Digitally Mastered

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Call it good, call it bad, but don't call "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" a film.

Breaking new ground for major motion pictures, "Attack of the Clones" was shot entirely with digital cameras, edited with digital equipment and, for a few dozen theaters, will be distributed and projected digitally. That approach, some industry executives believe, heralds the future of Hollywood and the death of actual "film" making.

The technological evolution has sparked something of a religious war among directors and crews over the artistic merits of high-tech cameras and projectors. But the electronic methods can save a budget-conscious studio millions of dollars, as well as lower the barriers to entry for new talent.

Independent filmmakers are making the leap first, with a few major studios, most notably Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, starting to distribute features digitally.

Even this month's Cannes Film Festival, the world's premier showcase for filmmakers, is making room for digital productions. Festival organizers have installed several digital projectors this year, enabling digital screenings of "Attack of the Clones" and a few other pictures.

The Cannes screenings could have a catalytic effect on the industry, said Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Films, a unit of Independent Film Channel.

"Certainly if people see it and are impressed ... it has to make people realize it's not a question of when digital's going to be good enough in terms of production and exhibition," Broderick said. "It's already good enough and in fact may create opportunities, possibilities for making movies in different, more cost-effective ways, that people at all budget levels need to explore and consider."

The new technology's payoff for moviegoers is likely to be a greater choice of films, more consistent quality in theaters and potentially more dazzling visuals. It also threatens to displace entire segments of the movie industry--the labs that develop 16-millimeter and 35-millimeter film, for example--as well as providing a new source for pirates.

No one expects the industry to be transformed quickly. Although a growing number of independent films are being shot with digital cameras, no major Hollywood studio has bankrolled a digital production yet, said Larry Thorpe, senior vice president of content creation systems at Sony Electronics.

Similarly, significant hurdles still block movie distributors from transmitting movies to theaters as computer files and displaying them with digital projectors. In addition to an ongoing debate about picture quality, key standards have yet to be set for digital movie files, and no one has come up with a business model that all the studios and theater owners can accept, said M. Kenneth Suddleson, an entertainment industry attorney and former studio executive.

The biggest roadblock is the huge cost of converting a theater to digital, including as much as $150,000 per screen for a digital projector and more than $20,000 per screen for the computer that stores and feeds the movies. For a big chain such as Regal Entertainment Group, which has more than 5,800 screens, the bill could exceed half a billion dollars.

Though studios would save up to $1 billion in the U.S. alone by replacing film with digital files, theaters would benefit in more subtle ways: Digital projectors can be operated and maintained with fewer employees, and they can be used for more types of programming.

Ultimately, the studios will have to come up with a way to share the cost of equipping theaters for digital, Suddleson said. But given the investment required to convert to digital, consumers probably won't see any drop in the price of tickets.

About 60 theaters in the United States and Canada will show "Attack of the Clones" in digital, the way writer-director George Lucas intended. That's a tiny fraction of the thousands of cinemas carrying the movie, but it still dwarfs the number that displayed Lucas' previous installment digitally: four.

Lucas was the first filmmaker to use Sony's high-definition digital camera, which captures images as bits of data on a videocassette instead of burning images onto film. "He was, in fact, the one who nudged us to actually take the plunge to build the systems," Thorpe said.

The main advantages of digital cameras, Thorpe said, include the ability to review a scene immediately after it's shot, rather than having to wait a day or more for the film to be developed. Filmmakers can work faster, integrate special effects earlier and work more creatively with images while they're on the set, Thorpe said.

By replacing film in the cameras with videotape and speeding the flow of work, Lucas saved at least $3 million in production costs, producer Rick McCallum said. That's a small fraction of the movie's $100-million budget, but "when you're financing it yourself, and you're financing the marketing, anything you can do to be more cost-efficient helps," McCallum said.

Lucas was motivated to use digital cameras because his movies are so dependent on computer-generated effects. With film cameras, Lucas had to develop the film, convert the images to digital on computers, add the special effects, then convert back to film. Digital cameras, by contrast, can feed their images directly to computers.

The process proved to be harder than it sounds. It was up to Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas' visual effects company, to figure out how to make much of that connection between the camera and computer work. Although it was far less expensive to shoot on digital, said Andy Hendrickson, ILM senior technology officer for ILM, "what we didn't take into account was the cost and time of building the post-production processes. It was an unknown science."

Problems cropped up nearly immediately, starting with data management. Every day, as Lucas would wrap up the shoot, crew members would transfer the digital images into a massive computer database stored at ILM's San Rafael, Calif., offices.

Within weeks, millions of images cluttered the database. Trying to find a specific scene--such as the fight sequence between Yoda and the evil Count Dooku--became impossible, as no software existed to guide visual effects workers through the electronic files.

ILM engineers eventually cobbled together software that helped workers locate not only a particular scene but also a specific image--a feat that would be extremely hard to replicate with film.

The final version of "Attack of the Clones" will be transferred to film and shipped to thousands of theaters worldwide. The ones with digital projectors will receive it as a digital file, either via satellite or on a dozen or more DVDs.

The dominant technology for digital projection today is "digital light processing" chips from Texas Instruments Inc. of Dallas. Those chips use thousands of tiny, independently moving mirrors to direct different colors of light onto each point of a movie screen.

Since the last "Star Wars" movie was released, TI has upgraded the technology to deliver more shades of color and other improvements in picture quality, said Doug Darrow, a business manager at TI.

But there remains a big difference between film and digital: Film tends to blur colors together around their edges, but digital projectors don't, achieving a clarity that may strike viewers as harsh.

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