[Tig] HIGH DEFINITION from the LA Times July 11, 2002
Thu Jul 11 06:59:33 BST 2002
FROM THE LA TIMES July 11, 2002
Filming Without the Film
Embraced by some directors and feared by others, high-definition digital cameras
are changing the art form.
By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and JON HEALEY
Times Staff Writers
July 11 2002
NICASIO, Calif. -- Oliver Stone stared in disbelief. Here he was, sitting in
a velvet seat in George Lucas' private screening room, listening to the
"Star Wars" director foretell the death of film.
To Stone, director of such films as "Platoon" and "JFK," Lucas' vision of
digital movie-making sounded like blasphemy. Around him, other A-list
directors--including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert
Zemeckis--fidgeted as Lucas challenged a century of tradition, warning his
colleagues to embrace the future or be left behind.
Lucas' blunt message stands at the center of a schism in Hollywood over the
fate of film in the film business. New high-definition video cameras and
digital editing equipment challenge the longtime supremacy of film. They are
cheaper and more flexible. But they also frighten directors and
cinematographers who understand every nuance of film.
A creative misstep can tarnish a career, so many of those established in the
film industry blanch at the thought of showing their inexperience with the
latest technology. A colossal mistake, seen by millions of fans, might
reveal that they are pass? storytellers--easily replaced with younger,
cheaper and more tech-savvy rivals.
"Film is what we do. It's what we use," Stone sniped at Lucas. "You'll be
known as the man who killed cinema."
Lucas merely rolled his eyes as Stone waxed about the poetry of celluloid
and the coldness of pixels.
Finally, according to those who were there, Lucas interrupted.
Raising a hand, Lucas cued his demonstration and told his audience what they
would see: identical clips--each stored on different formats--from the
animated movie "Monsters, Inc."
One was completely electronic--compiled by a computer, stored on digital
tape and shown through a digital projector. Looking less like a motion
picture and more like an open window onto a real world, the monsters gabbed
in crisp clarity and rich tones.
Next came a traditional film reel that spent four weeks in a mall theater.
With each showing, heat from the projector and dust in the air faded and
degraded the reel. The difference was jarring. Radically out of focus, the
film reel cast an image on the screen that jiggled and popped, as if an
earthquake were rocking the projector.
Lights came up as the demonstration ended. No one spoke for several seconds.
Debate within the industry is not nearly so quiet.
For directors such as Lucas, the choice is obvious. Breaking new ground for
major motion pictures, his "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" was
shot entirely with high-definition digital cameras, edited with digital
equipment and, for a few dozen theaters, distributed and projected
Testing the Technology
Spotting the change, a growing number of filmmakers have been testing the
digital waters. From students and independent filmmakers capturing their
low-budget works on digital video to established directors such as Michael
Mann testing high-definition cameras in "Ali," they are curious about the
new tools and fearful of being left behind.
But after nearly a century of using film, much of Hollywood's old guard is
reluctant to shift gears, a reticence that speaks to a powerful culture of
fear among some of the industry's most elite directors.
"Film is rather like the magic lantern. There's a sense of mystery, because
you don't know what's going into the magic black-box camera until you send
the film to the lab," said cinematographer Roger Deakins, director of
photography for Ron Howard's film "A Beautiful Mind."
"With digital, it's all very businesslike," Deakins said. "We're not
businessmen. We're artists and magicians."
Despite significant advances in the art and science of film since the first
roll of flexible celluloid was produced in 1889, the basic process remains
the same: Chemicals layered on the surface of the film react when they are
exposed to light, changing into hues that match the light's wavelength.
Digital cameras, which began to appear in the mid-1990s, use powerful
computer chips that convert light into electronic pulses, which they then
translate into data and store on videotape.
The resulting images were unusually crisp and realistic but no match for the
smooth lines and range of colors delivered by 35-millimeter film. Those
differences stemmed partly from the cameras' chips, which couldn't capture
as much information as film, and partly from the technology used to shrink
and store the data.
Sony Corp., Panasonic and other manufacturers developed high-definition
digital cameras in the late 1990s that could deliver far more detail and a
wider range of color. This summer, Thomson Grass Valley is bringing out a
new line of cameras that can capture almost five times as much detail and
twice the range of color as previous high-definition models, said Jeff
Rosica, vice president of marketing.
Frugality also is pushing studios and filmmakers to consider digital tools.
Advocates insist that the technology cuts costs, partly by eliminating key
parts of the movie-making process. For example, there's the
time-honored--and time-consuming--ritual of handling "dailies."
When a day of shooting wraps, the crew sends the footage to a processing
lab. After the film negatives have been developed, the reel is returned to
the set. The director and often the crew gather inside a screening room.
Then they cross their fingers.
What they want to see up on the screen--and what the camera actually
captured--aren't always the same. Perhaps the spotlights burned too brightly
and washed out the image. Maybe the director didn't spot the catering truck
parked in the background. If someone loaded the film into the camera
incorrectly, the reel might be completely blank.
"With film, you get 60% of what you want," said director Robert Rodriguez.
"In film, cinematography is the art of guessing."
Each mistake, each reshoot, eats up time and money. The shoot-and-pray cycle
is nearly erased with digital cameras, because the images can be viewed
By replacing film in the cameras with videotape and speeding the flow of
work, Lucas saved at least $3 million in production costs on "Attack of the
Clones," producer Rick McCallum said. That's a small fraction of the movie's
$100-million budget, but "when you're financing it yourself, and you're
financing the marketing, anything you can do to be more cost-efficient
helps," he said.
The need to cut production costs led News Corp.-owned 20th Century Fox
Television and the executive team behind the series "The Education of Max
Bickford" to take the digital plunge. The tactic worked, said producer Rod
Halcomb, who estimated that the crew saved as much as $25,000 per episode in
post-production and filming costs.
Regardless of the savings and technical innovation, no tool could save "Max
Bickford": CBS dropped the series after its first year.
"Digital technology is the director's friend, just in principle. Because of
it, directors can come closer to realizing what's in their minds," said
director Ron Howard. "I'm open to it. I'm just not open to using it until
all the bugs are worked out."
A Digital Weak Spot
Managing the problems of a digital set remains a daunting task, since such
"bugs" can eat up much of the savings that the digital process promises.
Amid the ashy dust of the Mojave Desert, just up a worn road from the
boarded-up Oasis Motel, "Confidential Report 001" director Chris Coppola
sits and waits impatiently for the crew to set up the cameras.
"This was supposed to be a $600,000 independent film," said Coppola, nephew
of director Francis Ford Coppola. "Now, we're way, way over budget."
The culprit, the younger Coppola said, is the high-definition gear. Two of
the Sony cameras died in the last month as dust and heat made the computer
electronics useless. The cameras' computer chips, which are sensitive to
distance, can require more time to set up a shot than traditional gear. Then
there was the mysterious blue pixel.
"We played back the footage and there it is, in random spots: a single blue
pixel," said director of photography Andrew Giannetta. "No one knows why.
Even Sony told us, 'We don't know what's wrong. If you figure it out, and
figure out how to fix it, tell us.' "
One of the most difficult artistic hurdles is manipulating the look of the
footage. Film blurs colors together around their edges, but digital cameras
achieve a clarity that strikes some as harsh.
For filmmakers such as Rodriguez, this sense of clarity fits into his
stylized action films. While recently shooting actor Johnny Depp in "Once
Upon a Time in Mexico," the director relied solely on digital cameras.
The tools picked up every detail, and uncovered the unexpected.
"I always thought Johnny Depp's eyes were black," Rodriguez said. "On the
playback monitor, I realized they are really a light caramel color. If the
eyes are the window of the soul, what ... are we doing shooting film and
blurring that window?"
Reality, however, doesn't fit into the vision of every filmmaker. For some,
manipulating what the eye sees is the goal.
While working on the "Max Bickford" series, director of photography Michael
Mayers tried pairing various digital cameras with the lenses and filters he
often used when shooting with traditional film.
Again and again, the equipment from these two worlds failed to work together
and fell short of giving him the look he wanted. The images appeared far too
sharp for the softer, cinematic feel of the script, Mayers said.
Ultimately, he found his solution at the grocery store: Saran Wrap. The
plastic sheets, when attached to a camera lens, gave the footage a subtle
diffusion he wanted.
"Not everyone is comfortable taking on this type of challenge," said Eric
Brevig, an Academy Award-winning visual-effects supervisor at Lucas' special
effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic. "A lot of people are testing out
high-definition cameras in secret. They're terrified of making mistakes."
They have reason to be, as the technological evolution in movies has left
behind a landscape littered with casualties. When sound was added to film,
thousands of musicians lost their jobs because theaters no longer employed
live orchestras to accompany silent movies. A generation of actors failed to
make the transition, and directors weren't spared.
Onetime Hollywood giants such as Rex Ingram, who directed "The Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse," and Fred Niblo, who directed "Ben-Hur" and Douglas
Fairbanks Sr. in "The Mark of Zorro," quickly disappeared as the new tools
became part of daily life.
Digital cameras herald a similar and potentially traumatic shift. Directors
and cinematographers face a terrifying question: What happens if you lack
the skills to continue telling stories in a world in which the narrative
tools have fundamentally changed?
"You become afraid," said cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. "I'd spent 20
years learning how to use a film camera. Now, I had to pick up something
new, and there were all these other people who were far better at using this
new technology that I was."
While working as director of photography on "Ali," Lubezki spent time
scouting locations and photographing them in the middle of the night using a
digital video camera.
The result "was so different and interesting," he said, that director
Michael Mann asked him to re-create the surreal feel of the footage with a
film camera. After weeks of experimentation, the cinematographer realized he
couldn't do it. The only alternative was to use a high-definition digital
camera--something he had never used.
"I took classes. I made mistakes," Lubezki said. "I was afraid. I didn't
know if I could make it work. But I did, and it was worth it. This is
different from film. Not better or worse but different. You can't let fear
of the unknown prevent you from taking that chance."
Oliver Stone agrees. Several days after seeing the digital camera demonstration at Lucas' ranch,
Stone called an executive at ILM.
The firm had been responsible for figuring out how to make the connection
between the digital camera and the post-production effects work on the
latest "Star Wars" movie and has close ties to several camera manufacturers.
"Listen, I know you're going to shoot me for this," Stone said to the
executive. "But I'm starting work on a new project. Do you know where I can
get ahold of some high-def cameras?"
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