Domino theory: Good and bad in digital scanner

SNAKE EYES: Predictably, last week’s presentation of Quantel’s new Domino system split the film and video post-production worlds.

By consensus, the high-powered, and certainly high-priced, digital optical scanner, recorder and workstation boasts speed and a tremendous amount of storage. It can be the cornerstone of turning film into digital data for manipulation on computers, spitting the final product out to film again. But Domino also flaunts a few problems when it comes to handling film.

While Quantel’s move from the video and print industry is “a very natural extension,” said executive chairman Richard Taylor, he didn’t have the technology in hand until this year.

It may still not be available the way some see it. Clearly, top video houses are eagerly looking at film for new revenues, using equipment that’s familiar. Quantel already fields the Hal, Harry, and, most recently, Henry.

“It puts every post house in the film optical house business,” said Alan Kozlowski, president of Pacific Ocean Post. “The interface is fairly common. Domino is a logical extension.”

But film effects houses, who’ve spent considerable sums on their own digital optical printers and workstations, aren’t particularly pleased with new competition in an already crowded arena.

Said Phil Finer, a vice president at Pacific Title: “A videotape house will think they’re immediately in the business. But without film people, you won’t get the look. I don’t think it matched the quality of film.”

Indeed, low marks were given for terrible original film and even worse digital dupe. That, said one observer, isn’t the way to impress film people. Also, the system is slow compared to some in-house set-ups and even Kodak’s new Cineon. At a scanning rate of 30 seconds per frame, Domino takes 13 hours to input 100 feet, according to Finer. And at a reported 1.5 minutes for printing to film, Domino is five times slower than Kodak. Luckily, most effects shots are no more than five seconds long.

Filmmakers also grimaced at terms on Domino’s menu that smacked of the video world, like “intensity” for color density and “keying” for selecting color. Another slight was Domino’s untidy blue screens, a technique to neatly matte out a background when compositing a shot.

On the upside, once film has been turned into digital elements on the Domino’s workstation, the Bench, it delivers high-resolution images with lightening speed.

“It’s very sexy to see (images) at real time in high resolution,” said director James Cameron. But at a stunning $ 1.3 million for the scanner and printer, and $ 1.775 million for the bench, it may make Domino a tough sell. “It’s steep at one workstation,” he added. “You can’t build an entire effects facility around just one.”

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” for instance, used more than 25 workstations for the computer generated effects.

Where might these be installed? Likely to be the first would be video post houses eying an entrance into film effects business. And one thing to keep in mind is that Quantel’s parent, Carlton Communications PLC, also owns Technicolor Labs. Could high volume digital production be in the cards? More likely, Domino is a good glimpse at what’s coming down the road.

CD-I TWO: Philip Interactive Media’s gathering in town last week was capped by a banquet awards dinner that got mixed reviews. While the event celebrating Philip’s CD-I multimedia titles ended on time after a bland fare of lobster and chicken at $ 75 a pop, one developer noted, “we have to get better catering if this is going to be an industry.”

CD-I THREE: One of the more active participants at Philips’ confab was Takao Ihashi, Sony Corp.’s general manager for Video Products Group. He reportedly is recruiting titlemakers for Sony via Tokyo not New York for the CD-I format.

SOFTWARE HEAT: A quick update on USC and Apple Computer’s effort to devise an integrated studio–software linking each stage of a studio’s film production–is that programs are being debated. For one, Screenplay Systems, the dominant author of budgeting and scheduling tools like its Movie Magic, is trying to fashion a package. The software would work on both Apple and IBM, and leverage off the already commanding presence of its Movie Magic budgeting and scheduling programs.

A prototype may be ready by mid-December, said Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s Film & TV School, which is co-sponsoring the project. She notes that the first software modules are likely to be pre-production and pre-visualization.

An interesting twist is IBM’s newfound attention to the idea of giving the studios a way to monitor costs from the script to screen. According to David Lurty, head of IBM’s media industry effort, Big Blue wants to bundle together existing software under a new umbrella for an integrated studio that would work on IBM machines, of course.

“The programmer just started yesterday. We’ve just begun interviewing studios for what they need,” said Lurty. A prototype for the OS/2 operating system is expected by the end of January.

Lurty ducked the obvious question of whether IBM is now following Apple’s footsteps.

BELOW THE LINE: Effects houses are trying to grab a piece of Universal’s “Heart & Souls,” the new Ron Underwood pic. The premise: the supernatural adventures of two recently killed couples who befriend a boy. Reportedly, there’s lots of walking through walls in this one.

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