Just As I Thought

How to present a film festival with a Mac (cheap)

Many, many, many film festivals — the independent type — project the films from DVD. Either someone must sit in the projection booth and jockey a dozen DVDs, or they are compiled on to one disc.

Here’s what I came up with, at a minimal cost, to handle all projection of DC Shorts 2007.

I meant to write about this last month, but got sidetracked: how to present a film festival with a Mac.
Many, many, many film festivals — the independent type — project the films from DVD. Either someone must sit in the projection booth and jockey a dozen DVDs, or they are compiled on to one disc. This is how I did it for years at DC Shorts. We’d get in 100 films, and I’d make digital copies of all of them and put them all together onto a single disc complete with all the graphics and whatnot, ready to play as a self-contained show.
There are a few drawbacks to this. First, the quality suffers, especially if we received a DVD from the filmmaker in the first place — the film is compressed again from a previously compressed file. Second, all films must be converted to a common format. DVD doesn’t support multiple formats on a disc, such as PAL or HD or whatever. And since we screen in widescreen on a big theater screen, I ended up converting everything to widescreen NTSC video. Since many films are letterboxed, this meant enlarging them to fit the screen, creating a sometimes blurry image.
As an added bonus, DC Shorts is a competition so the last show of the festival is made up of the winners picked earlier in the week. This means a late night burning a last-minute DVD of the final show hours before it is presented.
These issues preyed on my mind for years, until this year’s festival. We had a mandate to present high definition films for 2007, and there was really no way to do this on DVD. That’s when I realized that I’d been preparing for this change for a while by watching video in my living room on a Mac mini computer.
I’ve got a Mac mini connected to my TV, and I store all my music and video on it to watch via Apple’s Front Row software. This seemed like a perfect solution at first, until I discovered that Front Row can’t be automated, and it will only play one video at a time. Not good for a film festival that shows more than a dozen films and video files in a single screening, and has multiple screenings with different content over the space of a week.
Here’s what I came up with, at a minimal cost, to handle all projection of DC Shorts 2007.

Mastering the films
All films were compressed to MPG4 files using Apple’s H.264 codec. They were compressed at the same resolution as they were received — PAL videos remained at PAL sizes and frame rates, HD retained its resolution. This eliminated any problems with motion rendering which usually crop up with a standards conversion.
If a film was letterboxed, it was kept at the resolution it was delivered on. I didn’t enlarge letterboxed films to full height.

We obtained two Apple Mac mini computers. Using the software that is included on the minis with no extra change, I created a completely automated projection system:

Creating the shows
Using Apple’s iTunes software, I imported all the compressed MPG4 files to the library, and then assembled a playlist for each scheduled show. The playlists included every piece of video involved in a show, from “wallpaper” when the theater doors opened to commercials, films, and end credits. Even though the video resolutions and frame rates varied, the Mac automatically enlarges and displays the video in its correct aspect ratio at the full screen resolution of the display it’s connected to (in this case, a high-definition theater projector).

Automating the shows
Automation was of paramount importance this year, because the festival ran for more than a week and I would not be in DC for the entire time. Therefore, it had to run without human intervention. Thankfully, Apple includes “Automator” with every Mac.
I created an Automator workflow that automatically: 1) opened iTunes, 2) set the volume, and 3) played the selected video playlist. Using Apple’s Energy Saver control panel, I set the minis to turn themselves on and off automatically each morning and night.

Scheduling the shows
Again, I used the included software: this time, iCal. Couldn’t be simpler: create a calendar event for each show. The most complicated part of this step is determining the correct time for each show, because although the show starts at, say, 7pm, there is a 20-minute period before that when the theater doors open and “wallpaper” and promos are displayed on the screen. So, the iCal event starts at 6:40.
I set an alarm on each iCal event — the alarm function allows the user to run an Automator workflow as an alarm, so when the alarm went off, it would open an Automator workflow which would take the steps detailed above and run a show.

I was terrified that all this wouldn’t work. But show after show, while I stood there staring in trepidation at the minis, it worked flawlessly. I felt superfluous during the festival, with the minis running all on their own, presenting show after show after show with total reliability and in high definition… no tapes, no DVDs, no muss, no fuss. And the bonus? Because we were presenting using iTunes, we created the “Best of” winners show in less than a minute! I just created a new playlist, dragged in the films I wanted, and that was that.

Long, rambling story, I know, to describe a very simple and effective system. Sorry about that.
Just my contribution to the indie festival community. Try it, you’ll like it.

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