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.
There is some confusion over the broadcast formats of the the three Red Riding films, so I’ve taken a screen grab from each film and measured each image in terms of the pixel matrix to calculate the aspect ratio.
I calculated this image to be 1086 x 608 pixels on my computer screen (it’s scaled down here) and that equates to a screen ratio of 1.79:1. I may be one or two pixels out given the way I use the grabbing software, but no more than that, so I’m fairly confident that the Channel 4 image is 1.78:1 , i.e. the standard 16:9 of the modern widescreen TV set.
Using the same procedure on the grabs from 1980 and 1983, these came out as 1086 x 476, equating to a screen ratio of 2.28:1, which is slightly less than the cinema projection standard for CinemaScope of 2.35:1. I find this a bit strange. No doubt Channel 4 alienated a small proportion of viewers by showing the films in ‘Scope (especially given how murky 1980 becomes). But why compromise on 2.28? Why not 2:1 or the full 2.35? Is this in any way related to the use of Super 16 or the Red One digital camera? Or is this just Channel 4 ‘house style’? Of course, it could also be an issue to do with how the TV signal is broadcast or received. Mine came via cable, set to letterbox for my 4:3 TV set.
First chance last week to compare, on a big cinema screen, a new digital print with its 35mm celluloid version. In 1986 I was lucky to work with the newly restored National Film Archive print of Black Narcissus (1947). We made slides directly from the print on a Steenbeck in the basement of the BFI. I certainly got to know the print well and so I was fascinated to see the digital version. Overall, the digital print is beautiful, clean and bright. But perhaps it is too clean and too bright? I particularly noticed three examples of ‘over clarity’. There are many close-ups in the film, especially of Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh. Her eyes sparkle with reflected light but it gets a little spooky when the shot is faded out and two sparks of light remain as a kind of afterglow, long after the rest of the image has gone to black. Much more disturbing is the way that the digital print exposes all the matte work so that the imaginary kingdom of Mopu, with its palace perched on a shelf above a vertical drop, looks just like a studio set joined together by flourescent turquoise cement that pulsates gently drawing even more attention to the join. Finally, I noticed that the painted still images of the mountains now look exactly that — painted images, seemingly with some damage from the ravages of time.
Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful films ever made (a double Oscar winner for colour cinematography and art direction in 1947) so a process that exposes some its magic is not all good news. On the other hand, it won’t deteriorate any further in the near future. The jury is still out on digital.
(The image is from a first generation DVD copy of the film.)
This is 90 minutes (of course) of sheer hell when I saw it – even for my football (if Burnley counts) consultant who I took with me – so boring, at times, that a collective gnawing of arms seemed tempting to suggest. However, it was interesting in its attempt to profile an iconic modern footballer (its release almost as fantastically timed as his head-butt to generate useful publicity).
The film-makers have art/arthouse credentials, and there is an intense focus on his every move, following throughout the match (Real Madrid/Villareal). He obliges the directors by being sent off near the end – but even this has a strangely passive quality that infects all the action, since he gets randomly involved in someone else’s argument.
It’s coming round to The Cornerhouse on 29th September. I’m definitely going to send any of my students who are thinking of doing the Sport and the Media research option (OCR, similar to AQA’s Independent Study) – not because I don’t like them (!) but because I think it has enormous potential for discussion as far as sport and celebrity is concerned. Having seen Sam Taylor-Wood’s portrait of Beckham in National Gallery (a really, far superior analysis of sports celebrities AND our relationship to them), the Zidane film is limited in its own ‘intelligence’ but something they can use as a case study.
I notice on imdb that it’s compared to ‘Football as Never before’ about George Best – I wonder whether there are any other useful companion pieces this new film could be put with?
Seems I was a little unfair re the heat output of these projectors — turns out it was the ventilation system in the box that was at fault. Having completed two screening events using the projector, I can see that there are some ‘running in’ problems. The projectionists are taking some time to come to terms with the machine. Each film, which arrives on its own disk drive, needs to be loaded and can’t be activated without a separate security key — the return of the ‘dongle’ that used to bedevil desktop computer users!
Actually loading and preparing the projection script for a new film takes a fair amount of time. More or less ‘real time’ for a feature on on ‘HD’ and more than ‘real time’ for a JPEG2000 film. There is not so much physical work for the projectionist compared to ‘making up’ a 35mm print. Once the loading begins, it is more or less automatic, but it does mean that late arriving digital prints could be a problem. As someone who has often been faced with a print arriving on the morning when I have an event starting at 10.30, this is not good news. At least with a 35mm print, you could get something onto the screen in the next hour or so, but the digital print has to be fully loaded. It’s these ‘little things’ that are really important when it comes to actually using the prints. On the other hand, once loaded it is ready to go whenever you need it.
Squeezed into a projection box last week to get my first look at one of the JPEG2000 digital projectors installed in cinemas as part of the UK Film Council’s Digital Screens Network.
What a monster! If your idea of digital media is an iPod or a tiny digital camcorder, you are going to be shocked. It’s big and squat and worst of all exudes enormous amounts of heat, requiring its own ventilation system. (I understand there are two different models, so this might have been the bigger of the two.)
What used to be a 35mm film in several large metal canisters is now a small black box housing a hard drive. A film ‘print’ is now 60-70 Gb of digital data (i.e. about ten times more data than a DVD). It still needs to be ‘prepared’ by the projectionist for screening, so perhaps they won’t be made redundant quite as quickly as we feared.
I couldn’t stay to watch the print, but it seemed to cope alright with my laptop presentation. As I left, the projectionist commented on the one advantage digital prints clearly offer – every screening is potentially the same. There shouldn’t be any scratches, visible reel changes etc. I’m sure this is a good thing but I’m already nostalgic for those old scratchy prints when, on a third or fourth viewing, you could look forward to spotting the scratches.