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February 2020 - SMPTE DCP Goes Global

February 29, 2020

Cathy Huis in ‘t veld-Esser chuckles at the question—are we approaching a day when electronic delivery of digital cinema product will be truly global and seamless everywhere?

“The studios would love that,” says Huis in ‘t veld-Esser, longtime CTO of European digital cinema logistics company Gofilex. “If they could have a button on their desk and release their new movie to all the cinemas in the world in a common standard so we don’t have any operational problems in the cinemas by pressing that button—that would be their dream. All cinemas would be able to ingest the package and play it out without any problems. Some countries have gotten really far into this, but for the whole world? That remains a big wish.” 

Indeed, satellite delivery and, in some cases, hard drives remain major factors in digital cinema delivery systems in certain places in the world. Nevertheless, a major leap down a more seamless road using internet delivery is currently underway, she adds, as the rollout of the SMPTE DCP (Digital Cinema Package) standard as a universal digital cinema format based on open standards has recently picked up steam by allowing more cinemas in more international territories to migrate their infrastructures away from the traditional Interop DCP and into the SMPTE DCP’s domain.

The SMPTE DCP is not new—the standard was published some 10 years ago. But getting the global cinema community to accept it as a new and better method of transmitting, receiving, ingesting, and then playing back motion pictures on digital playback servers and projectors, and evolving their infrastructures to be able to do so has been an ongoing industry initiative. Essentially, the SMPTE DCP is built upon the Interop DCP, but with further enhancements and explicitly defined constraints. The specification is published as a formal suite of standards by SMPTE under the 21DC Technology Committee. 

Huis in ‘t veld-Esser’s company, Gofilex, has been around long enough to see the industry transition from the delivery of film canisters to the Interop DCP and now the SMPTE DCP, and has participated in the testing and transition process in several European regions along the way. According to her, electronic delivery generally has revolutionized global distribution because “it allows control until the end of the process, including 24/7 delivery around the clock, an overall view of what is going to be sent to you in the future, knowledge of the status of your deliveries at any moment, and much more.”

But the SMPTE DCP now takes the revolution a step further, she adds. In terms of nuanced technical details, the SMPTE DCP utilizes new metadata, markers, picture and audio MXF track files and new subtitle MXF track files. But in terms of the big picture, Huis in ‘t veld-Esser emphasizes that the real advantage of a SMPTE DCP is that it offers content creators “a better way to master a feature, with more flexibility than the Interop.”

“In a film, there are always different files for the video,” she elaborates. “For each reel, there is a separate video picture. For each bit of audio belonging to that reel, there is also a separate file, and for the subtitles, there are, again, separate files. If you look at an Interop DCP, you will always see a composition playlist—several reels with pictures, audio per reel, and separate subtitles. The SMPTE DCP uses the same setup but with the new metadata and markers and tracking coders. And that means the big advantage is we can send more information in a single SMPTE DCP, which can be used seamlessly by servers in a cinema for more automated delivery. In terms of information, triggers for such events are not in the Interop, but are in the SMPTE DCP.”

This wide support of features makes life “much less complicated” for the exhibitor, she adds. But the advantages are even greater for content creators and studios/distributors because they can now master into their product more, if not all, of the recent technical picture and audio enhancements that have been revolutionizing the film industry if they so desire. 

This means the SMPTE DCP can carry, without needing a range of separate masters, required information to display a higher dynamic range picture, such as Dolby Vision; multi-screen presentations; higher frame rates; immersive audio; support for wrapping and encrypting subtitle MXF track files and server or projector rendered timed text 3D subtitles; and much more. 

In other words, the SMPTE DCP is a far more reliable and interoperable method of electronically transmitting motion picture files to cinemas. 

But how is the global migration to the SMPTE DCP working out thus far? After all, on the one hand, the standard was published about a decade ago. On the other hand, that was around the same time the industry was first becoming comfortable with shifting from hard drives and, in some cases, satellite delivery to electronic delivery of Interop DCP’s to begin with. 

Indeed, testing around much of the world to see how well the SMPTE DCP can work in different markets only began in earnest around 2015, according to Huis in ‘t veld-Esser, when the SMPTE DCP Migration Project was launched with support from the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF), a non-profit volunteer organization of technical specialists established to examine the key issues involved with Europe’s transition to digital cinema, and funding from the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC), an international exhibitors trade association. The SMPTE DCP Migration project website, among other things, monitors which nations around the globe are, or are not, currently SMPTE ready.

Other organizations, such as the InterSociety Digital Cinema Forum (ISDCF), an industry consortium of digital cinema companies, studios, and manufacturers, are also active in helping to facilitate the transition. 

Huis in ‘t veld-Esser says the testing process across the world is ongoing, with North America largely entirely configured for SMPTE DCP, but with Latin America and Asia still very much in a transition phase. Europe, meanwhile, has numerous territories in various states of readiness. 

“At present in Europe, there are still a couple countries that do not have any SMPTE at all,” she says. “That is particularly true in the East of Europe, the Balkan countries, Greece and Cypress. Portugal is still testing, as are countries like Italy and Russia. The United Kingdom has been testing since 2018 in close cooperation with the UK Cinema Association (UKCA) and is now considered to be SMPTE ready. Countries like Germany, Austria, Iceland, the Baltic countries, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Poland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands are also SMPTE ready and rarely use the Interop anymore.”

Still, the global effort will remain, for some time, a work in progress. Among other developments, over time, the SMPTE DCP has advanced into four increasingly sophisticated categories of available feature sets—SMPTE A, SMPTE B, SMPTE C, and SMPTE D. How efficiently the world’s cinemas keep pace with this ongoing transition also largely depends on “commercial interests,” Huis in ‘t veld-Esser relates. 

“The difference between SMPTE A and SMPTE B is that SMPTE A is basically the equivalent of Interop, just formulated and structured in compliance with the SMPTE standards,” she explains. “It is also referred to as a base DCP as it does not include markers, metadata, MCA or rating information.

“SMPTE B has two sub-categories—v2.0, which includes CPL metadata, complete markers and rating information; and v2.1, which includes all of the above with the addition of multi-channel audio (MCA) sub-descriptors. This latter sub-category is what is being distributed today, and it is officially referred to as SMPTE DCP—Application Profile Bv2.1.

“Now, SMPTE Bv2.1 can deliver 3D subtitle files separately so they do not have to be burned in, and you won’t need separate [mastered] versions anymore. But due to technical issues, we still need these separate versions. SMPTE C and SMPTE D merely add TKR [theater key retrieval] and reflect different implementations and reliance on MCA.

“So it really depends on the technology of the moment. Even with SMPTE Bv2.1, the difficulty is still the 3D, because if you want to render subtitles in a 3D image, you need faster cinema projectors and servers. That is the main reason we are actually stuck right now at SMPTE B, because many cinema servers do not have that capability yet. So that is about hardware—extra CPU and memory and things.”

Which begs the question, how is the global migration getting paid for, an issue that directly impacts how soon and how efficiently the industry will fully make this transition. 

“SMPTE DCP offers the advantage that you can have one DCP with all the new technology inside of it, so of course, there are not only the technical benefits for studios,” Huis in ‘t veld-Esser says. “There are other benefits, like quicker time to market, costs, and so on with SMPTE DCP mastering. As an example, when they release a big new film into a market like The Netherlands, where I am from, they used to have to make multiple versions, which involves extra effort, time, delivery costs, and ingest issues—just for one small market. So the studios are now pursuing SMPTE DCP for more than just the obvious mastering benefits.

“On the other end, the manufacturers of cinema servers are also interested because, in Europe anyway, we are now 10 or 11 years into [original digital cinema equipment]. Obviously, they have good reasons to sell new equipment, and they can use SMPTE DCP as that reason to get cinema owners to change equipment. If they want to avail themselves of all feature sets available, cinemas will invest in the latest up-to-date server implementations.

“But for the cinema owner, the exhibitor, it is different. The big advantage to them is the ability to automate based on the DCP content. But a lot of them are saying, we already have things running well, why [go to the expense] right now? This will take a long time to sort out for that reason, but over time, you will see the exhibitors investing in the new equipment also because they want to have unique selling points for customers. They want to have Dolby Vision and 4DX motion seats and all those things to be different, and hopefully attract more audience. But it will take time.”

For more insight into the rollout, impact, and potential of the SMPTE DCP, check out these articles from Cinema Tech Today and Digital Cinema Report.

News Briefs

New Video Compression Scheme Unveiled

A recent announcement from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) reported that UCI computer scientists and colleagues from Disney Research have developed what they are calling “a new artificial intelligence-enhanced video compression model” that potentially could compete against established video compression schemes. Project researchers first showed an early version of their new compression model at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems in December 2019. UCI and a TV Technology report say the model featured less distortion and “significantly smaller bits-per-pixel rates than classical coding-decoding algorithms, such as H.265, when trained on specialized video content, and achieved comparable results on downscaled, publically available YouTube videos.” The TV Technology report adds that the new compression model is able to downscale video dimensions using what is called “a variational autoencoder”—basically a neural network that processes each video frame in a sequence that leads to “a condensed array of numbers—and then the autoencoder undoes the operation so that the array contains sufficient information to restore the video frame.”

DOJ Pondering Tech Industry Liability

A recent Washington Post article reported that Attorney General William Barr is considering pushing for major changes to a key federal law, known as Section 230, which has typically spared technology companies from liability for content posted by their users. The article says that Barr blasted Silicon Valley companies in a recent speech and it states that there is a growing movement that feels “federal safeguards that helped incubate the Internet have become hindrances, preventing law enforcement and aggrieved users from obtaining justice when people are harmed.” Major tech companies like Facebook, Google, and others have been opposing such a move, but recent developments ranging from hate speech to sexual exploitation to gun and drug sales, fake medical cures, and potential election interference have all pushed this issue to the forefront. The article emphasized that Barr has not made a final decision on such a move, but did state that the Justice Department’s examination of Section 230 is part of a larger, ongoing examination of major technology companies and their influence.

Studios Weigh in on Google vs. Oracle

The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that most major Hollywood studios, in their capacities as members of the Motion Picture Association (MPA), have now officially weighed in on one of the most important copyright legal disputes in history—the Supreme Court battle between Google and Oracle, developer of the Java software programming platform, over Google’s original use of Java declaring code in its Android mobile device operating system. According to the article, every member of the Association except new member Netflix filed an amicus brief in the case, promoting a protectionist stance. Oracle is seeking $9 billion in damages from Google in the ongoing dispute, saying its library of prewritten implementation code was reused by Google for its Android application without permission, meaning Oracle is seeking protection in all aspects of how Java is organized, with support from all the Hollywood studios except Netflix, while Google is claiming an exception for certain types of software applications. The article suggests the final Supreme Court decision could impact Hollywood because it could change copyright precedent law, and also determine if use of a software interface can or can’t be considered a “fair use” of copyright. You can read the amicus brief from the studios here.

Tag(s): DCP , Newswatch

Michael Goldman

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