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The New Technology of Filmmaking

Although filmmaking and distribution are still overwhelmingly analog, sequential, guild-based processes, any discussion of the film industry's future must include the increasing impact of digital technology. By Allen Witters
Although filmmaking and distribution are still overwhelmingly analog, sequential, guild-based processes, any discussion of the film industry's future must include the increasing impact of digital technology.

For most of the past 15 years, computer companies, such as SGI, and software companies such as, discreet*, Alias/Wavefront and Softimage, have developed and supplied technology for the most innovative box-office blockbuster films. For the past five years, EVERY Academy Award nominee for visual effects used computer-based technology on the project.


Digital technology has changed the economic model for filmmaking because it enables artists to depict people, places, and things that couldn't be created on film before. This technology for storytelling has enabled the "Metal Man" in T2, the aliens in Men in Black and, all the characters in Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Antz, to be realistically created. And it's allowed places of the imagination to be visualized - such as the planetary civilizations of Star Wars and Gotham City.

In all of these examples, technology is a tool --a digital palette-- for some very creative and brilliant artists to tell better stories. And of course Madison Avenue uses the same technology to create attention-grabbing commercials. The fact is computer-generated visual effects are now ubiquitous, and film-based optical effects are virtually non-existent.

At top effects houses, computer-based media servers are the foundation of their facility infrastructures. Servers tie previously separate departmental operations together, allowing a host of digital artists to work on different aspects of the same effect simultaneously. For example, one digital artist might be removing wires from the shot, while another creates shadows, and yet another composites in the alien.

Challenge: Moving and Managing Digital Files

Even more digital files are created in editing. Film cutting on devices called Steenbecks and Moviolas, which used to be the only way films were edited, have been replaced by non-linear computer editing tools, such as the Avid.

In addition, because it is common for several visual effects companies to work on the same film, and for visual effects houses to collaborate with talent spread around the globe, there is a great need to move a wide variety of digital media file types quickly and efficiently between facilities.

And because producers, directors and others with creative input -- who need to review effects sequences and edits multiple times prior to final approval-- are also located at different locations, copying and shipping approval tapes can become time consuming.

Finally, keeping track of graphics and edit files as they move between workstations and facilities is a tremendous challenge. The bottom line is that there are three main challenges facing the visual effects industry today:


  1. The efficient transfer of a wide variety of digital files between facilities;

  2. Managing and tracking the huge volume of digital files generated by visual effects
    production; and

  3. Moving clips from place to place quickly for creative review.


Of course, using FedEx and couriers to shuttle digital media and videotapes between locations can get the job done. But it involves a good deal of waiting. Investing in your own WAN (wide area network) to link your facility to your primary collaborators and clients is also an option, but this can be a very expensive option. And what if your clients and collaborators change? The artists that you work with on one film may not be the same artists who you work with on your next project.

A more efficient, cost-effective solution is emerging: the "wide area media network." That's what WAM!NET stands for. Founded in 1996, with strategic relationships and technology from MCI Worldcom, SGI, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett Packard, WAM!NET has become an industry leader in the digital transmission of files for the graphics arts industry.

Now, by putting technology capable of encoding and playing video in real-time on the client end of our network, we've developed a powerful creative review solution for the entertainment and commercial production industries. The technology consists of two SGI-based devices: a Desktop Review Station and a Network Access Device.

The Desktop Review Station connects to a standard video routing system with standard video cables. It takes in video and encodes it to MPEG-2 at user-controlled bit rates between 1.5 and 12 megabits per second, or takes a video file received over the network and plays it out to a monitor. The Network Access Device transfers the file between the review station and the network. Because we have a dedicated, secure, international network, the files are guaranteed to arrive intact.

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Related Keywords:digital film, digital video, wamnet, filmmaking, discreet*, Alias/Wavefront and Softimage, CG. CGI, effects, MCI Worldcom, SGI, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett Packard

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