Optical’s optimal for some folks

In an industry increasingly enamored of computers and digital technology, where flatbeds and splicing tape are nowhere to be found among the ubiquitous Avid and Silicon Graphics gear, it’s not always easy to be an advocate of old-fashioned, film-oriented post-production technology.

But that’s the position Laurel Schulman, production manager at Hollywood’s Cinema Research Corp., often finds herself in.

CRC specializes in creating composites for main titles and other scenes – including dream sequences – for feature films. The company utilizes traditional gear, such as optical film printers, as well as digital devices such as Quantel’s Domino and Silicon Graphics workstations. Lately, CRC has been using its optical printers to composite opening titles for “Judge Dredd.”

Only a handful of Hollywood companies still do significant business in optical printing for feature films. Most of that work goes to only two houses, CRC and Pacific Title & Art Studio.

Schulman says many clients, having heard the buzzwords associated with digital post, ask for their jobs to be completed digitally. But digital shouldn’t necessarily be the preferred method, she says.

“Sometimes it depends on money, sometimes logic,” she says. “For a simple split-screen with a right-side image and a left-side image, the job could be done optically for about $2,500, whereas digitally it would cost about $7,500.

“Some people call us with negative damage, like a scratch down the side of the film,” she adds. “They feel they have to lose the scratch digitally, but we can do it optically for about $600, as opposed to $5,000 digitally.”

The “Judge Dredd” sequence, she notes, “is a perfect example of something done optically – not cheaply – but it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars more if it had been done digitally.”

While execs in the f/x industry generally agree that the quality of film opticals is equal to, if not better than, composites done digitally, not everyone concurs that opticals have a place in today’s film production world.

“It’s more expensive to do things optically,” says Richard Edlund, ASC, president of Boss Film Studios and winner of two Academy Awards for film printing enhancements.

“I’ve become a real convert,” says Edlund, whose company recently completed numerous digital effects, including a computer-generated title character, for “Species.” “You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming back to an optical printer.”

But Phil Feiner, VP at Pacific Title & Art Studio, the company with the largest share of Hollywood’s optical compositing business, says for many jobs, traditional methods make the most sense.

“We’ve proven to our clients that there’s not a quality difference,” he says. “Opticals are cost-effective, and the resolution and duplication are as good as digital.”

Feiner says client education is usually straightforward: “We recommend a path to our clients, based on the demands of their particular job. We have both digital and optical capabilities. If clients ask for a composite to be done digitally when we recommend that it be done optically, we offer them a price quote for doing it either way, and let them decide. When they take a look at the price difference, 98% elect to go optically.”

Studio execs such as Tim McGovern, senior VP of technical and creative affairs at Sony Image works, are aware of the efficacy of optical printing. “Opticals are still a very cost-effective way of working. When we did the titles for ‘Speed,’ there were 4,400 frames. The plate for the background was an extremely long motion-control shot done in miniature. It didn’t make sense to digitally scan and composite the shots.

“Until the cost of scanning and film recording come down, sequences of that duration will be prohibitive to do digitally,” McGovern adds.

Many effects houses use a combination of digital and optical effects depending on the job at hand, but Feiner worries that younger filmmakers, unschooled in the business’ history, are too quick to dismiss the optical process.

“As an industry, we can’t lose our film history, because it helps us in knowing what processes to use when making choices,” he says. “Digital is bringing a forgetfulness of the tricks of the trade. Some people don’t know how slow digital can be, and how expensive. But the PR people are doing a good job of enticing filmmakers into the digital arena, and very often, they’re educating people incorrectly. There are a lot of people in this business right now getting a very expensive education.”

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