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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 July 2005, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Cinemas set for digital revolution
BBC projector showing film in the 1950s
Cinema screening has changed little in principle since it began
Cinema is the last major entertainment industry yet to embrace the digital revolution, with movies still shot and displayed on celluloid film, but technology is finally set to change it.

In most cinemas today, huge machines spin spools of 35mm film, projecting the image on silver screen, more or less the way films have been exhibited since the birth of cinema in the late 19th Century.

The digital revolution, which has long since swept the music and home video markets, is coming, and is expected to have a huge impact on the film industry.

"The way that films are made, produced and distributed is changing almost beyond recognition," Chris Atkins, a London-based film producer, told BBC World Service's Analysis programme.

"It's quite similar to the revolution that happened in the music industry about 15 years ago, when people stopped recording everything on quarter-inch tape and releasing it vinyl; everything got recorded to a hard disk and released on CD."

Question of warmth

Mr Atkins explained that for producers, there are two reasons why cinema remains the last vestige of analogue technology.

First, the data storage needed to hold just one frame of cinema image is huge, and only recently computer technology has advanced to be able to hold these vast amounts of data.

Giuseppe Tornatore, who wrote Cinema Paradiso, famed for its depiction of a love of celluloid
Physical film has a mystique for some directors and cinema buffs
Also, there a "very romanticised love of film - the actual celluloid stuff itself - in the film industry." This has caused "a lot of people to put the brakes on technology, and stop that technology moving forward".

Atkins' latest film, A Woman In White, directed by Richard Jobson, was shot digitally on High-Definition (HD) video.

The format was pioneered by Star Wars director George Lucas, and its champions argue it is the first digital format that truly replicates traditional film - and at a fraction of the cost.

Jobson shot over 100 hours of material digitally. Atkins said the movie's entire $2m budget would have been swallowed up by physical film if he had used it, something he said happened frequently in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Good actors cost money. One of the reasons we've done reasonably well is we've saved money on the budget by going digital, and spent that money on more expensive and better actors," he added.

Film critics are divided in their views of how digital film looks on screen, however.

While some contend that it lacks warmth, others say it looks more beautiful.

Paul Brett, a former head of exhibition and distribution at the British Film Institute (BFI), pointed out that a strip of celluloid has black bars dividing each frame.

Digital film does not have these and, as a result, "in layman's terms, it's 15 percent brighter."

"It just pops off the screen at you in a luminescent fashion."

Piracy fears

At the start of 2005, there were around 300 cinemas in the world with digital projectors. By January 2006, it will be 2,000, and this is anticipated to grow dramatically into the future.

Producers embrace this, pointing out that currently even digitally-shot film then has to be put onto 35mm prints for screening, which, Atkins said, is "weight for weight as expensive as gold."

A celluloid print run costs around 100,000, while for a digital distribution the cost could be cut to one-hundredth of that, around 1,000.

George Lucas
George Lucas was one of the pioneers of digital film
In the UK alone, 200 digital projectors are being installed this year by the UK Film Council, which argues it will give the public access to a wider variety of films.

But the UK Film Council is funded by public money, and their move indicates how cinemas have been slow to adapt to the digital revolution.

The BFI's Paul Brett said this was with good reason. While digital filming cuts the distributors' costs, it does nothing for the cinema chains. Indeed, it could be more expensive.

"They don't get any benefit from it," he said.

"And to make it a double whammy, the cinema has to pay for all of this equipment and then upgrade it roughly every three years."

And fears of how easy it could be to pirate digital films has also been responsible for the slow uptake, in particular where Hollywood is concerned.

"There's a huge, unspoken fear in Hollywood about digital," Brett said.

"Once you've got digital, it's very easy to replicate.

"It's difficult to take six cans of film and put it onto a videotape. It's an elaborate process that takes skill and care, and is difficult to hide.

"The whole thing about digital piracy is that it just looks like you're playing with your recorder at home. It's very easy to hide, and the duplication is very easy to do and distribute.

"So any major leap forward in this field is going to be accompanied by belt-and-braces determination to ensure the copyright is protected as far as is humanly possible."

Celluloid nostalgia

For the directors themselves, the coming of the digital revolution is a mixed blessing.

Indian film director Karan Razdan is highly enthusiastic. He told Analysis, "it's going to bring about a sea change in the subjects, budgeting, and quality of cinema."

One-inch hard drive
Films on hard drive massively cut distribution costs
"The budget coming down means that you're going to have more experimentation with stories. That kind of experimentation is definitely going to bring about a big change." he added.

Razdan also said it will become much easier to shoot films, and that in itself would save more money, as the amount of time needed to make a film could be reduced.

But acclaimed British director Shane Meadows confessed to being "nostalgic" about celluloid.

He said that while "film will always exist," it will become "80 or 90% obsolete."

"There will still be some people that won't use anything else," he added.

"There is a certain nostalgia that goes with film. But like everything nowadays, we can't help ourselves, and we always want the most modern version of whatever's available."

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