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Issue: HD - Aug 29, 2003

HOLLYWOOD AND HIGH DEF

By: By Nick Dager
The Hollywood production community has always had a love/hate relationship with new technology. Anyone who doubts this should review the history of the transition from silent films to talkies or, more recently, the acceptance of nonlinear editing.

Now comes digital high definition video. Not too many years ago, there were some in Hollywood who hated to even hear the term HD. Times, however, are changing fueled by three distinct developments: a growing track record of successful HD productions, improvements in HD technology and the constant demand to keep production costs low.

"I don't think Hollywood hates HD," says Randall Dark, founder of HDVision Studios in Hollywood and a pioneer of HD production. "I think Hollywood has yet to understand HD. I don't think there's hatred… there's caution. You're introducing a new technology and it's going to take time for that technology to be adopted. Hollywood is wary of new technology because it changes the dynamics of how we do things."

Jon Reiner, marketing manager, movie and television production, of Sony Electronics, agrees. "If you define Hollywood as the seven major studios, and if the studios represent something larger than just the $100 million feature motion picture, then I don't think they hate high definition if you look at a couple of things," he says. "Most of them are significantly involved in television production as well as feature production, and most of them have already produced high definition programming that was on the air last year. And if they haven't, they're planning to do so this season."

Reiner says, "With regard to television, three years ago high definition for [the studios] was a news item, two years ago it was worthy of a meeting and a technical demonstration. A year ago it was worthy of them adopting high definition as part of their production chain, certainly for situation comedies."

He says this is true to a lesser extent for dramatic series as well and adds, "It has begun to raise the level of interest for feature production for the same studios."

Having said that, Reiner still believes that film origination of features isn't going away. "Motion picture production for some number of years will accommodate both digital production and film-originated production as long as there remains a viable market for film prints to be distributed and shown theatrically."

Brian Spruill, VP/GM of worldwide sales operations/marketing for Kodak Entertainment Imaging, understandably echoes the viewpoint that film, despite the headlines, is far from dead. And while he accepts the reality that digital technology is making strides, he believes that film origination will be a Hollywood staple for years to come.

"There really is very little [feature] production being done, at least from the studios' perspective, in high definition or Digi Beta," Spruill says, adding that "there's also a lot of 16mm being done in independent features." He also believes that, given a choice, most producers would choose to shoot film but says, "Cost reasons don't always allow them to do that." This is especially true in TV production. "In TV, it's pretty straightforward because it's going to be video distribution, and whether it becomes high definition or not is anybody's guess."

Spruill concedes, "that for some things, digital production is the look that the creator wants to have. The issue is always what look does the creative team of the producer, director and cinematographer want to achieve."

THE WORKFLOW

Whether they shoot film or digital, however, producers are increasingly opting for a digital intermediate. Spruill calls this "a great trend for post houses" and says, "Digital mastering and digital intermediates are becoming a very popular thing to do. To get [projects] on the big screen [producers still] have to come back to film, and they generally do a digital intermediate or a digital master that's at a very high resolution." Kodak feels so strongly about this that they have announced plans to acquire Hollywood post house and early HD pioneer Laser-Pacific.

In a recent press release, Kodak's worldwide entertainment imaging services group GM, Bertrand Decoux, said, "The motion picture industry is at a crossroads. The convergence of film, digital and hybrid imaging technologies are changing the way movies are produced and distributed. The acquisition of Laser-Pacific is a logical combination."

Charles Swartz, executive director/CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, home to the Digital Cinema Lab, also sees production workflow issues as critical to any discussion of HD in Hollywood.

"What has happened is, the digital cinema that we've done so far has all used a 24p post production workflow to prepare it for the digital projector," he says, adding that the material doesn't have to be acquired on 24p. "In fact, typically, it's not been shot on 24p. If you looked at every digital cinema [feature] release that's been done since Star Wars: Episode II, how many of them were shot on 24p? A bare handful if any. All of them went through a 35mm process where they basically used a 24p HD workflow."

And, Swartz says, there are some other mundane, but critical, issues that must be resolved. "Think of a show like Law & Order," he says. "Everything is on location. They may have one stage that they use for courtrooms and the police [headquarters] but for all the other stuff, they're on location. So how well does that work when you compare it to just being able to pull the Arriflex out of the case, slap on the magazine and the battery and go? That's a question to be considered."

Nick Dager is the editor and publisher of Digital Cinema Report.