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Director sings praises of digital

PARK CITY, Utah - For a century, movies have been projected onto a big screen by a bright light shining through a moving strip of celluloid. If the prophets of the coming digital age are correct, film will disappear from that equation at some point in the next decade, and movies will be recorded and projected by digital means. Already the comfortable old word "photography" is being replaced by "image capture."

This year's Sundance Film Festival is besotted by digital. Sony has a big exhibit space outside the Prospector Square screening room to show off its newest professional cameras. Apple has rented a storefront on Main Street. Live Web cams are roaming the lobbies. Digital projectors have been installed in a lot of theaters. And Bernard Rose is ecstatic.

"My new film cost nothing!" cried the British director ("Candyman," "Immortal Beloved") at a digital panel last weekend. "I used the digital camera myself. No cinematographer. My stars were my producers. We had a nine-man team. No electricians and no grips, because we didn't use lights. Just available light. The biggest expense was feeding everyone at restaurants."

He showed a trailer for the film, named "ivans xtc." (say it aloud), which looked as professional as a big-ticket production. Rose usually works the traditional Hollywood studio way, and had the audience laughing with his complaints about too many crew members and catering expenses.

"The only thing that's worth anything in this new digital world," he declared, "is intellectual property."

Many of the independent filmmakers here would agree. The next day, I was on another digital panel with actor Ethan Hawke, who has just finished directing his first film - on digital. He talked about the freedom of being able to film an intimate conversation between two actors, using three cameras, because the cost was negligible. As an actor, he said, he often feels at the mercy of a big production and its expensive costs, as the time clock keeps ticking. Digital frees him to concentrate on the work.

"I used to wish I'd been alive at the time of the French New Wave," Hawke said. "Now I feel like I am." He said Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" (1998), a film shot on digital with available light, "was the most exciting thing to happen to actors since Marlon Brando." Vinterberg, Lars von Trier and other advocates of the influential Dogma 95 movement have called for films shot on digital, hand held, with no special effects or music, and no artificial lighting.

Cinematographer John Bailey ("In The Line Of Fire," "Groundhog Day"), on the same panel, loves to work with film but also enjoyed the freedom of digital on the new film he directed and photographed, "Via Dolorosa," a David Hare performance piece. He said the look of "The Celebration" was possible not simply because it was entirely shot on digital, but because an experienced cinematographer was using the camera. "The problem with digital," he said, "is that you can shoot forever on three cameras and it costs nothing - but you don't get a single good shot."

No one was predicting the death of film. But shooting on digital video was embraced as a cheaper, faster way to make films free of the typical $60 million Hollywood budgets. "It places the means of production in the hands of the workers," I said.

But digital projection is still very debatable. Although many industryites believe the day will come when movies are beamed from satellites directly to theaters, and projected as video, not film, others were not convinced the picture quality was up to par. Larry Thorpe, the Sony guru who has done as much as anyone to pursue what he calls "the Holy Grail of film quality on video," showed three versions of the same shot - one shot on 35mm film but projected on 16mm film, the other two shot with high-def television. The audience booed the video images, which were noticeably inferior to 16mm film, let alone 35mm. But then came the disclaimer that the video projector being used was not state of the art.

I got in a plug for MaxiVision48, the film-based projection system that costs 10 percent as much as current video projectors and is claimed to be five times better. The argument against it is that studios want to save the cost of manufacturing and distributing prints; digital will allow them to transmit movies by satellite. I argued that moviegoers don't care how much the studio saves; they just want the best possible picture. Studios are not known for fiscal prudence; why should they start cost-cutting by giving ticket buyers an inferior picture?

One amusing development during the panel: Although digital cameras can shoot at the equivalent of 24, 30, 48, or 60 frames per second, Hollywood has demanded that the traditional 24 fps rate be duplicated by the new professional-model video cameras. Sony's newest model, a $100,000 model unveiled at Sundance, can shoot at the frame rate of your choice, but "24p" is preferred by the studios. Panel member Jason Cleo argued that there is something about 24 fps that is "just right" - a fit between the eye and the mind. He said George Lucas altered the look of his digital version of "Phantom Menace" to reproduce the 24-frame flicker effect, which disappears at higher frame rates.

Strange, that millions are being lavished to reproduce by digital what already exists on film, warts and all. But many film people believe there's something tawdry about the video look. Reviewing the side-by-side film and video comparison, one audience member sniffed that the video "had the visual look of soap opera."

The bottom line seems to be: Shooting in digital is fine, but projecting with digital is still a swampland of unanswered questions. For low-budget filmmakers, digital is a godsend. But audiences still enjoy the lush image quality of celluloid projection. I think they would enjoy MaxiVision48 even more. But will they ever get the chance to see it, as Hollywood (and "Indiewood") pursue the digital bandwagon?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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