TIGLFF embraces new technology to improve experience, revolutionize selection process

By : Greg Stemm
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Within just years, new digital technology has revolutionized the way films are screened and chosen for viewing at the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (TIGLFF); and once the film is on the screening schedule, audiences will see it projected through new digital technology that is less than six months old at the historic Tampa Theatre.

“Basically the format used for films and their projection had been the same since the 1930s,” said Gary Dowling, chief projectionist at the Tampa Theatre, who plays host to most of the films presented during TIGLFF. “But just within the past two years there have been enormous changes as film is moved completely to digital formats. In fact, in 2014 the old 35mm format used for decades will be completely phased out. It will be like the transition we saw from VHS tapes to DVDs. Soon no one will be using the old 35mm format at all.”

Old and new: The Tampa Theatre in downtown Tampa has updated its technology to ensure a better viewing experience while maintaining the historic aesthetics of the structure. Photo courtesy Joe Roberts

OLD AND NEW: The Tampa Theatre in downtown Tampa has updated its technology to ensure a better viewing experience while maintaining the historic aesthetics of the structure. Photo courtesy Joe Roberts

In fact, for the first time in its history, TIGLFF won’t accept any 35 mm entries, according to KJ Mohr, program director. It will continue to accept older digital versions such as Blu-Ray or even DVD, although Mohr said even those formats are being used less and less as new formats replace them.

But if 35mm is dead, what’s replacing it?

A basic understanding of the new technology requires an understanding of the building block which is called “Digital Cinema Packaging.” DCP has revolutionized the way film festivals choose films and more importantly how they are projected and seen by the audience. The new format eliminates the need for actual “film” in the traditional sense.
Everything from start to finish is in a digital format that can be easily emailed, viewed online and projected from a specialized hard drive. Most new films are even shot directly to digital video so there is no need for conversion later.

A new selection process
Mohr said that DCP has radically changed the way TIGLFF chooses its films. In the past, distributors would need to send a review copy of the film to organizers. Since the festival is international in scope, there were sometimes issues with foreign postal services being slow or a film would sometimes be damaged when it arrived.

But with DCP, film screeners can go to a number of special websites that host films specifically for review by film festivals. Because the film can be seem directly online there is no need for special projection equipment and reviewers can see the film wherever they are physically as long as they have access to a computer.

“We use sites like Cineanado, Film Movement and Withoutabox.com,” said Mohr. Distributors can even indicate on the site which film festival they would be most interested in screening their films. Screeners are given a “key” or password they enter before viewing the film. Most often the key can only be used once, which helps preclude piracy.

Reviewers can even search for a specific topic, so finding films related to LGBT issues is easier.

Cost savings are realized for everyone from the distributor to the film festival itself. There are no shipping fees and the distributor doesn’t have to worry that the screening copy might get into the wrong hands and be screened illegally. The producer realizes savings because they don’t have to pay for multiple copies of the film to be produced. They just upload the original DCP files to the site and they are ready for review.

Mohr is quick to point out that what the selection committee is seeing is not “streaming” movies that consumers are used to seeing on their computer. By using DCP technology they are viewing the film from original or close to original digital files. There is no denigration caused by transferring the film from one generation to the next. The same can be said once the film arrives at the venue where it will be screened.

Once the film festival choses a film, it contacts the distributor and pays a licensing fee for showing at specific times and dates. The film is placed on a DCP cartridge and sent to the venue.

Clickity clack is history
The familiar “clickity clack” sound of film feeding through a projector is now a thing of the past. Where once there were huge tables where different reels could be laid out flat and there were visual cues on the film to let the projector know it was time to switch from one reel to another, now there is just a specialized hard drive and film is projected directly from it.

“I guess you could said today’s projectors are computers with a lens attached to them,” said Dowling.

When a film that has been selected by TIGLFF arrives at the Tampa Theatre it is mostly likely on a DCP cartridge.
Dowling says the film is then “ingested” by the special hard drive the Tampa Theatre has as part of its equipment. The distributor emails a KDM (a Key Delivery Message). This key allows for the ingested film to be unlocked for the specific time that was arranged for viewing. The film can then only be projected during the time that the key has provided.

If the time expires on the viewing an additional key will be needed to view it at the new time.  This helps preclude any chance of piracy.

Older digital formats like Blu-Ray can also be used on the new projector. While the Theatre has retained its 35mm projection equipment, it is rarely used. Most films still on 35mm are now transferred to digital formats, including classic films like Casablanca or Gone with The Wind .

Dowling said it takes about 45 minutes for the theater’s projector to ingest the film from the cartridge, so there can’t be any last minute changes in the line up without a delay in the projection.

But he did say that if there were six films scheduled for one day, for example, the theater’s staff could ingest all six in advance and enter their keys in for play. Once the time comes for screening, all the projectionist needs to do then is press a button and the film plays directly from the hard drive.

Upgraded experience: TIGLFF viewers will see higher quality video and hear better sound inside the historic Tampa Theatre thanks to an upgrade in film equipment bringing the theater into the digital age. Photo courtesy George Cott

UPGRADED EXPERIENCE: TIGLFF viewers will see higher quality video and hear better sound inside the historic Tampa Theatre thanks to an upgrade in film equipment bringing the theater into the digital age. Photo courtesy George Cott

“It’s simplified my job a lot,” said Dowling, who remembers having to use two different projectors and having to switch back and forth between them, reloading film canisters on one while film was being projected on the other. “You might have seen a small circle appear in the upper corner of film sometimes. This was the cue to the projectionist that it was time to switch reels. With DCP, there’s no need for that.”

There are only four manufacturers of the projection equipment used by the Tampa Theatre and other venues, including mainstream blockbuster cinemas like Muvico and others. The Tampa Theatre’s model is from Christie and it offers features not necessarily available from Sony, Barco or NEC. The new equipment was installed at the historic theater six months ago, and at the same time the Tampa Theatre installed brand new sound equipment so film festival goers this year will experience a whole new set of technology in the delivery of each screening.

“I think film goers this year will notice the amazing clarity of the picture in high definition and the sound quality in our new speakers is amazing,” said Dowling. “There is no chance of there being scratches or dust or other minor damage to the film caused by mechanical wear and tear. The new format dramatically improves quality both in the picture and in the sound.”

Will ‘art’ be impacted?
Both Mohr and Dowling say they were “purists” when it came to a change from the old familiar 35mm format. Both had serious reservations at first about how digital formats might affect the art of film that they both say they have loved for decades.

“I fell in love with film 20 years ago and I admit I fought the change for a long time,” said Mohr. “I didn’t want films to lose the quality and feel they had with 35mm, but the new format has improved so much over even the past two years that coupled with its cost efficiency, its ease of use, and its protection against piracy, I’ve been won over. Now there also seems to be no real discernable difference between DCP and 35mm in terms of quality. The average theater goer won’t see any difference at all, in fact the DCP version often is better.”

“When the DCP format was just coming out it was like watching a soap opera in terms of quality…it was very flat looking,” said Downling, who has been in the film project business for more than 35 years. “But recently the quality has improved enormously and I don’t see a huge difference now between the quality you get from 35mm and what you get with DCP.”

Mohr said there were still a very limited number of films being produced on 35mm, but they were most often classified as “experimental” films or were the kind of deep artsy films that have very limited appeal, even to the most sophisticated movies audiences like those at film festivals.

“We usually didn’t even consider those films for TIGLFF even before the technological changes,” said Mohr. “Our audience is more interested in the genre of the LGBT-made or LGBT-themed movies than pushing the boundaries of film making.”

Technology seems to be impacting virtually every aspect of our lives. Now those attending this year’s Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will benefit from the very latest technological developments in the art and industry of filmmaking and presentation. While the technology has radically changed, what hasn’t is the pure love of film that many will experience as they watch the carefully selected screenings this year.

The Tampa Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival runs Oct. 4-12 with an official opening night party presented by Touch Vodka at The Vault on Friday, Oct. 4 at 10:30 p.m. Other special events surround the nine-day festival. For details, visit TIGLFF.com.

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