Standards: the (only?) way to digital cinema
Interview with Angelo D'Alessio,
SMPTE Director - International Sections

They were published last July to a very positive welcome from many professional figures in the cinematographic life cycle: about 190 pages containing the DCI specifications are the basis of work by the SMPTE, which has already written almost 2,000 to date on the definition of the standards. Nonetheless there are those who remain perplexed and those who consider the DCI path risky for European digital cinema, to the advantage of the big American productions. Today we talk to a “defender” (and one of the authors) of the standards, Angelo D’Alessio, who is International Director of SMPTE.

The DCI specifications, published last July, were, as you have often stated, necessary for SMPTE to work towards the definition of standards. What stage has your work reached now?
I’d like to make some preliminary remarks: without standards, a communication system is reduced to a world of islands that fail to communicate.
The important thing is that the DCI specifications consist of data and information analysed and agreed to by components and organisations in the value chain. They are of great value for the cinema industry, as well as the SMPTE standards, that will hopefully be ready by the end of the year. The availability of the DCI specifications thus represents a “demonstration of common interest” by operators who are part of the cinematographic chain, including European operators, and therefore simplifies the SMPTE’s work in defining the standards, which will presumably be ready by the end of 2006.
Only the latter, it is worth remembering, are binding for suppliers of equipment, systems and services.

There are those who fear that the DCI specifications, being qualitatively high, may represent a further obstacle to European productions, to the sole advantage of those from the USA. What is SMPTE’s position on this?
The DCI specifications, like the SMPTE standards, are also the fruit of input from European operators and organisations. Specifications and future standards for digital cinema are not an obstacle but rules that contribute to the quality enjoyed by the most important person in the chain of value: the spectator. Those who respect spectators must try and offer them the best possible quality to enjoy the content, not serve up second-rate sound and vision. Moreover, the standardisation of some processes is not an obstacle but a guarantee and an opportunity for European producers, since it gives them international distribution in a single standardised format with all the surrounding benefits.
However, it is important to note that, from a technical point of view, the DCI specifications and future SMPTE standards regulate the fields of masterisation, distribution and exhibition, but not the means used for filming and acquiring images.

So no ties for the director?
Creators of content for digital cinema are free to use the means they prefer for acquiring images – whether this be S16mm, 35mm, HD cameras or others – according to what they consider to be most functional for narrating and portraying their story. It is in the next phase, when masterising the DSM, DCDM and DCP prints for distribution that an international standard must be respected, as happens today for the 35mm format.

What steps are necessary for digital to become an option that is truly accessible to exhibitors, in Europe?
We must prepare to take strategic action on several fronts. First of all, service centres must be set up in Europe for the work of masterising DSM, DCDM and DCP. At the moment the only facilities of this type that truly correspond to DCI specifications are located in the USA. Without a European management of this work, we shall be dependent on others. “Network Operation Centers” must then be created for digital advertising on the screen, agreeing on plans with the advertising agents. Another decisive step is to draw up effective and efficient plans for the switchover from projection on film to digital cinema. These plans must be analysed and agreed with producers and distributors of content, to guarantee the availability of the latter. In any case, we must prepare for the two systems, film and digital, to exist side by side for some years.
In terms of equipment, it is very important to prepare economic plans, together with suppliers of equipment and systems, that can lead to the purchase of a 2K or 4K “Presentation System” (projector + server), fitted for 3D Stereoscopic, at a cost of between 55 and 65 thousand euro.

At present what seem to you to be the most interesting experiences in digital experimentation in Europe, both in the field of exhibition and in that of production and distribution?
The experiences, both in Europe and internationally, are, indeed, experimental. As such, they are pilot systems and are not interoperable. The servers, for example, will have to be replaced by new ones that respect the standard. “Controlling and Monitoring” systems are almost non-existent at present.
Nonetheless, I’m fairly satisfied with the experimentation going on in Europe, which, by the way, has made an effective contribution to the preparation of the DCI specifications and to the definition of adequate business models.
This experimentation has been followed by schools that, in Europe, have been preparing new professional figures in this sector for some time now.
Distribution, if we take satellite distribution, has provided interesting information on “content security“ (i.e. anti-piracy), on Digital Rights Management and on the true possibilities of this means of distribution, which still have to be improved.
Distribution by physical means has not produced any particular experiences, except for the frequent opportunities for demonstrating the difficulty of managing the different DCP copy formats.

If you had to persuade an exhibitor of the advisability of changing over to digital cinema, what would you say to him?
I would advise him to get ready by drawing up an effective and efficient plan for the changeover, to do a SWOT analysis and not to consider digital cinema as merely a new form of technology. It creates new contexts and new modes for enjoying content and exploiting movie theatres, so the new scenarios must be understood and better films demanded. To sum up: make a start but avoid a false start.

How much does training count for an exhibitor who wants to approach the new technology?
Without standards, a communication system is reduced to a world of islands that fail to communicate.
Without well-trained professional figures, the islands themselves would contain Towers of Babel.

Maria Vittoria Gatti