Danny Jeremiah, AAM's Head of Cinema Products, recently contributed an article to Cinema Technology Magazine about the benefits standards like the SMPTE DCP can present to exhibitors. We have re-posted it here with permission for our readers.
It seems likely that this will be the year where the first territories go 100% SMPTE DCP, for major studio releases at least. But what does this mean for exhibitors?
Near the turn of the 20th century, the nascent film industry was experimenting with all kinds of formats; should they produce a square, rectangular, or even circular image? How could they maximise the use of every inch of their film stock, while still reproducing a detailed enough image? What capabilities did the existing photography industry have that they could re-purpose?
It’s easy to forget that 35mm was once a format that had to be agreed on, and that cinemas today can trace their success back to competing camera and projector manufacturers deciding on a single format in the name of compatibility. In many ways, it was probably more challenging to come to a consensus all those years ago, as we owe 35mm to a single engineer: W. K. L. Dickson, who cut his Eastman 70mm transparent film in half length-ways to double his stock in 1889.
Today, professional organisations like the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) streamline the production of standards by bringing technical experts and key industry figures together at the inception of new technologies, instead of after, as was the case with Mr Dickson.
Even still, ratifying standards is a notoriously time-consuming endeavour, especially when it marks the first major departure from the original set in a hundred years. So, in the interest of enabling a relatively quick roll-out, a temporary solution to ensure the compatibility of digital cinema content was devised- a draft of technical documents called the Interoperable Digital Cinema Package, or Interop DCP for short.
DCPs are a collection of files which make up one or more versions of an advert, a trailer, a feature, or anything else that you might want to play onscreen in a cinema. The Interop DCP specification set out a way to put together that group of files, and served as a guideline by which equipment manufacturers could start releasing products to the market and give exhibitors and studios relative peace of mind that the content they wanted to play would play correctly. As the proposal for what was to become SMPTE DCP, Interop DCP is less fully-featured, and relies in some places on conventions instead of proper standards, which makes it difficult to render certain operations fully machine readable, and therefore fully automated.
"Interop DCP is less fully-featured, and relies in some places on conventions instead of proper standards, which makes it difficult to render certain operations fully machine readable, and therefore fully automated."
So here we are in 2019, a decade later, and North America is finally on the verge of going full-SMPTE DCP. It has faced some resistance because the industry had only just started converting in earnest when it was released, and many exhibitors were tied into VPF deals for years before they could invest in compatible hardware.It would take years to finalise the official SMPTE DCP standard, which was eventually published in 2009. Whilst it was based on the work done for the Interop specification, it isn’t identical and, crucially, isn’t supported by some of the oldest equipment in the field, even with a software update.
Some exhibitors also noted that the most immediate benefit of widespread SMPTE DCP usage went to the studios. For several years, studios have had to master SMPTE DCPs and Interop DCPs for the same titles. If they can stop producing the Interop version, their mastering and distribution costs would decrease.
While that is certainly true, there are also a number of exciting benefits for exhibitors. SMPTE DCPs support key new features, which together present the opportunity to greatly improve the efficiency of exhibitor operations through powerful automations and pave the way for further improvements.
New automation possibilities
Markers are placed at a particular timecode within the composition and can be used to trigger automations like bringing the houselights up when the credits start to roll. This information is currently emailed or shipped separately with the hard-drives, and then entered manually by an operator at each site.
Extended CPL Metadata
Content Title Text is a long, somewhat impenetrable string of numbers, letters and underscores which, when you know what you’re looking for, provides information about a piece of content. Contained in the Content Title Text are details like its aspect ratio, audio format, language, and whether it has subtitles. The trouble with Content Title Text, however, is that it was designed to be human readable. It is also what’s known as a convention, rather than a standard, and as such can’t always be relied on for accuracy.
To achieve a high degree of automation, files need to be machine readable. Software needs to be able to look at a piece of content and know exactly what is contained within it. It does this through meta-data; literally data-about-data.
Whilst Interop DCPs contain some useful metadata, they don’t cover everything the software reading it might need, so we often fall back on unreliable content-title-text or, as a last resort, manual human intervention. The metadata in SMPTE DCPs makes it easier to search for content, and allows software like Theatre Management Systems (TMS) to correctly identify and program content automatically.
This level of accurate automation is essential to cinemas looking to grow without adding unnecessary costs, free up their site staff to pursue customer-centric initiatives, and simplify their operations.
Enabling innovations today, and in the future
High Frame Rate (HFR)
SMPTE DCPs enable the delivery of HFR playback such as 60 or 120 frames per second. HFR hasn’t found its breakout hit yet, but the release of Avatar 2 in 2020 might convince audiences and the industry alike of its merits.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
HDR brings brighter whites, deeper blacks, and a wider colour gamut to cinema screens. HDR has been embraced by the television industry much faster than by cinemas, which could prompt audiences to believe they are getting a better picture at home.
The immersive audio format from Dolby creates three-dimensional sound in theatres through proprietary object-based audio placement and the addition of ceiling-mounted speakers. Atmos has now been installed at over 4,500 screens around the world, indicative of the importance next-generation audio solutions are becoming to exhibitors and audiences alike.
4D seats, as another immersive experience, are gaining popularity in cinemas around the world. Mediamation reported that, in 2018, theatres equipped with MX4D were able to charge an extra $8 per ticket on average, and raised occupancy rates to over 30%. In benefiting from these uplift charges and increased occupancy rates, exhibitors can, however, add another element of complexity to their operations. The movement of the chairs and effects have to be coordinated perfectly with the film onscreen, which is typically handled outside of the TMS today. Using SMPTE DCPs, one day soon those cues could be automated, reducing the number of systems your staff need to be familiar with.
Future-proofing is challenging, but increasingly vital in the digital era, where new technologies could give exhibitors a competitive edge and safeguard their standing against online streaming services. Having hardware, software, and processes nimble enough to capitalise on the latest trends, right as they capture the public’s imagination, is an even more valuable asset than any one new technology.
Proper standards are both resilient and flexible, ensuring that consistency and compatibility can be upheld without creating unnecessary barriers to innovation. The SMPTE DCP standard is a great step forward in the name of scalability and presents the cinema industry with the opportunity to continue building on its long legacy of experimenting with new techniques and technologies.