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Digital Film: The Mighty Oak

Lucas Planted a Seed That's Growing Faster All The Time By Charlie White
When George Lucas stood up in front of everybody at Sony's press event at the 2001 NAB convention last year in Las Vegas, no one suspected he was about to change our world as we knew it. "I'll never produce another film, on film," Lucas proclaimed. The seed was planted, and someday that tiny acorn would grow into a mighty oak. It was a watershed event -- one that slam-dunked the world of physical film into the ash heap of history, right?

But wait. Not so fast. Even though the air was filled with talk of digital cinema at Sundance last week, there were still plenty of projects shown that were shot and edited on film. But still, would digital cinema replace film? Would all shooting and editing take place electronically soon? Well, I think the transition will be an evolutionary one, rather than revolutionary.

If you think about it, the argument for going all-digital from lens to screen is just too compelling. First, there's the savings in film stock alone. I've directed both film and video shoots, and there's a completely different feeling with video when it comes to shooting more takes. Why not just try another take on video, where you (if you're really on a tight budget) can even roll back the tape and record over takes you didn't like? With film, each time I say "roll" I feel like I just lit a loose pile of hundred dollar bills.

The immediacy of video also works for you in a big way, when you're able to shoot a scene, and then duck into a nearby closet or motor home and edit that scene on your notebook while your cast and crew are at lunch. If you're happy with the way it cuts together, go ahead and move on to the next setup and strike that set. If not, shoot the thing over, right then, and save yourself some heartache. Of course, this same thing can be done with a video feed of a film shoot, but then you're actually using both film and video stock, and that certainly isn't going to save you any money.

Then, if you're in the big-time movie biz, there's the huge savings of time, money and effort gained from digital delivery of content to theaters. Instead of a fleet of trucks, the movies can be delivered via satellite -- what a next-century way to do things! And, there another way-cool thing that can be done with digital film in theaters that I just heard about this week. Think edits on-the-fly where there are triggers embedded in the digital stream that change the nature of the edit. For example, you could distribute your movie in one big file where triggers within it would determine if your movie were either PG-13 or R-rated. Or, you could have five or six endings available in the same digital file. This is a neat idea.

But I am amazed that film editing technology has changed so little in the past hundred years. When I visit one of my film editing buddies hunched over his flatbed editor, I feel like I'm visiting a museum. It's so, uh, mechanical. Everything looks like it's straight out of the bowels of the industrial revolution, the machine age where belching smoke and mechanized noise were a sign of progress. On the positive side, it was an era where people crafted fine objects by working with their hands, and that's what my filmmaking colleagues like about hands-on film editing. But I say, those days are numbered. All the steps involved in producing a film are just mind-boggling. And the paperwork that has to go with each step dang, the whole thing just reeks of inefficiency.

That's why the first step of moving to cameras that shoot 24 frames of progressive video per second (24p) is so appealing. There's no need for 3:2 pulldown, matchback, re-synching anything. Or, if producers are still using film cameras shooting at 24 frames per second, using editing systems that edit 24p makes lots of sense, too. One film frame translates into one video frame. Neat.

Hardly anyone thinks that film is dead, at least not yet. But I think in the back of everyone's mind lurks the feeling that film is surely dead in the long run. Ultimately, technology is moving along at such a fast pace that its efficiency will certainly not escape the gaze of the ones who are really in charge: The Bean Counters. But this new efficiency is not a bad thing. It's good for all of us, and I think that the highest of the high definition video quality will soon surpass that of film, from lens to screen.

So when you're working merrily away there in your edit bay, you may already notice many of your film colleagues peering over your shoulder, their interest and curiosity taking on a certain urgency that wasn't there just a year or two ago. There's a good reason for that. They see the handwriting on the wall, and it's in the shape of a shadowy sketch of an oak tree. A mighty one planted by George Lucas.

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 27 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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