January 24, 2015
Sundance 2015

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.

A "bellweather year" for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival when it comes to film projection.Credit: Jonathan Hickerson

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?

Film still from short film "Color Neutral" -- the only film projecting from a 16mm print at Sundance 2015.Credit: Color Neutral

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.

NEXTFEST with Holden Payne, Technical Director of Exhibition & Production of the Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Amanda Edwards for Wire Image

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 [11] 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?     

Your Comment

9 Comments

DCP is a gift to film industry. Can you imagine how hard to ship a couple of dozens of film prints to another country:logistics, customs, registration, taxes. Some customs insist on checking every single roll. It is a pain in the ass, never liked to work with film.

January 26, 2015 at 12:03PM

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Einar Gabbassoff
D&CD at Frame One Studio
1060

To quote "This is Spinal Tap"

Shit sandwich.

That's DCP.

Light doesn't look like light/isn't bright...and sound doesn't sound like sound/is subdued.

Better find something else to do, world.

Maybe painting or photography or something will make a comeback.

Cinema is soon going to be 4D or 5D with moving chairs/ a rollercoaster ride.

January 27, 2015 at 10:20AM

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K
81

Regarding "getting a screening room," is there an issue with doing a test screening, for example, in a screening room in NYC, on that particular projector, and how that compares to the equipment used at a festival such as Sundance? I am a newbie on this stuff, but it seems to me there could still be surprises even if it looked good in the screening room. Or are we assuming that both venues are dialed in to an industry standard and will translate well from one to the other.

January 29, 2015 at 4:39PM

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There is ONE important point about the concept of digital cinema:

All players / projectors need to comply to the DCI specifications and also SMPTE standarts. In that context, as of now, a screening room must at least have a true DCI compliant projection and player solution in place to justify on color and image in general.

If the "screening room" of your post house around the corner is made from a computer as software player along a prosumer HD projector, then its not meeting the specs and its very likely your movie will look different in a DCI compliant projection. However, with careful calibration you can get pretty close and very acceptable results.

However, I really recommend to find a true theater as "screening room" with a full DCI compliant hardware installation, because only then you can be sure your DCP will work on such a system. In fact, even then you might still find a player which moans about your DCP, but that becomes pretty rare, as all vendors constantly update their systems and encoding software.

The main point is not seeing your movie on a calibrated screen in the post house, its more about testing it on a real DCI compliant theater for compliance, including DCP file format, image quality, color reproduction and sound quality.

Many grading suites are well calibrated and can give you a pretty close estimation on how your material will look in the end. However, the DCI theaters are calibrated and should therefor match the specs pretty close. In fact, the color variance between theaters is dramatically better (smaller) than in the old days of 35mm prints, where every day you had a slightly different color soup at the lab.

January 30, 2015 at 5:53AM

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Axel Mertes
CTO / Founder Magna Mana Production Bildbearbeitung GmbH
171

This is great information, Axel. Thanks for adding your expertise!

January 30, 2015 at 2:58PM

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Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

What is the best naming convention for DCP's to alert the projection and tech team at these festivals as to aspect ratio's and sound/subtitle content?

January 29, 2015 at 6:28PM, Edited January 29, 6:28PM

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Gordon Kurowski
Chief Video Engineer (for a film school!)
81

Hi Gordon,

please look at:
http://digitalcinemanamingconvention.com/

There is no "best" naming convention. There is only ONE naming convention and its the one above. All the ISDCF members & regular meeting participants (mine included) work on that concept over the last years. However, in a view years we will hopefully see that convention replaced with full text XML file annotations, but that is not yet finished nor implemented in the players so far.

January 30, 2015 at 5:43AM

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Axel Mertes
CTO / Founder Magna Mana Production Bildbearbeitung GmbH
171

Hi Gordon,

there no "best", but only ONE naming convention to be used in digital cinema. It has been created and is maintained by the ISDCF members and regular meeting participants (including me) and can be found here:

http://digitalcinemanamingconvention.com/

In future this naming convention might eventually become obsolete, when full text XML description becomes fully standardized and gets implemented in the player / TMS systems for the projectionist to use. For the time being, please refer to the above naming convention (and ONLY to this one).

January 30, 2015 at 5:58AM

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Axel Mertes
CTO / Founder Magna Mana Production Bildbearbeitung GmbH
171

I had the pleasure of seeing my short screened from a DCP at two festivals, the Newport Beach Film Festival and DC Shorts. Both were fantastic experiences and validated all the hard work and time I put into the film. I colored my short myself in SpeedGrade on an Apple Cinema Display, and initially I tried to make my own DCP using popular freeware. It's tricky business for technologically minded people, and I'm pretty sure I made a working DCP, but the really tricky part is distribution, which involves a Ext3 formatted linux drive - hard to create properly on a Mac.

I rented a theater and gathered cast and crew on a weekend and was humiliated when my self-made DCP failed. I ended up using SimpleDCP – they even handled distribution to both festivals – and everything worked perfectly.

I agree with Holden Payne - the film did look a bit different than it did on my Apple Cinema Display, but seeing it on a huge screen indeed did make up for that. My film is very dark, and therefore I'm always anxious about how it's going to look at festivals. The DCP experiences delivered both times (and at a test screening I did at a local AMC theater for $100).

My sound was mixed in 5.1 by a professional movie mixer, and I believe he capped the volume to -3 or something that is likely a professional standard. However, my film was quieter than several others I screened with, and I suspect that's because those films were mixed on laptops and normalized to "0". Not sure what the solution is to this issue.

Finally, I was thrilled to be invited to screen at a HollyShorts monthly screening at the Chinese Theater. I thought for sure the screening would be on DCP but the festival requested a digital quicktime file. (In fairness to HollyShorts, their annual festival in the same venue does allow DCPs. For the monthly screenings they're simply cheap and resort to running films themselves off a laptop hooked up to the projector.)

As I was inviting cast and crew (and even friends I hadn't seen in years), I offered to pay for the projectionist myself - over $300 - so I could use my reliable DCP. HollyShorts refused, saying switching between mediums would invite problems. I assured all would look well.

Well, it didn't look well. All of the "dark" films suffered from hideous blue distortion in the shadows - even on faces. And, one of the films "froze" and had to be rerun - just as Holden warns. I was devastated, especially as all of my friends and colleagues paid $15 to attend. I wrote HollyShorts and told them how I felt, but they never had the decency to apologize.

My short screened at another dozen festivals from digital files, and for the ones I attended (3 of them), on the whole the experience didn't live up to the DCP experiences.

I guess I'm saying DCPs rock. Just spend a $100 at a local theater and screen your DCP and then you'll have a good idea what to expect.

January 31, 2015 at 10:59AM

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