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A 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 isn’t just whistling Dixie, either, or messing about with some little test film. He’s 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 America’s current NTSC television standard.

“Interlacing,” which is particularly noticeable on big screen TV’s, is when each “frame” of the picture is broken up into two “fields,” each of which contains half the frame’s 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 that’s 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 video.

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 there’s 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 it’s 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, it’s already there!

What does this mean to consumers? Possibly nothing right now (I bet they’ll 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.


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January 31, 2006