Monday, January 8, 2007

Digging Digital

For the past seven years or so, the Hype Machine has sung the praises of the Digital Revolution. But while some technological developments have exploded exponentially (the World Wide Web), ubiquity has been slow in coming for other advances (hi-res streaming video).

Boosted by the 1996 FCC mandate for full digital broadcast compliance by the year 2006, videography, that whore sister of filmmaking, co-opted the binary data craze. Traditional Betacam equipment went the way of Betamax. DigiBeta became the industry standard, although not necessarily for long. The advent of digital video production predicated the creation of several fresh digital video formats.

Manufacturers rushed new cameras, editing and processing systems into development. Broadcast stations and cable companies initiated the premiere platforms for digital delivery of content. By 1998, Broadband not only began pumping digital video signals through the cable lines, but also provided high-speed data flow and Internet connection via the cable modem.

High-end digital video cameras like the DVCPro, DigiBeta, and DVCam not only became available, but Prosumer cams like the Canon XLI, Sony XV100 and Sony TRV900 became affordable. Soon, consumer grade cameras single chip CCD DV cams inundated the market. Coupled with inexpensive digital audio recording equipment, consumers now had the ability to play in the fields of the pros.

Non-linear digital editing systems like the AVID had already revolutionized the film industry, but for years old school editors balked. The advent of digital video sparked a similar debate. With affordable equipment, now anyone could make a film. And anyone did.

Student filmmakers, rank amateurs, burgeoning pornographers and pioneering directors supplanted actual celluloid with binary bits of data. The once daunting and cost-prohibitive process of film production was now relatively swingable. But the question was begged: is it filmmaking if actual film is not involved? Or at least not involved until the print stage. Is the canvas and brush on which and with which the masterpiece is painted as much art as the work, itself?

Many independent directors excluded from the traditional film method by insufficient financing and manpower think not. Last year’s celebrated DV film The Celebration heralded in a new age. Clinging to a visual aesthetic that eschewed the typical cyber-quality of most DV product, The Celebration became the posterboy of digital filmmaking. Along with films like The Cruise, Saltmen Of Tibet and Windhorse, The Celebration proved that digital video could be as beautiful as a movie shot on film and as beautiful on a tighter budget. DV films will change the way films are lit, the way video is transferred to film and even the way films are projected.

While independents push the envelope with digital video, industry stalwarts are finding new and innovative ways to test the limits of digital technology. As more and more mega-budget epics rely on CGI and other computer-generated effects and processes, companies like LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar are creating entire segments and even entire feature films digitally. In the movie theaters themselves, digital projection systems are already a reality. This summer, digital prints of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace were released and screened. It won’t be long before films are shot, edited and projected completely via digital means.

At the end of the day, what does all this mean for theatergoers and movie lovers? Higher resolution and better sound and image quality, of course. But more importantly, these advances will insure that the films we love today will be with us tomorrow.

The last 100 years of filmmaking has been a glorious achievement. But unfortunately, we may never get to see many films. The celluloid has deteriorated. Even films shot in the last twenty years are at risk. Without the valiant efforts of a devoted film community, we would have lost a significant portion of our film heritage. Digital filmmaking will, above all, provide a safeguard.

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