First scenario: You go to the multiplex. The words “Presented in Sony 4K” sweep across the screen in pixie dust, but as the previews begin, there’s no sound. So you call out to the projection booth, only you’re yelling at a bunch of deaf, malfunctioning computers, and the kid at the concession stand can’t reboot the system. The same automated system your $18 ticket paid to install has replaced the troubleshooting projectionist.
Second scenario: You go to a repertory cinema or a museum screening. You know they still have projectionists on staff, but you’re not sure what it is you’re going to be looking at when the show begins. The program notes say “Digital,” now a catch-all term for anything that’s not a 35mm print: tape, Blu-ray, DVD, DCP, and everything in between.
In 2012, we’re in the late stage of a seismic shift in the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, roughly in the same position with digital cinema as we were with talkies in 1930—well past the tipping point. Yet most of us have only a vague understanding of what the transition entails.
Starting Friday, Film Forum presents a week-long series aimed at demystifying digital cinema, “This Is DCP” (March 2 thorough 8). It’s a smartly packaged lineup of 13 digitally restored, digitally projected classics, including Bye Bye Birdie, The Searchers, The Shining, and Five Easy Pieces.
Formalized in 2005 by a collective of the six major studios in Hollywood, the Digital Cinema Package, or DCP, has replaced 35mm as the standard format for theatrical exhibition. It’s a set of high-definition video files delivered on a hard drive encrypted with copyright protection, and it plugs into a system of proprietary servers, software, and projectors.
Today, two-thirds of American theaters have converted to DCP. Avatar was the watershed release for industry adoption. Since 2009, the three main motion-picture camera manufacturers have stopped making 35mm equipment, and many film labs in the U.S. have either closed down or moved into digital postproduction. Kodak, the leading manufacturer of 35mm film stock, filed for bankruptcy in January, and in early February, the company relinquished naming rights for the home of the Academy Awards.
Along with most multiplexes, many of the big repertory venues in New York (MOMA, Walter Reade, the Museum of the Moving Image, and BAM) have been showing a portion of their movies on DCP for a few years now. New to the club, the format-conscious Film Forum becomes the first place in town to offer cinephiles a formal introduction to digital projection. The series is specifically targeted at film purists who are skeptical of how the new technology measures up. DCPs are mastered in “4K” resolution, approximately 4,000 pixels squared. That’s four times the resolution of Blu-ray and 10 times that of DVD. Whether it’s as good as 35mm has long been a subject of debate.
The highlight of the program will be a side-by-side presentation of Dr. Strangelove on film and DCP by restoration expert Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The audience for classic films is a very discerning group,” Crisp said in an e-mail. “We have an obligation to present something that represents the experience of seeing a film as it was presented on its first day of release.”
Ironically, Kubrick’s technophobic doomsday comedy is a well-known example of a film that could only be restored with automated image-correction software and other newly developed technology. The original negative was lost decades ago, and the next best materials available were scratched and worn, with printed-in dirt and chemical stains.
“Working in the digital environment allows us to do things we could never do photochemically,” said Crisp, who oversaw the restoration, a joint effort of Sony, New York’s boutique restoration lab Cineric, and Kubrick collaborators including Leon Vitali. Crisp’s team first borrowed the best surviving copies of the film from various archives and compared the quality of each, scene by scene. Then the best sections were scanned at 4K resolution, balanced for density and contrast, and digitally cleaned. Some problems could be fixed algorithmically; others were touched up frame by frame. After similar work on the soundtrack, the final product was output to DCP.
But as film historian David Bordwell writes in his blog, Observations on Film Art, one of the odder circumstances of the digital age is that as restoration gets easier, conservation gets harder. For a black-and-white movie like Dr. Strangelove, the digital master for the picture elements alone can eat more than 45 terabytes of storage. That’s the equivalent of 6,000 DVDs or the total amount of data the Hubble Telescope has gathered in 20 years. Another problem is the rapid cycle of obsolescence for digital platforms, five to 10 years on average. (Consider the floppy, the zip, and the jaz drive.)
DCP is a mixed blessing for art-house cinemas as well. “People thought the digital era would be easier for programmers,” says Scott Foundas, associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He estimates that only about 100 library titles per studio are available on DCP. “Singin’ in the Rain is fine, but if you’re looking for something more obscure, you might not get it.” This is because the high cost of transferring and remastering movies for DCP means that only a small percentage have made the jump, effectively winnowing the selection to greatest hits. For this reason, 35mm will stay in high demand for retrospectives and revival screenings.
Having seen a few of Film Forum’s selections in 4K already, I believe Crisp will succeed in proving that a properly executed restoration can look just about as gorgeous on DCP as 35mm. But nobody’s claiming it’s perfect. Which might be why the title of the series—a play on “This Is Cinerama!”—is missing an exclamation point. It’s less trumpeting a new leap forward, and more stating a fact: “This Is DCP. Get Used to It.”