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netribution > features > interview with luddites guide to digital > page two

Those nice people at Eastman Kodak and Fuji and places like that are not giving up film’s throne very easily and they are fighting back all the way. New grades of film stock, new laboratory processes, bleaching tanks to lighten the film look; all of these weapons are deployed to keep film on top. Film is still King. For the moment. That position may change when digital projection comes to lots of cinemas near you, and it probably will, but that has not happened yet.

In the meantime, digital technology has inserted a little fifth columnist in the mix, thanks to the advertising industry. Advertising needs TV commercials. Although commercials may originate on film their main objective is to complete a TV version on tape. These are high-budget, high production value affairs, but they are digitalphotochemically on celluloid film for screening in cinemas.

Advertising thinks in terms of markets and one market TV fails to reach is the teens and twenties. They don’t watch TV so much, but they do go to the cinema. Quite a lot. To catch that market, advertisers had to run their TV campaigns in cinemas, but not on videotape of course. This smaller cinema advertising market would have to post produce at film resolution. One of the industry leaders in this technology is Digital Film at the Moving Picture Company, based in Seoho. They have combined specialised hardware with specially written software that will put an image from tape onto the cinema screen using film, at the highest possible resolution.

What this process does is take a "frame" of video and scans it, line by line, to read the information on it. The better the quality of the information, as originated, the better the end result will be, so digital information scores over analogue. Even 35mm origination scores well here, because black blacks, white whites and vibrant colour information will all be coded clearly for the hardware to read. Blacks from video, even digibeta or HDTV, may not appear as "black" as those from photochemical film. The process doesn’t give a stuff about the origination. It faithfully records all that it scans in, just as "seen". If that comes from 35mm telecined and then to Avid, the process records the information presented by the Avid master, faithfully.

Technicians "treat" the material they see, making adjustments to get the best result from the process. They also look at what they are presented with shot-by-shot and make judgements accordingly. This is a slow and skilled process. One of the things the software does is "round off" the pixels at the edge of a particular image, so they edge becomes smooth on screen and not jagged. It has to be remembered that a cinema screen gives a tremendous magnification to the information you are presenting. Your mistakes magnify as much as your triumphs. Some of your edges might be a little rough metaphorically speaking, but pixels make certain that they are.

This is where low budget filmmakers need to be careful. Skimping on the shoot may cost you in post. Some shooting errors may be retrievable at this stage. But some may not and because this is a S-L-O-W frame by frame process, rescue jobs will be costly. Extra work takes extra time and you have to pay for that.

Think about the transfer process when planning your shoot. For example, when shooting interiors on video using lights, video is more tolerant of low light levels. This means you can get away with hiring fewer lights than you would need to shoot the same scene on film. It may look a tad shady on the monitor, so you get the camera operator to wack up the gain or some such techno-speak. Not so pea soup? Good. It looks fine on the monitor. Think of the money saved on film lighting, which always seems to use enough electricity to light Luxembourg, or Andorra at least. Think again. Cheapskate filmmaker saves a few quid, but will pay dearly for it in the screened image, which may appear to have been shot in a coal cellar.

The answer is to shoot on tape as if you were shooting on film.Use film lighting rig-ups and don’t tweak the camera to cut corners. The other problem preventer is to ask the company you want to do your tape-film transfer to give you their list of no-no’s.

It’s not only easier, its better and cheaper too.

This is also the stage where digital effects can be incorporated. That is the stuff of budgets some filmmakers can only dream of, but it is still possible to get something really glaringly, appallingly nasty, so bad that even you granny would spot it on screen, painted out for several hundreds of pounds. Or more, if it is against a tricky background. Of course, turning a dozen ranks of Nazi brownshirts into a full blown Nuremburg rally may be beyond your pockt, but it can be done, at a price. And far cheaper than hiring a Third Reich arena and doing it for real. Ask Ridley Scott. He fills whole Roman coliseums that way.

In fact, if there is one important lesson to learn in even considering tape to film transfer, it is this:

Ask, ask,ask.

And never assume.

Now the process moves from the digital domain, to the photochemical, using a laser system developed by Arri, the camera people. So even film luddites who sleep with a Bolex under their pillow can feel safe here. The laser faithfully burns onto a film negative, line by line, all the information fed to it by the transfer computer, converting bits of information back the light it used to be once upon a time, way back at the very beginning when it was captured on the shoot. Well, almost the same. In between, it has been edited on an Avid, tweaked by computer on transfer and now it is a master negative and first answer print. Oh yes, and the filmmaker’s budget is much leaner. But not as lean as it would be after having shot off thousands of feet of 35mm, edited traditionally with cut and splice to get to first answer print.

The other possible advantage to the filmmaker is that he or she does not have to deal with the film lab at all, which can be bewildering. Your transfer company will deal with them on your behalf and the lab will simply hold your neg and prints in proper safe storage and release prints to those you authorise them to.

The images produced by the tape-to-film transfer system are good it must be admitted.

Check out the very latest cinema commercials to see them. If they look like they were shot on original 35mm negative, you’ve been taken in. They shoot video tape. Check out that car wreck in the Orange commercial. Fooled you, sir.

Film may still be King, but he really needs to be watching the Crown Prince over his shoulder.

He’s the one with the laser in his hand studying technology.

Wait until he gets a full-scale state-of-the-art digital projector.

Your majesty, the days of your reign may be numbered.


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