How Christie, Dolby and the CST Pull Off the Cannes Film Festival Each Year

By J. Sperling Reich | May 31, 2015 8:53 am PDT
Christie Partnership With Cannes Film Festival

Right about now an elite team of half a dozen cinema technicians from Christie are nearly complete undoing all of the hard work they concluded earlier this month when they completed preparations for the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival. Held for two weeks each May in the French Riviera resort town of Cannes, France, the Festival de Cannes is one of the largest, most glamorous and arguably most important film festivals in the world. The films that show in Cannes are usually crafted by world renown aueters, or those well on their way to becoming so.

This year 19 films were screened in competition during its 12 day run, all competing for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize. And those are just a fraction of the titles officially selected to play at Cannes. In 2014 the festival itself had 57 features and 25 short films screening, with an additional 29 features showing in sidebars such as Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight). Then there is the Marché du Film, where over 30,000 professionals from all over the world combed through 960 features hoping to sell or discover their next big hit.

For the ninth consecutive year, Christie Digital assisted the Cannes Film Festival as one of its official technical partners, ensuring the screening of hundreds of titles went off without a hitch. When the company first began working with the festival in 2006 a majority of the titles were screened using 35mm film prints. The ink was still drying on the first versions of the Digital Cinema Initiatives specification and James Cameron’s “Avatar” had not yet jumpstarted the industry’s conversion to digital technology. Christie came along during this critical period and helped the festival transition to digital projection. Over time, the company’s relationship with the festival has grown into what Thierry Frémaux, General Delegate of Cannes, has referred to as “more than a simple partnership”.

Frémaux’s description is actually quite fitting, for the Cannes Film Festival is anything but simple. This year alone Christie is supplying 31 projectors, at least 20 of which had to be brought in especially for the festival. All of the projectors are from the company’s Solaria series with all the big auditoriums getting two separate CP4230 units; one to be used as the primary projector and one for backup. (More on the latter in a moment.) And let’s not leave out all of the devices attached to the Christie projectors such as servers and audio processors (supplied by another festival partner, Dolby).

You would think all these different combinations of digital equipment, some of which is installed only temporarily for the festival, would end up being a recipe for disaster. Not so, says Pascal Gervais, Regional Director of the Netherlands, Belgium, France and North Africa at Christie. “We’ve been doing this now for nine years, so we have it down,” he said during an interview at the International Village outside the Marché du Film. “I mean, it’s still a festival, so there are little moments where it can get a little ‘rock and roll’, but we’ve been doing this at Christie for 86 years, so this kind of situation is in our DNA.”

While Christie is a crucial part of pulling off a festival as large as Cannes, they are actually part of a much larger operation overseen by the Commission Supérieure Technique de l’Image et du Son (CST). Think of the CST as an organization made up of technicians from all areas of cinema and broadcast, charged with making sure all of the audiovisual technologies and innovations in France are of the highest quality. They act as a watchdog over the the industry, especially movie theatres, which they inspect annually to guarantee every screening will have, as their name suggests, superior projection.

For the past 28 years the CST has taken on the monstrous task of managing and supervising all the technical aspects of projecting movies at the Cannes Film Festival, a job that has only become harder with the adoption of digital technology. They bring a small army of experienced technicians, projectionists and laboratory personnel to the festival and handle everything from receiving content in upwards of a dozen formats, including 35mm and digital cinema packages (DCP), validating the accuracy and quality of content, transcoding content when needed, duplicating content, distributing content to the correct venues, ingesting the content onto and making sure it can play back, all while maintaining the equipment required to screen each film.

The number of actual 35mm film prints in the festival and market dropped from ten to two between 2013 and 2014. This year, there may have been only one title screened on film and it may have been 16mm; “Son of Saul“, a Hungarian movie set in a Holocaust concentration camp that wound up winning the runner-up Grand Prix award. During those same years the number of DCPs showing up at the festival and market increased from 808 to 951. The number of films mastered in 2K and 4K has varied, but the Christie CP4230 can switch between either. This was the projector used at all the festival’s major auditoriums including the Grand Théâtre Lumière, Salle Debussy and Salle du Soixantième. This year marked the first time a 4K film was shown at the Cinéma de la Plage, an impromptu theatre setup on a beach along the famous Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes. This milestone was achieved to screen a 4K restoration of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran”.

With so many films being shown digitally – this year Christie was responsible for more than 1,000 screenings in Cannes – the CST spends a great deal of time and effort managing key delivery messages (KDMs) for encrypted DCPs. Producers using KDMs can deliver their titles to the festival with a digital key distribution master (DKDM) and the CST can master the proper KDMs on site or content can arrive with a full set of KDMs. For anyone arriving with their own KDMs, Ciaran Browne, one of Christie’s lead technicians, says he provides the CST with a trusted device list (TDL) with equipment being used at the festival which, in turn, makes its way to producers and distributors with films in the festival.

“If you’re bringing your own keys then we need keys for every single device including spares,” ,” explained Browne. “We also ask for keys to be open for the entire run of the festival so that we can run tech rehearsals and the CST can do their quality assurance on each film.”

More and more, however, titles are being delivered to the festival as unencrypted DCPs. In 2013, 52% of the 310 DCPs used to screen the festival’s official selections were unencrypted and 41% arrived with DKDMs. Browne says he wouldn’t be surprised if the unencrypted number reached 65% this year. “We really encourage producers to give us unencrypted DCPs, because that’s just one less thing that can go wrong,” he said. When questioned about whether Hollywood studios ever bring unencrypted films to show titles such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “Inside Out”, both of which were shown in Cannes this year, Browne laughed and replied, “We don’t even bother asking them, because we know the studios would never let their films go out without keys.”

Even with rigorous validation, quality assurance checks and projection rehearsals snafus still arise at the worst possible moments; in the middle of screenings. Last year a screening of “Life Itself”, a documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert, went dark mid-way through the film for over 30 minutes. At this year’s festival probably the most obvious technical glitch came during the Tuesday evening press screening of “Mountains May Depart” from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke.

Zhangke, whose “A Touch of Sin” won the screenplay prize at Cannes in 2013, sets “Mountains May Depart” in the past (2000), present (2014) and future 2025, interweaves the story of three childhood friends who end up in a love triangle. Two minutes into its first screening, as the first lines of dialogue were spoken in the movie, the French subtitles were displayed off the bottom of the screen. The simultaneous English subtitles were displayed perfectly just below the screen. The film was restarted without delay with the issue resolved. Then, halfway through the two hour movie, an image froze onscreen in red, as the film continued playing on beneath it in an image that hued toward green and blue. One minute later, the image flickered and went back to where the issue first began and the projection progressed without delay or further problems.

Speaking about the “incident” two days later, Jean-Baptiste Hennion, who runs a team of technicians for the CST charged with maintaining all the projection equipment for the festival, detailed what occurred. “The red light channel on the projector froze,” Hennion said. “During the screening we used the spare. We have a spare in the big auditoriums, with a one minute delay between both, so if there is a problem, we just do a change.”

Hennion complimented Browne and the entire Christie team which were in the booth at the Salle Debussy until 5:30 Wednesday morning changing out the faulty light engine in the CP4230 and testing the replacement.

Mountains May Depart Projector Issue at Cannes Film Festival
The red light channel froze during the screening of “Mountains May Depart” (image found online)

As for the earlier hiccup with the subtitles Hennion reported, “This was not a technical problem. It was a 4K projector, and a 4K DCP. When you have a 4K CPL you have to set the playlist as 4K on the server. It doesn’t automatically switch. So if you forget, then it’s upscaling.” That would explain why only a portion of the French subtitles were visible when being projected.

Hennion arrives in Cannes each year with his own package of custom built settings for the Christie projectors he’s been working with for the past nine years. He says he has at least 54 presets which enable the projection team to quickly switch a projector into any display mode whether showing a DCP, a Blu-Ray or even streaming a file from a laptop. As such, Hennion is happy to say digital projection at the Cannes Film Festival has grown much easier over the last five years. “Now when we get the DCP in the booth, we’re sure it’s okay. Because in the lab they verify subtitles, sound, frame rate, everything is okay,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a problem with subtitles, but that’s mostly due to mastering and perhaps all you have to change is CineCanvas or the subtitle engine with Doremi or Dolby.”

Surely there were just as many issues when festival selections were primarily showing on 35mm. I can personally attest to screenings in which reels were shown out of order, a film print became unthreaded or the secondary subtitles simply never worked. This happens so infrequently, given the size of of the festival and number of screenings, that when a problem does arise it immediately becomes part of Cannes lore, allowing longtime attendees to boast about their own scars from the projection mishaps of years long past. It’s all a part of being at the festival really. The longer one has been attending the Cannes Film Festival, the more such stories they have to tell, and thus they must be more veteran.

Yet, as the hard work of Christie, Dolby and the CST at this year’s event certainly attests, Cannes veterans may soon have to find another yardstick to measure their festival seniority.

J. Sperling Reich