Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conversion conversations: Brandon Doherty, projectionist at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Posted By on 09.11.12 at 07:32 AM

One of the uglier logos yet designed for DCP
  • One of the uglier logos yet designed for DCP
In my ongoing look at the conversion from celluloid movie exhibition to DCP (digital cinema package), I recently stopped by the Gene Siskel Film Center to check out its current set-up. The projection booth at the Siskel can accommodate multiple formats—not just film and DCP, but, as head projectionist Brendan Doherty showed me, everything from Quicktime files to old videocassettes. Because the theater built its reputation on diverse programming—which continues to range from silent cinema to new releases and studio productions to avant-garde projects—it doesn't face the same pressure to entirely abandon 35-millimeter projectors that multiplexes do. Of course, converting to new technology poses challenges to everyone, and Doherty was open enough to discuss some of them when giving me a tour of the booth. Our conversation follows the jump.

Brandon Doherty: We're in the process of upgrading our DCP server. We've got a 2K server [in the main theater], but a 4K projector. I'd like to move the 2K server into theater two and do everything 4K in the main. During the last [European Union] Film Festival, we had to rent a DCP server. I'd like to have something permanent [in theater two] because we're starting to reach an issue with the distributors . . .

It would be good to have a pro-res server too. [The current unit] is an alt-content server, which is something you could use at home, like for a Roku player. That's for when an experimental filmmaker or someone renting out the theater brings in a Quicktime movie or something like that; it lets me patch it in [to the regular sound system]. I don't like to let people know that I have this because then they treat their movies like crap. They'll say, "Here's a file you can download . . ." And, no, I'm not projecting that. I view this as something I use in an emergency situation.

At this point, you really need three different servers: a d-cinema server, a pro-res server, and an alt-content [server] that will show Quicktime and things like that.

Ben Sachs: How long has the 4K projector been at the Siskel Center?

Since March, when we had the EU Festival. Normally when we do upgrades, I try to budget it out so we can [replace] everything at once, but it didn't work out that way this year. For now, we're running that projector with the 2K server, but we're in the process of swapping it out.

How long does the installation take?

It doesn't take that long. The harder thing is the budgeting process and the bureaucratic paper trail involved. We actually have a lot of the infrastructure for the server already in place: when we put everything up [to install the new projector], a lot of additional cables were put in. I imagine the physical installation will only take a day or two. The actual work of just putting in a server is not that bad; it's really just a matter of plugging it in.

I see you have the option to run VHS through this.

That's getting phased out, though this gives you a really beautiful picture through VHS. We still have it because at least once a year, we'll host an artist talk where someone wants to present an interview that was shot on that format. And once [University of Chicago professor] Tom Gunning wanted to show something from an old videocassette as part of a lecture he was giving on Videodrome. And I think some School of the Art Institute students are starting to shoot on VHS again—you know, the whole analog mixing, degrading of the image thing . . .

At the Onion City Film Festival this year, I saw some pieces by a Canadian artist, Clint Enns, who created images by putting ice cubes inside a VCR and then running tapes in the machine.

From Cronenbergs Videodrome, a problem that arises with VHS projection
  • From Cronenberg's Videodrome, a problem that arises with VHS projection
What did those look like?

A bit like watercolor paintings.

VHS, man. It's coming back.

I imagine that working for a well-endowed institution like the Film Center means you don't have to worry about paying for equipment upgrades like multiplex projectionists do. There aren't the same stresses over licensing and making deals with distributors. [Patio Theater owner Demetri Kouvalis explained some of these to me a few weeks ago. —ed.]

Yes, we buy our equipment right out so we can do what we want [with it]. When you lease DCP projectors—which is similar to leasing a car—there are restrictions on how you can use them. But since we have such a range of artists and programs, [buying] just works out better for us.

You're in the process of upgrading from 2K equipment to 4K equipment; and I understand there's 8K equipment coming down the pike. I wonder sometimes if the manufacturers of DCP are exploiting a policy of planned obsolescence.

I mean, look at this [35-millimeter] projector from the 1950s. The pedestal's an antique, but it still runs. Still, I can take a 4K file and play it off a 2K server—the manufacturers have instituted a system of backwards-compatibility. So, you can still play [new] files with the older equipment. When they start making 8K or 10K files, you probably won't be able to play those off a 2K server. But I think you'll always be able to work a couple methods back.

I have a feeling that these [units] are going to be nice, sturdy things. They're not going to be like your disposable computer at home, where you buy a Dell [laptop] and you've got to get a new one two or three years later. I mean, look at this CP650 [sound processor]. It was installed 12 years ago. There have been upgrades to it, but the unit itself has lasted.

So your experience with DCP has been positive so far.

Yes, because I've been able to work with the distributors according to some strict rules. Like, whenever we get a DCP, I want it here early so I can watch the whole thing, make sure it plays. If the file's encrypted, I get the key [code] in advance so I can test it . . .

There have been issues with keys and serial numbers. Once I was given the wrong number on a code—it was just a typo, but I couldn't play the movie as a result. So, I went through about two hours of banging my head against the wall with the distributor. They didn't want to admit that they were wrong, I didn't want to admit that I was wrong . . . it turns out I was right, and that was validating . . .

I think the issue is with human error. Like, we had a French DCP recently that created literally four hours of troubleshooting. Nothing would work. The key was ingested [by the system], but our unit just wasn't recognizing the film. It turned out [the distributor] had given me the key for a different hard drive number—same film, but different hard drive. They had shipped the wrong copy to us.

So each hard drive has its own key attached to it?

Each key only works with a certain serial-numbered server. If I didn't have the right key for the drive I'd been given, I'd have to ask someone else to unlock it for me. But a lot of the DCP we get from Europe isn't keyed, neither are a lot of the revival films we get from Hollywood studios. Still, about 50 percent of the DCP we project is keyed, so there are a lot of numbers to keep track of.

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