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Filming Without the Film

COLUMN ONE

High-definition digital cameras, feared by some directors, could end the careers of those unable to make the transition.

July 11, 2002|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Frugality also is pushing studios and filmmakers to consider digital tools. Advocates insist that the technology cuts costs, partly by eliminating key parts of the movie-making process. For example, there's the time-honored--and time-consuming--ritual of handling "dailies."

When a day of shooting wraps, the crew sends the footage to a processing lab. After the film negatives have been developed, the reel is returned to the set. The director and often the crew gather inside a screening room. Then they cross their fingers.

Shoot-and-Pray Method

What they want to see up on the screen--and what the camera actually captured--aren't always the same. Perhaps the spotlights burned too brightly and washed out the image. Maybe the director didn't spot the catering truck parked in the background. If someone loaded the film into the camera incorrectly, the reel might be blank.

"With film, you get 60% of what you want," said director Robert Rodriguez. "In film, cinematography is the art of guessing."

Each mistake, each reshoot, eats up time and money. The shoot-and-pray cycle is nearly erased with digital cameras, because the images can be viewed instantly.

By replacing film in the cameras with videotape and speeding the flow of work, Lucas saved at least $3 million in production costs on "Attack of the Clones," producer Rick McCallum said. That's a small fraction of the movie's $100-million budget, but "when you're financing it yourself, and you're financing the marketing, anything you can do to be more cost-efficient helps," he said.

The need to cut production costs led News Corp.-owned 20th Century Fox Television and the executive team behind the series "The Education of Max Bickford" to take the digital plunge. The tactic worked, said producer Rod Halcomb, who estimated that the crew saved as much as $25,000 per episode in post-production and filming costs.

Regardless of the savings and technical innovation, no tool could save "Max Bickford": CBS dropped the series after its first year.

"Digital technology is the director's friend, just in principle. Because of it, directors can come closer to realizing what's in their minds," said director Ron Howard. "I'm open to it. I'm just not open to using it until all the bugs are worked out."

A Digital Weak Spot

Managing the problems of a digital set remains a daunting task, since such "bugs" can eat up much of the savings that the digital process promises.

Amid the ashy dust of the Mojave Desert, just up a worn road from the boarded-up Oasis Motel, "Confidential Report 001" director Chris Coppola sits and waits impatiently for the crew to set up the cameras.

"This was supposed to be a $600,000 independent film," said Coppola, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. "Now, we're way, way over budget."

The culprit, the younger Coppola said, is the high-definition gear. Two of the Sony cameras died in the last month as dust and heat made the computer electronics useless. The cameras' computer chips, which are sensitive to distance, can require more time to set up a shot than traditional gear. Then there was the mysterious blue pixel.

"We played back the footage and there it is, in random spots: a single blue pixel," said director of photography Andrew Giannetta. "No one knows why. Even Sony told us, 'We don't know what's wrong. If you figure it out, and figure out how to fix it, tell us.' "

One of the most difficult artistic hurdles is manipulating the look of the footage. Film blurs colors together around their edges, but digital cameras achieve a clarity that strikes some as harsh.

Unexpected Clarity

For filmmakers such as Rodriguez, this sense of clarity fits into his stylized action films. While recently shooting actor Johnny Depp in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," the director relied solely on digital cameras.

The tools picked up every detail, and uncovered the unexpected.

"I always thought Johnny Depp's eyes were black," Rodriguez said. "On the playback monitor, I realized they are really a light caramel color. If the eyes are the window of the soul, what ... are we doing shooting film and blurring that window?"

Reality, however, doesn't fit into the vision of every filmmaker. For some, manipulating what the eye sees is the goal.

While working on the "Max Bickford" series, director of photography Michael Mayers tried pairing various digital cameras with the lenses and filters he often used when shooting with traditional film.

Again and again, the equipment from these two worlds failed to work together and fell short of giving him the look he wanted. The images appeared far too sharp for the softer, cinematic feel of the script, Mayers said.

Ultimately, he found his solution at the grocery store: Saran Wrap. The plastic sheets, when attached to a camera lens, gave the footage a subtle diffusion he wanted.

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