Screening formats (why your film looks bad at festivals)

WE MAKE MOVIES
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By Sam Mestman

SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION: I’m available for hire as an editor, colorist, post super, or consultant.  for more info, go to www.wemakemoviespost.com or email me at sam@wemakemovies.org

Alright, there’s so much you need to know about post these days that it’s difficult to know where to start. BUT, if there’s one thing that usually clarifies things, it’s this: Figure out where you want your movie to end up, and work backward. For example, if your goal is to release your movie yourself and put it in the average Art house theater/have some distributor do it, you will likely need to go back to film or create a 2k/4k DCP file.  Not only that, but you’ll also probably need to purchase E&O insurance, and do all kinds of sound stuff that other people can explain better. This is expensive. You must budget and plan accordingly. You must also find out EXACTLY what the process will be for you to take your movie from the shooting format you chose, and figure out what needs to happen to get back to a film print or Digital master. If you miraculously get interest from a theatrical distributor, they will expect you to have these things, or be able to get them made (and pay for them). Do yourself a favor, be prepared, and do your research before you get to this point. Side note: if you want a good idea of what kind of deliverables are expected of you, check out Jon Reiss’ “Think Outside The Box Office”. It’s all there… or at least enough to give you an idea of what you’ll need to put together.
Most of the time, though, especially in our new distribution era, you will not need any of this crap… in fact, unless you are planning to self release your movie, it is probably not in your best interest to go back to film or even make a DCP file until AFTER you’ve sold your movie because your distributor will likely want changes made to your edit that will be contingent on them picking up your movie… which means you’re going to have pay to go back to remaster all over again, anyway. Unless you got money to burn, you probably can’t afford to do that. So, that said:
FIRST: a rant about screening at film festivals in digital formats:
Quick quiz – what is the universal standard for delivering to and then projecting at a film festival nowadays?
Answer: THERE ISN’T ONE!
If you’re a true indie, you probably didn’t spend a ton of money on your movie (as in, you spent less than a million dollars, and probably A LOT less), and when it comes down to figuring out where to spend your limited funds, spending anywhere from $10-50,000 (depending on how you want to do it) on getting film prints of your movie made to deliver to a festival seems absurd, right? That money needed to be spent on stuff like,oh,say… a camera package, a crew, actors, and locations to shoot at. So, if you can’t get a film print made and project through a typical film projector, there’s some good news and some bad news. Good news: you just saved $10-50,000. Bad news: Your movie will almost definitely look and sound terrible at the festival, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it. Dirty little secret no one talks about is that while nearly all festivals offer digital projection of some kind, the quality of their video projectors tends to be bad/the people they have using the projectors don’t tend to know how to use/calibrate them.
If your movie is not screening at Sundance, or one of the other top tier fests, and you don’t have a film print, expect the worst. Our movie, How I Got Lost, played at about 15 or so these smaller fests, and only ONCE was it truly projected properly (I’ll take a moment to give a shout out to the Leslee and Michael at Dances With Films who run the best festival no one knows about). I’ve seen this movie look Olive green, totally desaturated, have the sound garbled… the list goes on. Usually, though, it’s just projected using a shitty format like digbeta, DVD, or Beta SP. At nearly all the fests we’ve played at, our movie would have looked better on a typical consumer HDTV than on the big screen. When you spend the amount of time that we spent on our movie to make it look and sound the way it ddid when projected properly, it’s hard to explain the feeling to watch it absolutely destroyed on the big screen in front of a room full of people. If you want the real reason why film festivals are quickly becoming irrelevant (outside of the fact that distributors no longer attend or care about them for the most part), it’s the fact that every screening you go to at one of these places is a total disaster, and you almost wish you hadn’t screened the film there, especially when they don’t give you a cut of the ticket sales. So much for the digital age. We’re not quite there yet.
Rant Officially Over. Here’s a list of the typical formats festivals typically screen with, and their pros and cons:

  • DCP File – This will probably become the standard for the top tier fests, which is really annoying, and not good for the indie crowd.  The digital projectors theaters are buying work in an entirely different stratosphere than the average filmmaker has access to called DCI-P3 and require strict, proprietary and borderline ridiculous standards to play back properly. These high end projectors use different color space and gamma settings than typical tv’s or computer monitors (I’m not even going to get into that here… but if you want answers to that kind of thing, google DCI-P3 and prepare for your brain to melt)  and it is a common practice for larger budget movies to do two separate color passes… one for theatrical, and one for the home video market.  Anyway, here’s the major problem with this format: you can’t play the damn file back on your computer to see if it works or not without buying absurdly expensive and clunky software.  And even then, the damn thing won’t look right anyway because it’s all in a different color/gamma space than your computer monitor is.  Why can’t we have a universal standard for all of this already?  Anyway, while you can make one of these on the indie level using an awesome program called Open DCP, it is nearly impossible (or ridiculously expensive) to check your work and see how it looks without going to a theater to test it.  This file format/standard is so stupid and ridiculous, I don’t even know where to start.  However, it’s cheaper than getting a film print made.  And if you want some guidance on the best way to do this on an indie level, check out this article.
  • Film – This was the standard and is gradually being replaced by the DCP file, except in most arthouses who can’t afford to upgrade to the new digital projectors, and are slowly being destroyed and put out of business… but that is another article for another time. If you want a real prayer of your movie projecting properly (provided the theater does a good job maintaining its projectors, and your prints are good), screening a film print is always your best bet. Film projects at roughly a 2k resolution in what is usually a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (this roughly translates to 2048xsomewhere around 1100 digitally), which is a little bigger than full 1080 video (1920×1080), but not much… believe it or not, there’s only a 6% difference from what’s on your screen in a theater to what’s on your screen at home. Also, a shockingly large percentage of projectors in movie theaters, even the digital ones, are designed to play back 2K (more and more often 4K, though) resolution. So, just because a theater offers digital projection doesn’t mean it’s designed to play back your HDV tape or DVD. It’s not.
  • Quicktime file from a laptop – God, it’s so simple.  Why can’t more festivals just do this?  This is the way I wish everything was done, and how we do it for WMM screenings.  The new macbook pros have an HDMI out built into them already (and adapters aren’t all that expensive if you have a different kind of laptop).  Just plug that into a decent projector and screen, and it’ll look great.  Why does this all need to be so damn complicated?  You’ll get a high quality 1080p image that’s only 6 percent smaller than what most theaters are projecting anyway.  And doing it this way guarantees it’ll look the way it looked while you were editing it as opposed to a DCP file.  What’s the problem here?
  • Bluray – This format might single handedly save film festival screenings, if they ever figure out how to project it right. When we screened How I Got Lost on Blu-ray at a few festivals, it was always a total crapshoot. Sometimes it looks pretty good… sometimes we wished we would have screened a digibeta (which tells you how bad the screening was). We’ve seen the aspect ratio totally screwed up (so all the actors look like oompa loompas), and we’ve seen them project it with the colors totally off. Meanwhile, when you watch another film on the same projector that was laid back to digibeta or dvd, everything looks okay (at least color and aspect ratio wise). It’s totally unacceptable. Anyway, in a perfect world, and if done correctly, Blu-ray is a great compromise… it delivers a high quality 1920x1080p picture and a full 5.1 mix (pretty close to film resolution, works perfectly for most HDTV’s, and will deliver an awesome sound experience no matter where you are). It’s also not that expensive to make one if you know what you’re doing (you can get a good blu-ray burner for $250 bucks), and Final Cut Pro gives you the option of making your own (something you couldn’t do in previous versions). At the end of the day, it all comes down to the projector, and how everything is wired. This is where most of the problems come from… and until they figure out a good, inexpensive (so smaller and medium sized festivals can afford it) way to project video on a theater projector… you will continue to feel like Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates every time you see your movie projected in a theater at a festival.
  • HDCAM SR - This is a Sony proprietary tape format that is finally starting to die.  Thank God.   Anyway, It’s a full 1920×1080 and is pretty much as high quality a screener as you can get (for the nerds out there, it delivers a 4:2:2 image, so it isn’t totally uncompressed, not that this really matters for projection… mostly just for color work). You can even lay your high quality, expensive 5.1 mix you worked tirelessly on and paid a bunch of money for, back to it. Tapes are extremely expensive (expect it to run you about $180 bucks for a 90 minute tape), and you’ve got to go to a high end post house to get one made and pay them to lay it back for you (expect this to cost at least $500). Here’s the other problem… no one, outside of post houses, actually has a deck to screen HDCAM SR, as the decks typically run about $100,000. Also, to really see the benefits of this format, you’ve got to have access to a 50-$100,000 video projector (this figure is finally starting to come down, thankfully… in the next year you’ll probably be able to get a great digital projector for around 10-20k)… most festivals don’t have one of these, either. So… end of the day, you make one of these, and you’ll have a really nice looking screener that no one will ever see because it can’t be played back anywhere, and even if it can, the chances of that festival having a nice enough projector for it to matter are nearly nonexistent. Awesome. Thanks Sony.
  • HDCAM - Sony’s baby brother to HDCAM SR, with a few important differences. First, for the nerds out there, your image is compressed down to 3:1:1 color information, and the resolution is scaled down to 1440×1080 (same as HDV). There’s a lot more compression going on in this format than with SR tapes. Believe it or not, a Bluray is probably a higher quality screener, as it will screen at a full 1920×1080 resolution. This format is a little cheaper than its big brother (a 90 minute tape’ll run you about $100), but you’re still going to have to pay probably $500 for your layback, unless you’re making a dub from a higher quality tape you’ve already laid back to.  Also, most of the better festivals offer this as a screening option, so this is currently your best bet as a high quality video tape screener. One major problem with it is that it only has four tracks of audio, which means you can’t lay back a real 5.1 mix to it (you can fake it, but it won’t be the real thing), which means that if your movie is screening in a theater, you likely won’t be able to take full advantage of the nice sound system there (btw, you can do this same sound design trick with a dvd for a hybrid 5.1… ask your sound designer about it) .
  • Digibeta – Used to be the industry standard back when we lived in a standard definition world. Now that most cameras shoot in HD (even the shitty HDV ones), it’s a big step down to screen on digibeta. Not that this prevents more festivals than you would think from having it as their sole screening option. Shooting a RED movie, and then screening it at a real theater on digibeta is like having a bazooka that only shoots .22 bullets. It’s a waste. The specs on Digibeta – 4:2:2 YUV color and a 720×486 (standard definition) image. Here’s why it sucks in a theater… open a 1080p video on your computer and set it to actual size in quicktime player… then pop in a DVD and do the same thing. Notice how much smaller that image is… well, imagine that difference in a movie theater on a screen 30-100 times the size of your computer monitor.
  • Beta SP – Same as digibeta, just worse and cheaper. Don’t use it. If you have to screen in SD, go with Digibeta or DVD, because it’s cheaper to make a DVD than a beta, and it won’t look much better coming off a dvd.
  • DVD – Believe it or not, your image wont look THAT much better on Digibeta or Beta than it will if you just screen on a DVD. DVD’s scratch much easier, though, and are more unreliable… but, if you submit a new one, you shouldn’t have any problems… outside of the fact that you’re screening in a place that is designed for an image that’s MUCH bigger than the image you’re screening with.
Depending on when and where you’re talking to him, Sam Mestman is a Writer/ Director/ Producer/ Editor/ Colorist/ whatever else he’s got to be that day. If you hate this website, you can blame him… it was his idea. He is the founder of We Make Movies, along with Joe Leonard and Tara Samuel. After spending his formative years on the mean streets of suburban New Jersey, he attended the School of Hard Knocks in New York City, graduating with a Masters degree in Street Cred. He lives in LA now. The weather’s nice.

 

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