A Filmmakers Intro To DCP

Aaron Owen

May 2
4 min read

There have been a lot of articles written about exactly what a DCP is, but here at Cinematiq, 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 hear the term DCP is when they are accepted to a film festival that requires it.

What Is A DCP?

The word DCP is an acronym that stands for “Digital Cinema Package.” What does this actually mean? The words Digital Cinema are easy enough, but what about the term package?

This is what a DCP looks like on your computer:

A DCP is simply a folder containing a set of specific MXF and XML files.

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 or play it. This multi-file approach is very similar to how DVD’s and BluRay’s work. That’s because the DCP standard was created by many of the same engineers who created the DVD and BluRay standards, with a lot of the same requirements from the big Hollywood Studios.

There’s a common mis-conception that DCP is a physical format. Filmmakers and festivals alike confuse the delivery medium for the actual message. Since a DCP is just the collection of files in a folder, and as long as the server can access all the right files in the right place, the DCP will work. In truth, you could compress 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.

Loading your DCP onto a Theater’s Server

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 open internet (for security reasons), and cannot download directly from the web, 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 born, Hollywood standardized the way digital files were delivered to theaters. The engineers chose to ship films via the CRU drive carrier. First developed for military applications, the CRU is a rugged drive carrier that accepts regular SATA hard-drives.

The industry standard CRU drive in a shipping case.

There’s nothing special about it except that a CRU drive can slide directly inside 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 90 minutes. 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 play from, and your DCP is a valid DCI compliant package, 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.

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