Highlights from the 2024 Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS) - ICTA Highlights from the 2024 Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS) - ICTA

Highlights from the 2024 Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS)

May 1, 2024
Highlights from the 2024 Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS)


The new year dawned with the ICTA partnering with the Cinema Foundation to hold the annual Los Angeles Seminar Series (LASS) in January at the Hilton Los Angeles in Universal City, California. The first ICTA event of 2024, it attracted more than 225 people from all segments of the motion picture industry for two days filled with Keynote addresses, topical presentations, panel discussions, member presentations and regulatory updates. Just as importantly, there was ample opportunity for members to bond and network at social events – including several awards’ ceremonies – to celebrate successes and collaborate on the future of this key industry.

Illustrative of the twin technology pillars that dominate a moviegoer’s experience, technical sessions were evenly divided between sound and imaging technologies and trends. Highlights of four events in particular are explored in more depth.

Room Audio Measurement: Tools and Methods

Panel Discussion
As a forum for consolidating and dispensing the tools-and-tricks of the trade, the LASS sessions have few equals. This was never more evident than in the panel discussion on the hardware and software tools (and methodologies) available for calibrating cinema for sound in such a way that movies – the content – can be played in tens of thousands of cinemas around the world, and have it sound somewhat the same. This is what the industry call “translation” from the mixing stage to the movie theatre.

As moderator Brian Vessa, Sony Pictures, noted, before handing off the discussion to five acknowledged experts in their fields, there’s a challenge inherent in soundtracks recorded on a mixing stage, which are calibrated in a manner specific to mixing stages. “We call it translation, you know, the ability of a soundtrack to translate into different environments. The task requires the dubbing theater and the cinema to be aligned to the same parameters. And while no two rooms sound exactly the same by any means, you can get pretty good translation if the equipment is of good quality to start with; if it’s installed correctly, and if it is all functioning properly, meaning we don’t have blown speakers and other things like that going on. And, of course, calibrated to the same standard,” said Vessa.

Since all rooms are different, there’s no single, superior way of calibrating and translating for ‘room’ audio, and five presenters proceeded to detail how environments can be optimized for the task of reproducing a soundtrack like it’s supposed to be enjoyed, resulting in the desired emotional impact upon moviegoers. The presenters, who referenced their products and imparted their experiences and recommendations, were:

Jamie Anderson, Rational Acoustics
Rational Acoustics are the developers of the industry leading Smaart® audio analysis and optimization software platform, which combines with the staff’s expertise to further the art and science of system optimization. The company is a pre-eminent supplier of training courses, hardware products and professional consulting as well, for the specialized field of sound system measurement, analysis, and alignment. http://www.rationalacoustics.com/

Tim Holmes, AcoustX
AcoustX’s D2 system is one of the most comprehensive tools ever developed for sound technicians to evaluate and adjust theatre sound. Its sturdy, well-built and lightweight products are mainstays in the field, globally. Complementing the D2 system is the winRTA analyzing tool that can be used with any high-quality microphone. https://www.acoustx.us/index.html

Mike Babb, Trinnov
Trinnov Audio processors have on board Optimizer measurement and calibration software, the mics plug directly into the processor. Trinnov measures crossover and system time alignment, direct and room frequency response, phase, impulse response and level for a comprehensive approach to room correction.https://www.trinnov.com/en/technologies/

Jay Wyatt, Meyer Sound
Meyer Sound is well regarded for its array of audio products, but Wyatt dedicated his presentation to outlining a best-practices document published by SMPTE in 2017 called RP 2096. In his five-minute presentation on an admittedly complex, 50-page document, Wyatt discussed how it provides a solid, baseline calibration and measurement methodology for sound systems in mixing stages, screening rooms and commercial cinemas to improve the overall consistency (i.e., translation).

Sunil Karanjikar, Harman described the moving microphone technique, which is single-mic alternative to using multiple microphones to characterize an entire room response. Karanjikar emphasized that one still needs to use a dual channel FFT measurement tool to confirm that the loudspeakers are working correctly out of the box from the factory, and that the correct channels are being reproduced from the correct positions in the room. As well, acoustic testing and measurement software – he uses Smaart – and a sound card is required, along with just a single random incidence microphone. Among the benefits of using a moving mic is the ability to pick up a much larger sound sample in a room, faster.

Indicative of the interest in what the experts had to say was the resulting Question and Answer session, which became very detailed and ran for almost 25 minutes of the one-hour slot. With these questions, attendees dug deeper into the initial run-through of different techniques and measurements for calibration and translation. It was clear by the time the session ended that one can end up with the sought-after translation and one could end up at the same place and having the same calibration, using all of these different techniques and products espoused.

State of Direct View Screen Technology

From audio to visuals, Peter Lude, Mission Rock Digital, recapped what direct view displays or screens are, what he sees as their advantages over typical, historical projection technology, and progress being made over the last 12 months, notably in what DCI has been doing in terms of specifications and compliance testing.

Tellingly, Lude noted that laser projection systems are now so mainstream now that “we barely even talk about them anymore,” leaving the latest display technology – LED or direct view – as the intriguing new option, as it has “all the photons coming directly out of the screen”, not projected onto it. But why should creators and exhibitors care?

Direct view displays can do things that a projection system has a lot of trouble doing. “My favorite is expanded high dynamic range (HDR). You could get the black levels much blacker because unlike a projector, which is starting out with a whole bunch of light and then doing its best to block every last photon and failing and letting a few leak through, a direct view display that’s turned off is giving you zero light. You can also have much brighter highlights and, since the surface of the screen doesn’t need to reflect light from the room, it’s wonderful for high ambient light environments, because you’re not getting the image washed out by light coming from the room.”

Warming to his subject, Lude mentioned new screen configurations that are easily accomplished using LED screens, “since they reflect very little of the ambient light in the room” and you can achieve a big, immersive image, wrapping around, to stunning effect. “A couple years ago when I did this presentation, I reminded folks that there’s this big old building at that time under construction in Las Vegas called the MSG Sphere, and now it’s up and running. As of a few months ago, September 29th, 2023, it finally opened after many years. It has big LEDs on the outside and hundreds of thousands of LEDs on the inside, creating this entirely immersive environment.”

As if anticipating the next session on challenges in direct view screens for cinema uses, Lude made the trenchant point that objections were made to every manner of cinema progress over the years; sound rather than silent movies; digital formats over film, etc. A good idea has a momentum that overcomes technical and economic hindrances and, “As a matter of fact, since last year’s ICTA LASS conference here in Los Angeles, there have been 10 new products introduced into the marketplace obtaining DCI certification. So that tells you there must be something going on.”

After reviewing specific progress and installations from Sony, Samsung, LG, Unilumin and others, and going through sound advances from Harman, Dolby, Meyer Sound, Q-SYS, and Flex Audio, Lude turned back to the importance of DCI certifications and progress and ended on an optimistic note.

“So, there’s been good progress on DCI specifications. And now we actually have compliance test plans that you could achieve. All future LED displays will now be subject to this new compliance test plan, version 1.4, as opposed to those for projectors. Plus, there’s been good advancements in sound systems for direct view venues. Granted, currently, everything is still too expensive, but we have great opportunities for better pictures through high dynamic range and better pictures through expanded color,” said Lude, which could translate into “higher ticket prices and happier customers.”

The Challenges of Direct-View Screens in Cinema Applications: Audio/Design Considerations and Economic Feasibility
Following Lude’s lucid overview on the advancements in Direct-View screen technology and rollout, an expert technology panel moderated by Danny Pickett, Bay Area Cinema Products (BACP), took to the stage to examine the current impediments to large-scale adoption.

“We have solutions that are good and getting better, but they are not consistent,” said Pickett, who noted that he had given an extensive talk on audio requirements and considerations for direct-view screens at the ICTA’s 2023 Annual Convention. “Loudspeaker positioning, stadium slopes and overall traditional projector and LED screen data open up a lot of unanswered questions, and as an industry I’m not sure we’re putting the right energy and focus on answering these,” cautioned Pickett.

Stuart Bowling, Bridging Technologies, drawing from his experience with producers and directors (‘creatives’), said they are very receptive to the new technology as it produces high-quality images, incredible color saturation and – mirroring the general interest in the film industry – great HDR images. However, “their concern is with the sound, which directors like Ang Lee and George Lucas have said are more than 50 percent of the film-viewing experience. How direct view and sound is going to coexist is a big question mark.”

Design & Economics
Comparing costs for installing a LED screen versus a traditional screen prompted strong opinions from Frank Tees, Moving iMage Technologies and Tim Reed, Principal, Cinema Consultants. Taking the screen itself out of the equation, for ‘installation only’, both agreed that the costs of preparing a building to receive such a large display – in contrast to the easier tasks of setting up projectors, loudspeakers and a single screen – can be an inhibiting factor. Complicating matters is that the installations to date are seldom new builds; rather retrofits to existing theaters. “Your current front-slab might be too slim to handle an 8,000-pound screen,” said Tees.

Much discussion ensued on the calibration requirements, almost exclusively at the hands of the OEMs (e.g., Samsung, Sony, LG, etc.), who want to put ‘their best foot forward,’ which makes for a long process.

Reed has been heavily involved in running the numbers (costs) of installing direct-view screens and “retrofitting to me, at this point in time, doesn’t make any sense, given the current cost of the technology. But there are opportunities to make it work, economically, in new builds.” In discussing an 8-screen, 40,000 sq. ft ‘dine-in’ facility with the client, originally envisioned with 7 conventional and one Premium Large Format (PLF) screen, Reed stressed the advantages of the light-additive mechanics of direct view, versus the subtractive process with projectors. Plus, with direct view, one can truly encompass wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor images, designed into the room as a window into the world. This delivers “an incredible visual to the patrons,” enthused Reed. Significant savings on electrical costs, dropping from 1,600 to 1,200-amp services, were uncovered, as well as reduced labor and material costs. Air changing and air conditioning costs are lower too, the mechanics of which Reed went into in depth.

Playing gadfly, Pickett asked what might lay down the road for direct-view installs, noting that earthquakes are not uncommon in some major cinema areas. Little evidence of damage has been found from vibration but of more concern is the need for the LED modules to all come from the same manufacturing batch. Tees suggested as a best practice to order ‘extra’ modules in the same purchase order, as spares. “They’re all binned so you get a color lot that is matched” and there are always ‘pixel surgeons’ happy to do repairs, Tees said.

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Digital Sound Introduction in Cinemas and the Dawn of the Digital Cinema Revolution

No better presenter could be called upon for a look back at the seminal events of the digital sound and cinema revolution than John Allen, High Performance Stereo (HPS), whose many accomplishments span decades, including delivery of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops 1976 Bicentennial Concert, in stereo, along Boston’s Charles River, for which John was awarded a special commendation by President Gerald Ford.

John’s presentation took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the past 40 years, focusing on the milestones that surmounted technical and economic barriers to provide today’s discerning moviegoers with superlative sound experiences that dared to go beyond the ordinary. Specifically, he recounted the many obstacles, workarounds and late nights spent reworking the sound reproduction for Fantasia.

In 1940, as the first film presented in stereo, Fantasia was, of course, way ahead of its time. In addition to everything that it did produce, it produced two major disappointments. The first one is that it ruined conductor Leopold Stokowski’s career. And the second one is it failed to make a profit. In those years, there were quarters in classical music where if you ‘went Hollywood’, you were frowned upon. Sadly Stokowski never had another orchestra after this. “It was really too bad because he was a pioneer in what he did,” John lamented. Secondly, it was a box-office failure.

By 1980, Disney felt that the 40 year old soundtrack for Fantasia failed to compare with the quality that modern soundtracks presented. So in 1982 it was decided to re-record the film’s score with a new orchestra and using digital recording for the first time in motion picture history.
Across town, Edward M. Plitt, Vice President of Plitt Theaters, was concerned about the future viability of the cinema business, including his own. He felt that an entirely new business model with an intense focus on sound was needed. In pursuit of that goal, he hired John Allen to design and install a new sound system at the company’s Los Angeles flagship Century Plaza Theater.

To show off his new sound system, Plitt decided to hold an industry only by invitation demonstration. He asked John for ideas. John suggested that, in addition to Fantasia, a few other films now had digital masters. He said that they should play something with digital sound in a theater for the first time. The event drew an audience of over 350. The film that was played was Giorgio Moroder’s newly scored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis.

The audience was so impressed with the sound quality, Ed Plitt wanted to do even more. He again asked John for suggestions. At that time there was no known technology for presenting a full length feature film in a commercial theater with digital sound. But that is exactly what John thought they should do.

After thinking it over, John thought that by placing Fantasia’s soundtrack on a two hour VHS cassette in the Sony PCM-F1 digital sound format, if it could be locked up with the projector, the whole thing might just work. John called Disney’s assistant chief sound engineer, Nelson Meacham. Nelson had been the engineer in charge of the digital re-recording of the film two years earlier. Nelson knew of a synchronizer that Disney’s Dave Barnett had developed for the EPCOT park in Florida.

After a telephone call from Henry Plitt (Ed’s father) to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, the way was cleared to present Fantasia at the Century Plaza in full digital stereo. Led by Nelson Meacham, Dave Barnett and fellow Disney engineers installed the equipment at the theater. Two surprise problems surfaced right away. There was a tone problem in the soundtrack and the sound would sometimes drop out.

Since each of the musical sections of the film was recorded at a different time, the sound of each section didn’t exactly match. John spent three days determining the best correction that would work for the entire film. During this time the seriousness of the dropout problem became apparent. So much so that Nelson Meacham called over the actual studio print master and the video recorder it was made on. Thus, the film opened with the print master of which there was no copy. Bill Hogan was brought in to see if he could diagnose the dropout problem. He immediately realized that the VHS recorder Disney used had an incompatible method for recording the digital audio.

It boiled down to having to record a new print master for the Fantasia soundtrack. “Saturday night, they recorded the entire film – in one night.” John recalled “They asked me if I wanted to be there. I said no, I need to be awake tomorrow morning and have fresh ears.” So, at seven o’clock the next morning, they handed him four brand new cassettes, and they worked perfectly.

Michael Eisner came, and this is where it really pays off, John said. He was absolutely beside himself. He said, “this is the best sound I’ve ever heard.” But he wasn’t the only one that felt that way.

Fantasia in Digital Stereo did twice the business of the next highest grossing theater, seven times the national average, and played two full months, four times longer than in any other theater in the country. “Because the sound was so beautiful, the audience in the theater wouldn’t leave,” John remembered. People would sit there for 15 minutes in stunned silence, they were so moved by the experience. Ed Plitt was right!

This sparked a new examination of digital sound at Kodak. But in 1985, Kodak’s position had been that putting digital sound on a release print was not possible. However, they went to work, and in five years we had four digital sound formats. So, what did all this accomplish? Well, it accelerated these developments beyond what anybody had expected. It forever changed the way movies are shown and heard. And in fact, “it was the beginning of the digital revolution in exhibition,” John noted.

Always cognizant of the contribution of others, John singled out many collaborators along the journey of the past 40 years, including Sean Murphy, Henry Plitt, Edward Plitt, Giorgio Moroder, Tom Kobayashi, Don Pittman, John Bonner, Michael Eisner, David Gray and especially Nelson Meacham, Dave Barnett, Bill Hogan and Marty Prager.

John ended with an oft-repeated appeal. But John’s is one to the industry, to realize and focus on the importance of sound in cinema presentations. Echoing the succinct concerns of prescient cinema founder, Edward Plitt of Plitt Theaters, John laid it all out. “Lack of consistency and quality, poor dialogue intelligibility, poor and inconsistent bass, inferior surround matching and mediocre surround coverage…these are problems that exist even today. The same movie could sound totally different in different theaters, which is something that is absolutely inexcusable, but it’s something that we live with. As long as sound systems are nothing more than a line item in a construction budget, the best sound quality is going to be impossible.”

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