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What is digital filmmaking?

Rathish Babu
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February 26, 2007

Digital Film Making (DFM) process is a unique blend of art and technology. DFM uses advanced technology to speed up the film making process. It also allows the film maker to be more creative, by making available to him better and faster special effects and post production techniques. In short, it makes the job of film maker easier.

Today, it is difficult to pinpoint a film that does not make use of digital technology in some aspect of production. A film could be shot on a digital standard definition video camera or a high-definition (HDV) camera.

Even films shot using conventional cameras may be edited using non-linear editing software such as Final Cut Pro or AVID. Most films that are shot and edited using conventional methods still go through the Digital Intermediate (DI) process in the very last stage just before printing. Furthermore, Visual Effects (VFX) has now become an almost integral part of filmmaking -- one cannot imagine a film being made without using digital technology.

Until recently, Hollywood studios were the only ones who had the money to pay for digital tools and for the labour involved in producing digital effects. However, the shift to digital media affects not just Hollywood, but filmmaking as a whole. As traditional film technology is universally being replaced by digital technology, the logic of the filmmaking process is being redefined.

Someone once defined digital filmmaking thus -- Live action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated by hand: animated, combined with 3-D computer generated scenes and painted over. The final images are constructed manually from different elements; and all elements are either created entirely from scratch or modified by hand.

Timeline of development in digital film

Early 1990s: Computer-based non-linear editing systems are introduced and within a few short years dominate post-production. Likewise, digital media for sound recording and processing quickly become the norm.

1991: Computer-generated special effects in Terminator 2 are visually stunning and firmly establish the computer as the most powerful special effects tool yet developed.

1992: The first public demonstration of digital cinema. Pacific Bell and Sony Pictures Entertainment sent the movie Bugsy from the lot in Culver City to the Anaheim Convention Center where a theatre has been set up. 100s attend and it receives more news coverage than any other single event in telephone history.

1993: A reel of film is projected at Skywalker Sound in Los Angeles, with the soundtrack being transmitted simultaneously into the screening room from Skywalker Sound in Northern California.

1995: Toy Story is released, the first completely computer-generated feature film.

1995: CD-ROM disks are able to store a full-length feature film.

Mid 1990s: Computers reach higher saturation in homes and businesses. The development of the hypertext transfer protocol allows mainstream America to join in a worldwide network of computers and computer users.

1998: DVDs are introduced and quickly surge to popularity, gaining critical mass.

1999: Digital cinema demonstrations to the public begin on June 19 in four theatres, two on the West coast and two on the East coast of America. Lucas Films and 20th Century Fox debut Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace as the first major motion picture theatrically exhibited as digital cinema using a Pluto digital storage system in the D-5 compression format. The Ideal Husband is shown at Infocomm in digital cinema. This is one of the last demonstrations using the Hughes/JVC ILA projector. Tarzan, Toy Story 2 and Bicentennial Man are released by Disney in the new digital cinema format using the QuVIS wavelet based compression algorithms.

2000: In February, digital cinema demonstrations go international with two theatres equipped in London, one in Manchester, one in Brussels, one in Paris, and one in Tokyo, for all digital showings of Toy Story 2.

(Source: Jim Mendrala, A Brief History of Film and Digital Cinema (

Advantages of Digital Films

Digital film has clear superiority over conventional film in maintaining constant quality with use. Just as vinyl records degrade with use due to stylus contact with the substrate, and CDs do not degrade due to laser-light contact as the method used in decoding the digital information, the first showing of a digital movie will be identical in quality to the 1,000th. Digital movies do not get scratches or break the way regular film does. Every copy of a movie is identical to the master reference print. Normal movie film becomes slightly damaged with each showing. After enough showings, it will become too damaged for use. Digits, on the other hand, never wear out.

Using digital film should be much easier than film cinema. Film is heavy, hard to work with and fragile. The process of receiving, prepping, and showing, dismantling and returning a movie requires skilled labour and resources. Digital cinema movies can be managed with the simplicity of basic computer commands and operated just like a VCR.

A satellite-based system provides a secure process for erasing digital movies once their run at a theatre is complete. This will eliminate the current need to return and destroy film prints, as well as reduce the risk of film prints falling into unauthorized hands. Another benefit is the new technology will allow simultaneous global release of new movies, thereby reducing the ability of pirates to copy a movie in one region and sell videos in areas where the studios haven't yet released it.

Another point to consider is that film distributors make educated guesses when determining how many prints of a movie to make. If too few prints are made, there is the danger of not having enough screens to show the movie while it is in demand. Too many prints and money is wasted on unneeded film. Either way, if a movie does not perform as predicted, it can waste money. Supply can conflict with demand. Using electronic distribution and localised data storage, a cinema house can adjust the schedule and number of screens at anytime. Additionally, delivering a single copy or 100 copies ends up costing exactly the same amount for the cinema. In digital cinema, movies also do not have to be physically shipped, stored or returned. Movies cannot get lost or stolen. Digital copies can be released with robust copy protection and watermarking.

With digital cinema, movie studios have the ability to modify their content. Movies can be changed even after they are released. Digital cinema uses solid-state projectors that are generally smaller than film projectors. Content storage and playback is accomplished with hard drives, data networks, not large platters of heavy, fragile film. Projection booth design and location can be more flexible as a result. Another aspect of the advantages is that it can lower the costs of movie distribution for studios.

By eliminating film prints, studios could eliminate the $2,000 to $3,000 cost paid for each print made of a motion picture. This translates into an expense equal to about 10 percent of a movie's production budget. A typical US nationwide release of a motion picture entails more than 3,000 screens, meaning that the prints cost about $7.5 million.

(Source: Developed by KCB336 New Media Technologies students)

Famous films using Digital Technology

Tomorrow: Scope for you in DFM industry

-- The author is CEO, SAE India, a media education college with 49 centres in 22 countries. For more information, log on to

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