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Digital video poised to leap to silver screen

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999


HOLLYWOOD -- A digital video camera was perched like a bazooka on the shoulder of director Mike Figgis as he carved a path through the oblivious pedestrians on Sunset Strip, following actor Stellan Skarsgard into a swanky glass-faced office. At the same moment, not far away, three other digital cameras were following other actors as they made their way down the sidewalk, chatted on cell phones or bickered at curbside, the real world swirling around them.

Whatever this film in progress might add up to artistically, Figgis, the British director best known for the Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas, is at the very least extraordinarily ambitious, some might say audacious, about exploiting the digital technologies that are beginning to seep into the Hollywood mainstream.

His film, Time Code 2000, is being shot in real time; that is, as one continuous take, without editing, that lasts a predetermined 93 minutes. The four cameras dance across a half-dozen sets and down city streets with a breathtaking seamlessness, following the film's characters in and out of meetings, assignations and confrontations.

Figgis thought of doing the film just a few months ago, and he said the digital technology would require only four to six weeks of postproduction work instead of the typical several months, time spent mostly fussing with the sound mix. The film could be available for theatrical release before the end of the year.

When it appears in theaters, he said, the images from the four cameras will be shown simultaneously, either in horizontal strips with four images shown from left to right or stacked two-atop-two, allowing audiences to edit the film in their own heads as they switch attention from one image to another and follow the plot.

For years, digital moviemaking has been a grass-roots movement among aspiring filmmakers who resented the dominance of the Hollywood aesthetic. Time Code 2000 brings the new technology inside the walls of the major studios -- in this case, those of Sony Pictures, which, not coincidentally, is owned by a company that also manufactures digital video equipment. Once inside the walls, many think, digital moviemaking will have a major impact on the way movies are made and how people view them.

Despite predictions that digital technology will transform the industry, its influence is far from certain. For one thing, many filmmakers are extremely resistant to using digital video because of the flat, bland image that videotape often produces, particularly in comparison with the richer images recorded by film.

The cost of converting to digital projection systems also is formidable -- $100,000 per projector multiplied by the more than 34,000 screens in the United States -- and theater owners and studios have very different ideas about who should pay the tab. Meanwhile, even the adventurous Figgis must transfer his digital tape to old-fashioned film so it can be projected by the machines in place.

Nevertheless, digital proponents remain exultant. "It's a revolution," said Rodger Raderman, chairman of iFilm, a San Francisco company that distributes digital films on the Internet. "And I believe it's coming faster than most people think."

Documentary filmmakers, in particular, have been at the forefront, driven by economic necessity and a lack of interest from the entertainment industry in financing their projects.

Such respected directors as Penelope Spheeris and Spike Jonze have done work in digital video, and New Line Cinema said in November that it had signed a deal with Spike Lee to make Bamboozled, a movie shot entirely on digital video.

When digital filmmaking's full potential is reached, a growing number of people in the industry think, it might threaten a studio power structure that has held firm since the advent of sound and has absorbed such technological challenges as television and VCRs.

"It is beyond imagination what this is going to do to filmmaking," said Figgis, whose roots are in music, theater and experimental film. "What has been an exclusive medium of high finance, banking and financial exclusivity is now going to become something that is within the reach of everyone."

The theory is that even the most modestly financed filmmaker could afford to shoot a movie and transmit it to theaters digitally at little expense.

This revolution is being driven by the convergence of several technologies: relatively inexpensive digital video cameras, only now becoming widely available; digital projectors that eliminate the need for film; and the growing ability of the Internet and other information pipelines to transmit digital sounds and images to multiplexes, living rooms and computer screens without reliance on a studio's expensive production and distribution services.

It may become possible to distribute and market those films effectively on the Internet if the example of last summer's Blair Witch Project is a guidepost to the future.

"The whole economics of the business are basically turned upside down by digital technology," said Bruce Apar, editor-in-chief of Video Business, a magazine published by Variety. "It will change the movie industry, absolutely."

Emerging technologies may push change further. Some will allow filmmakers to bypass not only film, but also digital tape, making it possible to shoot onto digital memory and computer disks. The images can be downloaded to a computer and transmitted the same way that any other computer file is transmitted. They can be edited on the computer screen, effects can be added and the resulting movie can be sent by modem or satellite to any place in the world. Then theater owners can download the movies and project them onto a screen with the new generation of digital projectors.

The financial savings can be considerable, even with available digital equipment. Digital cameras cost a small fraction of what film cameras cost, and prices are plummeting. New software allows anyone to edit film on a home computer. There are no costs for developing film, no need for reels of celluloid. Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to make copies of a movie, producers could make as many copies as necessary with the click of a mouse.

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