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Setting the Stage for the Supersession

By Debra Kaufman

Avatar: The Way of Water was the focus of the HPA Tech Retreat Supersession; over 700 attendees enjoyed a deep dive into the challenges in making this technologically advanced movie. But, behind the scenes, another technological feat was achieved: turning the Westin Mission Hills ballroom into a state-of-the-art theater capable of screening 4K, 48 fps per eye, 3D, projected at a bright 14-foot lamberts. “I don’t know how many systems are capable of doing this, but it’s in the handfuls, not hundreds,” says Loren Nielsen, head of the Supersession committee with co-chair Leon Silverman.

Before Avatar content would be released for use in the Supersession, the theater needed to pass approval of Avatar producer Jon Landau and senior vice president production services and technology, Geoff Burdick of Lightstorm Entertainment as well as The Walt Disney Studio, which made the 1,065 digital masters. Getting approval for showing the content was key to the Supersession’s success. “We didn’t just want to talk about Avatar,” adds Nielsen, who was also the Supersession producer. “We wanted to show it and that meant we had to create a purpose-built state-of-the-art theater inside the Westin. We immediately knew we needed professional theater building assistance.”

Nielsen and Silverman knew exactly who they wanted to build the theater: Kevin “KDR” Rosenberger, who was director of projection services at Walt Disney Studios for 33 years and involved with Digital Cinema for its inception. “Leon called me, and I said absolutely not,” says Rosenberger.” “Then he talked me into it.” Silverman did that in part by pointing out that the entire audience would be made up of digital cinema pioneers and experts or, as he put it, KDR’s “people.”

Rosenberger’s first step was to focus on all the boxes he needed to check: 4K, 3D, high frame rate. He also considered that the day after the Supersession, the same ballroom would be used for the HPA Tech Retreat presentations. “We wanted to make sure we could dovetail into that,” he explains. One of his challenges would be training the hotel’s AV team, which previously handled events that usually take place in a ballroom venue. “My job is to hold standards,” says Rosenberger. “I had to teach this group of people to do something more professional and creative than they had done for HPA before.” The ballroom’s bright, beautiful interior worked against the presentation goals the team needed to achieve, so the first step was hanging black curtains around the perimeter and bringing in power, cabling and all the safety signage necessary.

To accomplish a reasonable line-of-sight for 3D, the team determined that three screens were needed. “Day one, we set up seats in a reverse fan facing the screens,” says Rosenberger. “Most of the seats were oriented to the left and right screens, and after the Supersession, the seats were reoriented to focus on the center screen and dais.”

On the projector end, coordinating with Rosenberger, Nielsen tapped Christie Digital executive vice president Brian Claypool to provide the technology and the people who could run it. In addition to a Xenon system, Christie Digital provided two very high-end laser projection systems to achieve the 14-foot lambert brightness in 3D mode. Christie Digital senior technical manager Judson Cross describes the biggest technical challenge. “We had to find a way to present two synchronized screens to cover a wide seating area with the highest possible frame rate and the highest possible brightness,” he says. Christie worked closely with GDC Technology to ensure seamless – and perfectly synchronized – delivery of content via the company’s playback servers. At Christie’s Cypress, California office, Cross and Rosenberger staged the equipment to test it for the live event until he knew the system would be capable of presenting the content in the filmmakers’ desired format and making unexpected changes in the presentations.

RealD, another digital cinema pioneer, was another important partner in the endeavor. “It’s hard to do 3D well, especially when it’s bright,” says Nielsen. “Years of development went into RealD Ultimate Screen technology and the company very generously had screens manufactured for us in China to the exact size needed. They also provided the RealD XL 3D System optics designed for high brightness and 3D glasses.”

Separate from installing the physical infrastructure for the event, from the beginning, Nielsen and Silverman worked closely with Lightstorm and Disney to get clearance for content and a remote interview with Landau. The Walt Disney Studio’s Kim Beresford described the company’s role in creating 1,065 different deliverables.

Also participating in the day’s presentations were Sony (whose Venice cameras were used to lens Avatar), Deluxe, Eikon Group and Pixelogic. HPA board member Joachim “JZ” Zell helped wrangle the camera crew, which included cinematographers Russell Carpenter, ASC and Robin Charters. Also of note, panelist Tashi Trieu, Lightstorm colorist for the film, is a graduate of HPA’s first YEP group.

On Monday, the day before the Supersession, the team spent the day rehearsing. On Tuesday, the Supersession went off without a hitch. “People really responded to it,” says Nielsen. “Although it’s a professional audience that lives in this world, very few of them had seen this content presented exactly the way the filmmakers wanted it to be seen.”

Rosenberger was impressed with how it all came together. “HPA was amazingly professional,” he says. “After all, it’s their middle name and it was really interesting working with the committee, which always had the show in mind.” He also praised the professionalism of the hotel’s AV crew. “On site, there were 30 to 40 people all handling the logistics and the physical work of the production,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish with the local staff – they handled it very well.”

Cross points out that the event brought together an A-list of digital cinema experts who had the goal to make the content shine. “We all quickly became collaborative partners,” he says. “With that level of camaraderie, it was a great opportunity to further the filmmaking technology.”

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