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The death of 35mm?
April 12, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, drove the point home at the association's annual convention last year in Las Vegas. "Simply put," he said, "If you don't make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business."

As movie studios look to eliminate the expense of 35mm prints, what are the consequences of going digital? (printer-friendly link)
posted by Horace Rumpole (80 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
"By comparison, putting out a digital copy costs a mere $150."

Does anyone know what the filesize and format (physical and digital) of the media theaters get to show digital films? Are they distributing these things on enormous SSDs, or is there some sort of proprietary and expensive throughput method?
posted by griphus at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2012


Does anyone know what the filesize and format (physical and digital) of the media theaters get to show digital films? Are they distributing these things on enormous SSDs, or is there some sort of proprietary and expensive throughput method?

It's called Digital Cinema Package and it's typically carried on a regular hard drive. Here's a Q&A thread with more information and pictures.
posted by jedicus at 11:07 AM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


From the article: "The new format is called a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. It is a virtual format, a collection of files stored on a hard drive. Roughly the size of a paperback novel, the hard drive is mailed in a lightweight, foam-lined plastic case to the theater, where it's inserted (or, in the lingo, "ingested") into a server that runs the digital projector."
posted by gauche at 11:08 AM on April 12, 2012


Whoops, no, I was mislead by another page. Apparently they're normally carried on a CRU-DX115, which is not a regular drive.
posted by jedicus at 11:09 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not a film guy but this perked my ears up quite a bit:

It's not so bad for first-run theater chains, which play only new releases. Art-house and repertory theaters, however, which play classic and older movies, are largely dependent on print loans from studios.

So assuming that smaller theaters can't or don't want to go digital, they're losing access to the media they need right?

Scary.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:11 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So basically a sneaker net. You would think one of the theater execs's 14 year old sons would set up a private bittorrent tracker already...
posted by PenDevil at 11:11 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jefchak once worked in a booth outfitted with metal doors and porthole windows covered with drop-down guillotine shutters. The projectionist would pull a pin to shut the windows if the film caught fire, run out, pull another pin to shut the door and let the film burn itself out

What!!!! I knew they were dangerous back in the day, but dayyyyymmmmm.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So assuming that smaller theaters can't or don't want to go digital, they're losing access to the media they need right?

In a nutshell, yes. Converting to digital, even though it requires a huge up-front investment, makes all the sense in the world for studios and first-run theaters, because the cost of transporting a film in 35mm format is insane. Art house theaters, which don't incur those costs for the 35mm movies they show, and run on profit margins too slim to pay for the digital conversion without lots of help, are in the opposite situation.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:14 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back in the 1940s, film was so flammable that it was actually used as a weapon to turn the tide of World War 2.
posted by griphus at 11:16 AM on April 12, 2012 [12 favorites]


OP that was a great article. Thanks.

From the things I mentioned above to the tale of how, oddly enough, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both faced near complete deletion/loss due to digital mistakes, to how the projectors are comparable to old school sewing machines in their mechanism/reliability, to how bulb costs and equipment failures and storage/archival costs are a huge not-so-fast factor for people who say it's a win-win-win to go digital, well done.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2012


Some interesting background on the DRM of digital cinema. Notably, there's a fixed window during which the files will work; which has repercussions for things like films starting late, or having to start over.
posted by jbickers at 11:21 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


So basically a sneaker net. You would think one of the theater execs's 14 year old sons would set up a private bittorrent tracker already...

Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth. There's a point at which it becomes cost- and time-effective to put files on a hard disk and FedEx it. That Q&A thread says Avatar 3D was 350gb, which seems to be right on the edge. With a 30Mb connection, that would take 26 hours to copy, and cost the hosting provider some significant bandwidth charges.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found the discussion about the breaking of lamps in the digital projectors interesting. I'd love to know a little more about the economics of this: Are the studios transferring the costs over to the theaters, but the overall cost of screening is the same, or is the net cost of digital plus projector maintenance the same as film plus projector maintenance?

And I'm all for the lack of gate weave and scratches and stuff, but I recently saw a film on actual film again, and was amazed at how much nicer the experience was. With modern digital projectors I don't bother to wear my glasses because I find the pixels distracting, and having done a whole bunch of stuff with image compression, the artifacts leap out at me.

Sure, the film is grainy, and the picture jumps all over the place, but for some reason the comfort of the old made me feel like this wasn't an experience that I could be having at home in my living room in front of my DVD player.
posted by straw at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2012


Even 2nd and 3rd run theaters are converting, since they won't be able to get 35mm prints anymore as well.
posted by wcfields at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2012


The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a report on the preservation aspects of digital video, especially the implications for small and independent filmmakers: The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives.

I was going to do a FPP on it and never got around to it.
posted by marxchivist at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


The article says:

The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, Horak's every sentence requires an exclamation mark. "In the last 10 years of digitality, we've gone through 20 formats!" he says. "Every 18 months we're getting a new format!"

Surely, that's an exaggeration?
posted by Gyan at 11:24 AM on April 12, 2012


Like I said, I'm no movie buff, but I would be a damn sight closer to one if all the movies I saw in theater looked half as nice as the one crappy plot, action flick (X-men something or other) I saw at Cinerama in Seattle.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2012


qxntpqbbbqxl: "Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth. There's a point at which it becomes cost- and time-effective to put files on a hard disk and FedEx it."


The theoretical capacity of a Boeing 747 filled with Blu-Ray discs is 595,520,000 Gigabytes, resulting in a 245,829 Gbit/s flight from New York to Los Angeles.
posted by wcfields at 11:26 AM on April 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm friends with Julia, who started the petition. As the article mentions, she works at the New Beverly here in LA, and they rely on 35mm prints to show their movies.

I went to a double-feature this past Tuesday. The Seven Brothers vs Dracula and The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill. I won a VHS tape of The Cross of the Seven Jewels that had been in Johnny Ramone's collection (they regularly give away VHS tapes that belonged to Ramone.) The whole thing cost me $8. I go to at least one of these shows per week.

This city without that theater would be a much sadder place.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:27 AM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I should have included more info on Cinerama, I didn't mean to say it's just a good theater. It's one of four of it's kind on the planet apparently, and it shows.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:30 AM on April 12, 2012


Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth.

There is still no higher bandwidth connection than a screaming FedEx truck (or better yet, a jet) full of hard drives or other storage media. The latency may leave a bit to be desired, but that just isn't much of an issue since movie theaters tend to know what they want to show in advance.
posted by zachlipton at 11:31 AM on April 12, 2012


I'm curious if the DRM inside the projectors themselves prevents a theater operator from being "allowed" to ingest a video file that hasn't been signed by one of the major studios? My presumption is that's the case, otherwise it would be kind of awesome to see a bunch of independent theaters start distributing independent films between each other making both studios and distributors entirely optional. I'd imagine arthouses jumping all over that. I imagine Sony and Christie and whoever else probably cripple their products to prevent open use though...
posted by trackofalljades at 11:36 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


jedicus : It's still just a hard drive. That DX115, going by the technical specs is just a drive enclosure with a removable tray and a hot swap back-plane.
posted by Grimgrin at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2012


The theoretical capacity of a Boeing 747 [s] 245,829 Gbit/s ... New York to Los Angeles.

Interesting. So when we get Tb networks, already working in the lab, 747s will be obsolete. Cool.
posted by bonehead at 11:55 AM on April 12, 2012


I love the fact that the movie theaters are all NATO members.
posted by vogon_poet at 11:55 AM on April 12, 2012


Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth.

IP over Avian Carriers: "If 16 homing pigeons are given 8 32GB SD cards each, and take an hour to reach their destination, the throughput of the transfer would be 9320Mb/s, excluding transfer to and from the SD cards."
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:55 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


griphus: Back in the 1940s, film was so flammable that it was actually used as a weapon to turn the tide of World War 2.
It's funny you should mention that...
Jefchak works at the New Beverly, which is owned by Quentin Tarantino. A regular at the art-house cinema, Tarantino bought the place in 2007, when it was in danger of closing. The New Beverly still plays traditional reel-to-reel 35mm, and Tarantino has said that the day the cinema puts in a digital projector is the day he burns it to the ground.
posted by hincandenza at 12:04 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Toy Story and Toy Story 2 both faced near complete deletion/loss due to digital mistakes

That totally pinged my BS detector, but Pixar says that's exactly what happened. Granted, the completely insane production schedule was more to blame than any inherent flaws in digital filmmaking. (animators were overworked to the point that they were leaving kids in parked cars, etc.) And it's pretty insane that not only did someone manage to execute a "delete everything" command, but that their backups had all somehow been corrupted for the past month? Incredible.

Film is of course subject to the same kind of potential disasters (entire day's worth of shooting ruined due to botched processing, etc.) but in that case it's usually only a day at a time that could be lost. I'm sure digital filmmakers would immediately make numerous redundant copies of their files at the end of the day, and never find themselves in the unbelievable position of having "all of their eggs in one basket," so to speak.

Art house theaters are having a harder time getting prints to show, but as the article mentions, they are still available from UCLA and other private vaults, just not from the studios directly. Meanwhile, I would think that the enormous boon to low budget independent filmmakers that digital provides, would be enough of an incentive for some theaters to at least invest in some lower-end second hand digital projectors to show such films.

Totally agree with Nolan's argument about shooting on film teaching "discipline" and relating the whir of the camera to "money being spent." But given that film crews aren't getting any cheaper, and there are still the same number of hours in a day, being disciplined is something that filmmakers are going to have to learn very quickly, regardless of what medium they shoot on.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's an incredible single-screen theater a few blocks from my house called the Art Theater. The Art is a real treasure- they show a lot of independent films, as well as a "late night movie" (described on their website as "a classic, a “recent classic”, an overlooked gem, or a “so bad it’s good” flick") three nights a week, because you know the only thing your life is missing is watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit in a gorgeous old theater with all of your friends and a cold beer (they're the only movie theater in town that serves beer, so they get an automatic thumbs up from me).

I went to the Art see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when it came out- they don't show a lot of the big blockbusters, but made a special effort to get this one. The owner came up before the film and told the audience that the Art needs to purchase $80,000 worth of equipment to be able to stay in business. Because they don't have large bills hidden in that beautiful marquee, they had become a co-op to raise the money. He made a plea for us to join the co-op, and then we saw the best evidence for what we're losing by going digital that he could have provided. Tinker Tailor is a period piece, and we got to watch it in a medium that was true to the time of the movie. Movies meant to represent the 70s don't need crystal clear digital perfection- they need graininess and impurities. It made the experience of watching the movie magical.

Incidentally, the image I used for the marquee happens to come from this article about the transition from film to digital, which opens with an image of the Art.
posted by quiet coyote at 12:12 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was just reading this interview with animator Don Hertzfeldt where he talks some about the weird dichotomy between film and digital.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:14 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


qxntpqbbbqxl: Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth.

And it's easier to track down leaks. From jedicus' link to a forum discussion, satellite delivery is an option, but interception is a primary concern. A decade ago, TV shows were intercepted this way, but I think there is some other distribution system now, as I haven't heard of these sorts of pre-air show leaks in a while.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:16 PM on April 12, 2012


The budding piracy scene is hardly likely to start a landslide on the scale of MP3 and file-swapping service Napster--the shows are hard to find without some knowledge of the underground trading scene and require a fast connection to download. But the issue marks another chink in the entertainment industry's armor as it tries to retain tight control of its content in the wilds of the Internet.

"The TVRip scene is in its infancy right now," said one trader of TV, who asked to remain anonymous. "But it's growing in both quality and quantity in terms of shows and viewers."


Thanks, flt, that's an interesting look back.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:19 PM on April 12, 2012


shakespeherian: I was just reading this interview with animator Don Hertzfeldt where he talks some about the weird dichotomy between film and digital.

"The trouble with CG is that nothing is left up to chance." And there are no short-cuts in animation.


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: IP over Avian Carriers

It has been implemented, both as technical implementation in a "ping" transfer, and less technical but for actual data transfer, as a test vs business ADSL in South Africa, and for transferring photos by a rafting company.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:22 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


cost the hosting provider some significant bandwidth charges.

'Cept for the big boys all agreeing not to charge each other for bandwidth in peering agreements.

Creates a nice artificial barrier to entry. To get big enough for the big boys to peer with you you have to move alot of bandwidth, but to get to that point you have to spend alot of money.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:23 PM on April 12, 2012


Art-house and repertory theaters, however, which play classic and older movies, are largely dependent on print loans from studios.

Maybe I am missing something here -- it is more than twenty years since I managed a rep cinema -- but are we not being presented with a false dichotomy here? In 2004 a defunct single screen place was reopened in the old hometown as a revival house and it showed both 35mm and digital. I knew the owner only slightly and never have seen the projection booth of that place, but is there some reason why an art-house place cannot put two projectors side by each?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:25 PM on April 12, 2012


Because the digital projector costs tens of thousands of dollars and has upkeep costs multiple times those of the film projector. The "35mm is dying - ART IS RUINED FOREVER!" thing is a complaint of the filmmakers; for the theater owners, the problem is money.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:27 PM on April 12, 2012


I'd like someone to chime in technically who knows more about video, film and even audio, and correct my assumptions below (or hopefully just append to them with additional information)... but as someone in the technology field I generally bristle at the appeals to old technology as inherently superior.

As an aside, I think similar arguments exist for vinyl: it's superior to a CD largely because it's storing a lot more information. Outside of the idea that our ears can detect sound to a level of Brownian motion on the cilia, a sufficiently detailed binary description of a wave form should be effectively identical to the human ear of the real thing. I believe in a FPP recently about the 192-bit audio file storage, there was a link to a sound engineer claiming in detail that this was wasted bandwidth the human ear could no longer detect.

Granted, the "resolution" of 35mm film is enormous, since I guess theoretically it's as sensitive and granular as the chemical film can react to incoming light. But the effective resolution is what it would take to make the difference literally indistinguishable to the human eye. This is... not small, admittedly. I'm seeing in a cursory google hunt figures from as "little" as 24MP to 100-500MP images (compared to the what, 2.1MP of 'HD') to essentially mimic either traditional 35mm film or even 'real life' resolutions. If the figure were 24MP, then the files would be about 130 times larger; that 280GB copy of Avatar would now be 36TB- a large amount, but an amount transferrable via a set of ~20 disks on courier to the theater, where one disk is sent today. Of course, that 280GB file of Avatar was almost certainly larger than 1920x1080, so the storage of a 24MP version would presumably not be 36TB. In any case, as technology improves, that speed and storage would get even more manageable.

So like vinyl and its purists, the question doesn't seem to me to be "Is digital a poorer format than 35mm?" but "Is digital intrinsically a poorer format?", to which I think the answer is: today it is, but not indefinitely. Storage and bandwidth will increase to the point that a multi-terabyte film file will be transferrable to a theater to show 100 megapixel video on the screen with beautiful contrast and inky blacks. When that happens, the only reason to still shoot on film- with all its inherent manufacturing costs- is the high price of Hollywood hipsterism.
posted by hincandenza at 12:28 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Surely, that's an exaggeration?

My guess is a lot of the changes in DCP probably come from the DRM component. I would think the raw art files that make up the actual video and audio don't change so quickly. Then again, maybe they are making changes more quickly than one would think because they're still futzing with how to improve the product. I would think when analog projection came along there were a variety of formats (a lot of different projectors and sizes and whatnot but settled for standards over time).

To me, the nostalgia for 35mm sounds exactly like what we heard when CDs came out in the 1980s. Music on CDs just sounded terrible compared to vinyl.

Some of the arguments against digital like the changing formats and that story about Toy Story 2 getting erased are all things that can be mitigated with a decent backup and archive plan. The article said something about how showing the movies at the multiplex has shifted from a professional projectionist to the IT department. But really, the IT department can be tasks with making sure the source files are still readable, backed up and available. And they're on top of the evolution of the formats so that they won't' get stuck having an old format that can't be read anymore because the current version of the software can't recognize it.

At the same time, I get that film and be better than digital in how it looks. I suspect over time that gap will narrow. But for now, it is a concern. For art houses to get prints of the old classics (and even pulp classics) has been and will be a problem. The big studios focus on the stuff that has been released last weekend. The classics we love today only get love from the studios if there's significant DVD sales volume. If I owned that content I'd spend the money to digitize it and put it on Netflix. I'd rather get a few bucks from Netflix than have it sit in a vault no one will ever see. But I'd never make it at a studio because I also find their entire business model terribly broken. The only reason they're on the head of the tech curve to switch to digital is because they'll save money and have more control over the films in the multiplex.
posted by birdherder at 12:29 PM on April 12, 2012


I've linked to this before, but this blog post, from a cinema in Australia, is a marvelous articulation of some of the technical issues that can arise with DCP (+ DRM) — and the difficulty of fixing them on the fly. (A couple more examples of DCP problems in the real world here and here - you have to scroll down slightly for the second one).

Also don't know if this will stand or not — but a colleague at the organization I run has been writing some excellent blog posts about the conversion in which he says the things I'd like to say here, but much better. This piece gets into some of the particulars of how this will effect rep and art cinemas from a technical perspective; this one looks at the social/economic dimension.
posted by bubukaba at 12:34 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back in my day, movie film was exactly that - film, pond scum. And you had to slather it over the projector (called a Magic Fire Box) spoonful by spoonful. And they trained the pond life to impersonate movie stars and some became famous in their own right (Volvox Falana and James J. Flagella). Just saying.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:39 PM on April 12, 2012


Tinker Tailor is a period piece, and we got to watch it in a medium that was true to the time of the movie. Movies meant to represent the 70s don't need crystal clear digital perfection- they need graininess and impurities. It made the experience of watching the movie magical.

This is part of what made Black Dynamite so fun for me. It was just sooooo 70s, and the fact that the whole thing was shot on Super 16 gave it that saturated, grainy, 70s look. Sure, they could have gone digital and shot it in super-rare-awesome-chocolatey-fudge-coated-mega-super-HD or whatever the hottest digital standard is, but they chose to go Super 16, and it worked beautifully.

Maybe someday in the future there will be push-button magic for digital projection, where you can shoot once and later make it look like 35mm or Super 16 or Cinerama or Todd-AO or whatever... but for now, watching a purely digital (shot, edited, and projected digital) movie, it just looks too perfect. Without some jitter or an enormous stray hair creeping across the screen, it doesn't feel like I'm watching a movie, it feels like I'm watching a DVD at home.
posted by xedrik at 12:51 PM on April 12, 2012


Just a few weeks ago I watched Studiocanoe's short film Facts About Projection, which made me briefly dream of being a film projectionist. It seems a bit sadder now.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:51 PM on April 12, 2012


Here's an interesting article from the Association of Moving Picture Archivists that discusses a lot of the issues with this digital transition from an archivist's point of view -- and there are quite a few: Unfortunately, this last element puts us (the public, I suppose) in the position of needing to absolutely trust the studios' preservation of these cultural assets; based on their previous track record -- whether it's silent films or episodes of Doctor Who or whatever -- they /haven't/ been good stewards of these things past their financial usefulness, and have ended up later on relying on private collectors or archives to make up for this. This digital transition basically takes these independent parties out of the preservation game.
posted by orthicon halo at 12:53 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Storage and bandwidth will increase to the point that a multi-terabyte film file will be transferrable to a theater to show 100 megapixel video on the screen with beautiful contrast and inky blacks.

That's provided 100-megapixel video becomes an industry standard. Digital formats have mostly been, first and foremost, about convenience. Quality was usually runner-up and subject to a ton of compromises.

There's no reason to believe that digital cinema won't go the route of "close enough for most eyes" in the same way digital music went down the "close enough for most ears" route.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:55 PM on April 12, 2012


The demise of the projectionist that comes with digital distribution is a problem for the viewer. I have been to two films at the AMC Loews Woodinville 12 where the wrong aspect ratio was being used. When I complained, they just refunded my money because there was nobody on site that could fix the problem. The rest of the audience just sat through a badly distorted movie.

This apparently is a common problem with the digital projectors: they are centrally administered and the local staff can't maintain them even if they wanted to.

I no longer go to that theater.
posted by Xoc at 12:58 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hasn't digital technology made it much more possible to enjoy the incredible variety of cinema produced over the last 100+years? When I was a child I dreamed about being rich enough to have my own film library and screening room. Today I can watch nearly anything my heart desires when I want - not because I'm rich, but because new distribution technologies have democratized access.

Media purists remind me of kids these days who refuse to use Photoshop, claiming that it isn't "real photography" (can of worms I know). Cinema, like photography, is an art form that is in its comparative infancy; isn't it a bit presumptive for us to decide which tools are and are not legitimate?

Optical projectors were pricey in the days of the silents; upgrading to be able to show talking pictures was an onerous expense for theater owners as well. Digital cinema will become standard at some point, the price will drop, distribution methods will become more streamlined, quality will improve, and there will likely be an art house cinema explosion.
posted by squalor at 1:01 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


the effective resolution is what it would take to make the difference literally indistinguishable to the human eye.

Obviously, it depends entirely on how large a projection you're looking at, and from how far away. (the retina display on an iphone, for example claims to have a dot pitch that is effectively smaller than the human eye can detect) If you were to blow up that image much larger, of course, you'd start to see pixelization.

This is part of what made Black Dynamite so fun for me. It was just sooooo 70s, and the fact that the whole thing was shot on Super 16 gave it that saturated, grainy, 70s look.

Would it surprise anyone to learn that the "Planet Terror" segment of "Grindhouse" was shot on HD video, then digitally "dirtied" to look like an old film print?
posted by ShutterBun at 1:08 PM on April 12, 2012


Huh! I always assumed that digital prints were high-resolution and uncompressed, but it seems they're only marginally better than Blu-Ray (2k at 2048×1080 vs. Blu-Ray at 1920x1080). That's upsetting, because I believe you can fit much more detail into a 35mm frame than even a compressed digital 4k frame.

And it doesn't have to be this way, either. My 8MP camera (3264x2448) produces RAW files that are about 5MB each. If we do the math, 5MB x 30fps x 60sec/min x 120min/film = approximately 1TB, which is pretty cheap nowadays -- and certainly affordable by the big studios.
posted by archagon at 1:13 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to clarify: RAW files are typically compressed (how else would you explain a 32 bit 8 megapixel file fitting into 5MB?) but they use a lossless compression, so there's effectively no compression artifacts to be had.

35mm film, even at very low ISOs, has a resolving power of about 150 lines per millimeter. A 35mm negative has a vertical size of 24mm, so about 3600 lines. The horizontal size, of course, depends on how the film is shot (systems like VistaVision use a sideways scrolling format, while others use the more familiar vertical orientation, usually with some sort of anamorphic image squashing so as to maximize the frame size for wide-screen movies.)

So, resolution-wise, high definition digital (4k, etc.) can generally match or exceed film's capabilities.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:28 PM on April 12, 2012


qxntpqbbbqxl: "Sneakernets have staggering bandwidth. There's a point at which it becomes cost- and time-effective to put files on a hard disk and FedEx it. That Q&A thread says Avatar 3D was 350gb, which seems to be right on the edge. With a 30Mb connection, that would take 26 hours to copy, and cost the hosting provider some significant bandwidth charges."

Er. It'd cost them about $3.50 per download if they hosted on S3 or a similar service. In terms of "big data," 350gb is nothing, especially when you don't really need to transmit it with any sort of urgency. I'll bet you could even negotiate an off-peak discount with a CDN, and transmit the files at night.

Getting a fat pipe into every theater across the country is more difficult and expensive, but not a completely insurmountable problem. I'm surprised that they don't already do this in areas that have access to plentiful and cheap bandwidth. If I were running things, I'd transmit new releases via IP to any theater that could get a fast connection, and do the rest via FedEx. Everything would be encrypted, so we don't need to worry about the packages getting lost in the mail.

Downlinking from a satellite is a nice solution, because it works anywhere, and endpoints only really need to incur a one-time setup fee for the equipment. However, you need to hope that you only need to relay your movie once through space, because satellite time is crazy expensive. If a theatre misses the downlink, you're better off sending them a hard drive by courier instead of doing a retransmission.

Encryption via satellite also isn't an issue. You can securely transmit the keys on the release date by using an ordinary low-bandwidth internet connection.

While the costs of distribution via IP are very predictable (about $0.01 per GB plus monthly access charges for each theatre), satellite transmissions are basically a fixed cost per broadcast in addition to the equipment at the endpoints. If you're broadcasting to every theatre in North America, and can get away with only transmitting the film once, it's dirt cheap. If you're doing a limited or staggered release, it's inflexible and works out to be rather expensive.

However, at this point, we're splitting hairs, because the cost of transmitting a film over the internet is still likely going to be less than the cost of a single ticket.
posted by schmod at 1:32 PM on April 12, 2012


Even unencrypted DCP presentation is a troubled thing. Three stories:

1: I was projecting a DCP show recently. Art-house show, unencrypted DCP file. I got a call from the house crew saying that the picture had gone to pink/green/gray static. I hadn't noticed, because the soundtrack was still fine (this is a booth that's laid out in such a way that it's very difficult for the projectionist to see the screen). The problem turned out to be a minor file corruption issue. All I could do was press "pause" and then "play" — it worked, but easily might not have. If it hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to do a thing. We could have asked the distributor to mail a new copy of the file on a hard drive — but we wouldn't have received it until after the film's run was over. During each screening of this film, the static - pause - play routine was repeated.

2: Another time, this time using a system in which files are uploaded directly to a server at the theater by the film distributor, an entire section of the film was missing (imagine something like a chapter of a DVD simply being absent from the disc). Again, nothing to be done for that show except calling the distributor the next day and asking them to reupload the file. Not so good if you're trying to put on a show, with a start time and an audience to wrangle. (See also the second two links in my comment above — I don't pity the house managers at those high-profile shows!)

3: When I saw Hugo (at a big multiplex), I was distracted throughout by a visible dead pixel near the center of the image. I asked a friend, a guy who installs and maintains projection systems, about whether dead pixels were fixable. He told me that they were, but that the process of fixing them was incredibly intricate and costly (wish I were more of a technician myself so that I could describe it like he did). He did say, too, that most digital projectors currently in use at multiplexes are still under warranty — so these problems can be dealt with for now. But once those warranties are up, what theater will bother fixing a dead pixel? They'll be the dust+scratches of our generation of filmgoers — but instead of being able to get excited about a perfect new 35mm print of something, we'll be stuck with the same flaws at every single screening, no matter what we're seeing....
posted by bubukaba at 1:33 PM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


xedrik: "This is part of what made Black Dynamite so fun for me. It was just sooooo 70s, and the fact that the whole thing was shot on Super 16 gave it that saturated, grainy, 70s look. Sure, they could have gone digital and shot it in super-rare-awesome-chocolatey-fudge-coated-mega-super-HD or whatever the hottest digital standard is, but they chose to go Super 16, and it worked beautifully."

The director seems to have gone through great lengths to make the movie look like shit, which would make most seasoned film directors cringe.

Ironically, however, the film was scanned, edited, and mastered using modern digital techniques. Even if you saw it on film in a theatre, the picture was still comprised of bits at some point.
posted by schmod at 1:36 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Digital distribution of LIVE video events to movie theaters is already happening. Fathom Events uses a combination of sattelites and their own "digital network," whatever that means. I've been to a couple of Rifftrax events done by Fathom, and it worked out quite nicely. The fact that it was happening live was pretty impressive.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:42 PM on April 12, 2012


Even unencrypted DCP presentation is a troubled thing. Three stories:

At least the projection booth didn't, ya know, burst into flames or anything.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:44 PM on April 12, 2012


As for whether film is visibly distinguishable from high-quality digital files — I always think of this argument on aesthetics when that comes up.

Not everyone will care, of course — and being a projectionist and exhibitor, I'm much more sensitive to whether there's a projectionist in the booth or not, or whether there's film running through a gate or not.

But to me, it's profoundly more enjoyable to see a film knowing that it has physical frames, knowing that the intermittent mechanism is back there smoothly doing its thing, knowing that there's a person up there in the booth listening to the film run through, listening for problems, running over to check on the film when a splice goes through. And especially in the case of repertory screenings, knowing that a print has a history (the collector we got this print from pulled it out of a dumpster! this print of The Ten Commandments is from the original release back in 1956 — you won't see color like THIS anywhere else! etc) is huge.

I often wonder if people will ever feel this way about digital films.
posted by bubukaba at 1:47 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


ShutterBun — you do know that nitrate film stock hasn't been manufactured since the 1950s, right? It's been nonflammable for a long time!
posted by bubukaba at 1:49 PM on April 12, 2012


Yes, but I won't let that stand in the way of a good punchline, though.
posted by ShutterBun at 1:50 PM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I work mostly with artfilm and indie directors and producers (in Mexico, mostly, if that matters), and most of the people are ecstatic to be able to leave 35mm distribution behind (their opinions on 35mm as an acquisition format vary wildly). Printing to 35mm negative and having prints struck and subtitled is a big chunk of the post budget of low-budget films, also because you have to pay stuff like the Dolby digital sound license, which is paid in dollars, and impossible to get around, just to be allowed to encode your sound, and you have to go to a mixing stage approved by Dolby to be able to do this, and so on.

With DCP, it's indeed a lot easier, and a lot cheaper. And you can include subtitles for lots of languages, for the festival circuit, and even dubbed audio and various versions, on the same hard disk.

On the theater side, the economics are more complicated, but, there are ways to put together a system that plays DCPs for much less than what you'd think. Fraunhofer's EasyDCP Player is only a couple of thousand bucks, and plays DCPs (including encrypted ones, actually) on a decently-specced PC with an extra graphics card, and then it's just up to you to get a projector that'll work for your space.

Finally, a word about resolution. Yes, good 35mm camera negative does indeed hold a lot of detail and dynamic range. A positive that's struck from an internegative that's from an interpositive that's from an internegative... not so much. A set of tests done by SMPTE some years ago indicate that even good 35mm projection prints struck directly from camera negative have less effective resolution than HD video (those tests have always been controversial, but I see nothing wrong with their metodology). So 4k should be quite enough.

If you live in big cities in the US, you often get very good 35mm copies. However, this is not the case for most parts of the world. Here in Mexico, big Hollywood blockbusters have a shitload of copies made in the fastest and cheapest way possible, which doesn't lead to the greatest quality, while arthouse and indie movies take years to get here, and we usually get scratched-up, half-ruined prints that have been around the world. I'll gladly take digital over any of those.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:56 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


shutterbun: Fathom Events uses a combination of sattelites and their own "digital network," whatever that means.

From their site:

Back by popular demand, NCM Fathom, Turner Classic Movies, and Warner Bros. bring Casablanca back to select movie theaters nationwide for a final one night showing on Thursday, April 26th at 7:00 p.m. (local time) for the 70th Anniversary Encore Event!

The event begins with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne taking audiences behind the scenes of this epic love story in a special original production showcasing stories from those who were on set and those who simply admire this timeless classic. Then immediately following this special introduction audiences will be able to see Casablanca grace the silver screen.


Whoa. That is pretty awesome, and from what I can tell at 504 different theaters that night? Is that using their streaming system? I can't imagine churning out 500+ hds with this crazy key scenario for a one time event.
posted by Big_B at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2012


Question re: formats. What stops the industry from identifying a file format that can achieve 4000 lines in a reasonable file size for current storage systems, and making it the format, much like 35mm has been the format since the golden age of cinema? Shoot the movie with whatever you want, do your postproduction in Indeo for all we care, but when it goes to the theater it has to be a .xyz file with a specific encoder for the video and another specific encoder for the audio. That way everybody who's making a projector has a single standard to program for, and they have time to get that programming completely and utterly optimized, minimizing the kind of errors people are talking about.

I mean, the theaters have to be lobbying hard for something like that, seeing as they're the one who would have to make sure their projectors are compliant with a new standard every few years, right?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:10 PM on April 12, 2012


Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish —

This is part of what DCP is reaching for.

Up until now, 'digital presentations' at theaters have been a horrifying mix of (mostly) tape-based formats like HDCAM, Digibeta, and Blu-ray. (See this David Bordwell piece for more of the awful details). A real headache for projectionists and festival tech managers, let me tell you.

This is the thing that is exciting about DCP. But it's a short-term sweetness...
posted by bubukaba at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2012


shmod Er. It'd cost them about $3.50 per download if they hosted on S3 or a similar service. In terms of "big data,"

S3's highest-tier standard bulk price is still $0.05/GB, so Avatar would have been $17.50 if sent today, probably $50-ish when it was first released (S3 keeps getting cheaper). So yeah, technology keeps making the over-the-internet transfer less expensive, and maybe we have reached the point where it makes sense to not use FedEx; if so, though, it's a pretty recent development.

~

I don't really understand the claim that sending files over the internet is prone to leaks, though. We've been encrypting transmissions for a long time, and it works pretty fucking well. Leaks happen at the endpoints, from the people who have the keys.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:41 PM on April 12, 2012


I have a feeling dead pixels will be to the future what scratches are to the present: Enjoyable artifacts of the experiences of seeing a film at a theater.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:02 PM on April 12, 2012


S3's highest-tier standard bulk price is still $0.05/GB, so Avatar would have been $17.50 if sent today

That's assuming some jackass in the middle doesn't mark it up to gouge theater owners. The overage on my Verizon wireless data plan is $0.02/KB, ($20,971.52/GB) or 419,430 times more expensive than S3's pricing. Sure, that's a ridiculous amount of fucking-you-in-the-ass (but hey... Verizon) but still. Just because bandwidth is cheaply available, that doesn't mean someone isn't going to gouge the hell out of someone down the line.
posted by xedrik at 3:16 PM on April 12, 2012


I'm at home now, and I've got right here both an HD DLP projector and a 35mm double system projector. (Of course I also need the hand cranked-rewinds and the tape splicer for repairs.) I love film.

There's too much for me to go into here, concerning resolution issues, but I'm willing to accept that digital will visually suffice in the near future.

However, I'm certain that digital film files are ultimately ephemeral.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:42 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


In terms of archiving, some standardization needs to happen or digital films will disappear ver quickly. Archives can't keep recopying an ever increasing number of films into new formats every 18 months, or depend upon the continued existence of studios and production companies to manage the various DRM schemes.

There needs to be some kind of archive standard for digital films, free of any DRM except for the DRM imposed by the archive itself, and a file format that is sturdy, serviceable, and meant to last for decades. Something that all digital projectors will be legally required to play. Backwards compatibility, in other words.

Once old films are established as a separate thing from current releases, with their own unchanging file format, something could be done about storing older films on a more permanent medium again, like microfilm. Digital files, but preserved in a medium that's relatively stable and low cost to maintain over century long time scales.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:01 PM on April 12, 2012


Kevin Street: "There needs to be some kind of archive standard for digital films, free of any DRM except for the DRM imposed by the archive itself, and a file format that is sturdy, serviceable, and meant to last for decades. Something that all digital projectors will be legally required to play."

Unencrypted DCPs are basically this. In fact, it's funny how people seem to regard DCPs as something complicated, they're really not, they're surprisingly simple and well-designed.

The frames are 12-bit JPEG2000, XYZ color space, gamma 2.6, in an MXF wrapper, along with 24-bit 48kHz PCM sound. (This sounds complicated, but is really about as simple and standard as it gets).

There's nothing keeping these files from being played for decades, or indeed being used as sources to transcode to something else.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:18 PM on April 12, 2012


Here is a link to Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC, the entity (founded by Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Brothers) that creates the specifications that DCP files, digital projectors, etc. must follow to meet studio expectations. Lots of details inside.

Here is the National Association of Theater Owners page on digital cinema, which contains some other details on exhibition side technical issues.
posted by bubukaba at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2012


The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a report on the preservation aspects of digital video, especially the implications for small and independent filmmakers: The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives.

I was going to do a FPP on it and never got around to it.


We got you covered in February, marxchivist. It was a pretty good discussion.
posted by mediareport at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2012


I hate to call bullshit, but the art-houses picked up on DCP a hell of a lot earlier than the small first-run chains.

We heard this back when we switched from carbon-arc to xenon lamps, when we switched from reel-to-reel to platter systems, when we switched from celluloid to mylar, and when we put in surround-sound.

New equipment, especially cost-savers like digital projection, won't run an art-house out of business.

The cost of a decent 4k system is nowhere near 150k these days - a second-hand pro-grade Christie Mirage digital projector, with 3D capability no less, is around $6000 with lenses - a brand new "consumer" 4k projector from Sony, with lumens to spare in lighting up the big screen, is $20,000. Maybe another 5 grand for the back-end media server, if you splurge, 10 grand if you want fast and redundant servers and don't want to build them yourself. Moore's law at work.

When you add up projector, lamp, power-conditioner, lenses, sound-head, Dolby converter and platter system, a traditional film rig used to cost, before digital, a crap-ton of money, not including regular maintenance and repair.

A new art house can set themselves up far more cheaply with a digital rig than with a film rig - digital is easier to install and calibrate, and requires way less electricity and far fewer safety measures.

It may suck for theaters who sunk a ton of money into belt-drive projectors hoping they'd last for 50 years like the old Simplexes used to (with thousands of dollars worth of annual maintenance), but for everyone else, digital is really where it's at, not where it's going.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:48 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've said this here before: any civilized job, any job that a bookish individual without a specific technical skill might be able to make a decent living at, is going away, to be replaced by minimum wage jobs one step above slavery.

Projectionist is one of those jobs.

It's an awful thing and I have no suggestions as to how to fix it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:06 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I suspect the art houses will go away soon too. The extra expense of upgrading is a consideration, but what I really suspect is that the studios simply won't bother to digitize their old prints...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:10 PM on April 12, 2012


Both studios and theaters have been in deep shit for over a decade now. DVDs got too cheap too quickly, and between online distribution (Netflix) and affordable home theater systems, people do not have the same incentive to go see a film in the theater anymore. As audiences dropped off, theaters jacked up the prices to try to sustain their failing business model. The studios, meanwhile, make a lot of money off DVDs/Blueray/streaming. So there's a standoff between the studios on the one hand, and the theaters on the other.

Then Avatar came out. Suddenly all these theaters had to upgrade and buy the studios' fancy bullshit 3D equipment. And people came out to see it in droves, because for the first time in decades, there was something in the theater that they couldn't see in their living room. I wouldn't be surprised if Avatar was conceived as a huge bomb to turn the tides in the war between the studios and the theaters.
posted by deathpanels at 10:13 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


see also: 3D movies being introduced at the dawn of Television...3D movies being re-introduced at the dawn of home video rentals...Widescreen movies, Cinerama, Dolby Surround Sound, 70mm, etc., etc.
posted by ShutterBun at 11:21 PM on April 12, 2012


Oh, and I suspect the art houses will go away soon too. The extra expense of upgrading is a consideration, but what I really suspect is that the studios simply won't bother to digitize their old prints...

You know what? Fine, let the art houses go away. I say this even as someone who use to go to an art house theater several times a week back in the day. Why i say this is because theaters aren't needed anymore for seeing obscure movies, and would actually show fewer movies than would be able to seen streaming or similar. Few are really spectacle films that look better on a big screen, so why bother?

Also, they may not digitize for digital projection, but they would more than likely do it for dvd/bluray/streaming. That way they would only have to do it once, at more than likely a smaller size, and only need a fraction of people to buy/rent/stream it to pay for it.
posted by usagizero at 12:34 AM on April 13, 2012


"Digital is vaporware, imaginary, all zeros and ones," wrote one person from Indiana, who hadn't yet comprehended that they were writing a comment for an online petition.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:08 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Few are really spectacle films that look better on a big screen, so why bother?

There's a pretty decent argument for "movie watching as a communal experience" which I'd wager will suffer as a result of the presumed decline of the cinema.

Forget all about the technical aspects of the whole thing. Watching a movie as an "audience" is (or at least can be argued to be) an integral part of the process. There's undoubtedly lots of essays written on this topic, so I won't pretend to be a spokesman for the cause, but the notion of a "captive audience" can be hugely detrimental to how a film is received. (as a recent example, why do you suppose it's so important to some people that adolescents be allowed to watch "Bully" among an audience of their peers, as opposed to watching it at home on TV?)

Granted, as others have pointed out, I doubt much of this has anything whatsoever to do with the rise of digital projection. I'm just pointing out that the notion of watching films on a big screen with an accompanying audience is a valid reason for us to wish to preserve the concept of the Movie House, even if we have the technological wherewithall to duplicate the physical elements in our own homes.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:51 AM on April 13, 2012


"Digital is vaporware, imaginary, all zeros and ones," wrote one person from Indiana, who hadn't yet comprehended that they were writing a comment for an online petition.

I know this was likely meant lightheartedly, but —

The biggest problem (greatest tragedy?) with the entire digital project is that so many people haven't yet comprehended that the technologies that might be appropriate for short term data storage projects (like a petition about a fleeting issue) might not be appropriate — and might even be disastrous — for long term data storage projects (like preserving cultural works — or, heck, family photos — and ensuring that they're still available in 100 — or 1000 — years).
posted by bubukaba at 12:00 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


ShutterBun: watching movie's as an audience is the main reason I stay away from Cinemas. Uncomfortable seats, no ability to pause, someone's cell phone going off (which no pause and rewind), ads, someone's already in the seats you want, smelling the strangers next to you, smelling movie theater popcorn and hotdogs, people's heads cropping the lower part of the image ... need I continue?

Heck, for just the sake of not being able to control people nearby talking both my wife and I hate watching movies at home with our kids where about half of those negatives disappear and the other half are diminished by orders of magnitude.

The last movie was saw in a theater was Avatar in 3D. The film and sound was absolutely wonderful. The smells, other people, the fact that even being there 25 minutes early (note that this is 25 minutes before the ads and previews; probably 35-40 minutes before the movie) only got us better than average seats were not so great. All in all, I found it a positive experience, but not something I'm looking to throw $70+ at regularly.
posted by nobeagle at 12:28 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


"There's a pretty decent argument for "movie watching as a communal experience" which I'd wager will suffer as a result of the presumed decline of the cinema."

I used to be against this idea, but watching classic films at the Pacific Film Archive Theater in Berkeley really opened my eyes to it. Hearing the audience laugh, gasp, and react to the film gives it an entirely new layer of impact, a sense of relevancy that I've never once felt watching a DVD in the comfort of my home*. This is especially meaningful if it's an older film, because what would otherwise be an amusing relic from a bygone era suddenly becomes visceral and alive, if only for a couple of hours. There's nothing like genuinely laughing along with a bunch of strangers to a funny title card in a silent film!

(Results may vary depending on the audience and the film. I doubt you'll get this experience watching the latest blockbuster action flick, but I remember getting goosebumps when the audience let out a collective gasp, on the verge of tears, during one of the pivotal moments in Toy Story 3.)

And it's not like people have lost the desire to gather around the things they love. Movie communities are as active as they have ever been, and cinemaphiles love nothing more than debating the merits of their favorite films with each other. But when you're discussing a movie with a stranger on the internet, it feels a few steps removed from the experience of actually being there with them, in the dark, watching the projection dance on the screen.

As more and more of our entertainment moves from public performance venues into our homes, I can't help but wonder what we'll be losing in the transition — and how many people will actually care.

* I might be making this up, but I remember reading some research about how people tend to laugh much harder when they're with a group of people. I know that whenever I watch stand-up comedy at home, I only occasionally chuckle at best, whereas with a group of people there's always uproarious laughter. And it's not just peer pressure — the show feels genuinely funnier. I feel it's the same thing with emotions in film. I never find myself crying to movies at home, but when it's a collective experience...
posted by archagon at 12:42 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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