From screen to monitor
Enhancing the precious film experience
For the 1974 disaster movie 'Earthquake', Universal Studios came up with Sensurround: special speakers in cinemas that were pumping out a heavy bass so that the audience felt a rumble, just like during an earthquake.
Unfortunately, it also led to nosebleeds, so, like Demis Roussos, Sensurround became just another 1970s fad yet to be revived.
Gimmicks have long been a staple of moviemaking, but when James Cameron, director of 'Titanic', says a new of way of viewing films is about to take over, we should listen.
Cameron is currently in post-production on his next film, 'Avatar'. This sci-fi epic is due for release in December 2009, but was written more than a decade ago.
Ahead of the times
The only thing that has stopped it from being made, according to Cameron, was the wait for the technology to catch up with his vision.
The film will use performance-capture technique which is a leap forward from the blue-screen effects of films such as 'Lord of the Rings'. There, actor Andy Serkis had to wear hundreds of tiny markers which were then transferred to a computer screen and rendered into his CGI character Gollum.
In 'Avatar', Cameron is using a massive stage he calls "The Volume", with a real-time virtual camera. He directs and adjusts as the actors perform rather than waiting for image to be rendered later.
Actors wear a quick-to-put-on mobile rig on their head for the computer modelling. Far from making actors redundant, Cameron says it liberates them from the hours of preparation previously required.
For those hoping to be the James Camerons of the future, the technical expertise he wields is all part of the required training. Whether you go on to show your film on the big screen or a mobile phone, certain principals remain.
Brian Tufano is head of cinematography at the UK's National Film and Television School (NFTS) near Pinewood Studios.
He started his career at the BBC before moving on to movie making. Among his credits are 'Billy Elliot', 'Trainspotting' and 'Blade Runner'.
"The Odeon in Leicester Square is the biggest screen in Britain," he says. "It is 47 feet from side to side. Our aim is for our students to think in those terms.
"The philosophy of our department is, if you can light for that big screen, you can do anything and the material can be shown anywhere.
"To be shooting for a cinema screen and then to expect it to look the same on phone is quite a reach."
The NFTS runs special courses which address alternative viewing mediums such as mobile phones. One of its graduates this year made a series of animated films for the latter.
Tufano says the new equipment gives people more licence to learn but also widens the range of what they need to know.
"No matter whether it is film or video or digital or whatever, you have to learn your craft," he says. "You also hope the students have a creative talent. That is what we are looking for.
"In my day, you needed to understand film, processing procedure, the screen luminance in cinemas. Then, once you graded the film, it was out of your hands.
"Now it pays for aspiring cinematographers to actually learn about whole post-production route because much of it has bearing on the look of a film.
"It is all very well taking up small HD camera but the post production end of it can be quite considerable."
What he means is that it is possible to make up for the lack of depth on digital cameras in post production and get a screen-quality print - but it will cost you time and money.
Getting it right
Movies are generally shot on 35mm or 16mm stock. People also film on Super 8mm (a classic beginner's choice) or 65mm for iMax films. Since a 16mm film is less than half the width of 35mm, you get less detail. But it also costs far less.
The photographic film has thin layers of light-sensitive particles which, when struck by light, change their chemical properties. Different layers have different colour filters.
With 35mm film, the standard for cinema-quality movies, the depth of resolution is huge: around ten times that of digital video. However, by the time a print reaches the cinema, it has been copied repeatedly and, with the projector effect as well, some resolution will have been lost.
The difference in resolution can be seen on your television between shows recorded on
film (dramas) and digitally (the news).
A digital camera uses a charge-coupled device (CCD) instead of film. It is made up of tiny holes, and the light that pours through the holes is converted into an electric charge.
The charges are given a number which is held in the camera's memory. That is one frame of film.
CCDs don't tend to have as great a range for reflecting the subtleties of light that show up when an image is magnified on to a cinema screen. However, there is no degradation when the image is copied. Not only that, but you can shoot, preview and discard, if necessary, with little fuss or cost, compared to when you have to process film stock each time.
The proliferation of relatively cheap digital cameras which produce good results has encouraged plenty of people to take up film making. The quality of the equipment has often masked fundamental flaws in technique.
Those producing their first films now are likely to experience a very different world in a few years time.
At the moment, if you want to send your film to a production studio or, once complete, to a cinema for showing, you put it in a big metal case which is driven to the theatre.
Digital cinema, with films transferred electronically and screened through a single all-powerful digital projector, will change that (and will put a lot of courier drivers out of work).
The question is, when?
Just a few thousand cinemas in America have switched over to digital.
According to MKPE, a Los Angeles-based consultancy specialising in this area, digital cinema in the US is beyond the early-adopter stage, but installations have slowed dramatically.
The industry is waiting for the technology to be embraced by mainstream market, but it could take another ten years before it becomes standard.
Part of the problem is that it is a replacement technology, not a new one. So for theatres to switch, they have to be convinced the investment is going to pay back.
The other big hurdle at the moment is copyright security. Having seen the blackmarket trade in fake DVDs, film companies are loathe to offer their high-value goods up for ripping off when a can of 35mm film is easier to protect.
Rob Escott is a freelance new media producer, and he believes the proliferation of technology made industry more complicated.
"There are many formats and compatibility issues - it's difficult for film makers to determine the best way forward," he says.
"Technology in this industry is changing at a faster rate than in previous years, probably due to channels like YouTube and the roll-out of broadband.
"An example of this is the Codec, used to encode video for playback.
"A few years ago, Sorenson Spark appeared to be the standard for compressing video, and it delivered reasonable quality. It was then overtaken by ON2 VP6 Codec providing a much better compression - fast and high quality.
"Now everyone is talking about Mpeg4 or H.264 as the new standard. However, there is a drawback - accessibility.
"To truly appreciate the latest Codec, you need to update your video player software.
"Currently, Flash 9 is the favoured medium for video on the internet. Microsoft's Media Player and Apple's Quicktime lag behind while the Flash-based BBC iPlayer is proving ever more popular."
Branwell Johnson, editor of mad.co.uk, the online media magazine, says it is clear that the proliferation of platforms is affecting the way stories are being told.
He cites Bebo's new production, 'The Secret World Of Sam King', which is uploaded daily onto its site in three-to-five-minute episodes.
From an editing and production point of view, this requires a more concentrated storytelling technique that can 'hook' the viewer in quickly.
There also needs to be plenty of opportunity in the storylines to allow for viewer's interaction and participation.
"In a multimedia world, where video content is now available on a proliferating number of platforms, it seems the trend is towards smaller, more easily digestible chunks of programming," says Johnson.
The future: 3D and stereo
3D cinema sounds like a gimmick from the past, but it is something the American film industry expects to draw huge audiences.
This year, 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' might have passed you by as just another summer blockbuster. However - as a mark of an increasing trend - it was also available in 3D for the cinemas with the right projectors.
It is likely we're going to see more and more such films in the next few years. You'll still need the glasses, but the result should be a lot more effective than before.
In March 2009, 'Monsters vs Aliens', produced by Dreamworks, will be released.
This will result from a partnership between the animation studio and Intel. The hardware firm will provide the computing muscle needed for the new authoring tools to render higher-quality images more quickly and to modify them with greater ease.
Later in the year, Cameron's 'Avatar' will hit the screens in 3D, and the acclaimed director has high hopes for it.
Speaking to BusinessWeek he said: "3D can become ubiquitous as digital cinema replaces film.
"As digital cinema rolls out, stereo follows - and in some cases leads the charge forcing the installation of hundreds of new digital projectors.
"There will eventually be major titles available from all studios at some screens in almost all multiplex cinemas worldwide.
"I would say the horizon for this is five years. 3D can become a fully accepted way in which audiences view movies. It will become another consumer choice, like premium or regular gas.
"The premium experience of 3D will be the preferred viewing experience for action, animated, fantasy, and science-fiction films.
"3D's broad acceptance at theaters will generate enough content that consumer-electronics manufacturers will make home players and monitors available.
"The technology exists now, but is not readily available as off-the-shelf products. 3D display will become a must for video and computer games.
"In 20 years, stereo may become the preferred method for displaying all information, including news and other broadcast media.
"The density of information one can place on a small screen becomes much higher if it's stacked in three dimensions."
Cinema's technological breakthroughs
- The Birth of a Nation (1915) - cinema's first blockbuster from DW Griffith showed the potential of film on a grand scale;
- The Jazz Singer (1927) - the movie which brought sound to the silver screen;
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - animation comes alive;
- Citizen Kane (1941) - from the opening tracking shot onwards this was a technical tour de force;
- Jason and the Argonauts (1963) - Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animations are still sensational;
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Stanley Kubrick pioneered many innovations including the Steadicam but this film combined all his production excellence;
- Jurassic Park (1993) - its seamless CGI developed what 'Star Wars' started and put the onus on cinemas to provide decent facilities;
- Toy Story (1996) - animation grows up and after this visual feast we expect nothing less;
- The Matrix (1999) - the famous filming technique was developed in Britain but pioneered in this American blockbuster;
- Time Code (2001) - filmed digitally and viewed on a split screen.
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