If you are a filmmaker in this crazy age of technology, you've likely heard of DCPs, or Digital Cinema Packages. As 35mm film projectors have slowly been replaced by digital equivalents at most movie theaters and film festival, DCPs replace the expensive 35mm celluloid "film prints" that had to be created and distributed to each theatre playing the film. In other words, a DCP is a digital negative of the film, stored on either a hard disk, USB flash drive, or delivered via the Internet ("Cloud Delivery", as some call it). This is great news for distribution, especially for the independent and lower budget films, as it is significantly cheaper to create and distribute a DCP to thousands of theaters and festivals than it is to create a film print, possibly only to be seen in a few theaters over the life of the print. Long story short, DCP is a great choice for creating a cinema-quality deliverable asset for your film that is future proof (to a certain extent) and easy to distribute.
Now that we're all on the same page about DCPs, we can jump to the main purpose of this article: a review of Fandev's CuteDCP export plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects. While there are free options, like OpenDCP, and included solutions with certain editing applications, such as the QuVis "Wraptor DCP" output options available within Adobe Media Encoder, they leave a lot to be desired in terms of customization, options, and specific to OpenDCP, quality. If you look for alternatives, you'll discover EasyDCP, FinalDCP, and the very commonly suggested "Have a professional post house create a DCP for you". The only issue with all three of those suggestions, accurate as they may be, is they are all quite expensive.
Enter CuteDCP: a unique export plug-in for Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro that costs $163 for one version, or $270 for both. In comparison, the EasyDCP plug-in for Resolve costs almost $1300, FinalDCP costs a whopping $1631, and even upgrading the built-in Wraptor DCP in Adobe Media Encoder is a fairly pricey $699 (although you can at least rent that on a monthly basis). With the alternative DCP encoders broken down by price, its no question that CuteDCP wins by a mile, but it doesn't offer every feature, such as using a render farm and other computers to assist in the encoding process, so there are still reasons to consider using a higher end solution. Let's take a look at some of its features:
- Support resolutions of 2K and 4K at framerates of 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, or 60.
- A built-in Title Helper, which makes it very easy to name exported content exactly to DCP specifications. Some projector systems do not identify the various DCPs available except by this "title", so its important that it be easy to use without having to learn much for a DCP novice.
- Supports both the legacy standard, InterOp, and the latest standard, SMPTE.
- Supports import of CineCanvas (InterOp) Subtitles and SMPTE subtitles.
- Allows both stereo and 5.1 audio encoding straight from the timeline.
- Uses a multi-threaded CPU only encoding design for its internal Rec709 to XYZ color space conversion.
- DCP Metadata Control
I'm sure you are anxious to hear how about the quality of CuteDCP encodings, aside from its features. It was a major concern of mine, seeing the significant cost difference between it and other encoders. I'm happy to report that the quality was just as good as several other higher end encoders I blind tested, many times to the extent I could not tell which application encoded the DCP during a screening. The only limitations are based on the source application feeding the plug-in, so Premiere and After Effects. I did notice it being slightly slower than the included QuVis Wraptor output, but considering that its a "lite" version of a $700 plug-in, its not surprising its slightly faster than CuteDCP. Quality wise, I found no "visually perceptible" difference between the two encodings, even with CuteDCP using half the bit-rate of Wraptor (The included Wraptor DCP plug-in with Adobe Creative Cloud is locked down to the highest bitrate, no changes can be made). The ability to enable\disable the XYZ conversion and adjust the encoding bitrate separates CuteDCP from the built-in Wraptor DCP "lite" option, which has virtually no control and is limited to 2K outputs. My favorite additional feature was the Title Helper (pictured below), which helps you quickly & accurately name your DCP according to Digital Cinema Naming Convention without having to even know what that that is (find out more about it here, if you are curious).
Unfortunately, being a plug-in may be CuteDCP's biggest limitations, as it is completely reliant on After Effects and Premiere Pro (with Adobe Media Encoder). With neither being a true color or finishing application, CuteDCP limits the input image color space to Rec709 (aka typical HD), so those who have color graded in the P3 color space (native to digital cinemas) will need to look elsewhere for DCP encoding solutions. However, if you are grading in P3, you aren't likely to be looking to save a few hundred dollars on DCP creation anyway, so this isn't much of a limitation in my opinion. One other issue with CuteDCP is it doesn't do any type of source image color space detection, so it is assuming your source file is correctly formatted to a Rec709 (Something to should discuss with your colorist). Other higher end encoders offer scopes and other input color space tools, but these are missing from CuteDCP due to its export plug-in nature. Lastly, CuteDCP currently does not use any form of GPU acceleration, although its said to be coming in a future version. With the conversion to JPEG2000 being a very computationally intensive conversion, I don't blame them for sticking with CPUs for reliability and consistency. I would love to see GPU acceleration added to some extent in the future, as long as it doesn't sacrifice quality for performance, but thats a very small complaint. Even with the limitations, I still feel this is an extremely affordable solution that will cover every need for 90% of filmmakers looking to create their own Digital Cinema Package (DCP) but want something more complete than the included Wraptor "lite"DCP.
Overall, I've been very pleased with CuteDCP in general and I absolutely recommend it to independent filmmakers, colorists, and editors looking to add DCPs to the long list of customizable output formats that can be exported from Adobe Media Encoder and After Effects. It brings a fairly customizable DCP encoding solution to a price point previously untouched by any of its competition. In specific, it offers many easy to use features like the Title Helper to help those less familiar with DCPs, while delivering a high quality DCP conversion (assuming the source image is correctly formatted). It limitations seem to be partially based in its design as a plug-in and its reliance on a host application, but for most, this won't be an issue for most except power users. Both plug-ins and more can be found at FanDev.com.
In my next blog article, I discuss how we can review our DCP without access to a theater or cinema projector.
Editors Note: This plug-in was provided to me for evaluation, testing and review purposes. That said, the above review is completely unbiased and uncensored, as I have no affiliation with FanDev. Anything expressed is solely based on my own testing and opinions formed during the process.