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Digital Movie Projectors: Mirroring the Visible World
Movies here are screened digitally. To find out exactly what that means—and how the medium stacks up against celluloid—peruse Groupon’s close look at digital projection.
As of July 2013, the National Association of Theatre Owners reported, that 88% of all movie screens in the United States had been converted to digital projection—meaning 35,712 screens no longer glowed with light sent through whirring strips of celluloid. What, then, resides in the projection booths of these theaters, besides the vengeful ghosts of minor silent-film stars? In most, it’s a machine called a digital micromirror projector. Digital micromirror chips are postage-stamp-sized arrays of millions of miniscule mirrors, each of which can tilt toward or away from the projector’s lamp depending on what the digital movie file tells it to do.
What it tells the mirrors to do is flip back and forth rapidly, up to 10,000 times per second. Since these changes are far too fast for the eye to detect sequentially, in the viewer’s perception they blend together to produce an image that’s lighter or darker depending on the relative frequency of “on” and “off” states. (A micromirror turned entirely toward the light source will reflect pure white to the pixel of the final image it’s responsible for, whereas a micromirror turned away will always show up as black.) To add color, there are several options, but most movie-theater projectors today use three separate chips, reflecting green, red, and blue light that then get focused into a single image and projected onto the screen together. These building blocks of the color spectrum can combine to produce tens of millions of different shades.
Although some filmmakers and film critics still lament the loss of celluloid color’s fabled warmth and depth, digital projectors make many things easier across the film industry. For distributors, there’s the ease of distributing digital files. From the audience’s perspective, film naturally degrades with each showing, so repeated screenings can leave a film riddled with scratch marks and smelling strongly of Jujubes. And with a typical movie stretching across more than 2 miles of film on several reels, film projectionists must stay in almost constant motion to ensure audiences enjoy an uninterrupted viewing experience. Even if the theater remains just as full of sound and color, the projector room is a quieter place today.