Friday, 22 March 2013

51st Ann Arbor Film Festival 2013

A view of the audience at the Michigan Theater -
not Opening Night, when it was almost full.

It's over for 2013

The 2013 AAFF was a good one, with record attendance again and a good time had by all.  The tech went very smoothly after I swapped out a mis-behaving hard drive, and for the first time we screened a few DCP features.

A little bit of History

So I'm the Technical Director for the Ann Arbor Film Festival.  I have been since 2006.

In broad terms it means that I make sure the Fest has what it needs to do what it intends to do.  In more practical terms, it means that any movies that are screened as a digital file go through my workflow so they will play properly and be organized for each screening.

4 years ago I made the decision to stop screening physical media (like tape) and to play all the digital movies as digital files, played back directly from a hard drive to the screen.  While I didn't really think it was a big deal, a bunch of other people did.  Apparently I was one of the first people to depend on this technology to such a degree at a film festival (that first year someone that consults with film festivals around the country called me a "Mad Genius"...).

Most festivals that were accepting HD movies at that time insisted that they be provided with an HDCAM tape for the screening.  This is expensive for the filmmaker and expensive for the festival.  The AAFF is an experimental film festival, and so neither party has the resources for HDCAM.

I made the decision to use digital files because it was killing me to have to transfer everything to NTSC Betacam.  We were screening in that format in order to make everything homogenous, but it was still difficult.  Film projectionists are great with film & projectors; not so much with professional video gear.  This is not surprising: they do *film* not video.  Videotape and VCRs are *literally* black boxes to them.  There are none of the visual cues they are used to with film.

So one of the reasons I dislliked doing those transfers was if the source was PAL,  or even worse, HD.   Everything had to fit into the SD NTSC format.  And we were seeing more of both PAL and HD formats.

Since I was using a computer based video system to convert stuff anyway, I thought why not just use that system at the Fest?  Suddenly things got a whole lot easier, and to me it was not really a risk.

So the system we have been using is this:

- MacPro tower, currently 8 core, tons of RAM, eSATA card
- 2-4 TB RAID 0 external eSATA drive, very fast data transfer
- AJA KONA 3 video card with HD/SDI output (also analog audio)
- Final Cut Pro v.7, because this is what the projectionist know how to use

The KONA card does the heavy lifting.  I screen 16:9 movies as 1080 output, and scale 4:3 movies so they are pillarboxed in the 1080 image size.  The KONA does an amazing job of scaling - it's really clean.  We use the analog audio outputs because of how the Michigan Theater currently handles non-sync audio inputs to their movie sound systems.  But it's just fine, and makes other uses of that non-sync input (like mics for starting the show and for Q&A after) easy.

The Michigan Theater has 2 great Christie DS+8K video projectors, which are not quite at the 2K Digital Cinema resolution.  They also have sony CineAlta DCP 4K Digital Cinema projection systems but we have not yet used them at the Fest.  I may try and see what that would take for next year.

This Year (2013)

The Booth and fixing the Screening Room masking drapes.

OK - so what's this?  This is the view behind the screen in the Screening Room, from way up at the top, looking down.  If you look closely you can see Scott Clarke waving down at the bottom: he's just about in the middle of the photo.

We had to go back there to reattach the side masking curtains.  They had come un-moored from their attachment points and were showing white gaps on the sides.

This is what the corners at the top look like.  The pulleys and rope you see are what makes the masking move smoothly in and out as needed for different film sizes.

The top & bottom move together and the sides move together.

This view through the front of the screen with the work light on behind the screen shows how the material is actually full of holes, to allow for sound from the speakers behind the screen to reach the audience unimpeded.

The 3D thing

Here is the mirror setup used to split the beam and the recombine & overlap the 
L&R images on each frame of the film.  This also polarizes the L&R images.

A clearer view. 

Charlotte looking at the alignment. 

With the film going through it.

 From the outside looking in.


Every year for the last few years I've ended up doing a short reel that gets screened with the clear leader film.   Here is my reel for this year, on YouTube.

More later.


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