With digital technology like DVD beginning to dominate filmmaking, I thought it an opportune time to look at exactly how digitisat...
As the processes of digitisation quickly begin to affect a large range of media the world over, filmmaking is at a significant point in its 106-year history. Digital technology has become the catalyst for many new concepts that will change the art of making movies forever. Whilst still keeping traditional conventions formed through years of practice, the film industry is now entering into an era of movies that are cheaper, faster and more engaging than ever before. Director Joe Johnston (October Sky, Jurassic Park III) sums it up well. “The moment that dinosaur stepped through the fence and began pushing the car around, the whole industry changed”
In this article I will highlight the various areas of filmmaking that are affected by digitisation, and will look to the future role of digitisation in the industry.
The most obvious change to filmmaking as a result of digitisation is the shift to a digital film stock. And the positives are numerous; faster processing times, first-grade image quality regardless of age, and easy manipulation make the switch to digital video inevitable. Cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown) is a huge proponent of the digital format. “There are things that can’t be done in a film lab, things that mathematics can’t do, but digital can. You can isolate a frame or change the color and have the results right there to see”. The nature of traditional 35mm film means it is highly susceptible to damage, particularly during the distribution process. Carol Hahn, director of international marketing for Qualcomm Digital Cinema, points out that digital images “will be pristine whether a film has been shown 100 or 1,000 times”, which also opens the door for a more efficient and safer digital distribution system. Dean McIntosh, writer for website michaeldvd.com.au, points out that “studios will be able to send their films to theatres as data instead of as a collection of unwieldy film reels (and) film studios would be able to bypass the network of distributors that has outlived its usefulness”. Processing times are an appealing characteristic of digital video, especially as society’s demand for faster products is becoming even greater. Cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) points out that “producers just want to shoot their films, get them out, distribute them, and start making money on them as quickly as possible.”
Testament to the appeal of digital filmmaking is director George Lucas’ decision to shoot one of the most anticipated films in cinema history, Attack Of The Clones, entirely in digital form. As the man himself declares, “digital opened up that whole field in a way that you couldn’t think of doing optically with the photochemical process.” With so many digital effects in the film it was logistically necessary to use the newer format for the second Star Wars prequel. In other words, the digitisation of film formats have allowed Lucas to save a huge amount of time and effort as well as being able to become more ambitious with the special effects, pushing the boundaries of digital filmmaking even further.
One of the most recent movies to take advantage of this digital revolution is Mike Figgis’ TimeCode, which is regarded as a highly experimental piece of work and a pioneering piece of filmmaking. Digitisation has given directors a greater courage to try new techniques; “It never hurts to push the envelope….improvisation can be honed like a blade (due to digital technology).” The movie consists of four sections, each following a different story, shot in one continuous 93 minute take. It is undoubtedly a bold move in terms of breaking from tradition, but nonetheless highlights the experimental appeal of digital technology. As Jerry Roberts, writer for Director’s World, states, “Time Code is at once a groundbreaking narrative film, a benchmark in digital technology for filmmaking and a daringly original challenge for the cast and crew.” Just like Lucas’ decision to shoot digitally was born out of necessity, so too was the choice by Mike Figgis. This film would not have been made had it not been for digital video allowing Figgis to shoot for so long without a cut. “I had to shoot it with a DVcam. It was the only way”, Figgis declares. Again, digitisation is allowing filmmakers to become more experimental with their work and opens more doors of possibility once shut by the restrictions of 35mm film.
The biggest drawback of the digital format, and possible the only factor holding it back from becoming the film stock of choice, is the issue of exhibition. At the start of 2001 only 30 screens were equipped to show a digital image so the job of transferring the digital movies to film is still necessary to exhibit the pictures worldwide. The cinemas are currently the last link in the industry chain to embrace the introduction of digital technology. Johnston’s statement that “exhibition is…totally behind the times” seems right on the mark, and once cinemas decide to convert to the new format of exhibition we will undoubtedly see even more changes to the film industry than at present.
Interactivity is another concept brought to the forefront as a result of digitisation. One of the areas that most excited filmmakers when digital technology burst onto the mainstream scene was the notion of “interactive narrative…..something which will let cinema tell its stories in a new way.” Several forays have already been made into the emerging world of interactive movies, although the majority have failed. Digital Video productions such as Tender Loving Care and Point Of View use a series of questions after every chapter on the DVD to gauge the viewer’s psychological profile, before tweaking the story to suit the viewer. The concept of “Thinkies”, movies that are said to thoughtfully engage the viewer in a non-linear, interactive environment, has become a major talking point among modern filmmakers. Lee Morgenroth, supposed creator of the Thinkie, has worked on the interactivity made possible by digitisation. “One of the things that is really difficult to do in a linear medium is to get your viewer to actively think while experiencing the story. With interactivity I can let the viewer do some very interesting things”. The most notable thing about Beacham’s remarks is that he talks about the audience “experiencing” the story and his emphasis on influencing their viewing. We are now shifting away from traditional, linear, non-interactive movies dominating film culture and moving more towards a more participatory film structure. While being only minorly successful, films like these highlight the opportunities before a filmmaker in the 21st century. One explanation for the initial failure of the interactive movie was that film is a predominantly masochistic medium. In other words, it is widely accepted that for the majority of people, watching a movie is more enjoyable than making one. Nevertheless, the techniques and conventions will improve with time, and digitisation will create more opportunities for the new format to be successful. As the years progress, the number of interactive movies will increase, particularly due to the rapid penetration of DVD technology into the average household.
DVD, or Digital Video Disc, is the new format for home cinema and is possibly the most exciting prospect when talking about the digital film revolution. It has changed filmmaking by allowing directors to release their movies how they initially intended them to be seen, free from alteration by film companies or as a result of audience test screenings. They can also include footage that was left out of the production for various reasons or incorporate “featurettes” that educate the audience about the making of the film. These advantages of DVD will almost certainly guarantee its success as well as help the audience learn more about the filmmaking process. Internet site IGN DVD is currently running a series entitled “Film-school in a case” which highlights the way DVD “teaches us things that we never learned from school or books”. Directors now have the chance to create more intellectual and thoughtful pieces of work, with digitisation lifting the bar of the public’s knowledge base. It seems all these positive aspects of DVD are restoring an enormous amount of control to the Director, especially considering “DVD will allow filmmakers to make movies more cheaply”. And because of Internet technology developing rapidly, directors can also aim for a “different” kind of audience online, which “makes niche films a commercial viability, as there is nothing to lose by programming something unusual or different”. It will be very interesting to see how directors take advantage of this power shift, especially in terms of the volume of films being made and their subsequent quality. Will there be more films of dubious quality or merely a broader selection of movies that will appeal to a larger range of audiences than ever before?
Digitisation has also brought about many changes to film production. Both the shooting and editing stages of filmmaking have been greatly influenced by the introduction of new technologies. No longer are editing and special effects separate processes necessary to reach the final product. In turn, production has also been influenced by the filmmaker’s realisation of what can be done later in the editing room. Shot footage is no longer the final point. In short, the production becomes just the first stage of post-production.
Possibly the most interesting topic brought about by the increasing use of digital technology is the introduction of digital characters. Films such as The Phantom Menace and Toy Story have introduced audiences to characters made entirely from digital sources. Although George Lucas’ Jar Jar Binks was extremely annoying to many, the character alone showed just what could be done with emerging digital technology. In the anxiously awaited Lord Of The Rings trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson, so much effort has been put in to ensure the world of Middle Earth is as detailed as the original novels. Peter Jackson explains, “My same philosophy applied to digital effects as to the overall design. I wanted the monsters to feel real right down to the dirt under the fingernails of a Cave Troll.” Digitisation is giving directors the chance to be more believable in creating their digital characters.
Then we had Final Fantasy, the first entirely computer generated film using “realistic” characters, although the makers of the film (can you still call them directors?) concede that “a CG movie could not yet look absolutely real”. Despite the facial expressions of the digital characters lacking some subtlety, the key was to entice the audience to suspend reality like they had never done before. And Final Fantasy is just the tip of the digital iceberg, with the current style of computer-generated pieces of work tipped to continue. It seems that a new phase in Hollywood is beginning to emerge; a digital genre, just like the disaster movies and teen ‘slashers’ of the past. We have already gone through what Final Fantasy producer Chris Lee believes is a “digital summer. You have Shrek, Osmosis Jones, this film…but you also have The Mummy, and where would Pearl Harbor be without its digital effects…..digital technology has become inescapable as a tool in telling these big stories”. Enter A.I, Cats & Dogs and Monsters, Inc. into the fray.
The possibility of creating “real” characters entirely through computers has sparked intense debate as to whether this will spell the end for the human actor. While there will definitely be an increase in the number and quality of digital films hitting the movie screens, the concern is largely premature. Instead, digital films and effects will serve to complement the use of live action, either by creating more convincing scenes or merely increasing the range of movies available to the public. The sheer public appeal of a human actor cannot be replicated, as “actors themselves often guarantee the success of a film, and it would be a huge gamble of profits to rely on technology in every instance”. Even one of digital technology’s biggest supporters, Mike Figgis, knows that digitisation will not change filmmaking so much as to eradicate the need for actors. “Audiences are restless and ready for alternative ways of telling stories (but) I cannot imagine working with real actors or people”, he declares. Further proof that digitisation is being used to compliment live-action features is evidenced by the recent trend of making films out of animated cartoons. X-Men, Spiderman & Josie and the Pussycats have all been converted from animation to live-action blockbusters, with the former two among the most anticipated films of the past two years. These films go a long way to prove there can be no replacement for human acting as the future of filmmaking looks filled with digital conventions that will enhance the industry rather than control it.
There is little doubt that digital technology in the industry is here to stay, with many filmmakers exploring the possibilities of using digital techniques and formats. The general consensus among film circles is that “digital video’s time has already arrived; Now is not the time to discuss whether to use it but how to use it”. The use of digitisation in film will be one of the most interesting things to watch as movies begin to embrace newer technologies like the Internet, turning them into a positive tool of exhibition and reaching even more movie enthusiasts worldwide. Digital technologies have brought about a newer, more efficient film stock, enabled directors to become more experimental and regain some control over their movies, and opened up doors once shut by the limitations of traditional film. And it’s not just those in the industry that will benefit from this so-called digital revolution. Through technology such as DVD and the Internet, audiences will have a greater knowledge of the filmmaking process a well as access to cheaper digital video equipment themselves. The future looks bright for the industry, especially due to the increasing involvement of digital technology. Having already affected the film industry dramatically, it will be interesting to see where digitisation will take us next. But there is no doubt it has a large role to play in shaping filmmaking in the future.
Editorial by Pete Roberts
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