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To get a ground-level view of the transition, I've been talking to local theater owners, projectionists, and others involved in film exhibition. Last week I spoke with Doug McLaren, head projectionist at the Music Box Theatre since 2009, to get an overview of how the new system works.
Doug showed me around the projection booth of the Music Box's main theater the day after Paul Thomas Anderson brought over his latest film, The Master, for a surprise advance screening. The Music Box makes a point of showing both new and old films, so the theater has no intention of scrapping its 35-millimeter projectors as many of the multiplexes have. With the help of local projection guru James Bond, they've installed a DCP projector directly above the film projectors (as it's set up, the new equipment resembles the sort of overhead unit you might find in the conference room of an office). I was curious how he turned it on, since it stands about ten feet off the ground.
"It's all remote," he said. "It's done through an Ethernet connection, and the projector runs automatically." He took me across the room to the equipment tower that houses the other parts of the system. Standing about eight feet high, it contains drawers for control decks, drives, and sound processor.
Turning on the state-of-the-art processor, Doug explained, "We use the DCP system for film [sound] too. This was made with the anticipation that film's going away, so there's only one input for film, and all these different inputs for various video things. It's like, 'If you really want to show crappy old film, you can, but . . .' So, we're having to use our old cinema processor on certain sound formats and connect it to the DCP processor like a preamp."
Next, he pulled out a couple drawers from the tower and showed me what looked like two laptops. "These are KDM keyboard monitors," he said. "The one on the bottom is our server; it puts us online and controls all communication with the projector." After Doug turned it on, the monitor's screen filled with programming text that was incomprehensible to me. ("This makes me feel like I'm in Hackers," he joked.)
He continued, "Waiting for the system to boot up is the most irritating part [of the process]. It takes about 15 minutes. And that means if you run into a problem and you need to restart the system, you're down for a whole 15 minutes, regardless of any other troubleshooting you have to do." As we waited, Doug showed me the hard drive he was going to run as a demo. Movies on DCP are contained in portable hard drives, each one about the size and shape of a Betamax cassette and metallic all around. They look like unspecified pieces of computer hardware, hardly conjuring romantic associations as film reels do. But the drives fit into the system so obviously that anyone could load them—something you couldn't say about a reel of film.
The upper KDM monitor is as easy to operate. It displays a touchscreen menu with different format options. Just select the appropriate digital file type and aspect ratio, determine a few other variables, and you're good to go. "The system is convenient in that it can project BluRay or HDCAM or whatever," Doug noted. "The projector itself is highly customizable; it allows you to show pretty much any [type of] video in any size you want . . . After that, you turn on the lamp [of the projector], open the douser, and that's all the communication that goes to the projector. I can choose a different color space alignment, but even that's been pretty much standardized. Everything else is done on the server. If I want to change how things look substantially, I'd have to call a technician."
Doug learned the craft of film projection at Cornell University's venerated film society, then worked for three years at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, archiving fragile nitrate prints. I wondered if he misses the nitty-gritty work involved with film projection when he's working with DCP. "There are a couple of different settings [with DCP]," he noted, "different levels of communication that I can have with the projector. I can make it a little brighter and fine-tune the adjustment of the [projector] lens . . . and I guess I can do some damage to the color setting. But there's nothing that's going to make the image feel more real.
"The image [with DCP] is very consistent. The movie is going to look like it did the last time you ran it. The only thing that's going to change is that the lamp bulb is going to die eventually. So over time it's going to get dimmer and dimmer." A flash of old-school projectionist pride materializes. "I know to check on it and change it, and I don't think the kids working at the multiplexes are going to be on top of that. They're probably going to run [the bulbs] over hours, run them until they explode."