Almost half of the titles this year will be projected digitally.
31 Jul 2012 - 3:15 PM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2012 - 3:15 PM

Amongst the approximately 250 features screening at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival is Side by Side, an examination of the ongoing and often contentious issue of whether to shoot and screen via digital means of creation or traditional film. Director Chris Kenneally and co-producer/interviewer Keanu Reeves speak to filmmakers and cinematographers who cover the full spectrum of support, from digital advocates such as James Cameron and David Lynch to 35mm true believers like Christopher Nolan.

Last year they were saying that we could have DCP or 35mm, but this year
we’ve just been told there’s no 35mm available, it’s only DCP

But if you were to think that the debate framed in Side by Side (pictured) is merely a theoretical one for an institution such as MIFF you would be wrong. Film festivals are not, by any means, bastions of celluloid, they're undergoing the same transformations in exhibition terms that corporate multiplexes and arthouse independent cinemas are.

MIFF, which begins this Thursday and runs until Sunday 19 August, is now deeply involved in the use of DCP (Digital Cinema Package), placing the format alongside the traditional projectors that have been an integral part of Melbourne's annual film festival for 61 years. According to MIFF's Artistic Director, Michelle Carey, DCP usage has rapidly become a common occurrence: two or three films screened on DCP in 2009, nine in 2010, 22 in 2011, and now 124 in this year's event.

“We don't really have a say in it anymore,” explains Carey, who spends a good part of her year scouting titles at international film festivals and meeting with distributors and sales agents. “Last year they were saying that we could have DCP or 35mm, but this year we've just been told there's no 35mm available, it's only DCP.”

MIFF's first responder in the integration of DCP is Technical Manager Dave Thomas, who has been with the festival since 1984 (or, as he puts it, “I've seen three major changes in technology”). This year, because there are DCP systems waiting in warehouses to be installed as commercial cinemas convert, he's rented the necessary hardware for four MIFF screens

As Thomas explains it, a Digital Cinema Package consists of a projector and a server, which are linked, with the latter having individual hard drives containing the relevant movie attached to them. A typical film would require approximately 200 gigabytes, which necessitates the use of hard drives.

“If you refer to film as analog it means that you can check it last week and you'd have an idea of what might go wrong,” notes Thomas, “but with digital you can check it last week and it still might go wrong tomorrow.”

Like all content delivery systems, DCP has its own advantages and occasional pitfalls. The handful of brands available all work to a uniform set of specifications in terms of lighting strength and 5.1 sound, but exhibitors have to take care to receive and use the digital key, sent as a separate e-mail attachment, that is required to open a DCP film. Some DCP hard drives are time coded, so that the digital key will only work as little 15 minutes before the film's scheduled opening or one-off screening.

“Either the file will load into the server or it won't – you don't always have time to correct it,” says Thomas, who for MIFF is working in projection booths that don't have the online connectivity that is part and parcel of multiplex conversions now. The phrase “key management” is now a familiar one to the generation of projectionists moving from 35mm film to digital files.

For the cinema faithful in the audience, it's a matter of adjusting to the change in image. The digital version of a film might be stronger in terms of definition and detail, but to some it can lack the immersive beauty of its traditional 35mm form.

“I'm someone who has always been very attuned to the aesthetic and looks of a film, and it's like listening to a vinyl record, where I've always loved the pops and the cracks – I've always loved the pops and the cracks in film,” Carey says. “Having said that, a lot of contemporary films being made look incredible on DCP and are perfectly suited to it. I love texture, and I've been trying to get my head around the texture of DCP, and it does wonderful things. But if it's an older film I still prefer to see it on 35mm.”

With cinemas around the world converting en masse, DCP is here to stay. The question is whether as 35mm is mothballed, will the vast archives of celluloid be restored and preserved on the next generation of DCP hard drives? The long term fear is that a dangerously large chunk of cinematic history will unavailable due to obsolete technology, but for now DCP is here to help us see movies, not determine which ones.

“It's like any sort of new technology that comes through,” Michelle Carey points out. “There's a period of adaption, which we're in now, and we'll get through that and be fine.”