Thursday 23 February 2012

A problem with digital projection

Last month, the Astor Theatre in Melbourne had a problem. It's a problem that is going to bite more than a few cinemas in the days ahead. 

Barco DP4K-32B
Last year, the Astor installed a new, state-of-the-art, Barco DP4K-32B digital projector. They did so in order to be able to show all those movies only available in digital format. 

At first, digital projection was an additional option available to cinemas. But now, 35mm film prints are being removed from circulation by studios in favour of digital presentation, most often DCPs (Digital Cinema Package).

What could possibly go wrong?
Unlike 35mm film prints that are tangible, come on spools, and run through a mechanical projector, DCPs are files that are ingested into the digital projector which is in many ways simply a very high-tech computer system. Because the physical file is ingested into a projector it can – if the cinema has enough space on its server – be kept there indefinitely and so, having created this situation themselves, the studios and distributors lock the files so that they can only be screened at the times scheduled, booked and paid for by the cinema. This means each DCP comes with what is called a KDM (Key Delivery Message). The KDM unlocks the content of the file and allows the cinema to play the film. It is time sensitive and often is only valid from around 10 minutes prior to the screening time and expiring as close to 5 minutes after the scheduled time. Aside from the obvious fact that this means screenings really do need to run according to scheduled time, it is also means the projectionist can’t test to see if the KDM works or that the quality of the film is right before show time. This isn’t always a problem. But when it is…
And a few days ago, that problem happened.
The KDM we received for Take Shelter didn’t work. We discovered this about ten minutes prior to show time. Being a cinema, and holding evening screenings we couldn’t just call the distributor to get another one because they work office hours. So, our steps began with calling a 24 hour help line in the US. Once we went through the process of authenticating our cinema and scheduled screening we were told we had to call London to authorise another KDM for this particular screening. After calling London and re-authenticating our cinema and session, we were told we could be issued another KDM, but not before the distributor also authorised it. This meant another 5-10 minute delay as we waited for the distributor to confirm that we were indeed allow to show the film at this time. Once confirmation was received we waited for the new KDM to be issued. The KDM arrives as an email zip attachment that then needs to be unzipped, saved onto a memory stick and uploaded onto the server. This takes another 5-10 minutes. Once uploaded the projector needs to recognise the KDM and unlock the programmed presentation.
That worked and the screening, although delayed, did proceed. I couldn't help wondering what would happen if, for any reason, their ISP went down about then...

The next time you go to the movies and the screening is delayed, spare a thoughtinstead of slashing the seatsfor the DCP, the KDM, and the poor sod in the back office desperately dialling London.

Now, for the Luddites among us, and everybody who loves Cinema Paradiso, here's another small thing to worry about. In the near future there won't be any poor sod in the projection room at your cinema. Nope. Nobody.

Your movie will be controlled from a workstation some 1,000 miles away. Or more.

Read all about it here, in David Bordwell's website on cinema, in an article called Pandora's Digital box: Notes on NOCs (a "NOC" being a Network Operations Center).


Anne Flournoy said...

this. is. terrifying.

Kathy said...

That's amazing. Thanks for explaining.

So we go to a cinema with our friends to be entertained by a robot...