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Analysis: Film school goes digital

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, March 2 -- The new Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at the University of Southern California is not just a tribute to the past accomplishments of a popular film director, it is also an outpost in the ongoing expansion of film into new technological territories.

It is not accurate, however, to say the new facility is part of any "digital revolution" in film.

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The growing application of digital technology is not in itself a revolution. Rather, it is a part of a process of technological evolution that stretches back to the earliest development of the moving picture.

After all, whatever else it was, the moving picture was essentially a giant step forward from still photography. Digitalization, like sound and color before it, is the latest thing in a long line of latest things.

The Zemeckis Center puts the USC Schoolof Cinema-Television ahead of other film schools in the competition to train filmmakers in the digital film arts. Its students will be showing us their movies any year now.

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We should prepare now to see things we've never seen before.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas joined Zemeckis to celebrate the opening of the new digital arts facility that bears the name of the director who made many of us believe that Forrest Gump was really hobnobbing with President John F. Kennedy and Roger Rabbit was actually kibitzing with private detective Eddie Valiant.

Most movie audiences are unaware of the extent to which digital technology is already being used in movies, and many probably don't want to know.

It could take away from the dramatic impact to know that the giant ocean wave that swallowed the Andrea Gail in "The Perfect Storm" is, in reality, not real -- but the product of some fancy digital footwork. Or, that the island in "Cast Away" actually had other islands nearby, which were digitally removed from the picture to make it seem genuinely remote.

But there is a difference between the use of digital editing and special effects -- which have been around for more than a decade -- and actually making a picture with digital, as opposed to film, cameras.

Some purists argue against digital filmmaking. They say it doesn't have the same depth or warmth as film.

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"These guys are the same ones who have been saying that LPs sound better than CDs," Zemeckis told Daily Variety. "You can argue that until you're blue in the face, but I don't know anyone who's still buying vinyl."

The complaint itself is out of date because new advances -- particularly in lenses -- make it possible to shoot digital without compromising on visual quality. It is also beside the major point regarding film: that form is interesting, but content is king.

"Film as we have traditionally thought of is going to be different," said Zemeckis. "But the continuum is man's desire to tell stories around the campfire. The only thing that keeps changing is the campfire."

The Zemeckis center will allow film students to build a campfire using the latest thing in non-linear production and post-production equipment and stages.

The digital editing lab consists of two editing rooms, each equipped with 30 Avid Xpress DV systems, Avid video editing software, and digital distribution options that will allow student filmmakers to post work on the Internet or make their own CDs and DVDs.

Students will be able to use Sony digital cameras on projects.

While their elders continue to shoot scenes on film, the next generation of film professionals is learning to "capture" images on digital tape or computer disk.

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Unlike the conventional medium of film, which presented editors and special effects houses a series of images that could be altered, the digitally captured image itself can be manipulated. The technology offers filmmakers a degree of flexibility that will not only change the way movies are made, but will also take storytelling in unexpected new directions.

In addition to prominent filmmakers such as Zemeckis, Spielberg, Lucas and Ron Howard, four major studios have made substantial contributions to the new center. It is an indication that the studios -- Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. -- intend to play a central part in the further digitalization of film.

Students coming out of USC, or any other film school that teaches the digital arts, will not be at the leading edge of digital filmmaking. Directors such as Lars von Trier and Mike Figgis havebeen doing it for years.

Von Trier was part of a radical movement of filmmakers who signed the Dogma 95 manifesto in 1995, calling for a new "chastity" in filmmaking.

Fellow Dogma 95 co-signers pledged that they would only shoot on location with no sets, props or lighting other than natural lighting. Their films could only be shot with a handheld camera, and no sound or optical effects could be added later.

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"When we were playing around with the idea," said "Festen (The Celebration)" director Thomas Vinterberg, "I found it extremely inspiring."

Vinterberg told film writer Jrn Rossing Jensen, "Limitations have always been a major source of inspiration."

Like the French New Wave, Dogma saw its mission as "rescue operation ... to purge film so that once again the inner lives of the characters justifies the plot."

Those kinds of sentiments, emphasizing character and story over technology and technique, should be music to the ears of those who suspect that digital technology will take the soul out of filmmaking.

No matter what uses filmmakers are able to dream up for digital technologies, the novelty of mind-blowing images will only attract and hold the attention of movie fans for so long. In the long run, people will still want to be entertained, diverted, inspired -- perhaps even enlightened -- by movies.

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