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New Buzz Making Waves on High-Tech Film Sets

Interference from wireless devices and other electronic gear can cause baffling -- and expensive -- delays in moviemaking.

November 17, 2002|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Cinematographer Brian Heller thought all systems were go as he prepared to shoot inside a New York apartment building for the film "Code of Ethics." The set looked elegant. The cast, poised for its cue, stood ready.

Suddenly, the camera jerked to a stop. On a second try, it did it again. The circuitry inside the camera fizzled.

A crew member eventually pinpointed the problem: a burglar alarm one floor below that was emitting a strong burst of microwaves.

As moviemaking becomes increasingly high tech, Hollywood film crews are finding themselves at odds with the technology that permeates everyday life. They sit on the cutting edge of a global laboratory in which millions of computer chips, hordes of wireless devices and even ordinary contraptions can wreak havoc on their productions.

In a world where science and art must mesh, the list of unexpected electronic conflicts ranges from simple to simply baffling. They typically are the consequence of the wrong technologies being in the same space at the same time. These anomalies often are impossible to predict and can be nearly as difficult to remedy.

"When you're working with a traditional film camera and it breaks, you can look at it and pretty much figure out what's wrong," said cinematographer James Matlosz. "A film camera's a machine. A digital camera's a computer. If the computer stops working, what do you do?"

All manner of gizmos have been subject to technological interference. A high-powered walkie-talkie being used too close to a sensitive power generator confused its internal timing processor and sent it into shutdown mode, killing the lights during filming of a poignant moment in the summer blockbuster "Spider-Man."

And during a creepy scene in last year's camp horror film "Out of the Darkness" at an old hotel in upstate New York, a dormant pool pump sprang to life with ear-splitting screeches. It was inadvertently turned on when the crew plugged a generator into an antiquated electrical system.

"It sounded like someone was sauteing a cat," producer Richard Miller recalled. "It took us 20 minutes to figure out what it was."

For Hollywood, the most common electronic hiccups are caused by radio waves. Like light waves, radio waves consist of oscillating electric and magnetic fields that roam through space. A key difference between radio and light waves rests in the technologies that are used to detect them -- and the ones that are affected by them.

Computers, televisions, cameras, cell phones and even coffee makers are embedded with tiny electronic components and circuits that often allow these machines to interact with each other. But these components also may emit undesired radio- frequency waves that create an ocean of buzz.

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Polluted Environment

In the U.S., the radio spectrum is divvied up by the Federal Communications Commission to avoid this chaos in the air. But when the circumstances are right, the lines of division can blur, allowing the ghost in the machine to take over.

"We're living in a polluted radio environment," said Martin Cooper, chief executive of Arraycomm Inc., a San Jose-based firm that makes tools to enhance wireless technologies. "These kinds of problems are only going to increase."

Of all the tools that can crash, the worst to lose is a camera. Digital cameras use powerful computer chips to convert light to electronic pulses, which are translated into data and stored on videotape. Even film cameras, which are basically mechanical, rely on electronic parts that emit a subtle buzz.

Film and digital camera manufacturers have attempted to shield their equipment from meddlesome radio-frequency waves, but nothing has been totally successful, noted Larry Thorpe, senior vice president of content creation for camera maker Sony Electronics Inc. in Park Ridge, N.J.

"You can only test your technology so much," added Stuart English, vice president of marketing for Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems Co. in Secaucus, N.J., which provides digital cameras to news and film crews. "What takes over is field testing, or testing by experience. They find the problems, and we learn from them."

Such was the case with the 2001 Imax film, "Pittsburgh's Big Picture." Matlosz and his crew had their gear set up on a rooftop overlooking an industrial skyline. The sun, just setting, painted the horizon in rich hues.

The massive camera suddenly began to "hiccup uncontrollably," advancing the film at wildly varying speeds, Matlosz said. The baffled crew, eager not to miss the shot, scoured the camera for clues.

"Our heads were bobbing and weaving, looking all around for what was wrong, like a loose wire or a switch in the wrong position," he said. After nearly an hour, the crew deduced that the culprit was a forest of nearby cell-phone towers that sent bursts of radio waves.

Such delays can become expensive problems for production crews, which are under constant pressure to deliver their films on time and within budget.

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