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2010: The Year the Film Industry Goes Digital

Written By: Harold Schossman

10-22-2010

For over a hundred years movies have been shot, developed, edited, printed and exhibited on celluloid film. Not only was this manufacturing process extremely cumbersome but it also required studios to physically ship weighty 35mm prints to be screened to audiences worldwide.

Fortunately the procedure of making movies has become easier during the last two decades as advances in digital technology have facilitated certain movie making procedures and opened up endless possibilities filmmakers could only have dreamed of before. The first major breakthrough was the ability to create Computer Generated Images, in short CGI. This technology was first put to use during the late eighties in “The Young Sherlock Holmes”, “The Abyss” and then in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2”. During the nineties the advent of the first Avid systems revolutionized postproduction as computer based editing has been introduced on a grand scale. In 1999 Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace was the first major motion picture ever to be screened digitally.

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Now over a decade later digital movie presentation has not only overrun movie theaters world wide - in no small part thanks to Avatar – but digital cinematography received a major boost when German based camera manufacturer Arri unleashed their new all digital motion picture camera earlier this year: The Arri Alexa.

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True, newsworthy digital motion picture cameras have been around ever since Sony and Panavision pioneered the Sony HDW-F900 (aka Panavision HD-900F) for George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode II. Later Panavision came up with the all-digital Panavision Genesis camera that has been used for features like Superman Returns, Click, Cloverfield and many others. The improvement in the Genesis camera was, aside from smaller size, a better lens mount that lends itself more to traditional 35mm style photography. Some TV productions are actually shooting shows using DSLR cameras. The last season finale of “House” has been shot using the video function of the Canon 5D Mark II!

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These days the Red Mysterium X and the new Arri Alexa are battling it out for the title of the best digital motion picture camera. The one fact cinematographers unanimously agree upon is that both cameras provide better low light results with less picture noise than any celluloid based film camera. This is great news for filmmakers, as productions will benefit from superior quality at lower cost. But digital cinematography is no longer domain of the independent, underground filmmaking crowd; even high profile productions like next summer’s Transformers 3 are embracing this new technology. In this specific case director Michael Bay has opted for the Arri Alexa as one of his many camera systems.

As an editor I find it especially intriguing that the Arri Alexa provides in addition to the ARRIRAW footage a ProRes HD stream to 2 SXS cards that can be plugged into any mac notebook with final cut installed thus allowing you to instantly edit your scene on the set. George Lucas has experimented with that; the position on Episode II was known as Split Operator, basically the guy in charge of the video farm who records and stores the video feeds any motion picture camera provides. On-set editing, however, has never been as easy with a simple plug-and-play or should I say plug-and-edit workflow.

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Postproduction is the process that has benefitted the most from the digital revolution. Endless miles of film stock or magnetic track have vanished from editing/sound mixing rooms and the possibilities digital color grading provides are endless. I myself just had a project color graded on a DaVinci system. Not only is it literally possible to completely change the look of a film but to correct a huge number of mistakes in lighting. Even historical footage can be restored beyond belief.

So what advantages will all these digital technologies have for the audience, if any? First of all movies can be made a lot faster. They’ll look better and they will sound better. Of course the technology is only as good as the people who use it but there’s a lot that can be done with digital these days.

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Last, but certainly not least projection will improve. I live in Austria which has the 2nd largest percentage of digital projectors installed per movie theaters. Digital image projection is all the hype in Europe ever since Avatar. So is it better? I tested it on Angelina Jolie’s recent action movie “Salt.” Sony held the press screening in a local flagship theater renowned for its top-notch 35mm presentations. The 35mm print was a good one: barely screened, good colors and focus, decent audio track - in short a joyful movie experience. Then I saw the movie again from the digital projector; same theater, same seat even! The contrast and color reproduction was way better, the movie was sharper I could see a lot more detail and the image was absolutely flicker free. Not to mention the awesome audio track, which by the way is uncompressed with digital presentations. So yes digital motion picture projection exceeds current film projection. That doesn’t mean that a movie house can’t botch a digital presentation, or a studio won’t provide a poor digital master, but the days where you have portions of the screen that are out of focus are indeed over when it comes to digital.

So what does the future hold in store for us? The one thing that’s a given is the fact that movies will become even sharper. Many movies these days, not all of them, but many are being finished digitally. It means after color grading and sound mixing is complete the post facility delivers a DI, a Digital Intermediate which is being used to either strike 35mm prints, or distributed via hard-drives to movie theaters directly. Those DIs are mastered in 2K resolution. 2K is an industry abbreviation for an image resolution of aprx. 2048x1536 pixels depending on the film’s aspect ratio. But nowadays days 4K (4096x3072 pixels) is all the buzz in current Hollywood post facilities, however, it’s really just up and coming. So what does all this mean? A film presented in 2K matches the approximate resolution of a theatrical 35mm film print at your local movie theater. The fact that in the near future postproduction houses intend to master and deliver DIs in 4K resolution means you will get much better image, it pretty much would match the quality of a first generation studio film print, the ones you’ll never get to see in a commercial movie theater.

I know there are many traditional filmmakers who’ll mourn the passing of film. I myself used to shoot and cut actual film stock, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be replaced by something better because it will be - whether they like it or not.

About The Author: Harold Schossman is our International News Correspondent and our resident Expert Videographer. He has worked in the entertainment industry for almost two decades. Be sure to check out his outstanding video work on his YouTube account.

http://www.youtube.com/user/hdeditor