Category Archives: Dolby Digital Cinema


With the advent of digital projection comes the age of explicit distrust.

In the olden days, when 35mm projection was the norm and 70mm what you hoped for, the film distributors would usually send the prints to the cinemas well in advance, mostly because the boxes were heavy and the distributors had little control over the actual physical distribution, but also because they imagined it would take the projectionist some time to assemble a 35mm print for a show.

Balancing the tip in the opposite direction was the fact that they also feared that a new film might be illegally scanned at a cinema. Never mind the fact that it wasn’t easy to set up a reasonable scanning facility at a cinema without the managers noticing, nor do the actual deed, as it would invariably involve actually projecting images for however long the film was.

It was not common; most new feature films that ended up on Pirate Bay, or whatever the VHS precursor was called, were, in fact, pirated by employees of the production company or by a very early link in the distribution chain, long before the films reached the cinemas.

Today, when films are digital and delivered to cinemas in hot-swappable hard disk drives, the industry uses every means at their disposal to stop the illegal copying.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the many bittorrent sites on the internet, they mostly focus on the wrong targets.

Modern digital films are frequently encrypted, meaning that they require a digital key to unlock them for a show. This key is matched to not only a specific theatre but also a specific digital projector and server at that theatre. The key is dated, with a start date and time, and an end date and time, so that it will only be valid for the screenings and, usually, for a limited time before and after them.

Now, many producers and distributors will send unencrypted films to film festivals such as the Göteborg Film Festival, their reasoning being that digital keys are not always reliable and can cause problems, but also because sometimes the venue needs to be changed at a short notice. Others send their films encrypted but with liberally timed keys, lasting for days, weeks or even months, to help minimise problems.

Which we appreciate. None of us is against the companies protecting their property; while digital keys are a hassle, the actual license files are small and can easily be distributed through email, FTP, etc.

But not every film distributor or production company will understand or even care about what we think or what problems they help create.

Last night, I screened the Spanish film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, a charming story about what happened when John Lennon came to Almeria, Spain, to act in a film. About halfway through, I noticed that the server’s screen warned that the film’s license key had expired. It stated that the show contains “one or more unlicensed clips”.

Someone, somewhere, had decided that since it was the only screening at my cinema, the Draken, there was no need to wait until the show was over, which was around 1 AM. As if, after a 17-hour workday, I would stick around to scan the film, never mind the fact that the server manufacturer, Dolby, has other arrangements in place to prevent me from doing so.

Yet, the film is already available on the internet (I checked).

Now, if someone had fainted in the auditorium during the film (which happened two nights ago, by the way) and I had been forced to pause the film, I would not have been able to continue the show. The key will allow us to finish an ongoing show but not to interrupt it and finish it later.

I’m sure the director, who was present at the screening for a midnight Q&A, would have been thrilled to explain why the audience didn’t get to see the conclusion of his film.

Last year, we screened Spring Breakers, one of Hollywood’s many attempts at making money from showing bikini-clad teens, in this case Selena Gomez (in spite of the fact that I hear it’s easier to watch moving images of scantily clad females on the internet). The license key was timed between fifteen minutes before the screening started and one hour forty-five minutes after, making any kind of check by me to check the image format and noting a curtain call cue an impossibility, not to mention the fact that had something happened during the screening and we had been forced to stop it, we again had risked not being able to finish the show.

The production company didn’t stop there, however. They also distributed night vision binoculars to the ushers, with strict orders to monitor the audience during the show. They also wanted to place a guard in the projection booth for the duration of the screening, but I refused, informing the festival that said guard would also have to run the show since I wouldn’t be there.

We do our utmost to run beautiful shows. We take pains to ensure that the screening is as good as we can possibly make it, running a few minutes of every film to see that it’s OK, that the key works, that the image aspect ratio is the correct one, that the audience gets value for their money – tickets are quite expensive these days and most of us regard the audience as our true employers – but the production companies and film distributors aren’t helping.

I think I speak for most of us when saying that we don’t do what we do for them. Had it only been them I doubt I would have bothered at all, to be honest.

Trust is earned; it’s not given freely and they haven’t done anything to earn mine.

The Death of a Profession

The 36th edition (actually the 35th, but that’s another story) of the Göteborg International Film Festival started yesterday. I’ve been running projectors for the festival since 1987 and since 1990 as the projectionist at the festival’s main auditorium, the Draken.

This year (and to some extent, last) is different from every other year.

When I did my first year at the Draken, out of around 50 feature film prints most were in 35mm. Those that weren’t–I’m guessing one or two, without bothering to check the actual figures–were in 16mm. One (1) had stereo sound. All of the others were in mono.

This changed rapidly. In only a few years, all prints, excepting, perhaps, an occasional third-world effort, had stereo soundtracks. By 2000, several used Dolby Digital, Dolby’s six-channel digital sound.

And by 2010, all had Dolby Digital, excepting restored archive prints from bygone days, screened as parts of retrospectives and such.

When the digital sound arrived, we didn’t really consider it to be a revolution. Better sound, sure, but revolution, no. The prints were still in 35mm, handled about the same as always by the projectionists and causing the people who carried them from one cinema to the next bad backs and strained muscles. 35mm prints are heavy and carrying them around for ten days will cause you grief.

Last year, though, they installed a digital projector in my projection booth. Most films were still in 35mm, but I also ran a dozen or so shows digitally, many of them shorts. I’d upload a digital file from a hard drive to the server housed with the projector, “program” the show by dragging and dropping film clips, including the feature film itself, to a flow chart-like user interface on a flat screen, and finally click on Play when given the go ahead signal from the ushers.

The 35mm prints, on the other hand, are (and have been, for the last several decades) assembled from the six or so reels they arrive on to (usually) two larger ones. Those are then threaded into large projectors and handled manually, with a “change-over” taking place in the middle of the screening, hopefully invisible to the patrons.

Times, they are a-changin’.

Last year was just a mere warning of things to come, though. This year, the festival will be halfway over when I finally get to run my first 35mm print, and I’m only expecting four or five more of them.

But worse in some (to me) ever-so-subtle way is that they no longer provide us with a 35mm festival vignette to be spliced onto the first reel before shows. There are still a few 35mm prints, yes, but there are very few labs left to make them. One of the festival techs mentioned to me that he’d given up the idea after some research.

We had no vignettes when I worked my first festival in 1987, either. That was because the festival could not afford to make them. Now, 26 years later, they’d probably be too expensive to make, again. It doesn’t feel like a full circle to me, but I guess maybe it is.

Worst, however, is that with the death of the 35mm format follows the death of a century-old profession, that of the projectionist. We are being replaced by IT people, people who know their way around a computer. A colleague who’s been in the business since 1970 has real trouble using his new equipment at another festival cinema. He knows how to run a show but doesn’t realise that you can “click” on weird symbols on a screen to access functions he needs. A window to him is something you draw the blinds on during shows, a mouse a living thing and a menu something posh restaurants give you.

In only a year or two, we are not only no longer needed, what we do now can be done by IT people from home.

And that’s more than a little sad.

Moving to Digital

With most surviving cinemas rapidly going digital, a lot of perfectly good film projection and cinema sound equipment is being replaced with their all-digital counterparts. It’s to be expected, of course, but what most people don’t realise is that the new technology is not yet even close to the old one in terms of quality.

A 35mm film strip, so far, is superior to the digital technology in just about every respect, from resolution to contrast to colours. Yes, you will hear a lot of hype from the industry about scratch-free and dust-free images, HD and the perceived (low) line density of 35mm answer prints, much like the music industry once hyped the compact disc, but I suggest you to trust your eyes instead.

If you are lucky enough to have an art house in your area, go see an old movie, preferably something from the fifties, filmed in Technicolor and Vista Vision. A lot of the old westerns were filmed using these technologies, as were some Hitchcock thrillers; you should be able to find one. Then buy a ticket to your nearest multiplex with the latest in digital technology and see for yourself.

Now, I’m betting that you’ll find the latter scratch-free and dust-free, but I’m also betting that you’ll find the former alive in a sense that just cannot be done today.

I talked to a cinematographer during the last Göteborg Film Festival a few weeks ago. He was responsible for the cinematography of the opening feature and understandably anxious about every aspect of film projection before the first show. They had shot the film using digital cameras and we, of course, had just installed the latest in digital projection technology. I thought he would be pleased. Yet, the film production crew was very anxious to screen a 35mm print of the film, rather than a digital copy.


Well, the cinematographer told me that they had added grain to the digital print using a computerised process. This was done in order to simulate the grain inherent in a 35mm print and make the film look more natural and alive, but the problem was that the image was still dead in a way that could never happen on film, not even when the image had been transferred from a digital original.

I screened the 35mm print, of course, and everyone was happy. What’s really interesting, though, is that several other film-makers approached me and the festival with similar opinions and requests. If a 35mm print was available, they much preferred it to a digital copy on a hard disk. Some went to the trouble of producing a 35mm print for the festival only.

Which means, of course, that while film-makers may still consider 35mm superior and make a print for film festivals only, what the audiences now have to get used to is digital technology. They do it to save money, of course. It costs a fortune to make and distribute heavy 35mm prints, requiring skilled projectionists at cinemas instead of low-level ushers clicking on Play.
Not only will the quality be lower but the risk of something going wrong without anyone in the cinema being able to fix the problem will be higher.

Me, I think that this will eventually marginalise cinemas, because that same quality of presentation can be achieved at home, but with the added bonuses of Fast Forward and Pause buttons, cold beverages from the fridge and the ability to share that digital image with others.

What do you think?

Digital Movie Subtitles and XSLT

Turns out that digital movie subtitles are kept in an XML file. There’s time code, a couple of font elements, and there’s a subtitle element that contains the text. ghastly, but I suppose it works.

Well, most of the time. Something had happened with the English subtitles to the festival opening feature, Avalon. A test run revealed that every subtitle was included twice, one set with Font Id “Arial” and another with font Id “Arial0”.

Fixed this with an XSLT script, marking the first time I’ve used XSLT in my work as a projectionist.

Digital Shows, FML and XML

Ran my second DCP show at Draken, earlier. The film is stored and handled by a Dolby server running a modified Debian Linux with XCF as the window manager producing a lightweight interface with only the bare necessities, but very, very functional necessities. There is drag and drop to handle show components, there are ready-made cues, and it’s all reasonably well designed. Every time I use the touchpad/keyboard combo to build or run a show, I’m struck by how similar to my Film Markup Language concepts everything is. I presented my ideas at XML Prague in 2010 but after that, I couldn’t make much headway with the hardware so the project sort of died.

Supposedly, the shows are indeed handled using XML files. I was planning something very much like Dolby’s interface so I’m dying to know if their XML is anything like my DTD. The components are all there so I’m half hoping it is. I bet they don’t use XLink, though.

Digital Images

Draken, the home of the Göteborg International Film Festival and my frequent point of existence, finally got a digital Barco projector and a Dolby server for handling digital features. As you may or may not know, cinemas around the world are moving to digital images while industry icons such as Kodak are crumbling, and in a matter of months or perhaps a year or two, 35mm film projection will only happen in film archives and art houses.

And, perhaps, film festivals. As I write this, only a week remains to the opening night of the 35th annual Göteborg International Film Festival, and at least half of the features I will screen there will be in DCP format. Yesterday, I ran my first all-digital show with the new equipment and today will be the second.

To people like me, this feels like the end. I’m hoping it’s not but I can’t help thinking that as a projectionist, I now belong to the museum together with the 35mm projectors and old cinema sound processors.