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Digital Cinema Gets a Push

Director Robert Zemeckis helps create a USC center that will give students hands-on tech experience.

March 04, 2001|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

Robert Zemeckis can't wait for digital cinema to be complete.

Why should he? For more than 15 years, the popular director has melded live-action, visual effects, and, on occasion, animation into an imaginative art form with the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her," "Forrest Gump," "Contact," "What Lies Beneath" and "Cast Away."

So it should come as no surprise that Zemeckis is taking an active role in accelerating the pace and expanding the role of digital cinema. In effect, he's going back to the future with the creation of a digital arts complex at the USC School of Cinema-Television, his alma mater.

Located in a 35,000-square-foot building that used to be a furniture warehouse adjacent to the campus, the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, which just opened, will become an integral part of the university's training of filmmakers and TV creators of the future.

As a result, students will now have greater access to cutting-edge digital tools, opening up a whole world of visual possibilities previously denied them because of time, cost and other mechanical limitations of film. Using computer-generated imagery, or CGI, they can move anywhere in a scene without restriction, the way Zemeckis careens in and out of the haunted house in "What Lies Beneath"; they can defy all rules of physical reality by contorting a face or a body, as the director did with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in "Death Becomes Her"; or they can seamlessly morph actors in historical situations or wipe away their limbs, as he did in "Forrest Gump."

Zemeckis not only donated $5 million, but also persuaded some of the most powerful people and entities in the industry to contribute. Fellow USC alumnus George Lucas donated $2 million for the construction of a digital studio named after Akira Kurosawa and an advanced media classroom named after William Wyler; honorary alumnus Steven Spielberg donated $2 million to fund both a digital studio in commemoration of Stanley Kubrick and another CGI classroom.

Other contributions include a multi-camera sound stage funded with $1 million by David Geffen, one of Spielberg's partners at DreamWorks, and an undisclosed donation by Ron and Cheryl Howard for the creation of a multimedia screening room. The center also counts Avid Technology, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, Sony and Warner Bros. among its donors.

In addition, the center boasts nonlinear digital editing and shooting systems, stages with motion-control computers (courtesy of Universal), multimedia fiber-optic cable connections, a digital editing "bullpen" with 60 stations, suites for digital sound and picture editing and digital compositing equipment, not to mention more than 100 digital cameras donated by Sony. This will not only make shooting and editing easier and more precise, but will also allow students to simultaneously interact with one another throughout the facility.

"The thing that's most amazing about what's being done here is that it's the first signal of what's to come," a wide-eyed Zemeckis explains while touring the facility and staring at the high ceilings, flexible walls and great expanse of the center. "Because of the fact that the real art [in the digital domain] is virtual, what you see here physically is going to look like a bank of monitors or a sound stage. That's kind of like going into a lumberyard and looking at a pile of two-by-fours and saying this is a house. That's what all this is. And that's going to be the essence of movies, a hybrid of the real and the virtual."

Zemeckis is philosophical--and extremely optimistic--about the ongoing digital revolution in movies, despite the fact that he still has one foot in analog and one in digital, which makes him self-conscious. When he looks at a digital watch, for instance, he still can't help converting the image in his mind to an analog face. Or when he watches editors piecing together scenes on the Avid system, he imagines the same process with separate segments of film for sound and picture running slowly through a synchronizer while they're way ahead of him in the electronic version of the process.

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Most movies have been edited electronically on Avid consoles for years, but digital cinematography eliminates the need to transfer images captured on coded celluloid into computer files for editing. With digital, images are transferred directly from the camera storage device to the Avid. There's no waiting for film to be shipped to the processor, developed, copied onto work prints and then fed into an optical reader that digitizes the images for editing. The images are already digitized.

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