DCP: Demanding Conversion Perfected

Steve Seid

Last month, BAM/PFA entered the Jet Age, or is that the Digital Age. After scrimping and saving, we installed a brand-spanking new digital projector. 4K resolution, 33,000 lumens of light, high-frame rate capable: we’re ready for the best and brightest.

First things first: our booth still houses the same much-adored 35mm and 16mm film projectors that have proved to be dependable warhorses over the years. When good 35mm prints are accessible, we’re committed to grabbing them first. We’ve also retained all of our older electronic formats, now known as “legacy” formats, so works originated in earlier electronic media can still be exhibited.

Back to the future: Over the last few years we have seen the precipitous conversion to digital cinema. It was actually inspired by something of an industry cabal that determined a digital standard for exhibition, so the studios (and distributors) could abandon photochemical prints, which in their assessment are damaged by use, deteriorate over time, and are expensive to make and heavy to ship. The new format, DCP (Digital Cinema Package), is somewhat the opposite: it’s infinitely and cheaply reproducible, stable in that it is digital information, and is no heftier than a portable hard drive.

But there are also significant differences between a celluloid print and its digital counterpart, a JPEG 2000 file. Films transferred to digital acquire a new kind of received illumination—it’s no longer simply light passing through a plastic strip but endless bits of information shuttled through a light array. These files are also output with perfect stability whereas film moves through the projector with a perceptible shudder, a fragile physical object making its way through a tolerant pathway.

Of media born: The arguments over digital cinema generally fall into two categories, “films” originated in a digital domain, and those created in a photochemical substrate. The pros and cons: films originated in digital deserve digital for their presentation. Why pretend they belong to an analog past when the surface textures are very much of the present? But it gets messier when you force the past through a digital sieve. Out goes the incandescence of cinemas past, out goes the subliminal agitation of the frame that lets us know we are watching, at that very moment.

One person’s loss is another’s gain: Because of cost, the studios have been slow to convert their back catalogs to digital, but they have been quick to limit access to the surviving prints. This has meant drastically reduced access to older classic titles (as well as the obscure ones we really covet). Though understaffed and underfunded, the archives have tried to step in, making their collection prints more accessible. But this is a temporary fix at best.

Ironically, more and more preservation work is now being done in digital because of the powerful software tools available for image repair. Those films are often reissued as digital cinema, losing some of that patina of the past that marked them as material objects.

You can argue forever about digital difference, about grayscale and black levels, about resolution, about color space, and frame stability, but what’s really at issue is the loss of important cultural objects, vast libraries of aesthetic achievement and the shared stories contained within.

The never-ending story: As the conversion to digital cinema is totalized what will become of those analog objects no longer this week’s popular release? I would rather see them reproduced gloriously in a digital form then lost forever to the disregard of an accountant’s ledger.

At BAM/PFA, enlightenment rides on light, whether analog or digital.