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Pandora’s digital box: At the festival

Thursday | January 5, 2012   open printable version open printable version

                       

Of the thirty-three titles I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, only nine were projected on 35mm film. The rest were shown on HDCam or Digital Cinema Package. At the first TIFF I attended in 2002, I saw a comparable number of films and all were projected on 35mm or 16mm film. 

Jim Healy, Director of Programming, University of Wisconsin–Madison Cinematheque

DB here:

Do you complain about ads before movies? In the Digital Age you can expect more of them because there will be ads for the theatre’s projector and server and even the financing agent that supplied them.

The most aggressive preshow attraction, which I saw before every digital screening at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival, is the one promoting Dolby servers. Play when ready.

A dirty film countdown leader explodes into sleek digitalia, alchemizing cinema into the four elements. Photochemical imagery can’t bear trial by fire and is annihilated Terminator-style. But the flames are extinguished by earth (flowers), air (blue vapor) and icy water. McLuhan said film was a hot medium, but does that automatically make digital cool?

Take the clip as a victory dance. By September, when I saw the Dolby Armageddon trailer, things had already tipped. Digital projection, the immediate future for multiplexes and for small-town houses, has become a festival mainstay too. But the problems are more marked on the fest scene than in commercial venues. If you visit a festival and there’s a hiccup during a screening, count to ten before hollering. The staff, already overstretched, is facing something far less tranquil than the concluding frames of the Dolby ad–something more like the hellfire frames you see at the start.

 

Screener savers

Screener for Target (Alexander Zeldovich. 2011).

Films get into festivals two ways: By being invited or being submitted blind. A programmer might invite a film solely on the filmmaker’s reputation. For instance, every festival wants the next Wong Kar-wai film (assuming he ever finishes it), and you would probably accept it sight unseen. More often the programmer catches the film at another festival, or in a private screening, or in a privately circulated video copy. That first viewing might be on any format. If the filmmaker submits the work, it will typically show up on a DVD copy, called a “screener.” Some festivals prefer the film to be uploaded to the site Withoutabox. The selection committee watches the submission to make an initial decision about the work.

Members of the press who attend a festival can usually get a look at some of the films via screeners. Often local critics watch screeners, especially if they have to write a review in advance of the festival and they’ve missed a press screening. Visiting programmers also borrow screeners from the festival because they usually can’t see all the films they might want to.

The problem is that screeners tend to be of wretched quality. Burned to DVD-R, sometimes from a VHS tape, and often in the wrong ratio or anamorphically squeezed, they are usually garnished with a more or less prominent watermark, either a “property of” one or simply a timecode readout chattering away. I can’t imagine claiming to have seen the movie after watching the typical screener. Kristin and I have used them to pull frames for our blog entries when we visit festivals, but only after we watch the films in projection.

Screeners look shabby by design. Anything approaching the finished film in image quality will be pirated, and the watermark announces that the dub you bought from the blanket on the street is stolen. I have seen a screener assigned to a particular person, his name as a caption throughout, so the distributor will know whom to pursue if it’s leaked.

Screeners made it much easier for filmmakers to afford to submit work to many festivals; imagine what costs were like in the days before videotape, when films were sent out on prints. But the emergence of screeners, I think, cheapened the film. VHS tape and many commercial DVDs make movies look ugly, but DVD screeners are far worse. Nonetheless, they are a fixture of the festival scene. As with so much about digital video, we can’t go back.

 

Digitalis

Sony HDW-D1800 HDCam deck. List price: $45,045.

Screeners are watched mostly behind the scene, treated as tools for programmers and critics. What about the things the audience sees?

For commercial projection in your local ‘plex, Hollywood companies realized that a proliferation of digital standards was bad for business. So they set up the Digital Cinema Initiative, which established specifications for the Digital Cinema Package—the ensemble of files packed onto that matte silver brick that is replacing traditional film rolled up on reels. The DCP files are encrypted and opened up with passkeys that are supplied separately. The DCP plays 2K or 4K digital video on the two standard projection systems, the DLP one established by Texas Instruments and the SXRD one established by Sony. It’s Microsoft vs. Apple all over again: the DLP format is licensed to several projector manufacturers (Christie, NEC, Barco) but the Sony format is used only on Sony machines.

Besides the DCP, there are many other digital formats for displaying moving images. Erik Gunneson, a filmmaker and teacher here at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, ran through some of the most common ones with me. They’re distinguished by many factors, but two common measures are resolution and compression. The more lines, the higher the resolution; the less compression, the better the image (although some compression is inevitable in any digital video projection.) Many of these are capture formats—that is, means of recording—that are also used for playback.

The earliest to emerge were the DV formats, all consumer/ prosumer platforms. They use “standard definition” video codecs, as opposed to High Definition ones. There’s a bewildering number of DV cameras and playback devices, because Sony and Panasonic developed different improvements on the basic standards (720 x 480 resolution). The most common versions, Mini DV and DV Cam, use tape for capture. They are fading out in independent filmmaking, but some festivals still screen in these formats.

Home viewers are probably most familiar with the DVD, which in the NTSC standard uses MPEG-2 video compression at 720 x 480 resolution. On a large screen, your typical DVD is unsightly. Blu-ray discs, of course, look better, partly because of their higher definition (as high as 1920 x 1080 resolution).

At the professional level, you have several options, mostly provided by Sony: Betacam SP, an analog format, and Digital Betacam, known as DigiBeta.  They use tape, not hard drives, to record image and sound. But they’re falling into disuse now because of the rise of HDCam. It can use either tape or optical drives as recording media. HDCam playback can through up-sampling yield standard HD images of 1920 x 1080 pixels, and this makes it a popular option for independent filmmakers. PBS documentaries are often shot on HDCam.

There’s also HDCam SR, which yields, as they say, “native” 1920 x 1080 resolution and audio features. The SR format was initially designed for high-end special effects (bluescreen/ greenscreen) and became allied with Panavision in the creation of the Genesis camera. SR is sometimes used for television series. As you’d expect from a studio-based format, it’s expensive. According to Sony, an HDCam SR system runs about $230,000, and a 124-minute blank cassette (the same engineering as the old Sony Beta cassette) costs about $424.

Many of these formats come in various flavors: PAL or NTSC, anamorphic or unsqueezed, progressive or interlaced, recent upgrade or older specs, settings for various frame rates, and on and on. And there are still other recording and playback formats, such as HDV, DVCPro, and D5 HD . When talkies came in, maybe there were as many competing sound systems floating around alongside the two studio standards. But back then, there weren’t film festivals.

 

Format flare-ups

Sony J30SDI Compact Betacam Player; plays Betacam, Digital Betacam, Beta SP et al. Price: $21,000.

You the programmer have accepted a digital film for your festival. When it arrives to be shown, what format will it be on? Viewers used to home formats may expect that they’ll watch it on DVD or Blu-ray. But DVD isn’t usually suitable for projection to large audiences. Professionally produced Blu-ray discs are feasible for some public showings, but home-made Blu-rays burned by filmmakers on their own computers are notoriously unreliable. They’re likely to freeze up during projection. (This is one reason that many festivals insist that filmmakers not submit work on Blu-ray; DVD remains less unstable.) And good as Blu-ray looks on your home monitor, it’s inferior to the best professional projection formats.

So a higher-end playback is needed for most festival exhibition. Usually filmmakers say that they’d like the film screened on the format it was shot on, but this isn’t always possible. Remember that festivals move into existing venues, either multiplexes or arthouse theatres. What you can show will be constrained by what equipment is already in the booths, or what can be rented or purchased, then squeezed in for the occasion.

To keep things manageable, festivals have to restrict what exhibition formats they will use. Here are the formats listed in the submission requirements of some major festivals:

Telluride: Only 35mm or DigiBeta.

Seattle: 35mm, 16mm, or HDCam.

Toronto: 35mm, DCP, or HDCam.

Sundance (as of 2010): 35mm, 16mm, HDCam (NTSC 2), or HDCam (PAL 3).

Ann Arbor: 35mm, 16mm, Mini DV, or Beta SP.

Los Angeles: 35mm, 16mm, DCP, HDCam, DigiBeta anamorphic.

Rotterdam: 35mm, 16mm, Betacam SP (PAL), DigiBeta (PAL), or DVCam.

Filmmakers who want to submit a digital movie to lots of festivals will sooner or later have to convert the original files to another format. This process is expensive, and low-budget filmmakers may be tempted to try it at home, with dire results. If the filmmaker’s conversion turns out to be unplayable, the festival may have to try converting the movie itself or revert to the film’s original platform, which means bringing in other playback equipment.

Alexandra Cantin, Print Traffic Manager of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, notes:

Festivals have always been the bridge from the traditional to the latest, greatest technology and everything in between. Whatever the filmmaker could afford to finish on is what we have to work with. At times I have managed as many as 13 formats.

Worse, for any specific screening there may be several formats in play. The festival trailer-and-sponsor reel is unlikely to be on film these days, more likely on Blu-ray or HDCam. The feature may be accompanied by a short, which can be on any number of formats. A program of short films presents its own problems, since they may come in a bevy of formats.

Moreover, recall the central situation of festival screenings—many different movies played in a few venues continually. Let’s say that a given screen is used for five movies in a day, at 10 AM, 1 PM, 4 PM, 7 PM, and 10 PM. The schedule leaves very little time, at most half an hour, to test how a given film will play before its show starts. Of course, the film can be previewed days or weeks ahead of the screening—if it arrives in plenty of time. (Most don’t.) So projectionists, programmers, and technical staff are constantly juggling time slots, formats, and different auditoriums. Can we play this HDCam copy of Dark Bohemian Days on Screen 1? No, because the HDCam deck is only in Theatre 2 and Theatre 4. But Bohemian Days is over two hours long, and all the other long films are in 2 and 4 so we don’t have a slot available. We could move Dad Was a Transvestite, which is on DigiBeta, to a smaller screen, but we expect a big crowd for that, and we’d shut people out, and anyhow Screen 1 won’t have DigiBeta playback . . . .

Moreover, most festivals want to be flexible—adding screenings of popular titles, or substituting a film when another doesn’t arrive in time. Multiple formats make on-the-fly adjustments more difficult.

When you reflect on all the permutations of schedule, equipment, venues, formats, and staff assignments, it’s rather miraculous that most festival screenings start on time and are well-projected.

Then there’s DCP.

 

DCP = Damn Cinephile Problems?

The Digital Cinema Package and its shipping case.

2011 has been the first big testing period for digital cinema at the major festivals. Several screenings have been delayed (by hours) or canceled. Occasionally digital copies were replaced by DVDs or 35mm prints (coming to be known as “analog backups”). In correspondence with several programmers and consultants, I’ve garnered a sample of eye-opening reasons for the breakdowns. Most have to do with the Digital Cinema Package.

The DCP, that gleaming brick drive seen above, is part of a larger digital environment. There’s the projector. There’s the server in the booth that stores the film, along with trailers and other material, and allows the operator to build playlists for the show. There’s the  Theatre Management System, an umbrella device that coordinates all the servers and projectors, along with lighting, curtains, and other aspects of presentation that can be automated. But all this hardware and software is inert without the Key Delivery Message, or KDM. (Get ready: We are living in the Age of Acronyms.)

The Key Delivery Message is a security device. It’s a very long alphanumeric string, usually sent to the exhibitor by email, that opens the DCP’s files. It will work for only one movie on one server for a specified time period. If you want to play the same movie on a different server or projector, you need a second KDM. The KDM is tailored to the projector or server’s media block, and it won’t work if it can’t “talk to” that block. The arrangement keeps the DCP from playing on equipment that isn’t certified as compliant with the standards of the Digital Cinema Initiative created by the Hollywood studios. The KDM also detects any tampering; if someone has tried to access the files impermissibly, the DCP won’t play.

Clearly the KDM, like the DCP, is optimized for commercial theatres playing the same movie on the same screen for many days or weeks. In a festival, it creates headaches because the staff are cycling many titles through a single screen, or shifting one title from screen to screen.

Nonetheless, festivals must accept some DCPs. Today’s big-name “commercial arthouse” films supported by major overseas companies and US distributors are likely to show up on DCP–films like Melancholia, Certified Copy, and similar high-end titles. These titles are the backbone of festival ticket sales.

What could possibly go wrong?

Projector problems: At one festival, the only DCP-capable projector broke down and had to be replaced by one that was flown in. An entirely new set of KDMs had to be generated.

Server/ projector mismatches: Vancouver International Film Festival Director Alan Franey explains what happened last year.

Christie Digital provided us with their best new projectors and Dolby provided us with their best new servers. Both Christie (in Ontario) and Dolby (in California) are sponsors of VIFF and give full attention to quality control and technical support. The problem was that the stuff was so new and improved that it didn’t work, and no one knew why. . . . Since these two pieces of equipment had never interfaced before, there was unanticipated software incommunicability.

Alan indicates that once the software was amended, projector and server could communicate, but “it took expert technicians 48 hours (without much sleep) to figure that out.”

DCP damage: Like all computer files, a DCP can be corrupted. Often a duplicate DCP is sent as a backup. But sometimes not, or sometimes that’s corrupted too.

Ingestion digestion: A booth’s server has only a certain capacity, say seven hours. Alan Franey: “Assayas’ Carlos barely fit.”

Under festival conditions DCPs are constantly being loaded into the server (“ingested”) and extracted from it (“dumped”). For a feature-length movie, this can take an hour or more. Alexandra:

Ingesting, dumping, and reingesting are common. We are showing so many titles that server space becomes an issue.

KDM time intervals: The permissible play period may be too confining. Shelly Kraicer, a Chinese cinema expert who has programmed at many festivals, points out:

A screening could be aborted because of time-zone issues. A KDM has a start and stop date. If it too closely fits the screening dates (and that seems like what’s been happening), then a twelve-hour time zone offset (say, Asia to East Coast USA) can put the KDM off by one day, and it could refuse to play.

KDM/ DCP matchups: Even multiplexes are finding problems getting the KDM to open the DCP, with projectionists having to phone companies to walk through the security steps. The problems are exacerbated with foreign titles on DCP. Alexandra again:

What if the hard drive is coming from Poland and the KDM is being issued from a French lab that is closed for two weeks over Christmas? And the filmmaker is on location in the Philippines? This is a current real scenario.

Inflexibility of programming: Obviously DCP titles can only be screened in houses equipped with compliant projectors. Most booths in most festivals don’t have such projectors and may not be getting them soon. Whereas 35mm prints can be lugged from spot to spot, a given DCP with its attendant KDM is locked to one house.

Shelly notes that switching venues or adding showings is difficult:

If you need to move a DCP film from Screen A to Screen B tomorrow, you need to urgently request from the distributor that a new KDM be generated and sent and tested in time. This often doesn’t work. (Try doing it over a weekend.)

Alexandra agrees:

If one wants to change venues in response to audience demand, that is usually not possible unless the DCP is unencrypted, there’s sufficient time for ingestion, and if there’s a KDM that allows for it.

You can argue that these are teething pains. Venues will acquire servers and projectors, staff will become adroit at handling DCPs and KDMs, software will get standardized and hardware will get more reliable. Then things will run smoothly. And of course, 35mm was never free of snafus—bad splices, wrong aspect ratios, reels run out of order.

Still, the new problems are of a different kind. 35mm was stable as a standardized format, however bollixed it could become in execution. Since about 1930, you bought a projector and you threaded the film into it and set your sound and ran your show. Now we’re in an environment in which nothing is stable in a long-range time scheme. Alan Franey suggests why:

Everything we know about the constant rapid evolution of computers seems to suggest that we’re in for rapid obsolescence, constant upgrades, and at showcases like VIFF, a lot of on-site beta testing. . . . We have every reason to fear a five-year replacement cycle. Robust, no; expensive, yes.

Doubtless festival directors and their teams will come up with something. Perhaps a less stringently secured format could replace DCP for festivals and arthouses, or films could be stored in the cloud. For non-DCP programs, perhaps filmmakers can project straight from their laptops. In all cases, accessible backups need to be available as well. In the meantime, Pandora’s box has opened wide for the festival circuit.

 

Long live the analog backup

Can a festival simply go its own way—refusing arcane digital formats, avoiding DCP, and showing good old 35mm? No. The big festivals will have to follow the lead of Cannes, which screened 60% of its titles last year in DCP. The midsize and small festivals are already disadvantaged. Distributors and producers want their films to premiere at the highest-tier festivals, and the few 35mm prints that exist are reserved for the bigger events.

As a result, programmers who want desirable titles are being nudged—or shoved—to digital. Peter Porter, professor and Director of the Spokane International Film Festival, observes:

While we will always hear “We can’t premiere with you,” more often have I been hearing, “If you will screen non-35, you can have the title.” In any case, if I insisted on 35mm prints, I would have no film festival. Of the forty or so features that we will screen, my guess is that fewer than ten will even be available on 35mm.

At Vancouver this year, Kristin and I looked forward to seeing Kore-eda Hirokazu’s I Wish. But when we learned from the catalog that it was screening digitally, snobby purists that we are, we thought we’d wait for a chance to see a 35mm copy elsewhere. Yet our friends who went to the show came back delighted: A 35mm print was shown instead, with electronic subtitles. Fortunately, Kristin and I were able to catch the second screening, the same very pretty 35mm print.

If the VIFF team had had to switch formats at the last minute, it was surely tough; but the smooth-running screening of I Wish made me think: This could be the only time I’ll ever see it on film.

For the same reason, I went to our Cinematheque screening of Play Time in mid-December. This film has been central to the way I think about cinema since my first encounter with it in the summer of 1973. It’s an old friend. Maybe some day that well-traveled Janus print will serve as a backup for a digital screening. I might attend, with fingers crossed that the old reliable will be pressed back into service.

This entry is one in a series about the conversion of film to digital-based systems. Earlier entries are here and here.


Thanks very much to Alexandra Cantin, Alan Franey, Erik Gunneson, Jim Healy, Shelly Kraicer, and Pete Porter for sharing their knowledge with me. Thanks to Alissa Simon, programmer of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, as well. I’m also grateful to James Bond of Full Aperture Systems for a fact-filled lunch.

PS 5 January: Mark Peranson, Programming Associate at the Vancouver International Film Festival, writes to say that both DigiBeta and 35mm were options for I Wish. The staff were hopeful of getting a film print, but they were prepared to show digitally if the 35 didn’t come through. Thanks to Mark for correcting the first version of the entry, which claimed erroneously that a DCP had failed. Serves me right for believing gossip.

PPS 7 January: Thanks to Antti Alanen for reminding me to mention 4K as another format played in DCP. By the way, his Film Diary is always worth visiting; the latest entry surveys programs currently playing at major film archives.

PPPS 31 January: David Dinnell, Program Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival writes:

I thought it might be of interest to you that the Ann Arbor Film Festival hasn’t exhibited any works on tape for the past four years. We have moved to a digital file playback system, which has been able to accommodate the various SD, HD and compression codecs independent filmmakers use. I think we are one of the first festivals to go this route.

Thanks to David for the information.

PPPPS 1 February 2012: Thanks to Sven Jense of Rotterdam for pointing out that I should stress that the DCP is the collection of files on the hard drive, not the hard drive itself. In practice, people speak of both as the DCP, the way that speaking of a package of anything refers both to the contents and the container.

Jacques Tati explains Play Time in a prologue included with the film during its New York release in 1973. From a 35mm print, scanned at 2000dpi.

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