ISDCF has focused on SMPTE DCP testing for the past two years through a series of Plugests, where interoperability and performance has been observed. Plugfest testing has been a success, in that the degree of interoperability and performance now observed on a wide variety of product is fairly consistent. DCI testing also guarantees some level of interoperability, but, surprisingly, not enough to guarantee the absence of problems.
Support for ST0429-2 Annex A audio, for example, which in simple terms means labeled 5.1 and 7.1 sound formats, is not guaranteed, as DCI doesn’t test to this specification. Not included in the specification, but a required behavior to be of use in the field, is for the media block to route the channels to the correct audio output. If the routing is wrong, then sounds could appear in the wrong place in the auditorium. Fortunately, 5.1 audio will survive such a failure. Which is a point to keep in mind for those with 7.1 auditoriums.
The question this month was whether the industry is now ready for SMPTE DCP distribution. Unlike the cowboy days when digital cinema was first rolled out, when dark screens caused anguish but did not destroy businesses, the movie industry now relies on its digital screens for its revenue. ISDCF this month decided that the answer to this question is yes. That decision won’t stop Plugfest testing, as there’s remains room for improvement. But after some discussion, the group felt it now safe to distribute SMPTE DCP content.
It would be foolish, however, to bet a movie on it. The recommendation is for studios to first release trailers in the format. Hopefully not both Interop and SMPTE DCP in the same package, as that won’t prove anything. Any projectionist with skills would load the composition that played correctly, and consider the problem solved. Rather, studios should distribute at least one trailer only in SMPTE DCP format. If the trailer doesn’t play, then it’ll generate a complaint, providing an opportunity to fix the problem.
There are factors that are accelerating the desire to distribute in SMPTE DCP. If the industry is to continue with Interop, then the specification must be upgraded to support higher frame rates and TKR. This, in turn, means upgrading all of the servers in the field. Studios would rather see the upgrade effort focus on bringing equipment in the field up to the DCI specification. While all manufacturers have versions of product now listed as DCI Compliant, very little of it is in the field. A major upgrade effort is required, with many makes of equipment now required to upgrade hardware, as well. A requirement to also upgrade Interop DCP would become a major distraction, and likely delay this goal.
Implicit in this is that the 48 fps per eye 3-D version of Hobbit will be released in SMPTE DCP. Given that the first trailer in this format will appear in theatres in a few months, that doesn’t leave much time to mess around. Expect Warner to become the first to start testing systems in the field with trailers, perhaps very soon.
ISDCF also considered the case of delivering HI (Hearing Impaired) audio channels with movies. With film systems, HI was originated in the sound processor by mixing left, center, and right channels with an emphasis on dialog. SMPTE standards allow the HI channel to be included in the original sound track, and inserted in the DCP. The problem now occurring is that new assistive listening products are being designed to follow SMPTE standards, and some studios continue to follow the practice of film sound, where they didn’t have to deliver it. The result is no HI sound in the auditorium. Not a good result, given that an ADA ruling requires cinemas to provide it. After a surprisingly careful review by the group, ISDCF concluded that the right approach is to deliver HI in the DCP. Hopefully, that sets the tone for studios to better support it.
Once SMPTE DCP is in the field and working, what will ISDCF occupy itself with? It’s unlikely that the industry will be without problems to solve, and when there are problems, ISDCF is the place to take them. As long as Jerry Pierce, its chairperson, is willing, the group will likely continue, albeit with a more infrequent meeting schedule. A new schedule could begin as early as this summer.