DCP stands for Digital Cinema Package. It functions like a digital film print and is my first choice to exhibit my movies theatrically. At first, this format was out of reach for filmmakers on microbudgets. Even today, the places that will make them for you are, in my opinion, overcharging for it. About a year ago, I had a crime drama playing at festivals. Most were asking for a DCP or blu-ray to screen from. I made a blu-ray that looked perfect on my broadcast monitor, but at the festival, colors were washed out, blacks were elevated, and the projectionist could not figure out how to keep their player from folding my 5.1 mix down into stereo. If you haven’t experienced this sort of thing, and I’m sure you have, it’s a terrific thing to face — after two years of post-production getting the whole damn movie to sing just right, some goofball who couldn’t give a shit about doing their job right mis-projects your movie and is seemingly okay with not doing anything about it.
My understanding of DCPs at the time was that it was developed to remove as many variables as possible, like having a film print, so that color, contrast and audio were “fixed” and would look the same from theater to theater. That sounded good to me so I started investigating my options. And after a month and a half of testing and revising my workflow, I came away with a skill and knowledge that was pretty useful. It wasn’t long before I started offering to make them for friends and fellow filmmakers, charging half the lowest going rate I could find. I whipped up a web site and called it Artisan DCP to emphasize the “hand-crafted” and personalized approach I was taking.
As I was learning to do this, I read/watched all the guides available online. They were good but each had gaps, little “gotchas”, that I would have to dig deeper into to find a solution. So what’s presented here is my personal workflow for creating a DCP and the tools I use to do it.
Nearly all of the films I’m hired to convert are given to me in 1920×1080 HD, usually in some flavor of the ProRes codec in the Rec709 color space, with a 5.1 mix. So that’s the imaginary source file this guide is written for. Lets begin.
These instructions will get you within the Academy spec. So if you ever had the opportunity to qualify for Oscar consideration, you won’t need a revised DCP. Here are the Academy specs:
Framerate: 24fps (not 23.976)
Color Space: XYZ
2K Format: Full Container 2048×1080, Flat (1.85:1) 1998×1080, or Scope (2.39:1) 2048×858
Audio Format: 48kHz uncompressed, 24 bit
Minimum of 3 Audio Channels: Left, Right, Center or 5.1
Audio Channel Mapping (1-6): L,R,C,LFE,Ls,Rs
Encryption: Unencrypted material only
You’ll notice that a 2 channel stereo DCP is not listed. While you can make one, not having a center channel anchoring dialogue to the screen will make you ineligible for an Academy Award… believe it or not.
So what tools will you need? A thing to note upfront is that the cost savings of doing it yourself will be negated if you don’t already own this stuff. This DIY guide makes use of some expensive tools, as well as some free open source ones. Here’s a list of apps you’ll need.
Adobe After Effects
Final Cut Pro, or Media Composer, or Premiere or whatever
Apple Cinema Tools
Ubuntu (Linux OS)
EasyDCP Player (this fucking thing costs nearly $1400)
And last, you’ll need to download this plugin for use in After Effects: DCI Converter. This will give you more control than the built-in XYZ color space conversion in After Effects.
PREP YOUR SOURCE
In the NLE (Non-linear Editor) of your choice, you’ll want to export you movie with at least two seconds of black at the head. It won’t pass a professional QC without it. Export in Apple ProRes is whichever flavor is suitable, for example, if your film was shot on a DSLR, the data rate of ProRes 422 will be more than enough. If you shot and finished your movie with higher quality, you can go all the way up to ProRes 4444.
Now, here’s a quick word about aspect ratio for anyone finishing their movie in “scope” within a 16×9 frame. The theatrical aspect ratio for scope is 2.39:1. It’s not 2.35:1, not 2.40:1. If you finish your movie in anything but 2.39:1 it will not fill the full frame of a scope DCP. You will either have black on the sides (pillarboxing), or top and bottom (letterboxing) depending on which side of 2.39:1 you’re landing on. You do have the option to crop some of the image in order to fill the frame, but many don’t like to do that. So my advice would be to shoot and finish for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio if scope is your thing. Also note, that if you have burned-in subtitles, they cannot go into the black letterbox area of your 16×9 source. This is not like mastering for your television. In a theater, you don’t want to see projected black up on screen. At best, it looks gray and ruins the perceived contrast for the viewer. So treat your image area as the only active area for placing subtitles, credits, etc.
In the next article, we’ll get into converting your picture and audio to be compliant with the DCP format. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.