A few years ago, a local members-only golf club here in Jackson, WY started having occasional movie screenings followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. This started because one of the members, a film producer specializing in documentaries, approached the club owners with the idea. It’s been a hit with the club’s patrons and last year we were invited to premiere The Art of Flight, after which we had a Q&A with director Curt Morgan and snowboarder/star Travis Rice. A few months later I attended a screening of Under African Skies, which is a really cool documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s Graceland in South Africa during the final throes of Apartheid.
Unfortunately, most of the screenings have not gone perfectly. The screenings are presented on Blu-Ray and most of them have skipped during playback. The club has tried different players, but to no avail. Even during our screening of The Art of Flight, I used my own personal Blu-Ray of the film, which I’ve never had an issue with, on a $500 Oppo Blu-Ray Player that has played flawlessly at over 100 events, and it skipped.
After that screening, the manager asked me about other options so they could avoid skipping Blu-Rays. The pauses are so jarring that they were thinking about canceling the filmmaker series altogether. One film in particular skipped 8 times. So understandably, they had reached their limit.
What About ProRes?
Now, since this is a blog for film producers, you’re probably asking yourself, Hansen, why didn’t you just play a ProRes of the film? Good question. Have you ever had Final Cut Pro (or any other NLE) play for 2 hours straight without stopping or dropping a frame? It’s incredibly hard. In my experience from previous attempts at having Final Cut Pro run playback for screenings, it will randomly stop for no apparent reason at least half the time. It’s a computer. You can’t tell it to not do anything else and just play the video. Computers are always trying to do random things, any one of which could stop playback. Just playing a file in Quicktime or any other playback software isn’t an option because they don’t prioritize the frame rate, which can look like crap on-screen if the player is constantly dropping frames and possibly falling out of sync. Way too many lower tier film festivals do this – playing a Quicktime on a laptop connected to a projector – and they need to stop.
The next solution is to use a dedicated playback device. For the tour of The Art of Flight, we had a AJA Ki Pro running as backup to our cinema server. It contained a ProRes Stereo (LtRt) version of the film. It was a pain creating and testing and creating and testing the files to work on that device. It also didn’t support multi-channel output without an HD-SDI to AES breakout box. Which would add unnecessary expense for the golf club to integrate as all the screened films have 5.1 audio. For similar reasons, HDCAM is out. Next, we tried the Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro, which can play ProRes files with multi-channel output over HDMI. But after a short period of testing and a call to BMD tech support, we were told that the unit was designed to only play back ProRes files it creates. It can’t play back ProRes files created elsewhere. Well, it can play some files, but there’s no rhyme or reason to which ones work. It would have been nice if that information was on BMD’s website. BMD needs to fix this. Even if it did work, further testing showed that the Pioneer Elite 7.1 Receiver in the club screening room couldn’t handle multi-channel HDMI unless it was encoded as Dolby or DTS. Some 7.1 receivers can handle multi-channel uncompressed audio, such as the Denon 7.1 receiver in the Brain Farm screening room, but some can’t. Either way, ProRes was out.
So then I thought, let’s just do what I do at home. I now have my entire DVD and Blu-Ray collection on a hard drive for playback on my Apple TV. For Blu-Rays, I rip them with MakeMKV, and then compress them with Handbrake for playback on the Apple TV at 1080p. The compression is a bit more than I would use for a screening, so I decided to try to find a playback device that can play MKV files.
What’s an MKV file?
MKV is a container format. Its contents can be any audio or video file at any quality. The cool thing about MakeMKV is that it takes the original video files (usually .264 which is the AVC/H.264 codec that most Blu-Rays currently use) and audio files (usually Dolby .ac3 because most MKV players can’t handle Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD files) and puts them into the MKV container. There’s no transcoding or recompression and therefore no change in quality. MKV is a Blu-Ray that doesn’t skip!
WD TV Live Hub
It combines the streaming capabilities of the Apple TV and Roku, but adds an internal hard drive and can play the all important MKV files, along with many others. It’s a pretty impressive swiss army knife with a less than impressive interface (more on that in an upcoming review).
Making an MKV File
Method 1: From a Blu-Ray disc
– Use MakeMKV
– Select the audio files you want. The Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD files are unchecked by default and the 5.1 “core” files remain checked. Keep these settings as the WD player can’t deal with DTS-HD or TrueHD.
– Leave the subtitles checked, which is the default. To be honest, I haven’t tested the WD player with subtitles…
– Export. Then copy the MKV to the WD player. You’ll need to use an NTFS formatted drive otherwise the WD player can’t see it. ExFAT doesn’t work. If you’re using a Mac, you will need something like Paragon NTFS for Mac to write to an NTFS drive.
Method 2: From Blu-Ray source files.
This method only works if you have access to the original .264 video and .ac3 audio files created for the Blu-Ray replication/duplication process. Since these screenings are put on by the film producers themselves, we have access to these files. If you’re running the screenings for a film festival, this is the method you will want to use. Using these files and bypassing the Blu-Ray disc itself eliminates the possibility of a scratched disc. If you have to use Blu-Ray as your source, ask for multiple discs in case one is scratched or otherwise damaged.
– use MKVtoolnix
– Add the .264 and .ac3 files
– Merge. Then copy the MKV file to the WD player
– Pop some corn. Add butter. Enjoy!
The screening of RUSH went flawlessly. A few weeks later we did another screening for Parkland and it also went off without a hitch. This is now going to be the playback method for all screenings going forward at the golf club. The fact that we could leverage a $200 consumer player instead of a $3000+ setup using ProRes was welcome news to management. I highly recommend the WD player to others for use in film screenings. However, it does have a lot of weird issues that some will find annoying. If you want something for home use I still recommend the Apple TV as the interface is more friendly. More on this in future articles.
I should probably address the legality of ripping Blu-Ray discs. These screenings are put on by the producers of the films themselves. I think it would be pretty entertaining if you accused someone whose company spent a few million producing and promoting a film, of pirating their own movie for a screening. The original plan was to screen DCP files, but this is even more cost prohibitive than ProRes files. WAY more. Since the WD players contain movies that aren’t released yet, they remain protected under lock and key until right before the screening, similar to a DCP drive.
Regarding ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs for copying to the WD player: This is completely legal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act if you are the owner of the Blu-Rays and DVDs in question, and if you are viewing them in your own home. It goes without saying that you can’t publicly screen a film if you don’t have the required permission. I’m recommending this player for screenings where the producer is involved, such as film festivals and film tours, where DCP and ProRes playback is ideal but cost prohibitive.
This workflow is possible with other players, but the WD TV Live Hub was the most convenient for us. This is also possible with a Sony PS3, which can’t play MKV files, but can play TS files, but it required too many additional steps to be considered (which seems to always be the case with Sony).
I got the chance to play with an early release Redray player a few weeks ago because the players ship with a short video that Brain Farm created with RED. I thought it might be a great player for this use. Unfortunately, it’s still very Beta. It has a lot of quirks and I just couldn’t trust it at this point for these screenings. Also, it can only take 4k videos created by Redcine from 4k TIFF sources. So we would have had to upconvert the films to 4k TIFFs, and then encoded them in Redcine (which takes a really long time), to then be downconverted by the player back to 1920×1080 for projection. Too many steps. Too many places where something could go wrong and fall out of sync. But the Redray is designed to be a 4k Apple TV complete with an online movie store, so I think in the future, this could be a great device for this use. Also, it looks like encryption will be part of the .RED standard, which would add to its value for uses like this. I could see it gaining traction among filmmakers for home screenings for things like Oscar candidates and rough cuts. But at $1800, it will take awhile to take off among consumers.