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Shooting Digital Cinema

Pioneers in New TerritoryIn the not-so-distant future, feature films may well be acquired, post produced, and distributed in the digital realm, and transferred to the local movie theater over satellite or fibre. But digital cinema filmmakers aren't waiting for that future. Today's digital cinema pioneers do not simply replace analog technology with digital, they integrate traditional storytelling with digital technology in varying and ingenious ways.

Millimeter takes you on a tour of two very different productions in which filmmakers utilized digital technology to best convey their stories. As these productions indicate, in the hands of creatives, digital technology can unleash a multitude of paradigms for "Digital Cinema." These are, indeed, optimistic times for the future of storytelling.

Based on the film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Tortilla Soup is the classic example of the new indie film spirit - with a digital twist. Produced by Visionbox Pictures' John Bard Manulis, directed by Maria Ripoll (Twice Upon a Yesterday) and photographed by Xavier Perez-Grobet (Before Night Falls), Tortilla Soup - starring Hector Elizondo, Elizabeth Pena, and Raquel Welch - is a character-driven, romantic comedy about a single father and his three rebellious daughters - and the gorgeous food that ties them together. Pre-sold to Samuel Goldwyn Films for a Spring 2001 release, the film was shot in digital video, with Panasonic's AJ-PD900WA 2/3-inch DVCPRO50 Progressive camcorder.

"We wanted to get the best performance possible from the actors and that takes a lot of footage," explains Ripoll. "Shooting in 480P allowed us to have two cameras. It was a big creative plus to be able to shoot so much footage and we were able to capture more authentic reality because we could keep rolling longer."

Cinematographer Perez-Grobet reports that he and Ripoll originally wanted to shoot HD, but found it "too expensive." After testing a variety of different video cameras, they found the Panasonic AJ-PD900WA.

"The 480P tests were excellent," says Ripoll. "We were very, very happy with the look we got from the tests transferring 480P to film; 480P has a consistency like film."

"We saw this as a new texture that we can explore," adds Perez-Grobet.

Perez-Grobet gathered tips on the camera from cinematographer Tony Salgado, who had shot several short films with the Panasonic camera. Learning from him to "be careful with whites and blacks, because there's a lack of detail if you go too extreme," Perez-Grobet used half-soft FX filters throughout the film to soften the image. Lighting was film-style with a package comprised of HMIs, tungsten, and Kino Flos.

Producer Manulis points out that the ability to maximize rehearsal and performance time was crucial. Digital video not only allowed them to use a B camera, to cover extra angles and roam the action, but also provided "the aesthetic attraction of being able to shoot in a practical location with a smaller package, less light, less heat, and fewer people," he says. Perez-Grobet calls himself quite satisfied with the results of his first-time 480P shoot.

"The exterior shots have a bit of video look due to the lighting," he admits. "But the interior shots look just like film."

With a 16-week post schedule, Tortilla Soup is currently posting at Digital Difference in Santa Monica, by partners Kevin Hurst and Chris Miller. The original 480P tapes are transferred to 3/4-inch and digitized into the Avid for offline editing. Using the EDL to up-res from the 480P masters to 1080i, the filmmakers next go into an HD online session for color-correction, compositing, and titles, at a still-to-be-determined Los Angeles post house. For preview viewings and festival submissions, they output a DigiBeta tape. The finished HD master will then be transferred to 35mm negative.

Visionbox Pictures, founded a year ago by Manulis and his partner Michael Kastenbaum, is a "digital production company" aiming to "pioneer a creatively liberating production process," and partners Manulis and Kastenbaum see 480P as the means to achieve their goals.

"In terms of the size and maneuverability of the equipment and the cost of postproduction, 480P has significant advantages," says Manulis. "Also, the progressive format enables us to pull production stills right off of the master, eliminating the need for a stills photographer and offering an extraordinary range of dramatic moments to choose from."

Visionbox Pictures is already in postproduction, at Digital Difference, on another 480P feature, Teddy Bear's Picnic, written and directed by Harry Shearer. Cinematographer Jaime Reynoso shot that feature, which has an estimated release date of late spring 2001. For this film, says Manulis, digital production gave them the chance to utilize greenscreen techniques and facilitate the compositing process in the native medium. "Also, given that this is a very performance-oriented piece, it gave us a way to free the actors from the traditional film constraints of limited footage," he concludes. "There's still a learning curve that's time-consuming, because we're constantly not only testing for ourselves but introducing each filmmaker. The hiccups have been the issues of moving from one part of the process to the other seamlessly."

At the Yosemite Visitor's Center, for the last 17 years, visitors to the spectacular national park have been introduced to its wonders with a very old, very scratchy 16mm film. It was time for a change, and Park Service technical director Eric Epstein found Greystone Films and David Vassar, who produced, directed, and wrote The Spirit of Yosemite, 30 years after making his first documentary - on Yosemite.

Commissioned in September 1998, the new film - paid for by the nonprofit Yosemite Fund - was to be shot in 35mm and projected by laser disk. "I was horrified," recounts Vassar. "I said, if we're going to project using that incredibly old, bad RGB technology, why are we bothering to shoot in 35mm?"

Though Vassar lobbied hard for a 35mm projection, logistics made it impossible: The theater was too small for a 35mm projection, and the program's 10 daily showings would require the regular expense of new prints. One hundred yards from where the film was to be screened is a gallery featuring Ansel Adams' stunning B&W photographs of the park. "That was the aesthetic, visual challenge," says Vassar.

"Given that the essence of Yosemite is the light and we were shooting in film, I was pretty hard to convince that we could project in video and do the place justice," says Vassar. "It would be a crime."

Setting aside issues of postproduction, Vassar and his director of photography Christopher G. Tufty began production in April 1999, with an Arriflex 435 and an Arriflex III for back-up, from Keslow Camera in Culver City, California. For lensing they used a set of Zeiss Super speeds T1.3 Primes and Angenieux, Canon, and Cook zooms.

Production of this documentary was an adventure that took the camera crew throughout the park, from familiar sites in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, to remote, unfamiliar landscapes in the High Sierras. Shot MOS in Kodak 5245 and 5277, the film required a two-year shoot to capture the right lighting conditions.

"Yosemite is so startling that anyone can expose and come back with magnificent images," says Vassar. "It's catching those fleeting moments when the scenery is lit by extraordinary changes in the atmospheric conditions. Those moments are gone in a flash. We caught them one time out of 10."

Tufty adds: "We waited for God's light. We were trying to match the Ansel Adams feel where you'd wait for a day or two - or even a season - to shoot in the ideal light."

In the two years that have passed since the first roll of film was shot, HD became a feasible format for both acquisition and projection. Though both Vassar and Tufty were still skeptical, out of curiosity, they went to see the HD projection of Phantom Menace at a Burbank movie theatre.

"It knocked our socks off," remembers Vassar. "Then there was a big click in my head. We saw that we could resolve an image in HD video."

That didn't mean that they abandoned film. Vassar considered transferring the film dailies to HD and finishing the show in an HD online environment, but Laser Pacific Video president Leon Silverman helped them weigh the alternatives. They decided on a film finish.

"Five years from now let's say there's a new generation of digital storage or digital projection," Vassar explains, "and the Park Service says, `Wow, that's a significant improvement; let's buy that projector.' Then we can go back to camera negative, retransfer and re-online - easily a $50,000 process - the IP is the perfect film archive." Silverman agrees: "This is the ultimate marriage of film and HD."

Developed at Foto-Kem Laboratories, the negative film was color corrected and transferred to Beta-SP at 24 fps, which was then digitized into an Avid Film Composer. The picture was edited by Susan Crutcher, and the original camera negative was cut into AB rolls and then printed through interpositive, internegative, and release prints.

At Laser Pacific, the 35mm IP was transferred to Sony HD-CAM on the Spirit. In the telecine suite, Laser Pacific set up a high-definition 5000 GV DLP projector, the same projector that will be installed in Yosemite, so that the colorist could correct to the projected image. The color corrections and density adjustments were "saved" from the projection master and then reused as a starting point for the creation of an HD CRT master. After the transfers, both the HD projection and CRT masters were digitally cleaned of dirt and scratches.

Howard Anderson Company, North Hollywood, California, created the optical wipes and dissolves; composer Tony Humecke created the soundtrack; and the 5.1 DTS surround mix was recorded digitally at Saul Zaentz Film Center.

At Yosemite Valley, the visitors center theater is being completely renovated for a digital DLP projector at 1080-lines onto a 20 x 11-foot screen in 1:78 perspective. The 5.1 digital sound will be reproduced in HPS-4000, with 18 speakers.

"To be perfectly honest, I think the projected HD image is better than the 35mm print," offers Vassar who, with Tufty, says he's eager to work in HD on his next project. "For a filmmaker who spent two years slogging this around on his back, to know that the film will be pristine no matter how many times it runs - that's a great gift."

Miramax Films took a leap into the future of digital cinema with Bounce last fall, when a digital version of the film traveled via satellite and fibre-optic cable to the AMC Empire Theatres in Times Square in New York. AMC Theatres has outfitted two of its auditoriums in the Empire 25 Theatres in Times Square with Texas Instruments' digital projection, as well as the satellite dish, software, and hardware needed to receive, store and project a motion picture digitally.

Bounce was the first project to take advantage of the new Digital Cinema Suite at High Technology Video (HTV) in Los Angeles. Using the Philips Spirit, Bounce was digitized uncompressed onto disc storage and the feature was then color-corrected and trimmed while being viewed on the big screen through a Texas Instruments' Cinema Grade DLP projector. After dirt and scratch removal was performed to the stored images, the complete show was laid onto QuVIS' QuBit storage system at 1080i, 24 fps.

Next, Boeing Cinema Connexion system encrypted the film, and transmitted it via satellite to the theatre, while Williams Communications Vyvx Services provided a secure "back-up" fiber-optic transmission through its network operations center and satellite uplink.