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Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Here are some memories of Raoul Coutard, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time.

Raoul Coutard, who photographed some of the most brilliant films of the New Wave, died recently at the age of 92. I don’t like to do obits in this blog, preferring to celebrate the work of the living, yet Coutard’s contribution is simply too significant to ignore. Happily, the colorist Lee Kline has recently published some thoughts about working with Coutard on digital restorations of some of his greatest films on the Criterion website, and here is part of what Kline had to say.

The first time I met Raoul Coutard was in June of 2002. I was in Paris to remaster a few films for Criterion, and one of them was [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Contempt. We had gotten in touch with Coutard and asked him to come in and help us with the color, which he did. He showed up and got right to work. I was awestruck that one of the world’s greatest cinematographers was working with us on what I considered to be one of his masterpieces.

It was not the easiest session for me because I spoke virtually no French and had to rely on people interpreting for me. Coutard worked with the colorist on the color grading: desaturating here, adding a little more contrast there, and bringing Contempt into the digital age with grace and ease.

He was fast, assured, and to the point. Because of the language barrier (or so I thought—more on that later!) we didn’t converse very much, but I got to hear translations of many great stories from the set. I could pretty much understand what he had done from the changes happening on the screen.

A few years later, we asked Coutard to come back in for a few more films. One was Band of Outsiders, and the other one was Costa-Gavras’s Z. We met at Eclair Laboratory, which was in a terrible neighborhood outside of Paris. He didn’t want to go there, and we didn’t want to go there. But Costa-Gavras wanted to go there. We met, and for some reason that I can’t remember, Costa-Gavras couldn’t make it and we had to work on Z without him.

I was with my colleague, who spoke French, and I was telling her that I thought there was something wrong with the color blue that was on the screen, trying to make my case so she could translate to Coutard. He then slowly turned to me and said, ‘What don’t you like about it?’ I was in shock that he never told me he could speak English! Everything then changed, and although his English was limited, I could finally speak directly to him.”

Coutard, famously practical and with a misanthropic streak a mile wide, could be difficult to work with. As recounted in his obituary in The New York Times by William Grimes, Coutard’s “collaboration with Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. ‘Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,’  Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make Passion and First Name: Carmen.

He also had a falling-out with [director François] Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin. The Bride Wore Black (1967) was their last film together. ‘I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,’ Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. ‘I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.’”

But here, readying is work for release in DVD and Blu-ray format, Coutard seems to have struck up a real accord with Kline, and it’s a pleasure to have this glimpse of the gifted artist in his last years, just as cantankerous as ever, yet assiduously making sure that his films made the jump to digital with all their pictorial values intact.

You can read the entire article by clicking here or on the image above.

“Writing on Water”: Digital Cinema Packages, Key Delivery Messages, and the Ephemerality of Digital Cinema

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Click here to view a video on projecting DCPs using KDMs; not so easy, is it?

Val Lewton, the 1940s film producer, once observed that making films was “like writing on water,” since the film medium was so inherently fragile. But that’s nothing compared to the new regime of Digital Cinema Packages.

The latest evidence of this comes from the New York Film Festival, where on September 28, 2012, Brian de Palma was scheduled to present his new film, Passion, to a sold out audience. But there was just one problem; since the movie came as a DCP, or Digital Cinema Package, and not an actual film print, when it came time to screen Passion, no one could unlock the files.

Result: no screening.

As Bob Cashill reported in the web journal Pop Dose, “In what was for me an unprecedented event in my decades of festival going, the screening was cancelled. Why?

Three words: Digital Cinema Package, or DCP.

What is DCP? It’s heralded as the future of cinema projection, but really it’s the present; chances are your local multiplex has gone DCP, as your local independently owned theater or repertory house struggles to find a way to pay for it as celluloid goes up in smoke. The brave new world of digital projection comes with pitfalls, however. Like, if the system malfunctions, and no one can get a grip on what went wrong, you’re [out of luck], as the Film Society of Lincoln Center learned the hard way last night.

If you follow the festival at all you’ve been reading a lot about how Richard Peña, its programming director, is bowing out after 25 years of distinguished service. ‘I bet he wishes he retired last year,’ grumbled a fellow patron as we all exited Alice Tully Hall after more than an hour of waiting.

Peña, who had to keep coming onstage to deliver the worsening news, said that the DCP has been tested without incident minutes before showtime, but minus a code [the KDM, or Key Delivery Message, that] had somehow locked down. Minus someone who could fix the code . . . [and] that was it for the evening.

After a half hour or so of waiting Peña announced that audience members who couldn’t stay could get refunds at the boxoffice. Only 10-15% seemed to. Which was touching; we wanted to see the movie and were willing to put up with the inconvenience . . . But it was out of Peña’s hands, or De Palma’s hands, or any human hands. It was a glitch in the machine, a hiccup in the software. And with that the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival was tainted.”

Here’s what happened.

Once upon a time, when you screened a film at a theater, you took the 35mm print out of the shipping case, threaded it up, checked the aspect ratio, focus, and sound level, and ran the film. If you wanted to do an additional screening for a critic, or add an extra show, you could. If you wanted to switch the movie from one screen to another in your theater, you could. If short, you had the time, and the freedom, to have some measure of control over the projection of the films you screened.

Not anymore.

With digital projection comes a series of encryption codes, called KDMs, which must be used to “unlock” the digital files for projection, often within windows as short as four hours. Switching screens or adding additional shows now has to be cleared with the distributor every time, usually by e-mail. You can’t just pull the film and run it anymore. It has to be approved, and unlocked with a KDM, on a case-by-case basis.

As this excerpt from “Digital Cinema Technology: Frequently Asked Questions” notes, “KDM is the acronym for Key Delivery Message. The security key for each movie is delivered in a unique KDM, one KDM per per digital cinema server. The security key is encrypted within the KDM, which means that the delivery of a KDM to the wrong server or wrong location will not work, and thus such errors cannot compromise the security of the movie.

The KDM is a small file, and is typically emailed to the exhibitor. To create the correct KDM, however, requires knowledge of the digital certificate in the projection system’s media block.

KDMs have only a few [emphasis added] conditions associated with their use:

A KDM will only work for one movie title on one server.

A KDM will only work within the prescribed engagement time period.

To play a movie on two servers requires two KDMs for the movie. This means that to move a movie to a 2nd server requires a 2nd KDM. The engagement time window of the KDM is set per the business requirements of the studio distributing the movie. If your KDM expires and you don’t have a new KDM to continue on the engagement, then you cannot play the movie.”

This is about hegemonic studio control; nothing more, or what theorist Tim Wu refers to as the desire to control “The Master Switch.”

DCPs and KDMs take real authority away from the exhibitor; it’s a hypersurveillance system that comes from the top down, and limits what theater owners can do. Digital projection may have many significant attributes — superior picture and sound, no scratches, clean, crisp images — but now movies don’t really exist unless they’re unlocked by the KDM, and have no portability. This is what the studios want. But I’m not sure it’s good for the public, or critics, or exhibitors — a real measure of discretionary freedom has been lost.

Click here, or on the image at the top of this page, to view a demo video on how the process works.

This is an Orwellian future, nothing less.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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