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Digital on NAB agenda

Technology's day not here, cinematographers say

LAS VEGAS — Key unanswered questions about digital cinema as a way to both capture and project movies likely mean that film will remain Hollywood’s preferred way to make a movie for some time to come, cinematographers at this year’s NAB gathering said.

They were part of two days of conferences held before the exhibit halls open today and the show kicks off in earnest. NAB organizers said registrations so far are on target to roughly equal last year’s 92,000 attendees, though more exact totals won’t be known until Wednesday, the day before the show closes.

A series of panels on various aspects of digital cinema pointed to numerous reasons for optimism in the field. A Canadian company, Dalsa, introduced a camera capable of capturing 4,000 lines of horizontal resolution, only the second such machine on the market. And top cinematographers are experimenting heavily with the new technologies, telling tech companies what needs to be done. For all the progress so far in digital cinema, much still needs to be done.

“For the next 10 years, film will not disappear,” said keynote speaker Charles Swartz, whose Entertainment Technology Center is overseeing tests of digital projection systems on behalf of the major studios. “We need to discover ways to exploit digital cinema without giving up what we have gained in the past 100 years.”

Standards need to be nailed down so moviemakers can be sure a project looks the same no matter what equipment is showing it.

“This is not a minor issue,” said David Leightner, director of photography on “The Technical Writer,” a digitally shot film. “We know what to expect with 35mm (film). We don’t with digital cameras. We need standards.”

And those standards should include what minimum quality level is acceptable, and whether a lower-quality look is OK on smaller screens.

David Stump, chairman of the American Society of Cinematography’s technical committee on image acquisition, laid out a laundry list of concerns he is compiling, including having a consistent “color space,” the range of colors captured and displayed by various cameras and projectors.

“We need to remember that we have all these tools in our toolbox, and if we throw away all the film cameras, we would lose so many of our tools,” said Stump, the cinematographer on both “X-Men” movies, “Stuart Little” and two “Batman” films. “We should be putting new tools into our toolbox instead of taking them out.”

Costs and complexity need to drop substantially, and security must be improved and easily changed if it is hacked. More digital films need to be released, and given the medium’s impermanence, more durable ways to store and archive finished movies have to be found.

  • The conference also featured a flurry of press conferences by technology companies, who dominate square footage on the NAB exhibit floor. Most notable was Apple’s announcement of new versions of its Final Cut Pro editing software, DVD Studio Pro authoring software and Shake visual effects program.

    Final Cut Pro 4 was particularly eye-catching. Its more than 300 new features include numerous major improvements designed to appeal to moviemakers and editors. Among the big changes: sophisticated systems to generate titles and soundtracks and to compress finished movies for a wide range of media; real-time color correction and 32-bit floating point processing. That latter capability is a first for a system that runs on a desktop computer, and if properly realized, would provide far more power, image quality and flexibility than has been possible in the past.

  • IBM also announced deals with the company behind “Sesame Street” to convert thousands of episodes of the TV show to a digital format. The resulting system would allow insiders and clients to review material online, keep track of worldwide rights to that video and integrate rights sales with the company’s existing finance and other computer systems.

    The system uses an improved version of IBM’s Digital Media Factory, along with integration specialists the company acquired when it bought Price-Waterhouse-Coopers Consulting.

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