The Digital Revolution

Steven Ascher

Author bio: Steven Ascher is an Academy-Award nominated director whose films include Troublesome Creek (winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize), So Much So Fast, and Raising Renee.  He is author of The Filmmaker’s Handbook, a Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age, a bestselling text.

In the history of motion pictures there have been decisive moments when a new technology changed everything. In 1927 The Jazz Singer—the first “talkie”—marked the beginning of the sound era. Suddenly, silent film stars were out and a new type of actor and a new type of story were in, fundamentally changing how movies were written, filmed, and shown.

Today digital technology is driving a revolution that’s even more earthshaking. Young people who have grown up in the Internet era don’t realize how seismic the changes have been. Movies—all kinds of media, really—will never be the same.

Technically, what “digital” means is that pictures and sounds are converted to digital data (ones and zeros) that can be stored, manipulated, and transmitted by computers. Once in digital form, a world of possibilities opens up.

A New Reality

The digital era in movies began in the 1980s but picked up momentum around 1990. From the beginning, digital technology was used to create new kinds of images. Filmmaker George Lucas’s company, Industrial Light and Magic, pioneered astonishing visual effects that made the most fantastic space stories look stunningly realistic. With programs like Photoshop we could now digitally alter pictures—say, to remove a person or add a building— which changed our basic understanding of photographed reality. In the digital era, statements like “pictures don’t lie” and “seeing is believing” are clearly untrue. Digital video editing systems helped shape new filmmaking styles and techniques, such as the use of very short shots, graphics that fly around the screen, and objects that seamlessly transform (morph) into other objects. The look of most television commercials today would not be possible without digital tools.

The 1990s brought an explosion in digital video (DV) which has led to the many digital camcorders and other devices that  give amateurs the ability to shoot and edit inexpensive, very good-quality video. Independent filmmakers have seized low-cost cameras and used them to make movies that shown on television and at prestigious film festivals. In the traditional Hollywood production model, films were shot with big 35mm film cameras and big crews to handle them.  Digital recording is rapidly replacing film, and enables a wide range of fiction and documentary projects that would have been impossible–or impossibly expensive–before.

George Lucas

George Lucas has led the industry in technological developments, from special effects to his vision of the future of film distribution.

As digital video took off, so did the World Wide Web. At first, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with it. The Blair Witch Project, a 1999 low-budget thriller shot with small-format video cameras, is credited as the first movie to exploit the Internet’s marketing power. By posting hints on the Web that the horror in the film was real, the producers sparked intense debate, helping propel the film to a $248 million worldwide gross. Today, Web sites, blogs, online reviews, and discussions on sites like Facebook are essential elements in building “buzz” for a new film.

The Web opens the door to a new model of filmmaking and distribution. The majority of commercial movies are created and distributed by large corporations—such as film studios, television broadcasters, or big distribution companies. However, the Web makes it possible for anyone to produce a movie for a specialized audience and post it online  where it can be accessed directly by that audience, bypassing the gatekeepers who would have likely rejected the project for lack of broad appeal. The ability to make a profit while producing smaller and more unusual types of productions increases as we move away from selling or renting physical objects like DVDs and instead distribute the project via  electronic files and streaming video.

Digital Delivery

Meanwhile, recent advances in high-definition television (HDTV) have brought a quantum leap forward in picture and sound quality. If you’ve been to an electronics store, you know how incredibly clear, vivid, and downright huge the new flat-panel screens are. Every frame of digital video is made up of tiny dots of light called pixels; the more pixels, the sharper and better the image, especially when shown on a big screen. Traditional, standard-definition video used about 345,000 pixels for each frame; typical high-definition (HD) systems use about 2 million. Once you’ve seen a beautifully shot, widescreen movie in high definition, you never want to go back to watching old-fashioned standard def again.  Already on the market are 4K screens with four times the resolution of HD.

The Digital Cinema Initiatives is a program put forth by a group of Hollywood studios to bring digital technology all the way to theaters. Already more than half of U.S. theaters have converted from showing film prints on a film projector, to showing movies via digital projection of digital files. New “4K” digital projectors use almost 9 million pixels and create a gorgeous picture that never gets scratched or dirty. Studios can save millions by not having to manufacture and ship heavy film prints, which are rapidly becoming obsolete.

But just as theaters are poised to move into the digital era, consumers have an exploding number of options for viewing movies on giant flat-panel screens in their living rooms, on smaller computer screens at their desks, and on tablets and cellphone screens on the street. Between video-on-demand, downloads, and Webcasts, we can now see almost anything, anywhere, anytime. Will this mean the death of one of the great worldwide traditions—going to a theater to watch a movie surrounded by an audience that’s laughing and crying along with you?

Yet again, we look to George Lucas as a bellwether. Because releasing a movie theatrically is incredibly risky and expensive, studios are driven to a blockbuster mentality, creating product for the widest possible appeal (or, depending on how you see it, the lowest common denominator). Even so, most films lose money in the theaters. Lucas, the man behind more blockbusters than almost anyone, told Daily Variety a few years ago, “We don’t want to make movies. We’re about to get into television.” Instead of spending $100 million to make a single film and another $100 million to distribute it to theaters, he said, he could make 50 to 60 films for television and Internet distribution. As for future audiences going to theaters, Lucas said, “I don’t think that’s going to be a habit anymore.”

When you consider that digital technology is at its heart simply a way to convert movies to a string of ones and zeros, it’s astounding to see how much it has changed the way movies are made, the stories they tell, where they’re shown, how much they cost, and who’s watching. Stand by for further developments.

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