You Should Be in Pixels: Hollywood Is Adopting the Digital Technology Your High-End Camcorders Use. the Studios Hope to Save Money in the Long Run-But at What Cost to Moviegoers?

By Klein, Debra | Newsweek, April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

You Should Be in Pixels: Hollywood Is Adopting the Digital Technology Your High-End Camcorders Use. the Studios Hope to Save Money in the Long Run-But at What Cost to Moviegoers?


Klein, Debra, Newsweek


Who needs film? Evidently George Lucas doesn't. He shot his next "Star Wars" movie digitally, on tape instead. In 1996, when the science-fiction director saw movie production costs soaring past the $100 million mark, Lucas approached Sony with a challenge: find a way to capture images digitally, but deliver the picture quality of film. Sony put a prototype machine in his hands by November 1999. A year later he had completed shooting "Star Wars: Episode II"--using only high-definition digital technology. It's set for release in May 2002.

Now other directors have joined the force. The University of Southern California just opened a digital-arts center to train the next generation of filmmakers; technology companies like Texas Instruments, Sony and Panasonic are building cutting-edge equipment, and artists are gradually getting onboard. For moviegoers, the benefits can be subtle: digital movies don't degrade like film so the 100th viewing will be as crisp and clean as the first. Cheaper moviemaking tools will also make it easier for budding auteurs to say "Action!"

Next year Hollywood plans to present the first high-definition digital movies on high-definition projectors. This means live-action movies that have been shot with the new cameras will be screened using digital light projectors (DLPs). The industry's hope is that when projected using this special microchip technology, images shot on digital cameras will not only look as good as film, but also be delivered as easily as e-mail. With digital, studios plan to beam movies over satellites or fiber-optic lines directly to theaters, eliminating the expensive process of making and shipping multiple film prints. So far, a handful of studio releases have been shot in digital video, notably Mike Figgis's "Time Code 2000" and Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," but these were transferred to film and projected the old-fashioned way. The first studio feature using both digital cameras and digital projectors will be Jersey Film's "How High," due at the start of 2002.

Right now, few audiences can experience the full digital effect. Only 31 screens worldwide are equipped with the technology. Financially strapped theater owners say they won't be snapping up expensive digital projector systems just yet. "We can spend $30,000 for a top-of-the-line 35mm projector that will last 20 to 30 years or $150,000 for a new technology that could be obsolete," says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. Still, a new Forrester Research study predicts that more than a third of the country's 36,000 movie screens will go digital in the next five years. There have already been a couple of "stunt" digital transmissions of movies using satellites, and some theaters have screened digitized versions of movies like "Dinosaur" and "Toy Story 2" using DLPs. For those showings, technicians physically delivered the movies on CD-size discs and loaded them into projectors at each theater. The projectors decode the digital information and--using light pulses across microscopic mirrors--transmit pictures to the screen. …

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