Lucas gives a boost to new Sony cameras

Helmer sez digital quality equal to film

LAS VEGAS — If digital filmmaking was simmering on the back burner before, Sony used the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab in Las Vegas to heat things up Sunday, hyping its advancements and deals in high-definition.

Already in the works, Sony announced that George Lucas will use six of its 24-frame progressive high-definition camcorders to shoot much of “Star Wars: Episode II” beginning in June, when production starts in Australia before moving on to Italy and Tunisia. Nearly 18 months of post-production is planned after that.

Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic have been testing prototype cameras, built by camera and lens builder Panavision and Sony, for the last four months, assessing the cameras and the images they produce.

Device records at 24 frames per second, the same speed that runs through a traditional film camera but using digital videotape.

“The tests have convinced me that the familiar look and feel of motion picture film are fully present in this digital 24P system, and that the picture quality between the two is indistinguishable on the large screen,” George Lucas said.

At a cost of $100,000 each, the cameras (sold under the HDW-F900 name and new CineAlta banner) are much cheaper than traditional 35mm cameras. Sony has already sold 125,000 of its DVCams, which were used to shoot Mike Figgis’ “Timecode 2000.”

Sony delivered its first prototype of the 24P camera complete with new Panavision lenses to Lucasfilm last November. “The tests were quite astonishing,” said Jim Morris, prexy of Lucas Digital. “The image quality exceeded our expectations. All of our hopes about doing digital capture for the bigscreen have started to be realized.”

With the success, Panavision also said Sunday that it has acquired 100 of Sony’s HDW-F900 cameras to rent to the film and TV production community. Deal’s valued at $18 million.

Fuji and Cannon are now ramping up their own digital film technologies, having sat on the sidelines waiting for results. Kodak has already said it is jumping into the game.

If Lucas wasn’t enough, Sony paraded out helmer Wim Wenders, who gushed over the camera and showed off a musicvid starring U2 for his latest pic, “The Million Hotel,” shot using the new camera. Wenders stressed how shooting in digital eliminates the expensive digitizing of film to digital then back to film for post-production. New process, however, could eventually hurt post houses that make a living on digital transfers.

Sony’s high-def cameras are already used to produce video for the Web.

Sony prexy and CEO Noboyuki Idei said the company is also launching a new business-to-business service that will offer high-speed Internet connections to businesses and work with content creators and distributors to supply broadband technologies, creating new revenue streams for its set-top boxes, PC computer line, telephones and TV operations.

Stressing its interest in Internet broadcasting, Sony is expected to showcase today the first live high definition newscast produced over the Internet and distribbed to digital TV viewers in Seattle.

Cablevision prexy and CEO James Dolan said it will work with Sony to distrib new content by replacing as quickly as possible the 3 million Cablevision analog set-top boxes in homes with digital, Sony-built devices.

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