The rise of digital independence
March 27, 2008
The introduction of digital technology arguably represents the most exhaustive technical and social changes in the history of cinema, greater than both sound and colour (Ford 2005). In analysing who benefits from the proliferation of digital cinema, it is helpful to review it in the context of the traditional film making process and then to define digital cinema in regard to this. Developments in digital media are having a significant impact on the spectrum of cinema production (filming, editing and effects) and distribution (printing, shipping and screening). This results in both positive and negative ramifications that can be addressed in relation to a number of recent Australian films with digital processes.
The world of cinema began to change with the advent of films like the original “Star Wars“ (Associated Press 2005) which pioneered and developed digital editing and rendering techniques. This explosion has led not only to digital film industry but also the proliferation of technologies as video games, DVDs and video podcasts (Manovich 2007). Digital technology has also allowed the possibility of interactivity (e.g. alternate endings on DVDs), however this essay will instead focus on the feature/short film productions which are designed to be projected in a theatre.
Cinema traditionally used live action footage which consists of “unmodified photographic recordings of real events which took place in real physical space” (Manovich 2007). The computer has revolutionised almost all aspects of cinema industry; sets, characters, effects and even entire films can be manufactured digitally. The producers of the Australian film “Hunt Angels” (2006) recognised the time and cost constraints for an independent producer and were able to use digital sets and stunt scenes (Flack & Lewis 2006). This saved time, the cost of sets, and in particular the very significant cost of insurance for stunt scenes.
As a medium for storing and playing video, the digital storage devices have many advantages over film, alas there is much resistance to be taken into consideration. The biggest issue in digital recording is quality, can it achieve comparable quality to that of film? In 2002 when reporting in relation to “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones” industry professional, Alex Cox, thought that at that point the quality of digital recording was still inferior (Cox, 2002); however that same year it started to carry the title of “comparable” (Barda 2002). Five years later industry is seeing clearly that the digital alternative is outdating film and its associated techniques (Cincotta 2007).
In the analogue filming process small independent film makers find the cost of extra takes quite prohibitive and they literally cannot afford to make mistakes, large film corporations can also save much time and money. For “Star Wars II”, Lucasfilm utilised the ability to review the footage daily on digital projectors that they brought to Australia (Barda 2002). Australian mockumentary “Kenny (2006)” is an example of a small independent film maker benefiting from being able to record a much greater quantity of footage than the budget would allow with celluloid (Martin 2006). Using digital footage film makers can also instantly access the data and decide not to commit it to media just like a digital still camera, saving space and editing time (Carn 2007). These cost/time saving aspects of filming in digital can aid Australia’s small film production industry in competing internationally as well as winning back the national market.
As demonstrated in the production of the Australian AC/DC tribute “Dirty Deeds” (2002), editing in digital makes it possible to project the rendered footage to a screen on the fly, saving the number of times that the film makers cut it to celluloid, if at all (Barda 2002). “Until recently, Hollywood studios were the only ones who had the money to pay for digital tools and for the labor involved in producing digital effects” (Manovich 2007). Now digital editing, compositing and effects such as chromakeying (blue/green screen) have become the norm of film making, it makes financial sense to keep to keep the whole process digital (Ford 2005).
Digital production has made it hard to distinguish cinema from animation. In fact digital cinema can be described as a “particular case of animation which uses live action footage as one of its many elements…almost anything can be simulated in a computer, to film physical reality is just one possibility” (Manovich 2007). This dramatically changes the thinking of cinema and animation. Australia, in particular, is well placed leading the field by having won three Oscars in the last for years for animated films (Knight 2007); “Happy Feet” (2006), “Finding Nemo” (2003), “Harvie Krumpet” (2003).
Akin with the production of cinema, the distribution on 35mm celluloid film is costly for printing and shipping compared to digital (Barda 2002). With a lower printing cost independent film makers can pass on that saving to cinemas, making independent films more attractive to screen. If the large cinema distributors print and ship digitally this saving can be transferred to the cinemas allowing smaller cinemas to screen movies at a lower cost and thus giving them the opportunity to compete with larger cinemas (Barda 2002). Watch any professional photographer change from film to digital format and you get an insight into just what the digital format can do for cinema. Instantly the photographer has the ability to take so many extra shots, delete what they do not need, edit/preview on the spot, re-shoot until they are satisfied, edit in bulk and distribute the prints worldwide quite seamlessly (Carn 2007).
Satellite technology and high speed internet will allow distribution of content on demand reducing the time required when shipping film. A network of cinemas can be set up to have synchronous release of content, eradicating the need for smaller/regional cinemas to purchase old content (Barda 2002). However, without reselling content small operators may not have sufficient funds for the new content. The Australian Film Commission (AFC) is setting up the Regional Digital Screen Network (RDSN) to foster the regional operators and allow smaller independent films to screen at these venues (AFC 2007). When producing “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones” (2002) in Australia, director/writer/producer George Lucas was so infatuated with the digital medium that he almost insisted it could only be projected digitally, at the time this would have been financial suicide (Barda 2002).
The metropolitan cinemas utilisation of digital projection alongside the newly formed RSDN could allow for a nation-wide seamless distribution of digital cinema, removing the need for small independent films to ever incur the cost of printing to or shipping film (AFC 2007; Rebo 2003). With the digital medium distributors could embed control over play of a film, restricting the number of plays, time of screening, dates to be screened and therefore they could charge the cinemas accordingly (Barda 2002; Rebo 2003). For example if the small operators only plan to screen it twice a week, that is all they may need to pay for.
Kodak has developed cinema technology that not only administers the digital downloading, authorisation, decryption and projection of feature films but also can completely control the cinema scheduling, lighting, sound, advertisements and trailers (Barda 2002). This kind of technology can reduce the processes from a films completion of production to its destination in a cinema. This however puts in jeopardy the place of distribution companies and the cinema staff in addition to outdating many specialist skills (Barda 2002;DCinema Today 2005).
Much of the resistance towards digital cinema is gathered around conversion costs, projection, standards, piracy, experience and the comfort of working with 35mm (Ford 2005). For all parties to benefit in the change to digital industry leaders who will benefit the most from the change (distributors, producers and projector manufacturers) will need to support the cinemas (Manovich 2007).
Probably the single largest hurdle in the conversion to digital cinema is the cost that theatres will suffer for digital projection. Existing small cinemas will find it hard to afford to replace their expensive analogue equipment with digital alternatives (Barda 2002). However they are not alone as the cost of converting entire cinema networks, such as Hoyts or Greater Union, will be a strong resisting force (Cincotta 2007).
Much of the concern towards adopting digital distribution of cinema has gathered around piracy, but the digital medium however can provide potential for greater content security (Barda 2002). If distributors embed security measures into the video content itself then not only can they control the play of the content but also ensure the prevention of bootlegging and piracy. This would in turn allow the copyright to be upheld and appropriate royalties to reach the film makers, and thus increasing revenue (O’Shaughnessy 2005).
Originating from its century-long dominance, film makers are rather attached to the “film look” produced from celluloid cameras and projection (Ford 2005). This will not change while film remains the standard for comparison (Barda 2002). However as the revolutionary American architect Louis Sullivan first pioneered the “steel structure aesthetics” directors such as George Lucas (of the “Star Wars” saga) are pioneering digital film aesthetics, creating the look of the future (Ford 2005). Digital footage can imitate the analogue look but as the “digital look” becomes adopted it will provide a greater benefit for those who choose to film in digital.
Along side the cost that current film makers incur with moving from analogue equipment they have also been wary about changing until there are universal standards have developed for cinematic digital production and distribution (Barda 2002). These standards have now been developed and in practice for a number of years (Beck 2006). But the fact will still remain that it is easier for actors and directors to work with real action and computer generated reality (Shea 2007). It seems that those who will gain the most benefits are those new to the scene who make the change sooner and are willing to experiment and step up to the challenge.
For a decade now there have been predictions about the timeframe of the conversion to digital cinema and a large portion of the film industry are holding off as long as they can so they can get the best return on their expensive film equipment (Sgrîn 2004; Beck 2006). This resistance of large cinema corporations will slow down the conversion of cinemas and will be at the detriment of the smaller innovative film makers and cinemas who take the initial plunge.
Keeping the whole process digital makes it seamless to produce films straight to DVD, and increasingly Blue-Ray (high-definition digital video discs). This starts to open up a new field of community/small cinemas to be run at a low budget in venues such as universities, community centres and local theatres screening short/independant films and acting as a large scale home theatre to independent films such as “Hunt Angels” (2006) and publicly released movies like “Finding Nemo” (2003) (Flack & Lewis 2006; Avram 2005). This will provide a great benefit for both independent films and the community, allowing a social outlet at a lower cost than traditional cinemas. Both the increase of home cinema technology and the appearance of low budget community screenings will strike possibly the biggest blow at traditional theatres, large and small.
Currently only independent content is readily available in a digital format (Cincotta), but the industry is heading towards all-digital-film making and distribution (Ford 2005). Currently, innovative companies such as Kodak who have the most to loose (celluloid manufactures) are being long-sighted and leading the change by helping smaller cinemas benefit by making this technology affordable (Barda 2002). The exciting thing about any change is that no one really knows and it is clearing the floor for new ways to have creative, innovative thinking (Barda 2002, Bodey 2007).
Digital cinema has a lower cost per print. Through satellite technology, it can penetrate 100 cities and towns without additional incremental costs. It offers savings in handling and transportation. It can also factor in last minute exhibition orders. It has a longer virtual shelf life as physical prints wear out. It can curb piracy. It can help film marketers factor in bigger promotional budgets due to these reduced costs. It has a lower break even point. And more importantly, it can effect savings in the running costs – 25 per cent less” Rajaa Kanwar, Vice Chairman of the Apollo Group (Kotian 2005)
There are many benefits to be gained from the industry shift towards digital cinema. The future of Australian digital cinema lies in independent cinema such as “Hunt Angels” (2006), national cinema like “Kenny” (2006) and tans-national cinema like “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones” (2002). This combination of content producers will produce benefits for the Australian film industry, economy and national identity (Collins 2004). The parties with the most to suffer, but with a potentially significant gain, are the large cinemas and Hollywood producers who would have the most equipment to convert. Existing independent film companies, Australian producers and small cinema networks must be innovative to stay on top of the change, but they have the potential to gain more exposure than ever before.
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