Leitner's Cinematography Corner, No. 4

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D.W. Leitner

Leitner at play

Cinema is scale. Last spring, I saw again Hitchcock's gothic thriller Rebecca on the towering 40ft.-tall screen of a classic movie palace, Loew's Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, N.J. (where a skinny teen named Sinatra grooving to Bing in concert had an epiphany and found his calling). Perhaps it was the antiquated 1.33 aspect ratio that made Hitch's silvery black-and-white images appear to loom far above. Certainly it was the fact I sat up front, every dimension of my peripheral vision occupied by the magnificent 50ft. wide "display."

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Rebecca, produced by David O. Selznick and adapted from Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name, hardly lacks for dramatic force. It starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine and collected two Oscars out of 11 nominations in 1940. It plays on Turner Classic Movies often enough to be familiar to many. But no television can convey the full measure of its cinematic intensity or sheer graphic power, which verge on the operatic.

By design, the cinematography of Rebecca (by journeyman George Barnes, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary's) enlisted the movie palace screens of the day, awesome in size and architectural in scale, to impact audiences. Close-ups, gargantuan to viewers in the front rows, were used sparingly and purposefully, not speciously or casually as today. (The language of Cinema made itself felt.)

Cultural artifacts survive their era in materiality if not function, and we still play movies from the early to mid-20th century on our small, modern electronic screens. (Where close-ups no longer pack much punch.) This is as it should be; each age invents its own defining technology. Where audiences of the 1940s had to buy a ticket and possibly hire a babysitter to watch moving images once or twice a week, we can hardly look left or right without seeing flatscreen TVs in restaurants, daylight-bright LED displays on the sides of buses, or the latest must-see viral sensation on YouTube.

Which is why last week's adoption by the Advanced Television Standards Committee (ATSC) in the United States of its first-ever specifications for mobile digital television, known as the A/153 ATSC Mobile DTV Standard, is nothing less than epochal. It will put advertiser-driven (a.k.a. free), over-the-air ("OTA" in biz speak) television in the palm of your hand within the year, potentially built into cell phones, iPod touches, netbooks, tablet computers, laptops, desktop computers, in-vehicle entertainment systems, even tiny dedicated TVs.

Prototype Samsung handheld ATSC Mobile DTV receiver at NAB 2007.

Prototype Samsung handheld ATSC Mobile DTV receiver at NAB 2007.
Photo by D.W. Leitner

Imagine TV as ubiquitous and cheap as radio. How cheap? Last week, Samsung announced an entire ATSC Mobile DTV receiver on a single chip, miniaturized using the latest 65nm technology (see photo). This was no coincidence. Samsung began its push to develop mobile ATSC in 2005, first demonstrating its mobile ATSC technology at NAB 2006 and again at NAB 2007—the idea being a low-res, low-cost signal technology that piggybacks onto existing broadcasting facilities and ATSC spectrum, yet multiplies potential audiences and advertising revenues. Very nearly something for nothing.

Last week's Samsung ATSC Mobile DTV chip alongside a 50 won coin the size of a nickel.

Last week's Samsung ATSC Mobile DTV chip alongside a 50 won coin the size of a nickel.

Why the South Koreans (a fellow ATSC country)? For answers to this and more about ATSC Mobile DTV, visit my NAB 2007 blog about it. It begins with a magic bus ride ...

Dick Tracy's famous 2-way Wrist Radio, reinvented as a 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964.

Dick Tracy's famous 2-way Wrist Radio, reinvented as a 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964.

Or do a Google Images search of "wrist TV," where all sorts of credible attempts at creating wearable TVs will surface. You'll conclude Dick Tracy really was on to something.

Now imagine programming the TiVo on your iPhone.