Digital Cinema – How movies are screened these days!

While I was watching “Tiger Zinda Hai” last year ( just the last weekend I mean😃), I found myself sitting just below that strong white flash of light hitting the screen in front of me. That is what got me thinking, what actually was happening in that projection room behind me??

Obviously,  the first thing to strike my grey matter was that “yeh tara, woh tara” song from Swades wherein that rotating reel based projector stops midway and as usual our great Indian hero takes up from there to win everyone’s hearts! But, surely these guys won’t be using such obsolete technology in this era. A little of googling around, and here I am with an exhaustive approach on how movies are shown in theatres nowadays??

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Celluloid – the olden days aka precursor to the digital cinema!

Since the dawn of motion pictures, the movies were shot on celluloid films, which initially used plastic films of 3.5 cms in width and later was replaced by 7 cm and yea, that is what we guys better know as 35 mm and 70 mm respectively. Big canisters containing such reels were transported physically to the theatres by Thursday evening.

This required a lot of manpower and because of this, many theatres in the remote locations used to see late releases of mainstream Bollywood movies. Another drawback regarding this method was that reels used to get degraded after every run due to which quality used to go south in subsequent shows.

Digital Cinema!!

Opposed to the analog formats of celluloid technology, the more popular digital cinema uses digital data formats like MPEG, 2k,4k which we play on our computers.

What history holds on Digital Cinema!

The very first movie to be shot in digital format was “Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of The Clones” in 2002.

And in less than a year in 2003, a Bengali movie called “Nil Nirjane” paved the way for Digital cinemas in India. It was entirely shot in digital format, that’s a different thing that director Subrato Sen had to redo the whole thing on celluloid and movie was shown in original digital format in only a few screens due to lack of infrastructure at that time.

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How does Digital Cinema work??

The feature film has to be shot with the equipment chosen according to the required format. If it is going to be a reel-based approach, specific types of cameras are used which imprint directly on a set of films which are copied after a series of editings. While on the other hand, to present a movie in digital format, directors nowadays use the more advanced cutting-edge equipment.

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Distribution Techniques in Digital Cinema

Once the movies are ready, the next big task is to get it where it is supposed to be – screens! And that is where distribution comes, surely the most important part of cinemas, be it digital cinema or reel based stuff.

Distributors are the companies which work as the middlemen between the production house and the theatre owners (called exhibitors). They have got contracts for every movie with the production houses for the distribution rights which they sell to exhibitors. The most basic contract encompasses rights for one week which is generally extended if the movie is a hit on box office.

Major distributors in India follow one of the following two ways for digital cinema distribution:

  1. Hard drive based transportation.
  2. Satellite-based data relay.

We will break down both of these, one by one.

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The first one says that movies are saved on bulky hard drives called DCP (Digital Cinema Packages) which are transported physically to the locations of the theatres a day prior to or on the day of release.  Generally, these DCP go up to 200 GBs to 300 GBs per movie and contain movies in either 2K or 4K formats. Here is a snapshot of the DCP used for Avatar containing 280 GBs of data onboard.

Digital Cinema - Avatar 3D DCP!
Digital Cinema – Avatar 3D DCP!

Even though the movie is available at the theatre well before the release, it can’t be viewed without the decryption key which is given by the distributor just minutes before the show timings. Yea! The whole data over the physical storage media is encrypted and once the correct sequence of key is keyed in, only then it is possible to view the data.

Such key is provided through a KDM file (Key Delivery Message) and is a separate file for every show. So, if a theatre owner has got a contract of 4 shows per day for one week, he will be provided with 28 different KDM files just before the start of every show.

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Also, to curb the piracy, digital projectors are manufactured in such a way that no data can be copied or duplicated through it.

Next way in line is using a satellite to relay data. The mammoth in this field in India is UFO movies. The movie is received by the VSAT antennas placed over the roof of the movie theatres and is stored in hard drives well before the release time.

Digital Cinema - UFO logo!
Digital Cinema – UFO logo!

The movies, in this case, are shown in MPEG format which is relatively very low-resolution format when compared to 2K of 4K in case of DCPs. A complete movie needs a data relay of about 8 to 10 GBs.

Here also, the data is highly encrypted and correct sequence of the key is to be keyed in to start the show which is divulged by the distributor just before the show starts.

The UFO movies have got an enormous contribution in reviving single screen cinema theatres in India, which were diminishing in face of stiff competition from multiplex chains like PVR Cinemas.Due to data being relayed through the satellite, it’s possible to have the same day release even in remote locations which was earlier not possible.

Projectors used in digital cinema

Obviously, with the advent of digital cinema, old style reel playing infrastructure had to be replaced with more modern digital projectors. As of now, there are only four manufacturers which are providing such projectors and they are Sony, Barco, Christie, and NEC.

Digital Cinema - a digital projector!
Digital Cinema- a digital projector( that silver pipe thing on top is ventilation cooling system, digital projectors heat up pretty quickly owing to big lamps)

These projectors are more like those used in our classrooms and homes only. But the difference is that these have to conform to the requirements of the anti-piracy laws to make sure that nothing gets copied out of the projectors at all.

And finally, when all is done its time for the National Anthem!!

About Ajeet Kumar

This Shraddha Kapoor die-hard fan and software engineer in the making boasts of having an awesome set of coding skills as his forte and likes to be in sync with what seems to be going around when it comes to tech stuff! And yea, this big big big Bollywood buff is all music!

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