New Force Hits Moviemaking
George Lucas Innovates Again
By Jim Bray
Film as we know it is dead.
Well, maybe not dead, but it appears to be on the way out. In the same
way that consumer video recorders, and then camcorders, pushed the old
8mm film formats out of the way, Hollywood is beginning to embrace HDTV
as a legitimate alternative to old fashioned film.
The move is being led by filmmaker George Lucas, a man who has been pushing
the state-of-the-moviemaking-art for many years, and who is now flirting
with the idea of abandoning film in favor of high definition video.
He isnt just whistling Dixie, either, or messing about with some
little test film. Hes been hard at work filming er, shooting
Star Wars: Episode Two using a high tech hybrid high
def system called 24P for much of the work.
24P is a Sony-developed digital high definition video system that, like
film, uses 24 frames per second and, like some HDTV and computer systems,
is progressively scanned, rather than using the traditional
interlacing of North Americas current NTSC television
Interlacing, which is particularly noticeable on big screen
TVs, is when each frame of the picture is broken up
into two fields, each of which contains half the frames
information. Progressive scan is arguably more efficient because it displays
the entire picture at once, and eliminates those dark scan lines
you can sometimes see if you look closely at a TV screen.
So 24P, at least as modified for Lucasfilm, has the potential to offer
filmmakers the best of both worlds: the frame rate and benefits of film,
with the economy, efficiency, and time savings of video.
According to Sony, Lucas company put the system through a series
of rigorous tests using a special 24P Camcorder that was modified
to accept lenses and other camera accessories made by Panavision, the
world-famous name thats been virtually synonymous with mainstream
Hollywood productions over the past several decades,
Lucasfilm assessed the system for months, after which Lucas was apparently
convinced that he could get the familiar look and feel of motion picture
film . Sony says he actually found the picture quality between the 24P
format output and that of regular motion picture film indistinguishable
when displayed on the big screen.
This is an important point. Traditional video tape and traditional film
have very different qualities, and you can easily spot the differences
when you compare, for example, a TV sitcom shot on film and one shot on
Some of the tests Lucasfilm conducted included shooting a variety of
scenes in 24P and film at the same time, presumably with the cameras mounted
next to each other. These included interior and exterior shots, close-ups
and wide angles, and even some of Lucas trademarked high tech blue
screen special effects shots.
The film stock used for comparison was the large format VistaVision that
Lucasfilm has used with legendary success in the past.
The aspect ratio (the width of the picture compared to its height) chosen
for the tests was 2.4:1, the same used on such epics as The Sound
of Music. This meant they had to convert the picture from the inherent
16x9 of the digital HDTV format, but the results supposedly exceeded expectations.
Sony quotes Rick McCallum, producer of Episodes One and Two, as calling
it the exciting dawn of a new era in moviemaking, and says theres
no turning back.
The Lucasfilm experiments also included exploring different ways of transferring
the digital video image onto motion picture film for the long anticipated
theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode II. This is interesting
because its the reverse from the usual movie-to-video process.
The 35mm prints they created were viewed side by side with the 35mm VistaVision
footage, on a large screen at George Lucas Skywalker Ranch.
Another advantage to using video is ease of use for the extensive computer-generated
special effects so associated with Lucas, ILM, and Star Wars.
Rather than having to scan the film footage into a digital format that
can be manipulated by a computer, its already there!
What does this mean to consumers? Possibly nothing right now (I bet theyll
still want an arm and a leg to see Star Wars in a theater!),
but the technology could eventually trickle down to consumers, helping
empower new generations of aspiring producers and directors and
home movie enthusiasts.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.