You've probably heard and read about it, how we're on the brink
of a new digital era for film. The barrier up to now was the resolution of photo
film, thought way too high to be rivaled by digital imagery. That's no longer the
case, with very high resolution CCD coupled with very high capacity storage media,
the resolution of film can now be reached without the use of film. We will of course
see the same debates flourish about digital vs analog, the same ones we've had about
audio technology when it moved to digital. Arguments like :
- "The behavior of film in low light conditions isn't the same as the noise floor you get on a digital video signal."
- "But they already have 'plug-ins' (sounds familiar doesn't it ?) that emulate that behavior".
The pioneer in that field has once again been George Lucas. He literally launched digital editing 20 years ago with Edit Droid and Sound Droid, for Star Wars : A New Hope. He also pioneered good acoustical habits in theatres (the Theater Alignment Program, better known as THX), revolutionized automated camera work with the help of John Dykstra (what was to become the Motion Control system), set the highest standards in digital and traditional visual effects (with one of Lucas Films' companies : Industrial Light & Magic), also set new standards for the LaserDisc format (the THX label for Laserdisc, which I hope will also move on to DVD because there is so much crap coming out on this new format, just like it happened when Laserdisc technology settled)...
And now, he's about to revolutionize the way films will be shot and released. The Phanthom Menace was supposed to be the first 'real' film entirely shot without film (direct to disk... huge disks.... multiple RAID systems.... we're talking Terabytes of data here). But for several reasons, only parts of the feature were shot that way.
With Star Wars Part 2 : The Balance of the Force, he should be able to fulfill his dream.
|The big change isn't so much about the shooting, more about the way the film will be released|
The big difference in the shooting, of course, is that you'd be using a video camera instead of a film camera, but not your ordinary home camcorder ! Here, the resolution of the CCD optical to video converter is a thousand times higher, if not 10 000 times, finally barely surpassing photographic resolution. Then you need to store the several dozens of MB per second that are coming out of your camera !!!! Luckily, companies like SONY are coming up with media that can store Terabytes of information (that's 1024 Gigabytes). You can always use a RAID system (Redundant Array of Independant Disks : several normal disks put in parallel, imitating a much much bigger single disk) to save all that data, but you're going to need backup to cheaper media pretty darn quick anyway !
From then on, the post-production is about the same as the previous method. Basically, the editor can work on a low resolution copy of the pictures, build-up an EDL, etc...
|The release of the film has nothing to do with today's method.|
When you go see a movie like Hollow Man, or Mission to Mars... how much of what you see hasn't been transfered to digital at some point in post-production to add all these effects in ? Then, because theatres have been equiped with traditional projectors for almost a century, these final composite digital images have to be transfered back to photographic film, for the theatrical release.
Perhaps the very first movie to be projected in digital was Toy Story 2, a movie which lent itself perfectly for that kind of technology, since it is digital imagery throughout ! To do so, some theatres (very few. In France, just one tried this new method) could have special equipment fitted in their projection booth. First, a high resolution triple miniature mirror system (more than 1,3 million) is 'slipped' between the projector bulb and the lens, meaning there is no major investment concerning the projector. The pictures forming on the LCD are therefore projected onto the screen, as would the pictures on a regular piece of film passing there. To feed the picture to the LCD, especially at such a resolution, you need a large capacity medium. THAT'S WHERE THE REVOLUTION RESIDES.
For now, they are using a RAID system. You just pull out of the truck this computer rack filled with disks (72 GB total !), on which the movie has been copied earlier by the distributor (Warner Bros., Universal, Fox...), and hook it up to the LCD and you're ready to roll ! An alternative to several hard disk drives which is already quite successful is to use the.... DVD !!! Actually, several are neaded to keep a good picture quality. Whichever method is used, a lossless compression (I'm really concerned about the veracity of that term) algorithm developped by Texas Instruments is used on picture to reduce its wheight and a reduction algorithm is used on sound (we've apparently lost the battle on that !!!) for the same purpose. In a DVD based system, the compression ratio would be a bit higher for the picture, but a delivery guy on roller skates could drop by the theater with the latest film fitting in his baggy jeans pockets !
WHAT THEY'RE ABOUT TO DO (and there have been tests, I believe, with The Phanthom Menace) IS PUMP OUT THE DATA LIVE FROM THE DISTRIBUTOR TO THE THEATRES THROUGH CABLE OR SATTELITE LINKS !!!!!!!
The big concern for the distributors is, of course, to find a way to keep people from tapping into the signal (especially if it's by satellite link) and copying it. With the transfer rate of such a transmission, I wish these hackers good luck with their storage capacity, but in a few years, 100 GB of storage for $10 will certainly not be a dream.
My big concern is the artistic issue of all this (I could care less about hackers, I shit on people who not only produce nothing, but brag about depriving others who have).
In a recent interview of Barry Sonnenfeld concerning the DVD release of Men in Black, he wisely summed-up what the future of filmmaking could be like, now that such a technology is about to become standard. When he was asked if the extra scenes he had shot, but not included in the theatrical release of M.I.B., were still shot because he knew he could include them in the DVD... he went a lot further in his answer. Basically, this is what he said :
"Imagine George Lucas during the shooting of Star Wars 3. He's shooting a lot of alternate takes, just as he did for Phanthom Menace, trying out different plot twists, adding or deleting characters, etc. He knows he's not putting all of that in the final cut. But that's the whole thing there, there is no final cut anymore. Say that three weeks after the film has been out in the theatres, the tickets aren't selling so good. What keeps George from sending out a new DVD to the theatres, telling them to replace disk 2 with that one, which contains new scenes, or different scenes, with maybe brand new characters in them ? Are the kids going to rush back to the theatre ? You bet they will ! And what keeps him from doing it again three weeks later ?"
I hope these guys have the moral integrity to avoid using such a cheap trick, but I'm sure the studios will rapidly be pushing for that, because all they really care about is money, forget what's moral or not. We'll see, but I'm afraid Barry Sonnenfeld has pictured it right.