Author Archives: Gareth Negus

How I learned to stop worrying and create my own DCPs

Ever since digital projection became the norm, I’ve been trying to crack the problem of finding some decent intros, preferably reasonably priced and personalised to my cinema.  (Here’s one that I used to see every week at the local during my youth.) This used to be pretty easy in the 35mm days – you would order a few reels stating ‘Coming Soon’ or ‘Starts Friday’ or ‘Our Feature Presentation’, use them ’til they got scratched to buggery, then buy replacements.  They were readily available from the likes of Jack Roe or Sound Associates. But with digital – because you only needed to buy them once – the usual suppliers dropped them.

Some online searching led me to a company called Cinitize, who supplied some decent off-the-peg options at not-objectionable prices. (They will also created personalised versions, though these will, unsurprisingly, set you back a lot more.)  This is their pop bulb coming attractions trailer:

One disappointment is that some of their material is a bit American. Not that I blame them, but most of their trails about phones refer to ‘cell phones’ which looks odd to UK audiences, and most just ask you to silence them rather than turn them off, as though those little glowing screens don’t distract anyone. Still, I’ve been using several of their trailers for about a year. But I’ve still been hankering for something that’s a bit more specific to us.

When I discovered that there were free programmes available to create DCP files, I started to wonder – are these easy for the fairly non-technically adept to use? Can I combine these with my 8 year old version of Photoshop and create something that won’t embarrass me if I put it on screen?

I started out by looking for a programme that would let me create a simple animation. I downloaded Blender, but after a quick look it became clear that I was biting off more than I could chew.  So I started simple: trying to create a static slide asking customers to turn off their phones, that I could add to the programme just before the film started.  Jpeg artwork ready, I turned to Open DCP to see if I could convert it.

I couldn’t. However, some more online research led me to DCP Builder, which I’ve found to be rather more user friendly, largely thanks to its simple wizard which leads you through the process. Again, standard Photoshop formats weren’t what was needed – and a single slide, I discovered, leads to something that appears on screen for less than a second.

Finally, I turned to Windows MovieMaker.  It turns out that a single image can be turned into an 8 second unmoving film.  (Who knew?)  This can then be freely converted online into the necessary format for DCP Builder to use.

This was encouraging, but the real breakthrough came when I discovered that you can download lots of royalty-free animated clips ideal for cinema intros, for free – and some music to go with them. Here’s one example which seemed ideal:

OK, I know we don’t use reels or film anymore, but they still say ‘cinema’ better than any of the little zeroes and ones that might represent digital projection.

Sadly, though the backgrounds work fine in moviemaker, the programme didn’t allow me to overlay my venue’s logo.  That can be done, but it looks like I’d have to actually spend some money on a more sophisticated programme, which I was trying to avoid.  So I had to fade into a still image at the end:

I added music to the film, but I discovered that DCP builder doesn’t recognise that – you need to load the music file separately. Unless you want the track to start right at the beginning (I didn’t), this means editing.  Turns out there’s some free stuff that will let you do that too.

With a combination of a free countdown background, free music and a slide of my logo, I ended up with this:

It’s getting there, and with a little more tweaking I have no doubt that I’ll be running my own trails and intros on screen within the next week or so. Whether any members of the audience will notice the difference, I have no idea – but I’ll know.  A more elaborate programme could enhance it – maybe I’ll invest at some point.

And if any cinema operators reading this feel like getting their own versions… well, the stuff I used is all freely available.  Alternatively, I would be delighted to create something for you at a very reasonable price.

Finally, if anyone is still wondering why I bothered with all this, here’s a collection of classics from the past that inspired me.

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is another film indebted to earlier pulp fictions, this time the spaghetti western.  As with much of his work, it has moments of brilliance, is very entertaining in large parts, but is too long and let down by its creator’s self-indulgence.

The film would be vastly improved by cropping its running time by a good twenty minutes or so.  There are only a couple of scenes I’d dump completely (which I’ll come to in a minute) but almost every one could easily be trimmed.  Unfortunately Tarantino seems to have difficulty in killing his babies (Inglourious Basterds suffered from the same problem), and at this point, nobody is going to make him.

Django has been controversial for its copious use of what is referred to, in respectable company, as the n-word; I had no objections to it in context, but then being white and British I suppose it doesn’t carry the same kind of baggage for me.  Nor was I concerned about the violence, of which there are two kinds: the violence perpetrated on slaves by sadistic whites, and the OTT blood bath of the climax.  To be fair to Tarantino, scenes showing the first variety are played straight; one could argue they are exploitative, in that they engage our sympathies and set us up to relish the cathartic slaughter at the end, but I think the director was honestly trying to be responsible in their depiction – and may have been deliberately using the film to educate his audience (through, for example, the lecture on phrenology given by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character).  This could conceivably be the first time some viewers will have seen this period of history depicted in such a manner; if that leads them to investigate this particular noxious facet of America’s past, then that’s surely a good thing.

Tarantino’s determination to be seen to be on the side of the angels is also, I suspect, the motivation for one of the scenes I’d happily cut; a comedy sequence showing an inept troupe of Ku Klux Klansmen struggling to see out of their hoods.  It’s funny, and mocking the KKK is generally worth doing, but it adds nothing to the story and would work better as a DVD extra.

The other scene that needs particular trimming comes late in the movie, and features Tarantino himself in an extended cameo.  Nobody really sees Tarantino as a great actor, and while it’s not his worst performance, it’s a major distraction that takes you out of the film – which was starting to try my patience at that point anyway.  He’s also doing an accent (get you, Meryl Streep, I thought).  Possibly this has allowed him to cross ‘work with John Jarrett’ off his bucket list, but I’m afraid that’s not justification enough.  Let’s give credit where it’s due, though: Eli Roth isn’t in it.

What’s great about the film is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz, the German bounty hunter who frees, then befriends the slave Django (Jamie Foxx).  In fact, I found Waltz’s character arc more interesting than that of Django himself.  The title character, initially barely literate, is introduced to the idea of role playing by Schultz, and takes to it with surprising ease; he is also the one who pushes Schultz to face the fact that his own profession has uncomfortable similarities to the slave trade he despises.  The film suffers when Waltz is off screen for too long, another reason why the last half hour drags.  I also enjoyed Leonardo DiCaprio as the repellent plantation owner Calvin Candie, though it’s a big performance that threatens to smother some of the more serious elements.

But the man who by rights would be collecting an Oscar is Samuel L Jackson, whose work as Stephen, Calvin’s house nigger, is simply extraordinary.  Stephen is a vile character, the worst kind of collaborator, who shifts from obsequious slave to paternal mentor to DiCaprio. He made my skin crawl like few other characters in recent cinema.

Is the film it worth seeing?  Well, for all its flaws, it has vividly stayed with me, so I would have to say yes.  As a movie about slavery, many may find it exploitative and tasteless – but I’d far rather see Tarantino’s slavery movie than another asinine tale of nice white folk curing America of racism (yes, The Help, I mean you).  You can’t think of any other American director who could have made this film – you’d struggle to think of any who would dare even try.

Cinema exhibition and the Picturehouse deal

I was more than a little surprised by this morning’s news that Cineworld have bought the Picturehouses cinema chain and  I’ve spent (slightly too much) time following the reactions on Twitter.  It’s been noticeable how many people have been worried that the deal will negatively affect the ambience and programming of their beloved Picturehouse, changing it into another soulless, grotty, uncared for multiplex – the sort of venue they wouldn’t be seen dead in. What they don’t seem to realise is that this is what made the chain so attractive to Cineworld in the first place.
A quote from Cineworld Chief Executive Stephen Wiener, makes this crystal clear: “This acquisition gives us an opportunity to accelerate our growth by reaching new audiences in a high value and growing part of the market.” The high value part of the market he refers to is not arthouse film buffs as such – that particular market segment is miserably small in the UK – but older cinemagoers. Because though Picturehouses have been described in the press today as an arthouse or independent chain (though I’m unclear how large a chain has to be before it ceases to be independent) they’re really about serving a segment of the audience that doesn’t like multiplexes. That audience may flatter themselves, as they read the reviews in their Friday Guardian or Telegraph, that they are interested in arthouse films, but what did they see last time they went to the pictures? Skyfall, most likely, which is why so many ‘independent’ Picturehouse cinemas have been screening it lately (four of their six London cinemas are still showing it today, and it’s in another five across the country).

So the fear that Picturehouses will suddenly be full of mainstream Hollywood releases (or more full than they are already, in some cases) is probably misplaced – though one wonders what will happen if the chain has a bad year and can’t deliver the returns to the new owners.  But it does mean further consolidation in UK cinema exhibition, around 70% of which is now controlled by Vue, Odeon/UCI, and Cineworld.  So where does that leave arthouse releases that aren’t Great Expectations or The Artist?
Coincidentally, I attended a meeting recently which discussed the BFI’s four year strategy, Film Forever, developed following the axing of the UK Film Council, when the BFI found themselves with responsibility for distributing Lottery funding. One was a meeting of smaller commercial cinema operators; one was a BFI ‘meet the funders’ roadshow.
The BFI are in an interesting, and perhaps slightly uncomfortable position; while the UKFC was always aiming to build a sustainable film industry with an eye on the commercial, the BFI has historically been the home of arthouse filmmakers – the Loachs and Leighs rather than the Ritchies and Loves.  Film Forever contains a lot that I’m in sympathy with.  But it does return to the question of how to grow audiences for specialised film, something that the arthouse exhibition sector (and various funding bodies) have been grappling with for decades.
The UKFC had a crack at stimulating increased specialised exhibition with the Digital Screen Network, but – not to put too fine a point on it – fucked it up (I’ve written in detail about this previously on this blog).  Their central idea – that a good way to increase audiences for arthouse releases is to make them more available, and get them shown in more cinemas – is one that is echoed in Film Forever.  It makes sense in principle – reading about a film that sounds great, only to discover it’s only showing 50+ miles away or won’t reach your town for months, is frustrating.  But the whole if-you-screen-it-they-will-come concept is flawed.  The fact is, while some apparently arthouse releases can and do cross over to a mass audience, plenty more won’t, and shouldn’t be expected to – releasing them on more prints isn’t going to change that.  (The January 2013 issue of Sight & Sound has a good piece by David Locke on this subject.) 
One reason why small releases don’t work in multiplexes is because those venues are profit driven. If a film isn’t pulling the numbers in over the weekend, it comes off.  This works against anything that may need word of mouth to build.  In turn, the customers who do like films of this nature come to regard the multiplexes as places that don’t cater for their tastes, and look elsewhere.  (Like a Picturehouse.) 
But if there’s no business reason for cinemas to book specialised films, one has to wonder if cinemas are even the best place for such release.  There has already been experimentation with release windows on some of these titles (avoiding the usual four month of so gap between a film’s cinema and DVD/VOD release).  The pros and cons of this matter are too wide ranging to go into here, but it’s notable that Curzon/Artificial Eye (who, usefully for them, are a distributor which owns or programmes a number of cinemas) also have an on-demand service that shows their own releases (among others) from the date they hit cinemas.
Much of the commercial sector looks with deep suspicion on anything that looks like public money being used to interfere in the market; I know that some smaller cinema operators view Film Forever as an unwelcome, and indeed uncompetitive, interference in their business.  A number of people at the BFI roadshow, on the other hand, were despairing at the paltry amounts of funding on offer.
I had some sympathy for both positions, believing as I do that artistic and commercial sensibilities can work hand in hand.  Though I was slightly catty about Picturehouse programming above, I understand why they operate the way they do.  But there are reasons why specialised films tend not to work in mainstream cinemas, and why they can work in smaller, more individual venues. Part of it lies in the atmosphere – the design of the foyer, the bar, the attitude of the staff, the choice of snacks on offer can all help a visitor decide whether or not this place is designed for people like them.  But ultimately, the secret is in the programming – one size does not fit all, and the best venues know and understand their audiences.  It’s also why a national film strategy developed and controlled from London may be no use whatsoever to large portions of the country.  That’s why consolidation in the exhibition sector is, in the long term, a bad thing – distributors and audiences alike need truly independent venues, both in the commercial and subsidised sectors. 

You’re nicked! The Sweeney review

Only one week after seeing Cockneys vs Zombies, I found myself watching Cockneys vs Robbers.  Honestly, you wait years for a film with Alan Ford in, then two come along at once.
The original TV series of The Sweeney managed to provide a mix of exciting (and fairly explicit, for the time) violence with relatively gritty plots.  The new film, directed by Nick Love, aims for a similar blend.  In other respects, though, similarities with the original are largely coincidental. Where the TV series dealt in miserable looking backlots and warehouses (it was, let’s remember, the principal source text for Life on Mars) the film treats us to repeated shots of London’s glittering skyline, international banking names prominent on the skyscrapers.
Ray Winstone and Ben Drew step into the shoes of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as Regan and Carter, the aging maverick hard man and his acolyte.  In the film, their partnership is augmented by a team of flying squaddies – Sweeney Toddlers? – who are carefully cast to ensure gender and ethnic diversity.  This allows the viewer to have fun trying to guess which one will die three quarters of the way through the film.  Among them is Hayley Atwell, who is having an affair with Regan; not his smartest move, as she’s married to the internal affairs cop (Steven Mackintosh) currently investigating the Sweeney.
The plot?  Well, there’s a particularly nasty bunch of villains knocking over banks and jewellers; during one such robbery, a customer is shot in the back of the head.  Regan isn’t having that – not on his patch, not while he’s Sweeney – which is the cue for lots of shooting and running around.
Though the TV show was produced in the 1970s, the screenplay feels born of the 1980s.  The generous quantity of macho posturing seems to stem from that decade (Regan’s constant banging on about he’s doing what has to be done might lead the uninitiated to assume he was originally played by Kurt Russell rather than John Thaw), as does the enormous number of bullets strewn around London’s streets.  A foot chase that takes in some very familiar landmarks inevitably brings Heat to mind.   It’s slightly odd seeing an avowedly American-style thriller that incorporates the likes of Trafalgar Square.
The 80s mentality is also manifest in the film’s concern with visual gloss – you certainly can’t imagine the 70s police occupying the vast, gleaming office space enjoyed by the movie Sweeney.  The handheld camera and frenetic chases are more resonant of the Bourne movies (as are the Big Dramatic Strings on the soundtrack), while never, of course, being anywhere near as good.
It’s a slicked-up version of the source material aimed principally at a generation who won’t have heard of, let alone seen, the original series.  (Weirdly, it does quote the series’ best-remembered line, though in a peculiar context – there are clearly no trousers readily available for the arrestee to put on.)  Taken on those terms, The Sweeney certainly delivers the goods.  Whether their evident hope for sequels comes to anything remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Take This Waltz

Actress turned director Sarah Polley’s first feature, Away From Her, surprised many people by focussing on the relationship between two elderly people rather than, as one might expect, characters closer to Polley’s own age.  It earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination for her work as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, and my only quibble with that is that Gordon Pinsent, as her husband, should have been equally recognised.
In Take this Waltz, which she both wrote and directed (Away from Her was based on a story by Alice Munro) Polley focusses on younger characters, but the subject is again a marriage that appears to be in its final stages.  Michelle Williams stars as Margot, who has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years.  Lou is a nice man, their marriage is comfortable, but perhaps too much so; for when Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a work trip, they are immediately attracted to each other.  And when it turns out they are actually neighbours, temptation starts to seem irresistible.
In an early scene between Margot and Daniel on a plane, Margot talks about her paralysing fear of airport connections: she hates being between places, apparently, so much so that she needs to be ferried between planes in a wheelchair.  I was slightly distracted by the big neon sign that said “Metaphor!” flashing persistently in the corner of the screen throughout the exchange… or did I just imagine that?  Anyway, it’s a ham-fisted bit of writing, and thankfully the film does not descend to anything quite so clumsy again, though a few moments come close.  Several of the best scenes play out without dialogue, including a scene of Margot and Lou swimming, a visit to a funfair, and a montage near the end (to Leonard Cohen’s title song) which includes a couple of bits that widened my eyes for a moment.
The best thing about the film is Michelle Williams.  It’s hardly a surprise by now how good she is, but she does a terrific job at making Margot likeable – no mean feat, given some of the character’s behaviour and apparent difficulty with self-awareness.  Rogen is also very good.  The film looks pretty as well, though you wonder how the characters can afford to live in the large houses and apartments they do.
It’s unfortunate that the script sometimes feels the need to spell things out, as the film is far more eloquent when things are left unspoken.  Indeed, the ending is nicely ambiguous – is Margot actually any happier, or has she just managed to distract herself from her underlying problems? While it suffers slightly in comparison to Polley’s previous film as writer/director, this is a romantic drama that pleasingly tries to avoid the pat answers usually found in plots of this nature.




Edinburgh Film Festival: Berberian Sound Studio

Finally, a Powell nominee that looks, feels and, most of all, sounds like an award winner.  Berberian Sound Studio, from Katalin Varga director Peter Strickland, stars Toby Jones as a sound technician recruited to work on a Suspiria-esque Italian horror film in the early 70s. More at home with gentle documentaries about the English countryside than graphic tales of undead witches, Jones soon finds his grip on reality loosening.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in any more detail: it’s essentially a journey into the protagonist’s fracturing psyche.  So while those seeking a traditional narrative may be left frustrated, anyone who wants to see the tools of cinema used to surprising and creative effect can expect a treat.  I was reminded of The Artist by the way sound is used to play with and confound audience expectations, while the sense of menace and disorientation has much in common with David Lynch (I was particularly put in mind of Inland Empire).

Spaghetti horrror buffs may well also be intrigued (it did cross my mind that the film might also turn up at FrightFest); it’s clear Strickland knows his Argento, and while some genre fans might be baffled by the closing scenes, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci films that made a lot less sense.

It’s one of the best films at the Festival, and one which clearly loves film – both as an artform and a physical object.  Highly recommended.

Edinburgh 2012 part III

Let’s start with some nominees for the Michael Powell Award. Life Just Is starts with several characters watching a film on TV. One comments: “That’s 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back”. This is what is known in Film Studies circles as ‘asking for trouble’.
I won’t comment further on the script, as I left about half way through. I took no pleasure in doing so – getting a film made obviously entails a great deal of work, and I generally feel I should at least watch the end result properly before putting the boot in.  But this time I just couldn’t.
He film is a tale of middle youth angst, starring a bunch of twentysomethings. The opening scenes are among the most stilted I’ve seen in years; a group of people sitting awkwardly in a room that, it is painfully obvious, is not where they live in real life (it is absurdly tidy), delivering dialogue with lengthy pauses between each line. It feels like watching an early rehearsal of a fringe play.  Whatever effect director Alex Barrett was aiming for is missed by miles.
It’s not as though he’s lacking in visual sense, though his influences can be a bit obvious; there’s a nice shot that follows one character along a street before circling round in front of him. But this will do him little good if he can’t master shooting dialogue that sounds as though it’s being delivered by actual human beings.
I am something of a sucker for films set in Cuba (even more so than for films set in Edinburgh). You’re pretty much guaranteed stunning locations and a great soundtrack. So John Roberts’ Day of the Flowers, the story of two bickering sisters taking their father’s ashes back to Trinidad, was always going to score some easy points from me.
There’s plenty more to like in the film as well, starting with the cast – Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield as the leads, and Carlos Acosta as the inevitable local romantic interest (the excellent Bryan Dick is sadly left largely on the sidelines). Against that, the plot unfolds in rather predictable fashion. You know Birthistle’s determinedly self-reliant and perpetually right-on character will have her preconceptions challenged, and will learn to accept help from the right sources. You know that she and her more materialistic sibling will fall out before becoming closer; and you know that some family secrets will be unexpectedly revealed (though some of the details here were left a little vague).  It hits all the emotional beats in a fairly effective manner, but that’s not always enough. There are a lot of films in cinemas, and for a release to stand out it generally needs either a massive marketing budget, or to be very, very good.  Day of the Flowers is an entertaining watch,  but the screenplay needed a further polish to raise it above the ‘fine for TV’ level.
Much better is California Solo. Robert Carlyle stars as a former britpop star now living quietly in California, where he works on a farm. Haunted by guilt over the death of his brother, he drinks far too much. When he’s caught driving drunk, an old drugs possession charge leaves him facing deportation.
It’s no surprise that Carlyle is terrific. What’s less expected is the fine screenplay from director Marshall Lewy. Lachlan (Carlyle’s character) has clearly spent a fair chunk of his life acting like a bit of a shit, yet Carlyle gives him the charm and charisma to show why his friends stick with him.
Better yet,the screenplay allows Carlyle to gradually reveal the character without having to spell things out. It makes it’s points about the need to accept and face the past without resorting to easy sentiment, and is all the more moving for it. Highly recommended.
A very different kettle of squid is Grabbers, yet along with California Solo, it’s perhaps the most satisfying film I’ve seen at Edinburgh yet this year. What we have here is essentially the Irish Tremors. It’s not quite as good as Tremors – few films are – but it’s several cuts above your average monster movie.
Something nasty and hungryis emerging from the waters around a tiny Irish island. It drinks blood, bites off heads, lays eggs and thrives in water – and there’s a big storm on the way, which makes things all the tougher for alcoholic Garda cop Richard Coyle and his perky, by-the-book partner Ruth Bradley.
The film looks good, and has impressive creature effects.  The cast is strong – Russell Tovey delivers some top drawer drunk acting – and, most importantly, someone has paid attention to the script, which delivers plenty of laughs. You’re bound to get a chance to see this one, and hopefully in cinemas: it’s a dead cert for FrightFest, and deserves a decent release.