed of 270 Mbps for each channel. However, the uplink stream to the satellite is in a compressed format. Compression used is typically MPEG-2 compressed video format. The signal that is transmitted through satellites is scrambled, so only paid subscribers could unscramble the data and view channels they have subscribed for.
Some standards used by Satellite TV are similar to Satellite Cinema. Like satellite cinema it uses Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB-S) standards for transmission. However, Satellite Cinema uses different standards from HDTV (high-definition television). Televisions still use Séquentiel Couleur à Mémoire (SECAM), Phase Alternate Line (PAL) and National Television System Committee (NTSC) for analog signal transmission over satellite. In particular, digital cinema is not dependent on using HDTV television standards, frame rates, and aspect ratios. However, the Digital Cinema Distribution Master (discussed in further sections) may be converted to HDTV standards for displaying movies on satellite TV, IPTV, etc.
Shift in Technology
There were several reasons for making a shift in technology towards digital cinema. Traditional cinema had issues related to print quality, printing large number of reels for distribution, protecting content from privacy during distribution process, preserving the film prints, saving the film prints, etc. The following reasons were instrumental in considering a shift in technology:
It is easier to preserve creative intent and to ensure consistent presentation quality through a high-quality digital master. It is possible to extract all versions of the motion picture from this master (including those for the home), with minimal adjustment.
Using Digital Cinema it is possible to reduce the cost of prints and shipping by an enormous amount. The cost of creating film prints and distributing to theaters is considerably high as compared to the cost involved in distributing the films through satellite.
Digital distribution is much more flexible for both distributors and exhibitors. The single digital print contains multiple subtitled and dubbed language versions which permit a single theatre to meet the needs of varied language for different audience on different screens. Besides the film is distributed through the satellite so the delivery time can be adjusted to the receiver’s needs.
Presentation quality is greatly improved. A higher quality presentation is obtained because the digital presentation is steady, always clean and never scratched. Besides, the audio is uncompressed, and there are many more channels available.
Development of Technology and Standards for Digital Cinema
There are several production houses, companies and research groups working towards improvement of this new technology.
SMPTE – In 1999, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers created a technology committee DC28 for Digital Cinema. The primary goal of this committee was to develop a single distribution method that could be exhibited in any theater. This committee spent approximately 3 years in assessing the end-to-end aspects of mastering picture, picture compression, copy protection, transportation, theater systems, and projection. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
DCI – Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC is another organization with the primary purpose of establishing and documenting voluntary specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema. DCI is a joint venture of Fox, Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Bros. Studios, Universal and Paramount. It was created in the year March, 2002. DCI tries to ensure a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability and quality control.
The first feature to be released theatrically in a digital format via satellite download was The Last Broadcast in the year 1998. The effort was headed by Texas Instruments, Wavelength Releasing, Loral Space, and Digital Projection Inc.
In the year 2000, Walt Disney with Texas Instruments and Technicolor along with the cooperation of several U.S. and international exhibitors, began to deploy prototype Digital Cinema systems in commercial theatres.
CHALLENGES OF SATELLITE CINEMA
Evolving technology: Digital cinema is undergoing constant changes and improvements. This prevents manufacturers from introducing new products because of the fear that they will rapidly become obsolete. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
High cost of equipment: The initial cost of setup for digital technology is huge as the requirement is hardware intensive. There is also need of knowledge of how to make it work well which is known by select experts. The cost of providing training to people to work on the new technology is also huge. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Besides, the investment for digital equipment is done by the theaters, while the savings are made by the distributors. The cost for digital equipments can be borne by cinema chains and multiplexes but such expensive costs are often out of the reach of many small independent movie halls/theaters. (Consultation on Opportunities and Challenges for European Cinema in the Digital Era: http://ec.europa.eu/culture/media/programme/overview/consultations/docs/intro_consultation_digi_cinema_en.pdf)
Complex: There is need for seamless integration of hardware and software to attain proper output. Besides, if there is failure in the digital output it will produce a dark screen instead of shaky images. A degraded image is still viewable. Besides, with analog image creation, there is a range of failure that is often exploited to create expressive effects. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Impermanent: Digital cinema is impermanent for two reasons –
The formats of recording the data are subject to change with introduction of new formats. Even the operating systems change rapidly over time. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
The physical media on which the digital content is recorded is itself vulnerable to deterioration and data loss. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Network infrastructure: To transmit content on the satellite there is need of a strong and robust infrastructure. Special equipments are needed to uplink and downlink signals to and from the satellite. Besides, the network requires huge bandwidth for transmission. The present data rate available for satellite communication does not support very high data rates. The size of compressed file which is transmitted on satellite is about 300 GB in size. So it requires high data rate and bandwidth to transfer such large files in a timely manner. Besides network infrastructure is not well developed globally in all the countries, so only places which have strong network infrastructure can adopt this new technology. It will take a long time till this technology is completely adopted in every place. So there will still be cases where partial distribution of movies will be done through satellite transmission and some distribution through the traditional process.
SATELLITE CINEMA DISTRIBUTION PROCESS
Preparation of Digital Content
The Digital Cinema Packaging System (DCPS) structure is built in a hierarchal manner. The primary basic element of this packaging system is the Track files. Track files can contain essence, metadata or both. The tracks can be of type visual tracks, aural tracks, subtitle tracks and/or metadata tracks. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
During the post-production process the negatives of the original film are scanned and converted into high resolution digital format. Digital content is prepared using compression and encryption protocols on the source file. The encryption protocols use standards of Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The encryption and compression techniques vary according to the needs of specific server and display systems. The digital content is commonly known as Digital Cinema Distribution Master (DCDM) file. DCDM is a collection of files which includes the visual essence files and the aural essence files. The sound track in the digital content uses at least one of the sound track formats of digital 5.1 channels. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
The present 35mm film distribution model has related data information physically in or with the film print. This data includes the label/packing/assembly list printed and enclosed in the film container with the film print. From this information the theatre operator gets clear identification of the title, length, number of reels, aspect ratio, sound format, instructions regarding the film, etc. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Correspondingly, in digital cinema similar purpose is served by the Metadata. Metadata provides a way to synchronize video, audio and subtitles. Besides, metadata may also include information like – the release window, the authorized period to play the content, terms of contract for providing media management at distinct locations, etc. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
In addition, it is also required to have the Packaging format in order to support the synchronization of essence and metadata elements. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
The digital content is then compressed using compression techniques. Compression techniques aim to remove redundant content. There is some information having no significant value and such information is simply discarded. There is also some information that is redundant for the reason that real information was not coded in an efficient way. The most well-known standards for image compression are developed within the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC) and the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
Once the content is packaged and compressed it is then prepared for transport through satellite.
The content to be transported is the Distribution Package. This contains two major components. One is the Package itself, which includes all the Track Files (essence and metadata files), and the other is the Packing List. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
As the content is transported in a digital format, it provides the advantage of selecting data rates and bandwidth allocations customized to receiver’s network configuration. Using the Internet Protocol (IP) over Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) or Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) transport mechanisms, the track files are segmented and then distributed as data packets through streaming or broadcast mechanism. As the content is sent as packets in an opportunistic manner it permits the file to be transmitted in a store and forward fashion utilizing the available bandwidth over time thereby reducing additional bandwidth allocations. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
While transmitting data packets via satellite, some type of conditional access is applied. This provides for basic addressing of data packets from the source to the destination. Besides, the data packets are also encrypted in order to protect both the essence (video/visual essence and audio/aural essence content) and the metadata (a pre-defined data-set of key attributes that is encrypted and associated with the data content). The encrypted packets with discretely managed keys are then distributed through a protected transport stream. This mechanism provides dual protection to the content. The distribution method is also required to provide digital signatures. The digital signature helps the recipient to verify integrity of the Packing List and the enclosed files. The digital signature comes from entities that are not the content-owner who mastered the files. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
After the digital file is received at the location of the exhibitor, it is then stored locally within the Theater Management System (TMS) or Screen Management System (SMS). This digital file is typically known as the Digital Cinema Package (DCP). This DCP package contains both the essence and the metadata. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
The delivery mechanism of digital content is marked as complete only after all the packets are received and acknowledged and the content authenticity is verified through digital signatures. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
The contented that is received is in an encrypted format. In order unlock the content standardized methods are established for delivering and using decryption keys. This process is known as key management. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
The Digital Cinema content is protected by security system using secret keys during the process of transport and storage. The secrecy of these keys is maintained in normal operations using encryption/cryptographic techniques. These processes depend upon other secret keys. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
Storage of content can be categorized into two basic configurations – Local storage and Central storage. A third option is possible – a combination of these two techniques that is both on Local and Central storage. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
In local storage configuration, the storage is located at each screen. It implies there is a single storage system for each screen. This technique is required in order to have sustained bit rate which is required for playback of entire content for that particular screen. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
In central storage configuration, the entire content is stored in a central location. All the screens in a multiplex access the central storage. This technique may allow for multicasting of the content. If only central storage architecture is selected, then it is required to do careful planning in order to ensure that it does not have one single point of failure. The central storage is also required to provide capability and sustainability in conditions of peak bit rate when all screens are accessing the storage simultaneously. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
It is also possible to have combination of central and local storage. In this case, the central storage can be used to ingest material and to provide redundancy of content. The local storage on the other hand just holds the content required for the immediate presentation. (Digital Cinema System Specification, Version 1.2, Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC)
In present, two types of projectors are available for digital cinema:
DLP projectors with display resolution of 1280Ã-1024 (equivalent to 1.3 megapixels)
DCI specification digital projectors with two levels of playback: 2K (2048Ã-1080) (equivalent to 2.2 megapixels) with frame rate of 24 or 48 fps (frames per second), and 4K (4096Ã-2160) (equivalent to 8.85 megapixels) with frame rate of 24 fps.
NEC, Barco and Christie Digital Systems are three manufacturers who have licensed the DLP Cinema technology which was developed by Texas Instruments. Barco launched the 2K DCI-compliant Digital cinema projectors. NEC manufactures Starus NC800C, NC1500C and NC2500S 2K projectors for small, medium and large screen respectively. NEC also manufactures the Starus Digital Cinema Server system and other equipments to connect satellite receivers, PCs and analog/digital tape decks DVD, etc. Christie Digital Systems is the main player in the U.S. market for providing equipments for digital cinema while Barco is one of the the leaders in European and Asian market. (http://www.aboutprojectors.com/NEC-projectors.html)
Another technology provider in the market is Sony whose technology is labeled as “SXRD”(LCOS) technology. The SRXR220 and SRXR320 projectors of Sony offer 4K resolution and produce four times more pixels than 2K projection. The system also includes a playback server (LMT-300). It can take input from satellite feeds as well as blu-ray disc for projection. (www.soundassociates.co.uk/dc_sony.html)
The archival of digital content is quite different from film prints. The digital content can be compressed or translated into other file formats for storage and other purposes. The amount of media required for digital content is considerably less as there are no reels of film prints in this procedure. This also helps in reducing the storage space for archival purposes.
The archival methodology in Digital Cinema requires that Digital Cinema Distribution Master (DCDM) be retained. This is necessary to support creation of subsequent master creation for other distribution outlets. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Archives in digital format can vary from wide range of digital formats including Digital Cinema Package. (Digital Cinema Technologies from the Archive’s Perspective, Arne Nowak. http://www.amiaconference.com/techrev/V01_02/nowak.htm)
For instance, DCDM is used to generate different versions like high-definition and standard definition for home video and television. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Digital Cinema Packets provide efficient ways to publish and distribute archived material. It is possible to archive very high volume of data on different materials with good quality. Quality degradation of the content can also reduced to zero as the data is in digital format. Unless the data is translated into a different format, the quality of data will be maintained. (Digital Cinema Technologies from the Archive’s Perspective, Arne Nowak. http://www.amiaconference.com/techrev/V01_02/nowak.htm)
IMPACT OF SATELITE CINEMA ON BUSINESS
With traditional process of distributing film prints to various theaters, several days are needed to deliver film release prints in its physical form. However, with digital cinema the delivery can be customized by urgency of delivery. Using the protocols Internet Protocol, the file can be segmented and distributed as packets. The packets are broadcasted or streamed opportunistically. This digital content uses MPEG or DVB transmission standards. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
The use of opportunistic data within a transport stream provides good options for digital delivery. It allows files to be transmitted in a store and forward fashion using the available bandwidth over time. As the delivery is planned, there is no need for incremental or additional bandwidth allocations. Because of “just-in-time” delivery options, it is possible to customize the bandwidth allocation and data rates according to the requirements of receiver’s network configuration. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Due to this new technology, the process of traditional physical distribution process – passing release prints from printing labs, taking prints to distribution centers, from distribution centers to the shipping points, and finally from there to exhibitors, is eliminated. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
This process of delivering content ‘just-in-time’ helps in reducing the delivery time by a significant amount.
Reduction in cost
The cost of setting up infrastructure in theaters is considerably high. The theater systems would have to install new projection systems and network infrastructure to support the new technology. However, it will be beneficial considering the kind of quality that will be obtained as digital print. Besides, the running and operational costs would go down in future for the theaters. Theaters would require less space for storage of digital content compared to the amount of space they would otherwise need for storing film prints.
Also, the process of creating/projecting the show through an electronic process also helps lower operational costs for the theaters. This is an operational advantage that Digital/Satellite Cinema promises to generate for the theaters. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
The film distributors are at a greater advantage as they would largely be saved from the cost of shipping and distributing film prints. The distributors will have to only authorize access or provide license to theaters in order to access down-link signals from the satellite.
Production houses and studios spend a whooping $1 Billion every year to duplicate and distribute large film reels. Using satellite distribution this cost is significantly reduced. Besides, the studios also suffer heavy losses in revenue because of piracy. Digital cinema helps in solving this problem by encrypting the files to distribute them in a secure manner. (Cost savings and security make this a hit. http://www.jsati.com/satellite-applications_cinema.asp)
The advantages of distributing digital files versus film prints are significant as far as security and security protocols are concerned. Security is approached as a multilayer, multidimensional activity. Satellite cinema addresses concern of storage, transport, and security. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Satellite distribution provides for conditional access from source to destination. The data packets are additionally encrypted to protect the visual and aural essence and the metadata. These encrypted packets have their keys managed discretely. The content is transmitted via a protected transport stream. Other options like watermarking and forensics tracking are also used to provide security. It is also possible to schedule auto deletion from the exhibitor’s display system if the metadata has certain attributes specified for the same. (Understanding Digital Cinema – A Professional Handbook, Charles Swartz)
Another security mechanism is back-channel reporting. Back-channel reporting plays an important function in managing files between the host server and the client. The message includes confirmation of file delivery, integrity of file format, and information regarding movement of file from caching server to play-out system. In some cases this is accomplished by a singular system. However, as multiple content sources are delivered at different speeds and time, some type of cataloging and offloading is required between the caching server and the exhibitor display systems. This helps to resolve issues like – discrete transmission and display, errors with data corruption, storage contention issues, etc. (Understanding Digital Cinema, Charles Swartz)
Improvement in compression techniques – One of the major concerns in digital cinema is the file size of the content. The compressed file which is transmitted through satellites is about 300 GB in size. The size of file is a huge concern as downloading a file of this size through satellite in the theater system will take several hours or even a couple of days depending on the network configuration at the receiving end. So it is important to look for alternate compression techniques or develop new compression algorithms or different standards which can bring down the file size to about 100 GB or less in size. Another important concern in this case is to ensure that compression scheme has very high lossless percent so that the video and audio quality is not compromised in the uncompressed file.
Improvement in data transmission and reception rate – The transmission rates available for satellite is relatively low, typically in the order of about 1 – 2 Mbps. Owing to such low data rates, the time to download the digital content is greatly increased. As the digital content is several gigabytes in size (in the order of hundreds), it becomes important to have improved data transfer rates for faster downloading of files.
Smaller file size and faster download rates are both equally important aspects as improvements in these areas will greatly help in reducing the download time for files. Also, it will be possible to further reduce the time period for just-in-time delivery of digital content.
Movie on Demand – Movie or Video on Demand is a concept where cable TV, IPTV, Satellite TV allows subscribers to select and view movies or shows of their choice which are available in the provider’s data store. There is a list of titles available to select from for the subscribers and the subscribers can select from this list and view the movie or show at their convenience.
Using satellite cinema, the theater systems are able to obtain digital content in a shorter period of time. The theaters can obtain any movie from a list of titles available in the provider’s data store or from their locally archived list and run their shows as weekly specials. They can announce a list of specials each week and have public survey for the movie which people would like to view as weekly special.
Reduction in piracy – Movies distributed through satellites are difficult to intercept as the level of security in satellite communication is very high. So it becomes difficult to impossible for intruders to obtain the original quality feed. Also in case of distributing film prints there is always a possibility of piracy through duplication while shipping. This concern is again eliminated as the movie is not distributed as film prints or as any physical media. As the data is transmitted through satellite it can be arranged for just-in-time delivery which again reduces the chances of piracy. The new system being so efficiently managed and being well secured the chances of piracy are greatly reduced. As a by-effect of this, it leads to improvement of business for theaters.
Satellite cinema is the future of the film industry with more and more theaters moving to adopt the new technology. Satellite cinema not only enriches the movie watching experience with its high video and audio quality but also solves many issues faced in traditional (film print) cinema. It has helped in highly reducing the distribution costs and also decreased the delivery time for distributing films to the theaters.
There are many companies producing new types of digital equipments like cameras, projection systems, etc. to support the digital cinema revolution. Though the development and adoption of new technology may be an expense to the theaters, the return on investment is high considering the various merits of satellite cinema.
As discussed in the sections above, there are various advantages of moving to satellite cinema. It helps in receiving the delivery just-in-time by scheduling transport of content taking into consideration the various parameters of sender’s and receiver’s network configuration. Also, as the content is compressed, encrypted and signed with digital signature, the content cannot be used by any intruder who does not have the correct decry
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