Hollywood's Digital Workflow

It's no news that Hollywood has gone digital in a big way in the production, post-production, and, to a lesser extent, theatrical presentation of films. In fact, the day may yet come when the term "film" itself will be nothing more than a generic, but not entirely accurate, description like Scotch tape.

On March 5, 2005, the Hollywood chapter of SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) presented an all-day seminar on digital moviemaking at the Entertainment Technology Center's Digital Cinema Laboratory in Hollywood. Run by the University of Southern California, the ETC conducts research on the digital presentation of films. The DCL is located in the old Warner theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Long closed to the public, the Warner (in its last years called the Pacific—I saw Dragonslayer there in 1981) is a classic movie palace. Its elegance has long since faded, but the ETC has equipped it with state-of-the-art technical facilities: digital projection (with a resolution of 2048x1080 pixels, about twice the horizontal resolution of projectors currently used in most commercial digital cinemas), film projection (by Kinetone), a world-class sound system (though like most big LA theaters, they tend to play it too loud!), and a 52-foot wide screen. We first wrote about this facility last year (Ultimate AV, September 2004, pg. 17).

The evening before the seminar was devoted to a comparison between film and digital projection. The movie Ocean's Twelve was shown in its entirely, with every other reel alternating between film and digital. It wasn't easy to tell the difference at first, but when you knew what to look for, you couldn't be fooled for long. The movie was not the best test material; it was shot in a way designed to produce an obviously grainy look. Nevertheless, the digital "reels" were consistently sharper. Not by a lot; this was, after all, a first-class print passing through the gate of one of the best projectors in the world. The digital also looked just a little lighter overall—possibly due to a slightly different gamma. The blacks in the digital version were also a little less deep, but at the same time a little less muddy-looking than in the film. The color was close, but the match was not absolutely perfect, with the film looking a little more saturated. Finally, whenever I wasn't sure which one I was looking at, I could always spot the frame weave of the film version; it was subtle in this technically pristine setup, but still quite visible next to the rock-steady digital image.

The next day's seminar brought together production personnel from Ocean's Twelve, Collateral, Dust to Glory, Shark Tale, and Finding Neverland to discuss their production and post-production experiences. Ocean's Twelve was the last presentation of the day; I had to leave before their talk, but I did sit in on the discussions of the other four films.

All of the panels were interesting for different reasons. The Finding Neverland team emphasized the artistic side, with multiple short clips showing key scenes. Much digital processing was done to the color and to correct for problems like blown-out whites and the lack of shadow detail (though it was not explained precisely how the last two were accomplished). The presentation for Shark Tale included details on how the facilities used by Dreamworks Animation (the main studio in Glendale, California; PDI in northern California; and Aardman in England) are all linked not only for AV teleconferencing, but for remote operation of some of their digital-processing equipment as well.

The aspect of Shark Tale's post-production work that drew the most interest from the audience was the complexity of the sound dubbing required for the many overseas markets for this and other films. This ranges from the choice of actors to re-translating the dubbing back into English to make certain that the filmmaker's intent remains intact. Only a few short years ago, this involved a lot of overnight shipping back and forth, not to mention emergency transcontinental travel to put out fires. Today, most of the coordination is be done electronically, even in as simple a form as e-mail sound-file attachments!

Dust to Glory is a documentary from Dana Brown about the Baja 500 race through the Mexican desert. Produced independently for a mere $2 million, it used more than 70 cameras (35mm, 16mm, HD, and DV, plus archival tape elements, with the standard-definition material upconverted using a Teranex processor). Powerful tools are now available at a price accessible to independent filmmakers. Adobe Pro HD and After Effects were used on Dust to Glory's 250 hours of footage for editing, processing, and titling. The operations were performed on variable-bit-rate, Windows Media 9 files, which is quite unusual but saves significantly on storage requirements. The film is scheduled to open next month (April 2005); you can judge the results for yourself. The clips that were shown definitely made me want to see it. (Dana Brown's last film was the surfing documentary Step Into Liquid.)

By far the most extensive presentation (of the four I saw) was a discussion of director Michael Mann's Collateral, in which nine panelists participated. The editing and processing was done at 4K resolution, with each of the film-originated frames scanned to a 50MB file. Multiply that by 24 frames per second and you can begin to see the amount of data involved.

Some of the footage was shot on film, but much of Collateral was shot digitally, using cameras from Sony and Thomson. This generated huge additional storage requirements. Mann liked the way the digital cameras rendered night scenes. This is counterintuitive to those of us who believe that the weakest aspect of digital projection is its black level and contrast ratio. But apparently, Mann (who was not on the panel) didn't want super-deep blacks. He felt that LA at night, with its sodium vapor streetlights and other sources illuminating everything directly or by reflection from a marine-layer overcast that often rolls in after sundown, never looks as dark as many smaller cities with different street lighting and darker skies.

The crew shot over 1 million "feet" of film and video for Collateral. Digital projectors with 2K resolution were used for test screenings. After using digital technology to create the movie, Mann was never completely satisfied with film transfers. As a result, the premier was held in another old LA theater, the Orpheum. A 250-pound digital projector was brought in especially for the event and set up at the front of the balcony; the projection booth had a rake angle that would have produced severe keystone distortion on the screen.

With all that film and video, much of it needing to be reviewed in dailies and subject to volumes of the director's notes, the biggest problem in the new digital Hollywood would appear to be information overload! Collateral's editor also emphasized a more mundane but still serious problem: there are many great new tools at a filmmaker's disposal, but they don't all "talk" to each other in a way that would make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. That's a problem we can all relate to.