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Take Roger Deakins, an award-winning cinematographer who used digital technology to great effect in creating the distinctive look of the Joel and Ethan Coen Depression-era film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Deakins and the Coen brothers were determined to evoke the Dust Bowl by giving the whole film the faded look of an old-time picture postcard. This involved, among other effects, transforming the lush greens of vegetation into a sere tobacco-yellow in the film’s exterior shots. While the judicious deployment of lighting and lens filters would have had the same effect, it would also have given other colors, especially skin tones, an unnatural tint. Instead, Deakins shot the entire film conventionally and had his negative digitized at Cinesite, where technicians then helped him tint out the greens without affecting the rest of the palette by adjusting the digital values of the pixels in each image-much the way audio engineers can boost the bass of a recording without changing the treble or midrange.

Although the process sounds straightforward, it was much more demanding than conventional photography. Among other things, Deakins realized that he should invest his negatives with the most highly saturated colors possible, to give the technicians the maximum amount of information to work with during the color correction process. At Cinesite, he supervised the alterations like a mother hen watching over her chicks.

“I was there every day for more than 10 weeks, from testing with camera negatives until the first print was out of the lab,” Deakins says. This was necessary in part because the entire project was novel, even for Cinesite. But Deakins feels that because of its very power, digital color correction demands particular watchfulness. “There’s so much that can be done with the technology that if you as a DP [director of photography] aren’t there, your work easily could be ruined.”

In the end, he concluded that such so-called digital mastering (the conversion of a sequence or an entire film to digital form) is useful only in special circumstances-as when striving for an effect that can’t be reached through conventional means. “It depends on what’s right for the project, because I don’t think the quality is as good as film. If you’re not going outside straight RGB [red, green and blue] timing, I don’t see much point in going the digital route.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of hype around the word digital,’” agrees Steven Poster, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. As director of photography on Sony’s summer release Stuart Little 2, Poster also used a digital master in postproduction, since almost every frame includes the film’s title character-a mouse created entirely in digital form-or one of his digital pals. “There are certain skills necessary to accomplish the shooting, making and coming out on the other end with a motion picture,” Poster says. “One is cinematography. We say, if you know how to light it doesn’t matter what medium you’re shooting on. Likewise, if you don’t know how to light it doesn’t matter which medium you’re shooting in.” Today’s filmmakers, in other words, must master not one technology but two-and then be willing to spend long hours bridging their incompatibilities.

Film’s Firm Foothold

The best way to grasp the degree to which digital technology has infiltrated moviemaking is to partition the life cycle of a feature into three phases: image acquisition (known in simpler days as “photography”), postproduction and exhibition.

Electronic technologies have made remarkable progress on some of these fronts-but overall, cinema hasn’t changed as much as you might expect from all of this summer’s buzz about digital movies. Most principal photography is still done on film, despite George Lucas’s decision to shoot Star Wars: Episode II entirely using digital cameras. Cinematographers agree that digital hardware is getting vastly better, aided by the emergence of the so-called 24p process, which allows high-definition digital video to be shot at film’s 24 frames per second, rather than the roughly 30 of conventional video (thus eliminating the need for complicated adjustments of frame rates). But even the best digital imagery still doesn’t approach film’s resolution and dynamic range in terms of color and contrast.

“There’s still room in film to carry information beyond the capability of the eye to see it,” says Brad Reinke, manager of digital restoration services at Cinesite. “Digital’s not nearly there.”

At the other end of the production process-your neighborhood movie theater-digital technology has barely made any headway. As of this summer only 100 or so of the country’s 35,000 screens were equipped for digital movies-whether downloaded via satellite or spooled off high-density digital discs resembling DVDs. Those that were used a Texas Instruments system based on arrays of microchips, each with about a million microscopic mirrors that pivot toward or away from the screen thousands of times per second (see “Digital Movie Projection,” TR March 2001). Digital projection is jiggle free, and unlike film projection, it doesn’t degrade the print with every showing. But in part because digital projection does not create as unmistakable an improvement in the viewing experience as, say, the talkies did over silent films, theater chains are unwilling to foot the bill for the new projectors, which cost at least $100,000 per screen and might have to be upgraded every few years. Conventional film projectors, which last 20 years on average, cost $30,000.

“Digital cinema could never drive enough extra traffic through our box offices and to our concession stands to make up the difference,” John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, told a Washington, DC, technical conference last year.

Still, almost everyone in Hollywood agrees that in postproduction, digital is well on its way to becoming the state of the art. Film editing today is done almost entirely through virtual cutting and pasting on video screens, which replaces the tiresome manual method of slicing up celluloid film strips and splicing them back together with tape.

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