There have been a lot of articles written about exactly what a DCP is, but we still get asked the question all the time. Is a DCP a drive? Is it a file? For a lot of filmmakers, the first time they’ve heard of a DCP is when they are accepted to a film festival who has decided to require it. This article will explain what a DCP is, and what it is not.
The word DCP is an acronym that stands for “Digital Cinema Package.” That might sound a bit confusing. The words Digital Cinema are easy enough, but what about the term package? Many filmmakers, even those familiar with DCPs might not have ever actually seen one.
This is what a DCP looks like on your computer:
At the highest level, a DCP is a collection of various files that when combined into the same folder, allows the playback server in the theater to play your movie. It’s the digital equivalent of a 35mm film print. Each one of these files has a very important role, and without all of them, the package wouldn’t be valid and the server won’t recognize it. This approach is very similar how DVD’s and BluRay’s work. The DCP standard was created by many of the same engineers who worked on DVD and BluRay, with a lot of the same requirements from Hollywood Studios.
If you’d like more about what each of these files contains, you can check out this article on the technical background about DCP and how it works.
There’s a common mis-conception that DCP is a physical format. A lot of people, especially folks used to dealing with videotape assume that this image is what a DCP looks like. Filmmakers and festivals alike confuse the delivery medium for the actual message. A DCP is just the collection of files in a folder, and as long as the server has all the right files in the right place, the DCP will work. In truth, you could Zip the DCP into a single .zip and send it across the internet like you would a QuickTime movie. There are a couple of reasons that this isn’t a more common practice.
A DCP needs to be ingested (copied) onto the theater’s hard drives before it can be played out to the projector. This means that the files need to be copied from somewhere. Since most digital cinema servers are not connected directly to the internet for security reasons, and cannot download directly from a link, most DCPs are copied onto some sort of storage device, and then physically plugged into the server or library management system (LMS) that needs to ingest them.
When DCP was first conceptualized, Hollywood decided to standardize on the CRU DX115 drive carrier. The reason for this was to create a robust, standard method for delivering films to theaters. The DX115 is a rugged drive carrier that accepts regular SATA drives. There’s nothing special about it except that it can slide directly into most digital cinema servers, instead of connecting over USB. This means that the drive is treated like an internal drive rather than an external one, and the end result is that the files can be copied much faster. If your DCP is 150GB, using a CRU can be ingested and verified in about 20 minutes, which is quite fast when compared to a USB 2.0 drive which might take as long as 90minutes. If the projectionist needs to ingest an entire day’s worth of film festival content the night before, the CRU is the fastest way to do so, which is why most festivals require CRU drives for feature films.
So as long as you can get the collection of files copied to the server you’d like to playback on, and your DCP is DCI compliant, your film should play. Sounds simple right? In the next article, we’ll dive a little deeper into the geeky tech side of things to look a hard drive formats, and why you can’t plug your DCP drive into your Mac.