What in tarnation is a DCP?

October 24, 2013

Earlier this year, VEER!  screened at the Indie Grits Film Festival – a gem of a fest in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. (I recommend it if you can meet the requirement of a southeastern tie to the film, which can be satisfied in a number of ways; actor, writer, director, composer, locations, etc.)

 

 

Acceptance to the festival came with one gigantic perk – a free DCP. Bam!

 

Wait, what?

 

I had heard of a DCP before but only understood it in very broad terms (i.e., not at all). When I worked in a projection booth, digital projection was just George Lucas clamoring on and on and on… (sidenote: Star Wars: Episode I opened the week I graduated from high school. We had a midnight screening the night before I got my diploma and I left the theater at 3:30 am for a few hours of sleep before donning my cap and gown. Needless to say, I spent most of my graduation in a semi-conscious daze dreaming of midi-chlorians.)

 

Per Indie DCP : “DCP is an acronym for Digital Cinema Package. A DCP is a set of files representing digital moving-image content (i.e. picture, sound, subtitles & meta data) packaged on a hard-drive for playback on a Digital Cinema server system. It is designed to be the digital equivalent of a film print. DCPs are created following the strict guidelines set out in the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI). This is done to insure compatibility with all Digital Cinema equipment.”

 

Basically, it’s the new 35mm film print. Unfortunately, DCPs are a little more complicated than 35mm prints. 35mm prints were the standard for nearly 90 years. If you had a 35mm print of your film, you knew it would work. Anywhere. Period. Yeah, the downside was the cost, about $3000 a piece to print. And they could get scratched easily (anyone remember the image quality at the dollar theater?). And their shelf life wasn’t great for long term conservation, but most projectionists I know who are working today (read: in the digital world) still feel the image projected onscreen from a 35mm film print was higher quality than the one created by modern 4k digital projectors and I tend to agree. Sadly, that’s like telling your 13 year old niece that Taylor Swift sounds better on vinyl than her iPod.

 

I remember how cumbersome 35mm film prints could be. They arrived at the theater on a Wednesday or Thursday, usually, in 5 or 6 small reels that you had to “build.” That meant running the reels one after another and physically splicing the end of Reel 1 to the beginning of Reel 2, and so on, until you had the entire movie strung together as one continuous piece of film. Not to mention splicing the trailers on the front end, breaking down the films that were leaving the theater and changing the marquis. It was a lot of work. And I remember the push to convert to digital projection having two cheering sections (not including George Lucas). There was (a) the big guys that thought it would eliminate the expensive creation of film prints and physical mailing of the prints to each theater, and (b) the little guys who looked forward to the democratization of cinema – something that had already taken place on the production-front, but hadn’t yet arrived at the cinema.

 

The Big Guys – The studios spent a lot of money striking film prints. Each and every screen that a movie played on had to have a 35mm film print. That was expensive. Not to mention shipping the film prints all over the country. Digital cinema was supposed to eliminate that, at least when the concept was initially proposed. Imagine a projectionist just logging into Paramount’s secure server and downloading the next week’s films every Thursday evening – a lot easier  than building up a film print – so you can see the attraction there.

 

But when it came time for digital projection, well, those digital film files were big. Too big to download, at least at the current state of internet speeds. And it could be dangerous. What if movie pirates hacked into Warner Bros’ site and downloaded free DCPs all day long? Then what? Free movies in Thailand – that’s what! No, kidding aside – for the first camp that thought shipping film prints would be a thing of the past – it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead of film prints, Technicolor just sends hard drives now. CRU hard drives, to be specific, to each and every theater that is playing a film. All over the country.

 

The Little Guys - The second cheering section was the indie filmmaker anticipating the possibilities that digital projection would open up for low-budget filmmaking. You’d be able to play your indie gem in the same theater as, say, Transformers 3 straight from your Macbook – hurray! Wait, not so fast. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case either. Well why not, you may ask. That has to do with DCI.

 

Again, per Indie DCP:  “DCI is an acronym for Digital Cinema Initiatives. The DCI was created in 2002 as a joint venture between the major motion-picture studios to establish and document specifications that would insure uniform, high-quality technical performance, reliability and quality control. The formal standardization of the DCI specifications is overseen by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE).”

 

In an effort to not only create the best possible digital picture but standardize it across the industry so theaters and studios were all on the same page, DCI happened. Unlike run-of-the-mill digital projectors (the ones used for Powerpoint presentations at the office), the 4k digital projectors used by the theater chains operate through a server. These servers use a very closed-source architecture. (I was told that these servers are based on the servers that the military uses, if that tells you anything.) Clearly, I understand the studios wanting to protect their films. Fear of piracy no doubt played a role in the development of the security of the entire digital cinema system but perhaps it was also a way to keep the little guy at arm’s length? God forbid every indie filmmaker run down to their local cinemaplex and draw a crowd. They could overrun the entire system! It’d be Armageddon.

 

Sure, let’s make DCPs super secure and encrypted but did the creation process for DCPs need to be so complicated? Was it a conscious effort to squeeze out the indie filmmaker? Or to give all the film labs a way to stay relevant in the 21st Century? Maybe both, or neither. But that’s where we are and I think the next few years we’ll be seeing a lot more festivals having DCPs as a screening requirement.

 

Ok, I know and I agree that sometimes having a little resistance (read: more hoops to jump through) weeds out the folks who aren’t as serious or don’t have the drive to get their movie in front of people but unfortunately, in this case, it becomes more about just not having the money rather than the drive.

 

I will say that DCPs make for a smoother screening experience at a festival, especially for shorts blocks. The transition between short films is completely seamless. No more covering the projector while switching DVDs so the dreaded PLAY icon doesn’t show up on screen. So unprofessional…

 

Making your own DCP. Can it be done?

Yes, there is a back door way to create DCPs on a personal computer without the proper software, and although I’ve never attempted it myself I’ve heard the results are hit-or-miss at best. And it is virtually impossible to test unless you have access to a movie theater. Purchasing the software to create DCPs is out of the question for most filmmakers; they can’t afford it. So they must turn to specialty houses/labs that can take their Pro-Res file and convert it into a DCI-compliant DCP. The cost? Anywhere from $900 (low end) to about $3000 for a feature-length film – and most DCPs are delivered locked onto 1 hard drive – so you are charged for every DCP created.

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Alphonse Karr must’ve been an indie filmmaker.

 

A brighter note about DCPs

While touring the festival circuit with VEER!, I had the opportunity to watch the film on a lot of different screens, projected a number of different ways through different projectors; DVD, Blu-Ray, HD Pro-Res file and DCP – the whole gamut these days.

 

One of the festivals, which was not connected to a major theater chain, screened through an HD projector (which was probably meant more for Powerpoint presentations but, hey, I’ll take what I can get). The film was screened straight from a Mac playing my HD Pro-Res file, and I thought it looked good. But then I saw the DCP of VEER! at Indie Grits. I had seen that film literally hundreds of times by that point and it was, by far, the best it had ever looked. I noticed things in the background I hadn’t seen before. People walking 3 blocks away – stuff like that. The portions shot on 16mm looked like film. The grain was right there in front of me. Part of it was, no doubt, the 4k projector they had, but something of it was the DCP. When done right, they look fantastic – yes, better than a Blu-Ray.

 

Another filmmaker at the fest had a short film screening which he had shot on an HVX, I think, at 720p. It was just a low-key little short film by his own admission. But he told me watching the DCP of his short blew him away. He wasn’t sure what the DCP creation process had done to his film but, in his opinion, it was a noticeably better looking film. It actually felt like he was watching a movie. Maybe those SMPTE guys know what they’re doing after all.

 

 

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