A Certain Affinity
How post-production houses are learning to love the big screenSeptember 2011 By Adrienne Maxwell
"Don't worry, we'll fix it in post." It's a joke often uttered by amateur and professional filmmakers alike. In this digital age, a remarkable amount of "fixing" can indeed be done after the production has wrapped. For most of us, the phrase "post-production" conjures thoughts of visual effects, as well as film editing, sound mixing, and now 3D rendering.
Sometimes forgotten are the basic but not simple tasks of cleaning up and color-correcting the image, the results of which we often take for granted in a professional film or TV production. We expect a clean image with no obvious dirt or other maladies. We expect the protagonist's red shirt to remain the exact same hue throughout the film or a fall day to look like a fall day, not the summer day on which the scene was actually shot. If a director chooses a blue color temperature to characterize his futuristic sci-fi epic or muted tones for a Depression-era drama, we expect that theme to remain consistent from frame to frame. We certainly notice when it doesn't.
Needless to say, these video-finishing processes require a keen eye and some high-quality video equipment. Some of Hollywood's popular post-production facilities have recently found a new ally in the quest for pristine video: the JKP Affinity screen from Da-Lite.
First introduced almost three years ago, the critically acclaimed JKP Affinity screen is the result of a partnership between Da-Lite and video guru Joe Kane—a response to what Kane felt was a limitation with existing screens in handling the higher resolutions of 1080p and beyond.
"As we move to higher and higher resolutions, the physical surface of the screen becomes more a part of what you see in the image," Kane explains. "Most screens are spray-coated to get the reflectivity characteristics that you're looking for. That coat adds irregularities. The granularity in the screen surface interferes with the resolution…and adds what appears to be noise to the picture."
Kane approached a number of manufacturers to develop a screen with a granularity so fine that it wouldn't interfere with the image quality; however, he soon discovered that this approach introduced its own issues. He decided the only way to solve the problem was to eliminate the spray coat entirely and build the reflectivity into the vinyl itself. Having worked with Da-Lite on previous projects, Kane presented them with this new challenge, and the company's chemists and engineers proved up to the task.
Touch a JKP Affinity screen, and you'll feel a completely smooth surface, with no granularity. The screen made such a difference with Kane's own projector (the Samsung SP-A800B) that, during demos at the 2009 CES, people thought he was showing off a new projector. "No," he told them, "you're just seeing the projector's potential for the very first time."
Many industry journals have agreed. The JKP Affinity screen has received several editor's choice awards, a Best of InfoComm award, and even our own CustomRetailer EXCITE! Award. Da-Lite now offers three different Affinity models, with gains of 0.9, 0.6 and 1.1.
A Big Idea
As former chair of the SMPTE Working Group on Professional & Studio Monitors, Kane has long been involved in production and post-production services, and he has long believed that the industry should use large screens for video finishing.
"They need to have a big image in order to see what they're doing, but they've always complained that the color quality isn't good enough." Both color and luminance uniformity can be issues in a projection system, which can make the life of a colorist very difficult.
"If you've got six clients spread out all over the room, no one is seeing the same picture. It's impossible to color-correct," Kane adds. "One of the goals for this screen material was to make sure that, no matter where you were seated, you would all see the same picture. [We have] accomplished that."
The next step was to get the word out in the post-production market, and that involved a lot of demos, often in Kane's personal theater. "It took time," recalls Da-Lite VP Dan Drook. "You really have to see the screen to understand what it does…to see what the results are."
The effort paid off, though, as companies like Point.360, CCI Digital and Zoic Studios embraced the screen. In its top-of-the-line digital intermediate (DI) suite, Point.360 now uses a 23- by 12-foot JKP screen mated with a 4K projector. Says Jim James, the company's chief engineer, "It serves as what we believe is the best and largest color reference monitor now in use. It displays an incredible color accuracy and uniformity across its entire surface, without artifacts of any sort."
Another recent convert is Burbank-based FotoKem, which owns several facilities that cover the full gamut of post-production services, including 3D, visual effects, sound, and video finishing for film and television. Check out the credits for your favorite films and TV shows, and there's a good chance you'll see the FotoKem name.
The company was actively seeking a new screen solution specifically because of uniformity issues with its existing screens. As engineer Cal Orr explains, "The uniformity of the screen is very important to us. [We need] a flawless screen." Drook suggested that Orr check out the Affinity screen, so Orr took a team to see the Point.360 suite. Clearly they liked what they saw, as FotoKem now has three DI suites that mate 0.9-gain Affinity screens with 2K NEC projectors. The company plans to add two more screens, as well.
Thus far, Orr is pleased with the Affinity's performance, feeling it rivals or bests that of screens that cost them three times as much. At the end of the day, that makes it easier for FotoKem to satisfy its clients. "We're a client-driven business. The post-production side of things is much more particular than you'll see at the average theater because the client is much more particular. When the person who is making the film is sitting with the operator in the room, viewing on these screens, going through it frame by frame, they are much more discriminating in what they see than anybody who just sees a movie once. So, we have to have this uniformity of field, and we have to have everything looking right. We can't have nicks or mars or anything on the screen that has different reflective surface than the rest of the screen."
On the Home Front
Perhaps no two people are as particular as the film director and colorist, but there are plenty of discerning videophiles out there who also desire excellence—both from their equipment and their content. Cal Orr acknowledges the trickle-down benefits of his craft, especially for the home theater market. "Somebody who is putting together a home theater and spending a fair amount of money wants a picture that is different than what you get on TV or even in a theater. A home theater could easily surpass [those platforms] in quality, and we have to keep that mind."
Naturally, Da-Lite has kept that in mind, too. The JKP Affinity line is also available through home theater channels, in both fixed-frame and electric varieties. The addition of the 0.6 and 1.1 gains has provided more flexibility to mate the screen with a variety of projectors. The 1.1-gain screen proved to be the most challenging, Drook says. "Our chemists didn't really believe they could get the 1.1 gain. That extra brightness has to come from something. But they were able to accomplish it." This model has proved an effective mate for the new crop of LED-based projectors, which generally aren't as bright. Joe Kane also recommends the 1.1 gain for use with an active 3D projector, as it helps to compensate for the loss in image brightness.
Ultimately, whether it's a major post-production facility or one film lover's home theater system, Kane feels that the Affinity screen is up to the challenge of revealing the most accurate image the projector can summon—be it with 1080p today, 4K tomorrow, or whatever the future holds. "Put on it whatever new technology comes out, and the screen is going to work…It's not going to interfere with the image."
Just as the colorist's job is to deliver the filmmaker's exact vision, the Affinity screen was designed to get out of the way and let the projector speak for itself.