Sunday, December 16, 2007

The digital storm: An editorial

In the late 70s, I went to work for a company called Micropolis. At that time, Micropolis made floppy disk drives for Tandy, Commodore and some other smaller companies as well as selling to the general public.

At this time, Microcomputers were brand new. Apple, Commodore and Tandy were the main producers of computers for the home and they were generally considered a hobbyist product. I remember making a bet with someone at that time that all storage would be solid state in 5 years. No more electro-mechanical devices. No more moving parts that were all prone to breaking.

I lost that bet.

Today, the principal device for mass data storage is the hard disk. An electro-mechanical device. But moving to a solid state device is inevitable. Look at P2 devices from Panasonic as a good example.

The point is that technology has a huge impact on all aspects of our lives. For better or worse, it drives forward and changes the way that we perceive our capabilities and limitations. This article will focus primarily on how technology impacts the film business. I will use the term film here to encompass both traditional film as well as digital technologies.

The path to digital

For a very long time, technology had a minimal impact on the motion picture industry. The initial use of film in the silent days remained largely unchanged in the mainstream until the advent of a practical sound system in 1929 as demonstrated in the film “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. The film was not entirely sync sound but had sections of the film with sync dialog in it.

There were those at the time that felt that sound was just a gimmick. That it would never succeed in the mainstream. Charlie Chaplin was one of these critics. But “The Jazz Singer” was a huge hit and forced all of the majors to re-assess the importance of sound in film. If audiences were going to flock to films with sound, their existing silent endeavors would lose audience share to the new “talkies”.

The immediate impact of “The Jazz Singer” forced all of the studios to act and act quickly. They hired sound consultants and engineers. They retrofitted stages on the lots to become “Sound stages”. They placed the camera inside of a sound proof booth. They hired dialog coaches to work with the stars. And many actors who had previously enjoyed a great deal of success in the movies now found themselves unwanted since their voices did not live up to the expectations of the studios.

The impact of sound in film cannot be understated. Short of the introduction of film itself, sound created the biggest frenzy of change that the film industry has ever seen. None of the subsequent technological changes in the film industry have caused the studios to adopt a significant technology change. Not color, not widescreen, not digital.

The subsequent technologies that I mentioned, were all adopted slowly. Color was implemented sporadically as was widescreen. Digital technologies have also been very slow to make inroads to the film industry.

In the late 80s, I got involved in a development project called “Polyphonic FX”. This system was intended to utilize computers, optical storage and digital time code in order to automate much of the manual process associated with adding sound effects to films.
The effects editor would be able to call up samples of sound effects from a library that was stored on a rack of optical disks, audition the sound to determine it’s worthiness for a given shot and then assign the sound to that part of the film through it’s SMPTE timecode.

Using this system, a single sound editor could do a complete feature film in the same time that it would take 7 editors to carry out the task. The system was shown at NAB and was subsequently purchased lock, stock and copyright, by a large sound house in Hollywood. We were happy, as we got out investment back and a tidy profit. The buyer, dismantled the system and threw it away.

They did this because it represented a threat to the sound editors. The perception was that it would put editors out of work. Today, we have products that effectively do the same thing. The sound editors use digital technologies to great effect. But it took a number of years before these types of products made inroads into the business.

Sometimes, the technology appears and is not practical because of the immaturity of the product. Non-linear computer based editing is a good example here. Early systems used a very low resolution image to edit with and were slow and cumbersome to use. However, these technologies have matured and evolved to the point that they are generally accepted.
Digital filmmaking also falls into this category. And by digital filmmaking I mean the production of movies without the traditional use of film. As we all know, digital technologies increase in capability while going down in price as a general rule. For the major motion picture industry, this is a very bad thing.

Back when I was working on Polyphonic FX, I was exposed to a lot of the post production process as we were partnering with a local sound post facility. This was my first exposure to filmmaking at the professional level and I got it into my head that this might be an interesting activity to be involved in.

So I outlined a little script and sent it off to a friend of mine that was working as a story consultant on episodic TV. She made some notes and advised me as to the correct format for the script and I proceeded to finish the script.

Next up, acquire the equipment needed to make a short film. This would consist of sound equipment, lighting, a camera and it’s associated support gear and various grip items. I wanted to buy the gear so that I could learn to use it as well as have it available for subsequent projects.
After pricing it all out and looking at the costs associated with film stock, processing, post production I concluded that there was a good reason that this was not a common hobby for the general public to engage in: Cost.

The cost for doing this was exorbitant. There was NO way I was going to be able to afford to do this. Even renting gear, it was out of the question. So I put the project on the back burner and forgot about it. So what happened here?

The studios win.

The cost of playing in this game is very very high. And this is very much to the studio’s advantage. After all, if every yahoo out there could make films, the studio’s raison d’etre would no longer exist. Can’t have that, now can we?

There was a time when the studios were run as a dictatorship with a single person at the helm - Harry Cohn at Columbia, Lew Wasserman at Universal, Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and so on. Today they are all owned and operated by multi-national corporations. I think that if they were still run by a single individual, their ability to survive in the coming storm might be possible.

The digital storm

As we have all witnessed in recent years (the last 5 especially), the tools required to make a film have gone the way of digital and are very cheap. At the low end, we have 300 dollar digital video cameras, low cost PCs with firewire built in and Moviemaker (or iMovie) included with these machines, gratis.

In the middle ground, we have cameras like the Panasonic HVX200, Sony Z1 etc. We have the Adobe production suite and Apple’s Final Cut studio. And there is a plethora of low cost equipment options available now to support the burgeoning independent filmmaker’s market.
At the high end we have cameras like the Viper and the Genesis. And now, we also have the RED 1. The RED 1 being poised to make a significant shift in the cost of making films for theatrical distribution. Other tools such as Apple’s Color and 3D compositing applications such as Lightwave and Maya remain very cost effective solutions that are available to the hobbyist or aspiring filmmaker.

Message to the studios: The cost of entry to your exclusive world has smashed!

There have been films made now on standard definition that have achieved the elusive status of “theatrically distributed”. The film November with Courtney Cox was shot on a Panasonic DVX 100 SD camera. There are other films that have been shot on the low cost HDV format that have seen distribution as well. But, alas, this is the exception.

Check out the web site to get an idea of the explosion of film festivals that have cropped up in the last 5 years. The number is mind boggling. You can thank digital technology for this. Amateur filmmakers all vying for distribution of their films by gaining exposure through any of the hundreds of film festivals that are active in the US and throughout the world.

The Studios: We still own this business.

So if the cost of production has diminished significantly over the past few years, why are the studios still in power? Why has the democratization of film production not brought the studios to their knees?

Well, in some ways it has caused them to react. And react slowly. Take for example Universal’s Focus Features or Fox’s Searchlight divisions. These are just a few of the areas that the major’s have created to provide distribution for the explosion of independent features, over 1000 of which get produced annually. And that number will just continue to climb.

So, if we reduce the cost of creating blockbuster entertainment to the point that it no longer requires the financial wherewithal of a major studio to produce it, what then are the studios bringing to the table in order to remain viable in the future?

Production resources (stages, backlots, post, studio facilities etc).
Expertise in production

So lets look at these in order:

Financing. I think, in the future, if a producer or director goes to a bank with a project in hand that appears to be an excellent bet in terms of making money at the box office, banks and venture capitalists will finance these projects. Regardless of any studio affiliation.
Production resources. More and more studio facilities are cropping up for use by indy filmmakers. Additionally, the studios themselves rent these facilities out to filmmakers regardless of their affiliation with the studio. This *might* end up being the bread and butter of the studios in the future.

Expertise in production. More and more, skilled artisans and technicians are finding viable work in the independent market. A recent film that I was involved with that had a $50K budget, used all union skill. The production had nothing to do with any studio. Hollywood is a small town. If you are good at what you do, you get work. It’s that simple.

And, finally, distribution. This is the biggie. Today, if you want your film to have a wide release in the US and Europe, the only players in that game are the majors. But... Again, technology to the rescue...

Digital distribution reduces the cost of getting the film out into the theaters by a significant margin. Gone are the days when prints have to be struck for each theater. Gone are the days of broken film and splicing in the projection booth. The cost savings and the positive impact overall is significant.

Here is where the studios have to maintain a stranglehold. In order for them to do this they must remain competitive. It won’t take much for some start-up to undermine them with a superior approach with lower costs that get passed along to the exhibitors. There is significant risk here for the majors.

Add to this the impending ability to effectively provide downloadable content to the home. And, no, I do not mean on your computer. I am talking about content sent to a box that is part of the home theater in high definition. Consider that many of the theaters today that have implemented digital projectors are using 2K resolution devices. Trust me when I tell you that you cannot tell the difference between a 2K projected image and an HD image at 1920x1080.
So now with low cost HDTV sets and low cost surround sound systems, you have a theatrical experience in your home. No cell phones. No one kicking the back of your chair or chattering during the film. The ability to pause the TV anytime you like or run it back to hear some muffled dialog again.

But you don’t get the shared experience of a film in a theater. You also do not get a 100’ screen. Is the draw to these attributes strong enough to maintain the existing theater experience? Only time will tell. I suspect it will survive but in a much reduced form factor. God knows, the internet has created an almost shut-in society in some regards with the ability to order anything online and have it delivered.

What I, as a consumer, wants: I would like to have digital delivery of HD content directly to my living room. I want the model to be a subscription model. A flat fee for a specific number of monthly downloads. Much the same way that we have with services like Netflix. I do not want to have to ever buy and store media like DVDs. I just want to be able to watch what I want, when I want.

I hope we can arrive at this at some point. The Chinese curse says “May you live in interesting times.”. I consider the present to be very interesting times. I don’t think it’s a curse.


Rob:-] said...

My room mate and I had a dual 5 1/4" Micropolis drive hooked to my IMSI computer along with a dual 8" Persi drive with voice coil head positioning. Those were heady days!

B-Scene Films said...

Did you have the 100 TPI drives? For their time, the Micropolis drives were way ahead of the curve. Unfortunately the propriatary nature of their design precipitated the drives non-acceptance. Micropolis had good success with hard drives though.

The floppy drives ended up being the cash cow that financed the R&D for the development of their hard drive business.

For development of those systems, Micropolis used a mix of IMSAI 8080s and Altair 8800s. I still have an IMSAI and it still works just fine. They were built like tanks. I think you could probably weld using the power supply from one :)