Sure, Apple TV is pretty close to useless if you wanna watch stuff on your television. But it's a godsend to at least one independent filmmaker.
This weekend, at a neighborhood movie theater in Brooklyn, New York, an Apple TV made its way into the projection booth, streaming a high-def digital flick onto the big screen. And when we say big screen, we mean the really big screen.
With the New York premiere of his debut feature, The Insurgents, writer-director Scott Dacko is using Apple's video contraption in place of a digital tape deck, bypassing so many of the hassles that plague poorly-funded digital filmmakers struggling to reach an audience.
"As far as I know, we're the first people to have ever done this," Dacko told us. "And it looked great." Well, it looked good. Dacko acknowledges that the image is "a little flawed" in places, thanks to some heavy compression from Apple's web-centric video codec. But his Apple TV kludge is cheap. And it's easy.
Apple TV makes its big screen debut?
Since shooting The Insurgents with an HD camera in early 2006, Dacko has shown the topsy-turvy political thriller in film festivals across the globe, and each time, he was forced to squeeze the flick onto a different breed of digital media. He's shown on DVD, DVcam, DigiBeta, Beta SP, D5 and HDCam.
"For an indie filmmaker, this is a huge cost, and it's a huge pain in the ass," Dacko explained. "And you never know if they're really going to be able to play. The theater might say they take HDCam, but then you get there and they don't take HDCam SR. Or you've got 4.4.4 HDCam, and they only play 4.2.2."
Then, when the film was picked for a week-long run at the Cobble Hill Cinemas in Brooklyn, he was faced with a new problem. More comfortable screening films the old-fashioned way - on film - the theater wasn't fully equipped for digital projection. It had an LCD projector - a Sony VPL FX52 - but no tape deck.
Dacko thought about renting a deck for the week. But even a low-quality DigiBeta setup would cost him $1000. And if he upgraded to an HDCam deck - which would require an HDCam projector - he'd end up shelling out a cool ten grand.
Projection on the cheap
Then Dacko thought of Apple TV, which plays high-def content at 1280 by 720 - his film's native resolution. Plugging it into the theater's LCD projector, he could play his flick without a tape deck. "Now that Apple's audio codec does 5.1 audio, I can play a full high-def 5.1 movie off this box."
And he could purchase an Apple TV outright for just $299. "That's less than half what I'd pay someone just to put my movie on an HDCam tape."
All he needed was a way to convert his film to Apple's Apple-centric H.264 video format. And he found it inside FinalCut Pro, the Apple app he used the edit the picture. Using the latest version of QuickTime, FinalCut can now convert to iTunes format with a single click.
Well, a single click and some spare time. FinalCut needed seven hours to compress the file - from 275GB down to a mere 3GB. But once it did, Dacko could copy his movie onto his Apple TV, tuck it under his arm, and carry it to the theater. Toting Apple's 7.7- by 7.7- by 1-inch media player was no more difficult than toting a tape.
Projection room kludge
In the end, Dacko didn't plug the device straight into the theater's LCD projector. The projector couldn't handle 1280 by 720, slightly cropping the image, so he put a signal processor in front of his Apple TV to set things right, taking the resolution down to 1024 by 768. That's hardly HD, but it's better than Dacko could have done with DigiBeta. And he's sure that with a little tinkering, he could run things without a converter box. "I bought that Apple TV the night before the premiere," he admitted.
As he continues to screen films, he can simply load them onto his Apple TV and lug it from theater to theater, doing away with tapes entirely. "I wish I had thought of this before," Dacko said. "I could just create multiple versions on my movie on Apple TV - in every possible aspect ratio and format. All the theater would have to do is plug it in."
Why not lug a laptop from theater to theater? Apple TV offers projector-friendly AV ports, including an HDMI jack. It uses an interface that even the most computer-phobic projectionists can quickly learn to use. And it's designed specifically for streaming video. A laptop processor can so easily bog down with other tasks.
And, of course, it's cheap. When you're an indie filmmaker, that's terribly important. ®