Pixel-Packing Troops Taking Cameras to Mideast

Times Staff Writers

When U.S. Marine B. Sean Fairburn sets out next week for duty in the Middle East, he'll be packing a weapon of mass information: a high-definition digital camera.

Taking a cue from World War II newsreels, the Marine Corps and Navy are sending troops wielding digital cameras to Kuwait, Bahrain and elsewhere to document the expected action on the front lines. The plan is to turn the footage into digital news programs that would be shown in movie theaters, distributed over the Internet and made available in a variety of electronic formats.

The military has hired American Rogue Films in Santa Monica to edit and produce the newsreels and recently pitched the idea of playing them on screens operated by Regal Entertainment Corp. of Centennial, Colo., the nation's largest movie theater chain.

Regal -- which owns United Artists Theatre Co. and Edwards Theatres Inc. -- is spending $70 million to retrofit nearly 80% of its locations with digital projectors, high-speed data networking equipment and satellite links. The company said in December that it was seeking short digital movies that will put its equipment to use.

The military's $1.2-million effort, known as the Movietone Newsreel Project, began in 2001 as the brainchild of Fairburn, a chief warrant officer in the Marine Corps Reserves and a Hollywood cinematographer, and regular Marine Capt. Matt Morgan, a 31-year-old screenwriter who used to serve as a liaison between the Marines and film producers.

"The two of us worked together on 'Windtalkers' and 'Rules of Engagement', so we were already friends," said Fairburn, 34. "When 9/11 happened, and people started heading to Afghanistan, we started talking about how we wished there was a way to raise awareness among the American people about the Marine Corps. Not as an advertisement but more like what they used to do."

On Monday, Fairburn will leave his pregnant wife and three young sons in Castaic to fly to the East Coast to pick up the rest of his gear: camera lenses, digital tapes, anti-dust brushes, piles of battery packs -- as well as Kevlar body armor and a 9-millimeter pistol.

The golden era for military filmmakers was World War II, when battlefield footage regularly appeared in theaters across America. Although newsreel organizations such as 20th Century Fox's Movietone News Inc. had their own filmmakers, they also relied heavily on the work of camera crews deployed by each branch of the military.

With television in its infancy, those short films gave the public its only glimpse of what the war was like, said Jessica Berman-Bogdan, operator of FootageFinders.com, a stock-footage library whose specialties include films from global conflicts.

"To really see things, newsreels were incredibly important," she said.

The filmmaking effort was so important to the Army that in 1942 it bought a former Paramount Pictures movie studio in New York, which it used to make films and teach the craft.

But the Marines may have been the masters at working with Hollywood to promote themselves and their mission, said Thomas Doherty, chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University and author of "Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II."

Before the invasion of Iwo Jima, for example, the Marines planned how they would film the action almost as rigorously as they did the assault on the island -- instructing cameramen to keep U.S. troops on the right side of the frame and Japanese troops on the left "so there would be a clear visual perspective on who was who," Doherty said.

Morgan and Fairburn, whose great-uncle fought at Iwo Jima, predicted that digital camera technology will make behind-the-scenes filming more feasible now.

Digital cameras are finding a place in Hollywood, particularly among budget-conscious television productions. More than 40 TV shows were filmed this fall with the Sony CineAlta F900, the model the Marines plan to use.

The digital combat camera crews -- so far, two teams of four people -- are set to cover the action for about 30 days, storing the events on digital tape, Morgan said. Once reviewed and declassified, the tapes will be shipped overnight to American Rogue Films.

The mission wouldn't be feasible without lightweight and portable digital cameras, noted Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli of Navy public affairs in Washington.

"There's a great opportunity of speed and flexibility of working in digital," he said. "We can do things with digital cameras that we couldn't with video or even film."

The Movietone Newsreel Project also represents an opportunity to revive a dead medium.

In the 1960s, television news crews in Vietnam supplanted the carefully managed Movietone messages with more immediate and chaotic dispatches for the nightly news. By the start of the Gulf War in 1991, news organizations such as CNN were providing live images from Baghdad with no help from the military.

Yet one thing the Pentagon can still control and parcel out, Doherty said, is access to the battlefront.

Even as Fairburn and Morgan were making their pitch, other factions within the military were discussing similar ventures. One reason is a desire to maintain a historical record, Pietropaoli said. Video and film shot during the Vietnam War is degrading, turning the images orange and fuzzy.

Meanwhile, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer was selling the Defense Department on "Profiles From the Front Line," an unabashedly pro-military TV show that follows U.S. Special Operations troops as they scour the Afghan countryside for members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The show premiered last week on ABC.

"I told them that we didn't need a Jerry Bruckheimer to do this for us," Morgan said. "We can get the cameras. We can do this ourselves, and we won't have to jeopardize a civilian."

The Marines and Navy joined forces on a trial run last year, spending about $1 million to produce a polished five-minute movie trailer called "Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter." The short film, replete with Hollywood-style gloss and sound bites from the war on terrorism, was picked up by Regal, which was eager to test its new digital projection equipment.

Regal pulled the film in October after patrons complained the footage was too violent.

When Regal executives met with Pentagon officials six weeks ago, they said they were concerned that the new Movietone shorts would be unpopular.

"I don't know that [the public likes] seeing a war up on the big screen," said Cliff Marks, president of marketing for Regal CineMedia Corp., the high-tech arm of Regal.

"I think they go to the movies to forget about the stress of watching CNN."

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