Digital Film and Digital Cinema
Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 November 2012
Global film production, post-production, distribution and exhibition has now reached a point of no return in relation to ‘digitisation’. Writing about the experience of watching films in cinemas has become problematic because the industry is in a state of flux and it is easy for any of us to get confused about what is happening. This posting is an attempt to lay out the current state of digital film and digital cinema as I understand them. Please add any other anecdotes, explanations, suggestions for additions etc. as a comment.
What we finally see on a screen as a moving image sequence depends on at least four separate processes. The first is image capture. It is often difficult to determine the exact format that was used in shooting a film. Today it is possible to shoot on virtually any known format from 16mm film through to an iPhone or a toy camera. It doesn’t really matter because anything can be digitised. Of course, the more image data that is captured (the higher the ‘resolution’), the more options are open in post-production. However, it is still possible to lose the advantage of high quality images if they are not processed correctly.
Editing is now routinely digital since all the source material has been digitised. This was the first part of the process to be converted. During the post-production process it is possible to manipulate images so that they resemble different sorts of film material. The end product of post-production is a ‘digital intermediate‘. This could still be printed back to 35mm film for distribution and projection but it is now most likely to be processed to produce a digital master and a DCP – a digital cinema package for digital cinema exhibition. The same master will also produce a range of digital formats for digital download, digital TV and DVD/Blu-ray, each of which will have different specifications. Films are now edited/post-produced in the knowledge that they must look good on several different formats The distributor creates the DCP and the exhibitor must ‘unlock’ it and decompress and download it for projection using a Theatre Management System (TMS) which places the film in a projector menu alongside ads, trailers and other material and probably commands to mask the screen, open curtains, lower lights etc.
So this is the basic process. Unfortunately it isn’t quite so simple in practice. The Hollywood majors want to remain in control of distribution in the major territories and so the seven studios (reduced to six when MGM became part of Sony) set up the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) in order to create an international standard for digital cinema. You can access the specification and background details here. Any distributor or exhibitor that wants to handle Hollywood product going into cinemas must comply to the DCI standards (set by SMPTE, (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and confirmed by ISO). DCI compliant technologies are part of ‘D-cinema‘. These standards are concerned with the creation of DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Master) and DCPs and their projection. From the outset, the DCI standard was designed to include both 2K and 4K specifications. This means that either a 2K or a 4K DCP can be sent by a distributor to a cinema. The cinema may have either 2K or 4K projectors and it is possible to ‘extract’ a 2K file to project from a 4K package. Similarly, a 2K package can be ‘up-sampled’ by a 4K projector. Major cinema chains globally are now beginning to invest in 4K projectors – but most films are still being distributed in 2K DCPs.
Norway was the first territory to become completely digital for cinema distribution and other European territories are approaching 100%, although in larger territories with many small single screen independent cinemas the process may take longer. However, D-cinema is not the only digital cinema technology. Lower resolution digital formats have become known as ‘E-cinema‘ and in India E-cinema is in operation via satellite distribution, supplying smaller rural cinemas while in metropolitan multiplexes DCI-compliant prints are projected. The Indian satellite distribution system may produce a lower resolution image but the economics of the system make more sense and it’s possible that this form of E-cinema might be more suitable elsewhere in other parts of Asia and Africa. Since anything ‘sub 2K’ is classed as E-cinema there are already a range of E-cinema sites in Europe and North America, small community cinemas or screening rooms projecting from DVD or Blu-ray. (Sorry Keith, but for some exhibitors, Blu-ray is de facto a theatrical format.) Similarly, most film festivals now accept films on a variety of digital formats including HDCAM SR/HDCAM from Sony and the slightly lower specced DVCPRO HD from Panasonic. Unfortunately some also accept Digibeta or Beta SP. The problem is that digital projectors need careful treatment by knowledgeable projectionists to get the best out of different formats and in a festival context, even the best technicians don’t have time to tweak settings between showings so films that look great at one festival look terrible at another. (This rant from a US website offers an interesting perspective on the problems of preparing a film/digital file to show at festivals in North America – there is a lot of sensible info here and I certainly recognise the problems as seen by festival audiences.)
The unresolved question for cinemas that have still not converted is still who pays for this conversion to digital? The so-called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) is supposed to work by ‘spreading the load’ between the distributor and the exhibitor but it doesn’t work for everyone and especially for small distributors.
New distribution and exhibition practices
Rumours are circulating in the UK about the new distribution practices in a digital environment. I’ve heard stories that distributors are not maintaining the DCPs of films beyond their ‘normal’ release. The hard drives can easily be re-cycled/re-used so once a film has finished its run, the print won’t be kept. I don’t know if this is the policy but in the last couple of weeks I’ve had two education screenings. The first was for a 1990s film, a classic already re-released in the 2000s. It’s just too old to have been released as a DCP so the distributor sent a Blu-ray disc. This was an improvement on the last time I showed the film a few years ago when they sent a DVD. The Blu-ray looked very good on a very big screen. Apart from a few over-dark scenes I wouldn’t have noticed standing at the back of the auditorium. The second film was released as a ‘specialised film’ title earlier this year and I watched it on a DCP. Imagine my surprise when we were sent a slightly battered 35mm print. Fortunately, the cinema still had a working 35mm projector. The audience didn’t seem to mind but somebody asked me if the scratches had been added for authenticity and I don’t think that they were joking! The serious point here is how geared up are the distributors to handle education/festival/archive/repertory bookings? Is Blu-ray going to be what we can expect after an initial release on DCP?
Yesterday I heard about a new multiplex that has opened locally. It is completely digital and I’m told that the manager can virtually run the whole operation from his office, ‘dragging and dropping’ films and ads onto different projectors via the TMS. Pretty soon the films will arrive in the cinema by satellite in the UK and another ‘technical operation’ will be removed.
Overall, I’m happy to see the more consistent quality that we get from DCP, especially in multiplexes. But it comes at a cost in terms of employment and ‘de-skilling’ of projection staff. This was recently demonstrated in the UK by the widely-reported incident in which a projectionist in a multiplex, presumably looking after several screens at once, projected the first few scenes of a gruesome Cert 15 horror film to an audience of young children expecting a family animation. I’ve also been told horror stories about satellite links going down in live broadcasts – these now include Q & As with directors as well as live feeds of opera, ballet etc. My feeling is that satellite is a necessary evil in countries with transport problems, but I’m not totally convinced by the current technologies available in a country as densely populated as the major urban centres in the UK.
Finally, there is the important question about formats for proper film archive storage. Digital is not a good long-term storage medium since the longevity of physical discs and tapes etc. is not yet proven. But just as important, each time the technology improves, archivists will need to maintain a working example of each playback device. Keith is our local expert on archives, so I’ll leave him to write about these issues. He has already pointed us to the website of the FIAF.