Home video hits the big screen

For decades physical film has been used to record movies and bring then to cinema audiences worldwide. But it has always been expensive and time-consuming. The advent of digital technology is revolutionising filmmaking.

Love it or hate it, The Wolf of Wall Street is shaking up Hollywood — and not because of the film’s multiple Academy Award nominations ahead of the Oscars.

It was the first feature from Paramount, a film production and distribution company, to get released across the United States entirely in digital format. Paramount has since said that it plans to release most of its new features this way instead of through traditional film prints, effectively saving the company thousands of dollars on each of its forthcoming titles.

Digital discs, by comparison, typically cost less than US$100 each, and some industry observers say other major distributors will probably follow Paramount’s move.

This transition from physical film to digital is just one of the many ways that technological advances are changing the landscape of the global movie production and distribution market, which now generates around $90bn annually, according to a report released this month from the market research firm IBISWorld.

“In the past five years, advancements in technology stimulated demand for movies, despite a dip in disposable income in established industry markets during the recession,” IBISWorld’s report says.

Developments in technology have also provided more filmmakers the ability to afford, and more easily handle, different kinds of recording equipment unavailable to them in the past.

In 2004, the director Jessica Habie and her 10-person crew sometimes struggled to focus a large still-camera while using all the associated accessories that were not “quite up to speed”, she says. Yet it was a different story for her latest production, Mars at Sunrise, which opened this month and explores the relationship between a jailed Palestinian artist and his Israeli prison interrogator.

During the moviemaking process this time, Ms Habie strapped a small camera onto a soldier’s leg in one scene where he destroys a number of canvases. To shoot another scene, Ms Habie took advantage of the camera’s lightweight body and placed it in a box so she could capture an unusual angle.

“That kind of camera is evolving,” says Ms Habie. “We had limited shots we could shoot for Mars at Sunrise, because of our budget restriction as an independent film, but it forced us to get super creative with the camera and how we’d use it.”

Outdoor shoots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia sometimes throw up unwelcome technological glitches, due primarily to certain weather conditions such as sandstorms or seasonal downpours. But camera manufacturers are rolling out more features to try to counter these threats.

Years ago, Dhruv Dhawan, who has directed or co-directed five films so far and often works out of Dubai Media City, says he was “very impressed” by how well his recording equipment held up against heat and dust on shoots in Sri Lanka. At the same time, however, moisture built up and wreaked havoc on the physical tapes of footage.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer, really,” says Mr Dhawan, whose latest film is Why Knot. “A little red icon would come up on the screen, which would mean you’d have to stop rolling right away and try to get the equipment into a drier area.”

These days, he relies on digital high-definition equipment to capture his footage, which is a lot more reliable — “extremely durable, even in heat”, Mr Dhawan says.

The director has also cut down the amount of physical storage space he needs by relying on two memory cards that can hold up to 24 hours of footage compared with 24 mini-tapes that each held an hour of scenes in the past.

“It was pretty bulky to say the least,” says Mr Dhawan.

“At the same time, there was something I loved about tape: I could touch it, see it, store it and knew where it was,” he adds. “With this [digital] stuff, the downside is you’re transferring materials on to drives — it’s invisible and sometimes there are transfer problems.”

For Michael Singh, whose documentary Valentino’s Ghost has screened at a film festival in Doha and examines the depiction of Arabs in media, tiny microchips and increased memory have made his creation process all the more convenient. Simply carrying around his equipment has also become considerably easier — and cheaper — compared to what he began with while shooting the documentary.

It was about six months after the attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, when Mr Singh first began recording scenes for Valentino’s Ghost and when he relied on a crew and a larger “digibeta” camera that cost about $3,000 a day to use.

Using that model long-term, however, was not going to be financially viable. “When we were finally able to get some grants we realised we would suck up those funds instantly by continuing with that [model], so we decided to buy a camera we could afford,” says Mr Singh.

While it was not as good, in terms of its shooting quality, the newer camera only cost between $2,000 and $3,000, in total, and still provided images that were clear enough to appear on the big screen.

So-called presumer devices, which mix professional-grade features with consumer-friendly prices and lightweight casings, have also made it easier for directors on a tight budget to secure footage.

For example, Mr Singh now carries around a relatively lightweight, digital single-lens reflex camera — similar to the one many tourists use when taking pictures or videos of their family holidays — along with a small tripod to document his mother as she shares her life story.

“For that particular genre of filmmaking, which is the sit-down interview, I think it’s very superior,” says Mr Singh. “It is hard to fathom that in 10 years it’s gone from the digital world in its infancy in terms of presumer goods to something that is of superior quality and can be projected in a mainstream theatre.”

Even so, directors note that the story of technology moving into filmmaking is not without its own conflict. “Every camera has its set of limitations,” says Ms Habie.

Finding the right feature — whether it is the number of frames shot per second, or the amount of light that is let in — has become increasingly difficult because manufacturers continue to cram more options into digital menus, warns Mr Singh.

Other times, he adds, it is difficult to capture high-quality sound without the assistance of additional, external microphones and software that can accurately synch someone’s voice with the movement of their lips.

Still, directors and film studios around the world are working more closely with tech manufacturers to improve the overall quality of their movies.

DreamWorks Animation, for example, harnessed some high-tech help to show viewers what it was like for snails to travel at 300 kph in front of a crowd of more than 500,000 characters in the animated film Turbo.

The company worked with Hewlett-Packard (HP), which boasted in September that some of its data, storage and networking services as well as its software and printers were used to produce scenes within the film.

“DreamWorks Animation’s strategic alliance with HP ensured that we had the high-performance computing, continuous availability and streamlined management capabilities needed to accurately depict Turbo’s dream of becoming the world’s fastest racer,” said Derek Chan, head of technology global operations at DreamWorks Animation, in a release in September.

Of course, what matters most to Hollywood’s production studios and distributors is whether or not new films actually make a big splash at the box office. In Turbo’s case, which cost $135m to produce with all that fancy gadgetry, the gamble paid off. Globally, it has brought in more than $282m — leaving plenty of potential for a tech-powered sequel.