21st Century Cinema: An indie look at Digital Cinema
COW Library : Creative COW Magazine feedback : Russell Lasson : 21st Century Cinema: An indie look at Digital Cinema
Have you ever been in a position where a producer asks you to do something that you’ve never done before? Your first reaction might be to stare, and say, “What are you, crazy?” But, after biting your lip and gathering your thoughts, you respond, “Sure, I think I can arrange that.”
I was in such a position a couple of years ago. I had just finished coloring a local feature film shot on Varicam when the producer asked if I could arrange to play the film at a local theater that had recently converted to digital cinema projectors.
After researching the options available at the time, I decided that the most cost effective way to do this was to actually drag my edit system up to the projection booth, and play the film out to the projector and audio sound system using a AJA Kona 3.
It worked out great! The producers loved it. From that time on, it was clear to me that digital cinema was the future of theatrical film distribution and projection, and that I had a real business opportunity. So in early 2008, I started Ridgeline DCM, specializing in digital cinema mastering for feature films. The mastering equipment is based around QubeMaster Pro from QubeCinema. Clients have ranged from multi-million dollar feature producers to ultra-low budget filmmakers.
SAY GOODBYE TO TRADITIONAL DISTRIBUTION
Traditional motion picture workflow begins with shooting on film. The original camera negatives are cut together to assemble the story, and the assembled film is then transferred to a positive film stock (inter-positive, or IP). The positive film print is then transferred back to a negative film stock (inter-negative, or IN). Finally, release prints are made from the inter-negative film print, then shipped to movie theaters to be screened on a film projector.
(Below, 35mm film projector of unknown age.)
This means that, by the time a film print reaches a movie theater, it’s at least three generations away from the original camera negative. Quality suffers with each generation, so that what you see in the theater never measures up to the original master.
On top of that, every time the film print is shown it collects dust and scratches. After three or four weeks of four or five screenings a day, that film print ends up looking like it’s been drug behind a pick-up truck that’s been driving circles in the desert.
After more than 100 years of this traditional film distribution, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios created the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) in 2005, to encourage the adoption of digital cinema throughout the world.
The DCI standard was the tipping point for getting digital cinema rolling. In 2005, there were just a few hundred digital cinema installations. Today there are more than 5000 of them. Even though the majority of theaters are still using film projectors, that will change within the next couple of years. High-profile films ranging from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” to “The Dark Knight” have helped drive adoption, as have alternative uses, such as theatrical presentations of live concerts and sporting events.
3D is also helping push adoption of digital cinema, as many digital cinema projectors can easily be adapted to play 3D content. With the wide success this year of 3D features including “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3D concert, you can expect to see 3D making a bigger surge in the future.
Even the National Football League is getting in the action by broadcasting an American football game to theaters in 3D!
HOW DIGITAL CINEMA WORKS
Most major motion pictures are shot on film and finished using a digital intermediate (DI) process. It starts as the original film frames are scanned in as digital files. Color correction, visual effects, dust removal and titles are done digitally. This digital master is then printed back to film stock using a film recorder.
Even with DI post, a film shown in a movie theater using a film projector is still at least three film generations away from the digital cinema master.
The development of digital distribution allows filmmakers to send a digital cinema master to theaters instead of sending film prints. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them digital film prints. These digital film prints consist of the film encoded into a JPEG2000 image sequence, and an audio mix for the film.
The JPEG2000 encoding reduces the size of the film from a couple of terabytes down to a few hundred gigabytes. This compression is also visually lossless, meaning that the digital print looks virtually identical to the original digital master and, even compressed, will actually look much better than what you see from a film projector.
There are several different systems for digital cinema encoding, ranging in price from $799 to over $100,000, depending on the features.
For my own system, I choose to use QubeMaster Pro from Qube Cinema because it offers me all of the professional features that I needed without requiring expensive proprietary hardware. Plus, I’ve been really satisfied with their support team.
(Click image below for larger)
QuVis has recently released Wraptor, a $799 digital cinema plug-in for Apple Compressor. It’s tempting because it runs on Mac, but it simply doesn’t have the options I needed for full professional encoding. So I went with QubeMaster Pro — which even though it’s a Windows program, I’ve been running on my Mac using Boot Camp.
(For more details, see sidebar, "Working with Windows on Mac," below.)
In another recent project, the film was archived as DPX sequences on LTO. After restoring the DPX files from the archive and making the needed changes to the film, I sent the file sequences directly into QubeMaster Pro. Part of what has made QubeMaster Pro so attractive is that it really has directly handled every file format I’ve needed to work with.
After encoding a project, things can get tricky, because the encoded files can’t just be checked on any computer. Instead, they must be transferred to a digital cinema server, which can cost between $14,000 and $20,000.
(Below, our Dolby Digital Cinema server)
The server has to be connected to a digital cinema projector, which can run from $60,000 to over $100,000.
I’ve recently partnered with Universal Post and we’ve set up a theater for color correction, equipped with the Christie CP2000M DLP projector, a 20’ wide screen and an Assimilate Scratch system. As we’ve brought in clients and potential clients, everyone has said, “Wow, this is exactly what we need here in Utah.”
Since then, it’s been crazy. We’re completely booked with features right now.
Above, the Christie CP2000 brochure image. Below, the CP2000 as installed. Note ventilation and cooling systems.
Below, another of our projectors, which you can also see in the background, to the right in the picture above. Once again, note the ventilation and cooling systems.
The main means of distributing these digital film prints today is shipping hard drives around. With films needing only a few hundred gigabytes each, they can be delivered on a single drive with room to spare.
In the future (hopefully the near future), shipping drives will transition to delivery over satellite. This will mean that the film is delivered to one central distribution location, and then transmitted to all of the digital theaters that need it. It’s going to be awesome!
Piracy prevention is one of the most interesting topics when talking about digital cinema. For example, digital film prints are encrypted during mastering. Decryption requires a digital key file called the KDM, which resides on a secure server. Even if you robbed a delivery truck carrying the latest blockbuster film, you couldn’t play it without the KDM file. The KDM can also be used to specify playback dates to prevent early screenings, or to prevent theaters from collecting films to show again in the future.
In addition to encrypting the content in delivery, the digital cinema servers encrypt the dual-link SDI video stream that it sends to the projector. The DCI projector then decrypts the stream for playback. So even if you intercepted the video stream as it comes off the server with your own dual-link capture card, you wouldn’t get anything useful out of it.
Finally, there is also digital watermarking. If someone records a film in a theater with their little video camera, investigators can track down the theater it was captured from, the screening date and time, and more — even if the film is recompressed and played on the web.
PLAYBACK AND BEYOND
The easiest way to describe how a digital playback system works is by comparing it to a home media server, like an AppleTV. You load your content onto it, then select what to play back as you need it. You can even make playlists to choose the order in which the content is played back.
With digital cinema playback, each projector has its own server, with content and playlists that schedule showings. It’s all quite straightforward. (Below, the Qube Digital Cinema Server.)
At the heart of most digital cinema projectors is DLP technology developed by Texas Instruments.
(Below, TI's digital cinema chip.)
While Texas Instruments makes the technology, companies like Christie, NEC and Barco license it to make their own projectors. Projectors intended for digital cinema installations are different than other projectors because they must comply with the DCI standards for color conversion, decryption, and resolution: 2048x1080, or 2K.
Many people might wonder, “What about 4K projectors?” While they certainly exist, there are currently fewer than 20 installed in digital cinemas throughout the United States, compared to the thousands of 2K cinemas — which, I might add, still look awesome!
The future of digital cinema looks very promising. It already provides new opportunities for studios and theater owners trying to adapt to the new entertainment landscape. It is allowing more independent films to reach theater screens by avoiding the costly film-out process. It has rejuvenated 3D technology by making it easier for theaters to show. It has even allowed live concerts and sporting events to be broadcast to theaters to expand the potential audiences for those events.
Regardless of how individual installations are being used, digital cinema really is the future of film mastering, distribution and projection. You can be sure of one thing: it’s coming soon to a theater near you — if it’s not already there!