Thoughts On Exhibition Technology
Playing a lot of films created by various filmmakers each using very different equipment and processes at a film festival has always been a bit of a tricky endeavor. It’s my opinion that this has never been a straightforward process. In this modern era in which we find ourselves film-less and tapeless, this task is possibly the most convoluted it has ever been. In this article, we’ll take a look at a few of the various schools of thought, and explore some of the various technological solutions to this vexing problem.
Ever since the introduction of video based technologies, the independent film community has sought to make use of these lower cost toolsets to maximize budgets and production value. Throughout the years, we’ve seen the landscape evolve and adopt various video formats first with tapes (BetaSP and DigaBeta), and then discs (DVD and BluRay). In the last five to eight years, the adoption of so-called “High Definition” formats and multiple frame-rate standards have made the job of projecting films in multiple standards using a single system a tricky task.
We’ll focus on file-based playback rather than removable media formats such as discs because at Cinematiq, we believe this path is the most robust and future-proof way to go. File based playback also allows your organization to receive exhibition copies via the internet, which saves both the filmmaker and festival in shipping costs. While the transition to HD (1080p) is almost complete, we will face similar challenges when the industry begins to widely adopt 4k resolutions, and other future formats such as VR.
Once we’ve narrowed the focus to file-based motion image playback, it seems like we’re faced with a few basic choices. The first choice is what type of picture technology to use: computer/data based or video based? Like any major decision, there are pros and cons to consider when choosing between these technologies.
Video formats are strictly defined by an organizing body, (SMPTE) and are standardized. Equipment compatibility ensured using these standards.
Most projection equipment is built to handle a wide variety of video standards.
Multiple frame rates can be projected using the same refresh-rate. This saves the hassle of having the projector switch between video formats.
Computers deal with everything in a file-based manner, so the operator isn’t locked into using a specific application for playback, or a specific workflow for preparing assets.
Switching between formats can vary in elegance between equipment manufacturers and specific equipment models. Changing between frame-sizes and frame-rates might be handled seamlessly on some equipment while other equipment might handle the change in a less than elegant fashion.
Choosing a specific set of hardware may lock you into a specific workflow for preparing your film assets for projection.
Different projectors may not support the optimal resolution for your computer’s playback system. The computer resolution might be higher than the resolution of the film’s source file which would result in scaling, which is sometimes the source of tearing or other visual artifacts that affect picture quality.
Different models of computers vary greatly in their processing power.
Different Operating Systems and Applications handle video processing much differently. This can complicate standardizing your playback systems.
Another set of considerations to weigh when choosing a playback strategy is sound. Audio plays a huge role in how an audience experiences a film and shouldn’t be treated as a second-class citizen. The main up-front choice that festivals need to consider lies in the basic two audio formats found on 90% of today’s independent films: Stereo & 5.1 Surround Sound.
The equipment installed at your venues will most likely determine the formats you’ll be able to support. A fairly obvious fact, but one worth mentioning is that a venue that supports 5.1 sound is capable of playing back stereo sound, but a stereo venue will not be able to make use of a 5.1 sound track (unless your playback equipment is set to automatically down mix to stereo like most BluRay players). So if you have a venue with a 5.1 surround sound system, and a film that’s been mixed in 5.1, and you wish to screen the film as it was intended, you’ll need to choose a technology that allows you to integrate with the venue.
Here at Cinematiq, we’ve have taken a hard look at the various file-based systems on the market today, and have narrowed down the vast amount of technology to a few options.
- The industry standard DCP format which requires specialized playback servers. If your film festival is using traditional cinemas as venues, it is very likely that the theater has DCP equipment.
- Computer based playback via applications like Playback Pro or VLC Player where the projector acts like a second monitor for the computer.
- Computer based playback via video applications like Adobe Premiere or FCP X in conjunction with specialized video hardware from Blackmagic Design or AJA Video systems.
- Digital recorders like AJA Video System’s KiPro, Sound Device’s Pix 240, or Blackmagic Design’s Hyperdeck.
Choosing the right platform for your festival will make a huge difference in how smoothly your exhibition operations will run during the festival. Try to minimize variables as much as possible. This means:
- Standardizing exhibition equipment across venues (when possible)
- Limiting the amount of physical items to keep track of
- Limiting the amount of formats involved in the festival as a whole
- NEVER un-plugging and re-plugging equipment during a screening. Run all content from the same source or use a switcher
Film festivals have an obligation to exhibit the filmmakers film as it was intended because the content is provided free of charge. The festival audience also deserves to see the films as they were meant to be seen. The right playback system can be the difference between “Amazing!” and “Disaster”. In a world dominated by social media, can your festival’s reputation afford a failed screening?