LIKE MOTHS TO A FLAME THE CONCEPT OF 'DIGITAL FILM' IS TAKING HOLD IN THE VIDEO INDUSTRY, PROMISING NEW ACCESS TO ELECTRONIC POSTPRODUCTION TECHNIQUES FOR THE FILM WORLD. HELPED ALONG BY A NEW GENERATION OF POWERFUL HIGH-RESOLUTION TOOLS, THIS COULD BE AN EARLY AND EXPENSIVE LOOK AT THE FUTURE

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AMONG THE MANY NEATO VISUAL EFFECTS IN "FORREST Gump," perhaps the most artfully done sequences are not the ones in which the title character chats with a succession of now dead presidents. Those scenes, suggests Hector MacLeod of Click 3X, a recently opened all-digital postproduction facility in New York, wouldn't have been allowed out the door at his shop. Looks too much like a bad dubbing job, like watching "Starsky & Hutch" on Spanish TV.

No, the scenes that really work are the amputee romps, the ones in which Gary Sinise, playing the crazed, legless Vietnam vet, rolls around on the floor of his seedy New York apartment or rides out a storm atop the mast of Gump's hard-luck shrimping boat. With hardly a matte line to espy, with movement that looks truly natural and backgrounds that meld perfectly with their surroundings, this is one nice frame-by-frame paint job. When it comes to seamless effects, this one takes the cake.

Now, the wonders behind this gimmick are somewhat old hat to both feature films as well as the video postproduction industry, and both share a common point of origin-a computer. But that's where the paths diverge. In the past, when features contained digitally generated, manipulated or processed imagery like this it was normally done at one of a handful of high-end effects houses that had access to a high-quality laser film scanner and recorder and some very high-resolution computer hardware and software.

But when it was done for television release, you simply opened the phone book, looked for a facility with a Paintbox/Harry suite (and a couple of talented operators, of course), and you were off to the races. All that's starting to change, however, as an approach generically called digital film starts to take hold in the video postproduction community. Thanks to powerful, ghastly expensive devices like Quantel's Domino The Next Generation and software programs like Kodak's Cineon and Discreet Logic's Flame, the prospects of doing electronic painting, compositing, motion tracking, computer animation and image manipulation and processing at film resolution is now a reality. At The Post Group in Los Angeles, for example, scenes for the Alec Baldwin bomb "The Shadow" were composited on an SGI Onyx running Flame software, the same tool that was used (along with a host of more powerful, proprietary gizmos) by ILM to pull off the amputee scenes in "Gump."

Digital film, explains Dean Winkler of New York's Post Perfect, "is finally a way of doing the kinds of things we do in video postproduction and doing them at motion picture resolution." Specifically, that means going beyond the video limits of 525 or 625 lines and stepping up to 1,000, 2,000 or 4,000 lines of resolution, basically referred to as 1K, 2K or 4K, respectively, each line consisting of a correspondingly high number of points, or pixels.

While this capability exists in just about any post house that's working with one of the aforementioned devices, Winkler says that even D1 video res images can be bumped up to higher res and output to film without losing too much integrity. His facility, along with numerous others, has been doing this for some time, mainly for multinational advertisers who run their TV commercials in cinemas. In fact, cinema advertising, along with "special venue" work (theme parks and the like) represents the most viable market for post houses moving into the digital film arena, says Alfie Schloss, director of digital services at Tape House Digital in New York, which recently opened its own digital film division. On the West Coast, however, expectations of doing actual feature film work like that handled by The Post Group are more realistic.

What's making all this possible is the combined firepower of the above noted hardware and software tools along with the greater availability of high-quality film scanning and recording, a generally increasing level of expertise in working with digital file formats (as opposed to merely video signals) and the inexorable move in the entire moving image business towards open architecture, software-driven devices that function in a resolution-independent mode (an ungainly term that we think should be replaced with "free res").

This ushers digital film pracitioners into a new world, one delineated by more computer graphics concepts like pixel depth and quantization, not vertical intervals and genlocks. Moreover, says Mike Cunningham, president at Western Images in San Francisco, "if we treat film and video as different cultures, they're moving together and overlapping, and we can expect there will be an exchange of some values, but neither will dominate the other; rather, there will be a mix, and that will affect how people work."

This brings up an interesting dichotomy-while film people, who are used to spending days waiting for opticals, are looking at the video community and dreaming of things like rig removal, DVE effects and other goodies they can do digitally, the video people, at least some of them, are looking for even faster ways of doing the same. "The film world is looking at the Harry, or devices like it, as the paradigm," says Winkler, "whereas to us Harry is far too non-real time, although it's wonderful at what it does. Yet from the film perspective, compared to where they're coming from, we're talking light years." Adds Cunningham, "Harry started a trend towards giving more technical power to creative people, and it buffered the interface so you didn't have to be a jet pilot to utilize it. As this relates to digital film, we'll see a similar but not identical transition." There are, of course, limitations to the process, and even a degree of debate as to its wisdom, much of which revolves around technical and practical questions of moving from current industry-standard video equipment and techniques to doing more with open-architecture computers.

First off, the digitization of imagery eats up tremendous amounts of disc space, close to 40 megabytes for one single 35mm film frame scanned at 4K res. When the folks at Kodak's Cinesite in Los Angeles scanned in the entire 82 minutes of "Snow White" last year before the film was electronically cleaned up, they ended up with 15 terabytes of data passing through their facility. This aspect of the process suddenly puts video facilities in the position of dealing more with ungainly data files, and, as Cunningham points, out, "if you think there are disagreements over videotape formats, we've only seen the beginning with digital film formats."

Transporting huge files is often cumbersome and slow, which is why many working in high-res situations often opt for working at lower levels like 2K, which, by the way, is the limit that Flame can output. (While an updated version dubbed Inferno will reportedly be able to handle files up to 4K, the current version is capable of previewing at close to real time in NTSC res only.)

This helps explain some of the current fascination people have about this expressively named program. At Tape House Digital, Schloss says the staffers like to refer to clients working on Flame as "moths," and the operators manning them as "arsonists." Kidding aside, there's a definite buzz about this tool. At Hollywood-based Planet Blue, president Maury Rosenfeld says the facility has bought an Onyx and Flame package because "clients are asking for it by name." He sees lots of applications for the device, some of which bear a trace of irony, such as working at high res for gamemakers who, while they normally release their work at lower res, are covering their asses in anticipation of higher-res platforms in the future. Then there's the "evergreen" aspect as well-this thinking holds that you should, whenever possible, work at the highest res possible, just in case you need it later on.

In addition, Rosenfeld, notes, going the Flame route means that you can use the Onyx for other things, such as motion capture and character animation. He imagines getting the right software and then letting clients act out how they want their animated characters to behave, then capturing it and animating over it.

There are some in the post business, who see Flame as the definitive postproduction tool of the future, the first of what will most likely be a succession of workstation devices that will one day, these folks predict, rule the post world. "It'll become less a one-man, one machine thing, turning the process into more of an ensemble one," says Schloss, who already mixes and matches computers and video gear at Tape House. He sees the future as being a world of "scalable resolution" wherein you're able "to deliver the same image at different resolutions at the same time."

But working in such a free-res mode presents choices to both producers and facility operators. In the digital film arena, for example, the choice comes down to software-based solutions like Flame and Cineon or the Quantel route of dedicated hardware, both of which have strengths and weaknesses. "The throughput on the Domino is much faster, so you can be more cost effective and do equivalent work in less time than in Flame," says Cunningham. "But there are times when you'll want to go with the open-architecture software tools, which tend to be more elegant."

There's another issue here as well, and that deals with which area of the business is going to drive technical and creative innovation. If digital film poses some intangible value for the post business, it lies in what kind of unforeseen techniques and innovations it might spawn in the future. Cunningham, for one, believes that in the areas of compositing and paint, there's currently more flexibility to be found working at video res than at film res, but he believes that's going to change. "What will drive things in five years will be theatrical requirements," he predicts, meaning the ability to do things like create "synthetic" actors or "Jurassic Park" types of effects. He uses the passe morphing effect as an analogy-developed by ILM for features, you can now buy it off the shelf for cheapo industrials. "Theatrical projects have the budget for r&d that video projects don't," he says. "Eventually these tools will be readily available and will migrate into video, but they'll be spawned in the theatrical world."

Despite the promise that digital film holds for the post business, not everyone is on the open-architecture bandwagon. "There are a couple of things that Flame does that nothing else does, like motion tracking and some very cool DVE effects," says Winkler, whose facility is not aFlame, "but I'd tell you that unless you really need some of those things or have a big market for them, at 525 or 625 a Quantel Hal will blow it away for all the other tasks-it has to, it's dedicated hardware."

Winkler's biggest gripe with the workstation approach has to do with levels of interactivity between clients and operators and the speed with which effects and composites can be previewed and tweaked. The workstation devices employ single CRTs controlled by pull-down menus, he points out, and therein lies the rub. "None of the workstation environments out there now have nearly the ability to preview that current conventional systems do."

When it comes to working on commercials, he adds, there's also the need to do numerous revisions in a fast, efficient manner. One recent and relatively straightforward job that passed through Post Perfect went through almost 20 different versions. "The agency came to us and said,

'How about a Flame, wouldn't that let us do the motion tracking real quickly?' And I said it would, and that first pass might save us some time, but then every time we go to revise it we're going to have to composite in that workstation environment and that's going to be way slow."

In spite of what Winkler says about the workstation world, there are those who see Flame as just catching on. Once people start to build up a sense of ease and experience with it, suggests MacLeod, the floodgates will be open. Besides, says Cunningham, working on Flame isn't all that different from what many agency clients do now when working on devices such as Avids.

As for the benefits of going high res, most post experts say that unless you absolutely need to, you can get the same effects working at video res. And a good thing, too, since by some estimates the costs of going up in resolution are similarly steep. Nonetheless, as Winkler notes, "when you're doing keys at 2K and 4K, they look outrageous."

While still a fairly limited application, it's a safe bet that the techniques and tools used in doing digital film will find their way into all aspects of the postproduction field. "Even if you don't need to work at these levels, you'll still benefit," says Schloss with conviction.

"And as the disc space gets bigger and the machines get faster, this will only improve."

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