theater

Make Your Own DCP,
Part I: Specs, Tools &
Prepping Your Source

BACKSTORY

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.

THE SPECS

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)
Compression: JPEG2000
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.

THE TOOLS

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
Adobe Audition
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.

  • Do you have any experience with the new Wraptor DCP functionality built into Premiere CC (2014)? I’m finding very little information online, and am unsure if it will export a fully Academy compliant file. Not that I think anything I’m making is going to win an Oscar any time soon, but I feel like that, at least, will guarantee proper playback on any system one encounters. 🙂

    • I used a trial version of Wraptor a year ago when i was looking for solutions and there were two problems at the time. First, you couldn’t do Flat or Scope DCPs, only what’s called Full Container (2048×1080). Second, it was susceptible to the QuickTime gamma bug so my mid tones were elevated and colors were washed-out. I don’t think there is a way to tell Wraptor what color space your source is. It’s kind of a one-size-fits-all solution. Also, their player is using a LUT to convert XYZ to RGB on the fly that is inaccurate. It makes your image look warner and more contrasty than it really is. The player by EasyDCP is dead-on accurate but costs nearly $1400.

      It looks like they’ve since added functionality to resolve the first issue, but not the second. As for Academy specs, most of them are up to you and how you prep your source, like making sure you have at least three channels of audio (LCR). It will retime your movie to play at 24fps rather than 23.976. And I think you’ll have to scale your 1080p master to 2K before sending it to Wraptor. At least that’s how it was a year ago. But other than that, it looks like it will get you within Academy specs.

      The last obstacle you’ll face is formatting a drive in EXT3 with an in ode setting of 128 and loading the DCP into its root directory. I’ll have instructions on that soon.

      • Interesting. Looks like Adobe licensed Wraptor so it’s now just another export option in the latest release of Premiere (easy!)… but if gamma and color space aren’t accurate, what’s the point? (murph).

        Next up, figuring out the best way to go from Stereo to LCR. 🙂

        • Zak Forsman

          Not saying the conversion isn’t accurate (it probably is), but that the same company’s desktop DCP Player (so you can see what you made) uses an LUT that’s not accurate. So it’s not showing you what your DCP actually looks like.

  • laneo

    I’d love to read the second part (specially the RGB to XYZ conversion using the DCI converter). When are you planning to release it? Thanks a lot.

  • LUCA RICCI

    hey Zak i just got back from the cinema theatre , i have done a commercial 30 sec dcp for a client myself using easy dcp converting via AE , I’m not happy with the colors, they look washed out and i see an abyss difference with the movie trailer they play before and after my work … i used a canon c100 with primes optics , can you tell me why si that is due to the nature for the files ? 8 bit or is something to do with the dcp process? thx a lot luca

  • Joe

    Where is the part two?, I can´t find it.