AFI/Apple Alliance Bears Fruit

By Harrell, Alfred D | American Cinematographer, April 1992 | Go to article overview

AFI/Apple Alliance Bears Fruit

Harrell, Alfred D, American Cinematographer

Over the past five years, another factor has been added to the filmmaking equation of writer, director, cast and crew. This new collaborator's input has grown increasingly more important, especially in films like Terminator 2, where live action and effects are joined in an almost seamless union. The revolution involves not cameras or Moviolas, but high-tech computers and banks of glowing monitors that represent the cutting edge of film and video technology, and is taking place in institutions like the American Film Institute's AFI-Apple Computer Center.

Set up in 1967 by President Johnson as a national trust and training center for filmmakers and, later, videomakers, the AFl has received donations totaling over $1 million from Apple Computers and various other computer hardware and software manufacturers. These donations of equipment and software allowed the Institute to set up the Computer Center.

The Center represents the state of the art in computer hardware and software for film and video, and is, according to facility director Nick DeMartino, "the only computer lab in the country that is devoted, exclusively, to the art of motion picture, video, and the new interactive multi-media technology."

In addition to the donations of equipment, the Center has gathered a pool of professionals in the film and video community who are "pushing the edge of the envelope" in the use of computer technology. The staff includes Frank Dutro, who serves as the Center's technical consultant; Harry Marks, an early innovator in broadcast television computer graphics; as well as effects specialists who have worked on movies that relied heavily on the breakthroughs in computer technology in order to create their effects - movies like Terminator 2 and The Abyss. These professionals teach classes and seminars in the new computer and electronic technologies of film production and art, not only to AFI fellows, but to other industry professionals as well. The classes and seminars are open to all film and video students and working professionals at nominal cost.

But the Center isn't just set up as a way station for whiz-bang effects movies and videos. The facility also explores how the GUI (Graphical User Interface)-based computers can increase the effects options of director and cameraman.

Using an example from Terminator 2, DeMartino points out that without specially-designed computer programs, a shot like Schwarzenegger's motorcycle jump across the concrete drainage conduit, which was accomplished using a wire rig of visible heavy cables that the cycle rode on, would have had to be re-rigged to hide the heavy cables. Producing the same spectacular effect another way would have eliminated the stability and safety the heavy cable afforded, and forced the effects team to cover the cable with matte work or painting in postproduction. Either option would have been costly and time-consuming. Now, DeMartino says, "using Mac-based software like 'Adobe Photoshop/ the heavy cable in the shot can be taken out electronically and the integrity of the shot maintained. All this is done at a fraction of the cost of the old methods and in much less time."

This software application allows the cinematographer to compose and light the shot without having to work around rigging. This in turn enables the director and cinematographer to "manipulate and clean up die photographed image," DeMartino says.

As Center consultant Frank Dutro is quick to point out, however, "No computer will make a badly lit and composed shot into a well lit and beautifully composed shot. The cinematographer's art is still necessary. The computer can only enhance and manipulate what is already there."

Film and video manipulation by computer, though simple to execute, is extremely complex. The sheer amount of information space needed to process a highspeed image system like film is tremendous. A single frame of film takes up to 40 megabytes (a megabyte is over one million bits of information storage spaces) per frame, multiplied by almost 300 megabytes per second. …

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