Exclusive Interview: Head of Projection at Sundance on the Year 35mm Died
For the first year in Sundance history, there are no films projecting from 35mm prints. What does that mean for independent filmmakers?
It means the DCP is likely here to stay, according to Holden Payne, the Technical Director of Exhibition and Projection of the Sundance Film Festival. If you've had a film play in the festival circuit, you've probably had at least one screening with technical difficulties. Could the continued adoption of DCP mean less gut-wrenching experiences for independent filmmakers when it comes time to project? Payne sat down with No Film School to talk about how films are projected at Sundance 2015, how filmmakers can ensure their master is up to snuff, and what the future holds.
NFS: What are most films at Sundance projecting from? What's the situation like?
Holden Payne: This is actually the first year that we do not have any 35mm in our history. We are showing a 16mm short this year, though a couple of years ago we took 16mm out as an accepted format. We kind of made an exception. It's a hand-painted 16mm short -- I'm spending way too much time to play a 3-minute short, but it was something that I felt compelled to do just because it was a film. We are primarily showing DCP and HD-Cam, and I'm quickly seeing HD-Cam drop off as well. We will not present films in Blu-ray, but we accept it as a backup format and we will only play it if we cannot get the primary format to play. I'm not a fan of Blu-rays just because with 4 layers of optical information, they can get damaged and scratched, thumb-printed. It's just a dicey format that I won't use as a primary format.
NFS: What's your experience with DCP? How's the road been for DCP adoption?
HP: I actually have a pretty good time with DCPs as long as the person that's getting it done actually gets it done by a post house. I would recommend to filmmakers, if you're going to show in a festival, just invest the time and money into your deliverable. Don't have your cousin that can make a DCP in his basement do it. It's going to take his computer a long time and do you really want to risk finding out at your premiere that you have a problem with your sync or your color space that you put it in? For us, we have some providers that we direct people to whether it's Dolby or Fotokem or Light Iron. There's people that are offering our filmmakers a little bit of a discount if they go through them and why risk it being tragic when you can have it be magic?
NFS: Do most, or any, filmmakers come and do a tech check ahead of time?
HP: We have a really stringent inspection process that we inspect everything that comes in. We don't do tech checks for people. We don't have the time. There are only so many hours in a day. But we have a very stringent inspection process that we catch stuff before we get it to the theater and if there's issues with audio or the color space, we'll let the filmmaker know and say, "Hey, you need to address this."
NFS: What's the most common problem with films that are sent in that ends up needing to get fixed on the filmmaker's end?
HP: I would say the biggest problem is subtitles. It's always subtitles. But overall, I think that because it has been the standard for so long; it's not the Wild West when DCI compliance first came out.
NFS: For filmmakers that play other festivals in the festival circuit, in different kinds of theaters or even community venues, would you recommend in that circumstance for filmmakers to come by or do a tech check?
HP: I would say that when you are finishing your film and doing the deliverable, try to get a screening room to see it in. I've been in this industry since the late '90s and I can tell you every festival is stretched for time. I have spent years trying not to do tech checks for filmmakers. It's not that I have anything against it, I just don't have the time. When you're showing 200 films and you open the door, the Philistines march right in. It's just -- there's only so much time in the day and I have always had a really good team and we take a lot of pride in what we do. I have, at times, done it for filmmakers and I've found that most times when there is a problem, it's a problem with the post. My equipment is all aligned -- and that's another thing that we won't do -- we're not going to change the setting on our projectors. We're set to standards.
NFS: At that point, it's too late really to change anything.
HP: Yeah. I'm not going to name the festival, but I used to work for a festival that if they insisted [on a tech check] they were charged for it. And I said they're just basically paying to know that they're either going to have an awesome night or a terrible night.
NFS: I can understand why it would be a lot more beneficial, even for the filmmaker, to get a screening room and watch it ahead of time and try to find problems before the festival.
HP: Yeah. By the time it gets here to Park City, their options are very limited on what they can do, besides getting in touch with their post house back on either coast and trying to get something rushed here. I mean, my inspection team started  days ago. We're looking at stuff right now before anything hits the screen so we can catch it.
NFS: When a filmmaker is in a screening room watching their film, at that point in the process, is there anything you'd recommend they look out for?
HP: Most of the time, I've found that they're most concerned with their color correction. Because if you're in a screening room, it's tuned, it's going to look big. If they've been seeing it in their editing studio, that monitor is going to look so different than it is when it's projected on a screen. It's going to be bigger. You're going to see the flaws that nobody else is going to see, because it's your first time seeing it on a big screen. It's a completely different process than the monitors in an editing studio. Your contrast and colors are going to look like a monitor and then when you throw it out on a screen, it's a projected image. It should be close, but it's never going to be exactly the same. For the people that edit on their retina display laptop, it's definitely going to be different. I think most people that see it for the first time on the big screen are shocked by the way it looks more than it sounds.
This year is the first year in the festival's history that no 35mm's going to be shown. It's kind of a bellwether year, but it's still a beautiful format.
NFS: Shocked horrified or maybe shocked in a good way?
HP: Most of the time, in a good way. There's something magical about seeing something that you made 40-feet tall.
NFS: You alluded to this already a little, but what have been the changes over the years that you've seen in projection, and where do you see the future of film projection going?
HP: I think the DCP is here to stay. For the smaller filmmaker, it hasn't really started to take off yet, but I get a feeling that solid-state drives are going to be a way to go. Solid-state players I'm happy with. I don't want to play something, a ProRes file, off of a computer, because computers sometimes have the 1s and 0s that don't line up and you have to restart and stuff like that. But file-born formats I think -- on the right player. I've experimented with a few decks, but so far I'm not really happy with the user interface. As soon as someone comes up with a GUI interface to run stuff off of solid state drives that is solid and bulletproof, I could see that really being the future of independent filmmakers playing festival circuits. Many player interfaces are a little clunky for the operator side, but it's getting close.
I'm really excited about the new Dolby Vision laser light projectors. Everything I've been hearing from people that have been going to the demos -- it sounds amazeballs. I'm excited for that. 35mm is still going to be around for archive and stuff. It's just -- I used to outfit every one of our theaters, and last year I showed three films on 35mm. Like I said, this year is the first year in the festival's history that no 35mm's going to be shown. It's kind of a bellwether year, but it's still a beautiful format.
Thank you, Holden!
What do you think about the future of DCP for independent filmmakers? Have you had any unsavory experiences projecting your movie in a theater?