The Advent of Digital Film

Update: December 7th, 2009

The Advent of Digital Film

by Ed McNichol

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As we continue our pioneering of the use of digital technology to advance the field of electronic storytelling, changes are taking place in the way images are initially acquired. This end of the production equation is absolutely critical to the quality and impact of the final product. For this reason, more industry professionals are emigrating from a physical film approach to a digital production environment.

The reasons for this migration are easy to see, but this vision requires a fresh approach to the situation and the abandonment of pre-conceived notions and prejudices. Since I started my career as a film cutter, I’m very familiar with this mindset. But the recent stellar advances in digital technology have started a tectonic shift in the industry, and the changes to come will change the playing field of the industry, and the way we all work, forever.

So let’s take a step back and examine field acquisition alternatives. Of course, there is physical film – the 104 year old tired (yes, tired) but true method. Early on, I realized that physical film is a volatile medium with inherent risks and flaws. While these many risks, such as unusable footage and bad lab runs, were accepted then, there is no need to take such risks anymore. The difficulty of knowing exactly what you shot while still in the field has been partially addressed with video assist systems, but they add to the production costs and can’t insure that you get a good shot on your production format.

In addition, physical film introduces gate weave, jitter and other abnormalities that severely complicate effects work, used on so many productions nowadays. When physical film is transferred into effects systems, each frame must first be digitally registered to correct the inherent inability to precisely position each frame accurately in reference to the other frames.

Physical film also introduces several necessary burdens on the production timeline and budget. The first of these is the requirement for video assist systems in the field. The next cumbersome step is typically a transfer to a video medium, for off line creative work and possibly final mastering and distribution. There are also added costs in sessions dedicated solely to fixing color differences between shots and giving the production an overall “feel”.

In each of these steps, great care must be taken to maintain the synchronization relationship between the visual media and the separate audio media. Each of these added components significantly increases production costs and extends the production schedule.

All of these steps and associated downsides of physical film can be eliminated by the employment of digital technologies in the acquisition stage of the production. Modern digital technology, in the form of 1080 line HDTV camera’s, such as Sony’s HDW-700 Camcorder, offers a cost-effective solution. This technology and the forthcoming advances it clearly indicates will address all of these production issues while being capable of delivering the same quality viewing experience.

Digital acquisition ensures quality in part because it offers immediacy and absolute confirmation of content while still on location. At any point, you can review what you’ve already shot and ensure every aspect of the production is as desired. In addition, the color consistency of shots acquired with digital technology can be maintained with the use of advanced camera setup cards and in-field monitoring of test and measurement equipment. And of course, integrated single system audio recording smoothes the entire process and eliminates countless hassles downstream.

Digital technology is also the perfect acquisition format for effects work, making rotoscoping, chroma keying, virtual set work and wire removal much easier. For these very reasons, Lucas Film has decided to abandon the problems associated with physical film and utilize digital technology as their acquisition solution for the next two Star Wars features.

It should be noted that many traditional motion picture theaters are currently being wired for digital distribution of features, thus removing physical film from yet another loop in the production chain.

And once your footage has been digitally acquired, it can then later be processed to have the exact same appearance as material that was acquired on physical film. So the advantages of digital technology are many, as it solves all of the inherent risks and flaws of physical film, while providing an acquisition medium that can be treated to produce any one of a variety of different looks. And digital technology can deliver all of this while offering reduced shoot time and overall lower production costs.

I contend that much of current day production involves steps that exist primarily to overcome the intrinsic downfalls of physical film and that these steps unnecessarily tack on to end costs and lengthen production schedules. In an era of declining budgets and squeezed schedules, digital technology is becoming able to offer comparable quality at a much-reduced cost with a faster turnaround time. At some point, your images will become digital data, and the most obvious point to have that happen is in the camera.

And this digital technology is still in its early stages, with more advancements and savings in the works. For these reasons, it makes me wonder why they just don’t call it digital film. Maybe someday, we will.

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