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Not So Fast: Projection Expert Unspools 5 Major Caveats to the Digital Revolution

Not So Fast: Projection Expert Unspools 5 Major Caveats to the Digital Revolution

As the digital revolution inexorably sweeps film to the cutting-room floor, enthusiasts have hailed its economic and technological benefits (for low-budget filmmakers in particular) as well as its environmental gains. But digital projection expert Karl Mehrer has a few notable caveats.

Mehrer runs K2imaging, a company specializing in presentation technology used at festivals such as the Hamptons, Sundance and Tribeca (where he is technical director). While he admits that digital advances have certainly given more filmmakers access to moviemaking, he cautions that the continuous, rapid-fire changes in technology have created unforeseen kinks in the system. So here Mehrer lists the five major ways that digital-exhibition technology, despite its superior quality and potential, can hurt rather than help filmmaking, presentation and even the environment.

1. While digital projection increases exhibition capabilities for arthouse cinemas and film festivals, it can also drive them out of business.

When we talk about digital conversion, mostly what we’re talking about is theaters that are showing DCP (Digital Cinema Projection). DCP really is the highest quality digital format — you can argue about film being better, but that’s another conversation. However, a lot of small arthouse cinemas are being left behind in the conversion from film projection to digital because it’s an expensive transition and a lot of them can’t afford it. Those three letters automatically mean, “we have to spend seventy-five grand” for a projector and server. Film is about to be discontinued, but how many arthouse cinemas can manage $75,000 to replace each of their projectors?

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The same is true for film festivals. Right now we’re confronted with the problem of catering to the full range of filmmakers — from directors who literally can’t spend one more dollar than they have all the way up to the Hollywood titans. Festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance can afford to rent or buy the right equipment, but what will happen to those smaller festivals that can’t afford to make the conversion as quickly as technological advances dictate? Often they find themselves unable to screen certain films simply because they can’t exhibit the DCP format. That limits their access to many filmmakers, and vice versa.

2. Digital exhibition trends are corporate driven. (And even some of the creatively driven ones are merely distracting.)

The digital projectors that came out over ten years ago are no longer around. They didn’t so much fail as they were updated, and Hollywood seems to invent reasons to make whatever’s out there now just not good enough for what’s coming down the line. This is not an audience-driven trend; it’s a manufacturing, corporate-driven trend. Nearly all of the people watching movies aren’t going to know the difference.

I’m all for technological advancement, but financially speaking I think it’s a somewhat dangerous model. Modern digital 3D came from the top down — people weren’t picketing outside of theaters saying, “We want 3D! We want 3D!” The new development that’s coming down the line is high-frame-rate exhibition. “The Hobbit” was shot in 48-frames-per-second, as opposed to the standard 24-frames-per-second. The reviews I’ve heard so far are not good. The word “soap opera” keeps coming up.

This is typical with tech innovations and experiments. Even though I need to know a lot about tech, I always make sure to zoom out to the big picture and ask, “What’s the purpose of it exactly?Is it a different way of telling a story?” This new “advancement” is so technical that in my opinion it distracts from what’s really important and what is really needed in Hollywood right now: new, innovative storytelling. I don’t think high frame rate is needed to tell a good story.

3. Digital projection systems have a heftier carbon footprint than we like to think.

I’m a little dubious about this whole “environmentally friendly” concept, because if you’re replacing a projector every 10 years, before it can even prove its longevity, how environmentally friendly can that be? Yes, you’re not developing film and chemicals, and you’re not burning as much fuel for shipping, even though the movies — those hard drives — are still being shipped in a case by FedEx or UPS. It is a little friendlier short-term, but each generation of prematurely out-dated digital projectors may end up as scrap metal.

4. DCP creates more work for festivals.

I’ve resisted opening up the DCP format to filmmakers in the past, but presently the tide is turning and we must use it in order to satisfy distributor requirements.

When we get a film on HDCam, and after it has passed our quality-control process, we take it to the screening, push it in the player and hit Play. With DCP, we have to take a hard drive and upload it to a server before the screening, then we have to verify that content and get a digital key (or KDM) from the distributor or filmmaker that gives us permission to play that movie on that equipment at that given time. If we have to move the screening to another theater or play it on backup equipment, this becomes a big issue for the festival.

The big challenge is getting keys that are accurate and on time. Fortunately, they can be emailed. You open the message, there’s an attachment you unzip, you put that information on a thumb drive, then push the thumb drive into the server. The server recognizes you have a key and matches it up to the film. But often we put the thumb drive in there and the server will say, “OK, you’ve got a KDM, so what? I don’t see a movie it belongs to.” Which means the KDM is wrong, it wasn’t properly made and it’s not talking to that movie. So we get back to the distributor for a new key, we give them our server ID, etc. Hopefully this isn’t happening last minute; hopefully it’s happening the day before or even sooner. Because it can be a high-stress process in an already high-stress environment!

I just finished the Nantucket Film Festival, and when the movies were over my day was not done. I had to make sure that tomorrow’s movies were ingested, that the previous day’s movies were deleted (since the server only holds ten or so films) and that we had the proper keys for those movies — or else we didn’t have a show.

5. Digital technology is deceiving filmmakers into thinking that post-production is easier and/or less important than when working with film. 

I think a lot of younger filmmakers working in digital from their laptops have trouble getting to a post-production facility to get that high-quality finishing work done because they don’t have the money. But this means they’re not actually spending the time to do a final watch-down, which is, “This is the tape that’s going to the festival, so I’m going to sit in the theater and watch it.” That’s something they should be doing, and they’re not. Because in the digital age, they’ve got until this date to get it done, and often they’re going over deadline and doing press, which at the time seems more important — until they get to the world premiere and their film plays incorrectly!

What happens is that after they finish their film, they’ll have Bob and Joe make dupes, or clones, of their HDCams, and whatever system they’re using would take that audio, which is encoded to two channels of audio, and put it on each channel, which then becomes mono. When you play this accidental mono mix back in a theater, everything comes out on one channel, on one speaker. Filmmakers are falling down on that last step of the delivery process.

To say that digital is the great equalizer is too much of a sweeping notion. I think you have to look a little more closely. Digital technology doesn’t mean that everybody can achieve great quality, it just means that the door has opened a little wider. But then you walk through that door, and it’s still up to the filmmaker to provide that quality.

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