“The Past, Present and Future” of Digital Film Making

This article was written and published back in June of 2002. It found its way into the “Vivid Imagery Australia” magazine as a four page feature. It is out of date now, especially in the world of film. Technology is superseded year on year. With Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise as well as ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) I thought there was a fresh relevance. Since I wrote this the balance of the Lord of the Rings series including The Hobbit as well as Avatar have been released. Each furthering the digital film process. Now with talks of more Star Wars films. Right or wrong you can be rest assured the visual effects will be unsurpassed even if the script is found wanting.

On May 16th of last year “Attack of the Clones” was released worldwide. The next instalment of the Star Wars saga had been eagerly anticipated; not only by hard-core fans but also by those of us that have a vested interest in the future of computer generated imagery within cinema. Many years ago it was established that computer graphics were an essential part in creating the imaginary world, which is cinema. It helped make characters, creatures, monsters, dinosaurs and even other planets far more realistic than props within a studio ever could. Within reason it was also cost effective, cutting down on many costs that went into creating props and real pyrotechnics. All of these still play a major role but now instead of the script being written around their limitations, it has expanded to include CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), which is fast creating a medium with unlimited potential. Once the digital image is captured, new technologies promote an infinite amount of creative input that were not possible with the photochemical process.

It was “Jurassic Park” released in 1993 that really got us to sit up and take notice. George Lucas’s ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) team, headed by Dennis Muren won an academy award for their visual effects. It’s not hard to see why when you watch the film. It seamlessly merges live action film with computer-generated dinosaurs. This in itself sells the movie, which would have been a flop had the dinosaurs been unrealistic.

The biggest compliment any designer can have when working on a movie, is that the viewer was not even aware of there being any special effects. It means that you have completely sold them on an idea, one that they’ll not question. This is fine on small time movies where the computer effects are used to save time and money but when they’re being used as the draw card as is the case in “Jurassic Park”, they must be so believable you’re left sitting in the cinema scratching your head in wonder. They achieved this by spending a phenomenal amount of money on groundbreaking technology, which at the time was stretching the boundaries of cinema.

George Lucas has played a major role in defining how these new technologies can be implemented. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has had as big an influence in the graphics industry, without actually ever being a part of it. He is a visionary and one that can see the movies he wants to create and goes about inventing ways to make them possible. By no means are these over night solutions.

YodaWhen the original Star Wars “A New Hope” was shot in 1975-76 there was no-one in Hollywood let alone the world that had the special effects capabilities to make the movie believable. So as a direct result of this lack of resources George created his own in the form of ILM. It is at the forefront of computer graphics in cinema and television and has been for almost 30 years. New forms of stop motion photography were used to capture the many miniature models that were shot throughout the original movie.  As well as new and innovative uses of the blue and green screens. These are now used with great effect by movie productions worldwide. This was all done on a very low budget with the average age of the special effects crew being twenty-two years of age, and straight out of university. This hard working determined team created one of the biggest movie events of all time. Prior to its release one of the most memorable visual effects in cinema, were of King Kong atop the Empire State Building swatting aeroplanes out of the sky like they were flies. When this footage is viewed now it not only looks primitive but truly false, and you find yourself looking for hidden wires. This is not to say that at the time it wasn’t a great advancement. It was, and led to many new discoveries in how to shoot special effects. And even to this day is looked on fondly as a magical movie moment as the great Kong holds Fay Wray aloft above New York. Remember it was released in 1933…

Star Wars was followed by a string of B-Grade sci-fi movies that attempted to cash in on the amazing visual effects. They failed miserably, solely because they couldn’t stand up against the might of Star Wars in the effects department, let alone a half decent storyline. Following “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” people began to find their feet with a string of box office blockbusters chock full of explosive action. The eighties exploded literally with pyrotechnics a plenty in movies from “Die-Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” to “Indiana Jones”. Possibly the most impressive of these was the “Terminator” series, which proved that technology had taken another step forward. A scene from “Terminator 2”  (1991) stands out as a stunner even now, as the Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger destroys T-1000 (Robert Patrick). His remains are scattered about the floor in metallic globs. Just as Arnie breathes a sigh of relief the metallic liquid flows together to morph back into T-1000. This is still a standout scene, and could not be shot any better today. Faster and more efficiently yes, but better? No.

When “Jurassic Park” was released with its big action and amazing visual effects it captured everyone’s imaginations, including George Lucas who had seen it in production first hand, through Industrial Light and Magic. When Steven Spielberg showed a private screening to his friends, of which George was one, things began to formulate in his mind. He was impressed by the fluid motion and scope of the movie, which were both aspects of the back-story of the Star Wars saga. He had been contemplating shooting the prequels to the original movies for some time but knew that the technology was not quite there. But with the success of “Jurassic Park” things began to look very positive. With the new advances in technology he could now go places and create creatures that would have been impossible before. The only problem was that he’d have to write a script, which he notoriously loathes.

JangoDuring the creative process leading up to pre-production of “The Phantom Menace”, George Lucas and Rick McCallum Producer of the prequel trilogy had discussed at length whether the possibility of shooting in digital existed. Digital effects were still in their infancy but George was adamant that this technology should have been utilised twenty years ago. With this belief serious testing began on how to expand and introduce new aspects of digital technology to 16 mm and 35 mm film, as well as the possibility of the development of an entirely digital system from camera to can.

Throughout this time Lucasfilm was shooting a television series called “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” This proved to be the perfect test bed for trials involving digital special effects. Shot on 16 mm film it was an unassuming television show, which had a loyal group of followers but could never be considered a hit. It was aimed at the younger market and was created to focus heavily on historical events and characters. This was achieved through the adventures of Indie as a young man. The fact that it was not overly successful meant that the varying technics used to bring it to life were never under intense scrutiny, leaving the designers to fine tune their practices. Digital addition, extension and replication were used to great success. This is where an original shot is filmed, then scanned into the computer and duplicated perhaps even as a mirror image. So what began, as a group of five dancing girls in a scene could become ten or fifteen as the scope and scale of the shot grew to incorporate many added layers.

This proved so successful throughout the duration of the “Young Indiana” series that the Lucasfilm team decided to apply the same principles to their next feature film, “Radioland Murders”, a whodunit comedy-spoof of radio in its heyday. The real success of this movie was the computer generated special effects which were so impressive that most people were unaware of them even existing. Described at the time of its release as “The Future of Filmmaking;” it created a benchmark for special effects. The movie itself was critically panned, its main fault being that it tried far too hard for a laugh. But it had succeeded where George Lucas wanted it to. The finished product displayed in unparalleled fashion, the possibilities of digital filmmaking. It was so impressive that at the time many of the critics and reviewers were not even aware of what they were witnessing. They all made mention of the great clarity and colouration of the film the sound was also granted many accolades. Much controversy surrounds the use of digital filmmaking, had people been aware of the significance of the film, there is no question that it would have received more attention.

Prior to “Attack of the Clones” many people were judging the digital arena before they had even seen a finished product. George has been quoted as saying in an interview with Sony that the transition to digital was “as profound a change as going from silent to talkies and going from black and white to colour.” Despite this a stigma had been attached to the idea of digital filmmaking since the idea was first bandied around. Film purists could not conceive of anyone attempting to further this form of film, due to the belief that after many years of using traditional film they had finally got it right. The current 35 mm camera is a freestanding unit without the need for many cables. It can also be used in varying climates with little or no effect to the finished product. Where as in comparison the new digital cameras require seven cables to be plugged into it at all times, also varied temperatures can affect production. The Sony 24P HD (24-frames-per-second, progressive scan) Digital Camera used recently on “Attack of the Clones” was said to be quite cumbersome and unwieldy as the weight wasn’t as balanced or refined as the traditional camera. But progress was substantial, the original camera was halved in weight and size during filming of the movie, and a new model half the size again is slated for release this year. Shooting in digital also proves beneficial as you’re not constantly running out of film every ten minutes. The dreaded “Roll-Out” (yelled during shooting when film runs out) is something that needs to be avoided, as it tends to happen during the performance of a pivotal scene, breaking both the concentration of the actors and production staff alike.

George Lucas and Rick McCallum had approached Sony a number of years in advance of the production of “The Phantom Menace”, in the hope that the cameras could be designed and built in time for filming the first of the prequels. This would have meant that “The Phantom Menace” would have been the first feature length movie in history, shot entirely in digital format.  Unfortunately the cameras could not be completed prior to the start of filming.

CoruscantA number of problems were responsible for delaying the release of the camera. First off, at the time “The Phantom Menace” was released the frame rate for video was shot at thirty frames per second. In comparison film was shot at twenty-four frames per second. Meaning that from post-production through to distribution many problems arose due to the frames not aligning. This was remedied by the time “Attack of the Clones” began shooting. The new camera’s frame rate was shot at twenty-four frames per second matching the film ratio, so that when it’s scanned onto film for distribution you have one video frame for every film frame.

The second problem was that the original lenses that came with the Sony camera were not suitable for the wide-screen format, which the “Star Wars” films are shot in. Nor were they capable of shooting the immense detail that is required for work within the design studio. As a result Rick McCallum had to look elsewhere for compatible lenses. Panavision was an obvious choice to supply these as they had the technological know how as well as a long history in film. They created a range of new lenses for a variety of purposes, all of which were compatible with the Sony digital camera. This is the perfect example of a number of large corporations coming together to push the boundaries of their respective fields.

A digital movie was now very close to reality. With all of the equipment tested and ready for use things began to be put into motion for Episode Two “Attack of the Clones”. Production proceeded smoothly on the film with some departments even coming in under budget. These were due to the digital format. It allowed everyone who was involved in the making of the film from the cameramen and the props department through to wardrobe, hair and make-up and of course George, to view a scene immediately after it was shot. If there was a problem with lighting, presentation or continuity it could be picked up and re-shot, whereas with film you would have to run your eye over the dailies that night and probably re-shoot the following day. With this process the “Attack of the Clones” crew managed to go from 26 set-ups a day to 37, completing shooting of the movie three days ahead of schedule.

“Attack of the Clones” was shot entirely onto High Definition Digital Video Cassettes. Sound and picture were recorded onto the same high definition tapes, and sunk automatically. These cassettes allow you to view footage moments after it had been shot, meaning that work in the graphics department could theoretically begin on the same day that the scene was shot. This is of course not what transpired as an enormous amount of concept art was done prior to and after filming had begun, whilst the graphics crew were still sitting in front of their computers months after shooting had ended.

This was the ideal format for shooting a movie of the calibre of “Attack of the Clones”. It was such a large undertaking that it even exceeded “The Phantom Menace” in the CGI department. Every single frame, every single shot has a digital effects component. Even if it was just a background image through a window, the detail was exceptional. For ILM to shoot on film and then scan each shot individually onto the computer for CGI was unrealistic. This kind of motion picture has no alternative but to shoot in digital.

JedifighterThe resulting movie, of all this hard and ground-breaking work exceeded everyone’s expectations. It officially became at this point the first feature film in history to be shot entirely in a high definition digital video format. The depth of feel, clarity, sharpness and brightness of the image amazed both fans and critics of the digital film medium. One of the fears was that when the completed film was put on the big screen it would lose definition and clarity. In fact it achieved the opposite and is impossible to pick any flaws in the finished product. This was due to the computer design lenses, which focus on very small targets. The actual chips within the cameras are smaller than the 35 mm film image, therefore the performance of the digital lens had to be better than that of the 35 mm lens, since you were using a smaller area to emit the entire high-resolution frame.

“Attack of the Clones” did gang busters at the box office, but that was expected. Being part of the Star Wars saga guarantees success. But the real success was creating a movie that was so visually stunning in both passive and action scenes that you have to watch it a number of times before the immense scale and detail of the film sinks in. Shooting on a digital platform gives the director and producer a lot of room to work with and as a result a film has no limitations. Saving time and money these days is a priority in film, and a medium that actually assists designers in creating it as well as cushioning the executive producers fall will most definitely be in demand. The more film makers that choose to utilise digital cinema the better. As over time it will iron out any bugs that do exist.

A new generation of digital equipment is currently in the developmental stages. The revolutionary 24P HD (24-frames-per-second, progressive scan) Digital Camera is about to be taken one step further by Sony. The 24P was capable of shooting a resolution of 2.2 million pixels. They’re planning on having a state of the art model released in time for shooting of Episode Three that will shoot at up to 10 million pixels. Combine these advances with the new generation of lenses that are being designed and built by Isis, Fuji and Canon to name a few, which are in the marketplace competing directly with the all ready established Panavision range. You achieve a heightened level of reality within digital movie making that film cannot dream of capturing. This proves in a resounding manner that the future of computer effects in cinema is more than assured.