Metaphors for Extinction: Disney's Digital Dinosaur


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Film Going Digital
A ways into Disney's new animated feature Dinosaur, just after we're fully acquainted with our scaly hero and his furry friends, a meteor strikes the Earth. You will recall this episode from the science lore of our own era. Sixty-five million years ago, it is said, a meteor's impact wiped out the dinosaurs. But in the Disney version, the dinosaurs aren't destroyed; they're just faced with a vastly changed living environment.

As irony would have it, I saw my first full-length digitally projected movie?I decline to use "film" here, since what I'm describing here isn't?without knowing that's what I was in for. Last year, I saw a portion of a digital showing of Miramax's An Ideal Husband just to see how the image looked (pretty good, I thought); I'd already seen the movie on celluloid. This year, I went to a press screening of Dinosaur thinking I was going to see celluloid, and found myself watching 80 minutes of digital dinosaurs.


The press screening was held at the new AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. This gargantuan cinema is already famous for being constructed inside a 1912 vaudeville palace, which in 1998 was hauled almost 200 feet down 42nd St. as part of the ongoing effort to make Times Square look like an Omaha shopping mall that's been struck by a meteor. But the Empire 25, which appears still under construction though its grand opening happened in April, has an even greater distinction: it's now the world's only movie theater featuring two all-digital screens.


Last summer, the first public sightings of the digital-projection tidal wave (or incoming meteor) took the form of three movies (The Phantom Menace, Tarzan and Ideal Husband) shown at digitally equipped theaters in New York, New Jersey and L.A. These were trial runs, in effect. One year later, Dinosaur at the Empire 25 is much less a test and much more digital-as-usual: the future now. Those projectors haven't been set up for one movie's run. They're there to stay, anticipating the day when most U.S. movie screens are digital.


How far off is that? Trying to say for sure is "crystal ball time," said Rob Hummel, Technicolor's vice president for digital development, who joined Texas Instruments' Doug Darrow in a press conference at the Empire 25 a couple of days after I saw Dinosaur. Technicolor, you'll note, is a name perennially associated with film processing, which it's been doing for 80 years. Having read the writing on the multiplex wall, though, the company set up a digital division last year and has partnered with Texas Instruments, which designs the microchip innards of digital projectors, in the commercial launch of DLP Cinema (the initials stand for digital light processing), the system showing Dinosaur at the Empire 25.


This time last year, Texas Instruments was head-to-head with Hughes/JVC in what looked like a VHS-versus-Beta showdown over which system would dominate the digital projection realm. In recent years the movie industry has been embroiled in the complications of three competing digital sound systems being in use at once, and no one wants to see a similar standoff muck up the expensive conversion to digital projection. At the moment, JVC (which has taken over Hughes' share of their erstwhile partnership) is still in the game, but Texas Instruments has the lead, largely because most people agree that its system looks better.


There are currently 18 DLP projectors installed in theaters in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Belgium, France and Japan. That number will double by summer's end, and the host countries will grow to include Germany, Korea, Mexico and Spain. By the end of 2001, Hummel said, the number of digital screens in the U.S. could number anywhere between 100 and 1000, perhaps even more.


To me, one thing seems easily predictable about the increase of those numbers: they'll grow slowly for a while (one year? Two? More?) and then, once the industry decides to take the plunge for keeps, they'll explode, driving celluloid from the screens of most first-run U.S. theaters in a matter of months.


It was less than two years ago, after all, that a demonstration at Paramount in Hollywood convinced key industry figures that conversion to digital projection was not only viable but also, perhaps, inevitable. Since last summer, improvements to the projection technology have continued apace. But the key decisions being made now, the ones that will determine whether it's one, two or three years until the majority of U.S. theaters goes digital, are "not about technology, they're about economics," digital-projection manufacturing executive Chuck Collins told me last week.


Systems like those showing Dinosaur now cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 per screen. That figure will come down, surely, but the large exhibition chains are pushing for the major studios to share the cost of installation, a collaboration that will be tricky to negotiate at best. Exhibitors have other concerns beyond the initial price, too. Old-line movie projectors have changed very little in a half-century; some theaters still use behemoths that are 60 years old, and solid and dependable as battleships. Will these new digital systems be more like computers, outmoded and demanding replacement (at 100 grand a pop!) every two or three years? Obviously, such fears are real enough to require real answers.


As for the delivery systems that will get movies (and other digital entertainment) from Hollywood into theaters, last year the magic words were "satellite feed." Currently, according to Chuck Collins, it looks like we're in for a "three-stage rollout" of delivery systems. First will come systems like that at the Empire 25, where the movie is contained on a series of 10 to 12 DVD-ROMs (manufactured by Technicolor, of course). The second stage will intermix this technology with fiber-optic and satellite feeds, which are the technologies that will take over completely in the third stage.


The advantage of that third-stage technology, which perhaps won't look any better than DVD-ROMs, is that it will allow theaters to program much besides canned entertainment like movies: every sort of live event from basketball playoffs to rock concerts to telethons. I argued in my "Death of Film" article last year that this will be the real revolution, since it's destined to produce a new form of entertainment palace that will owe as much to the programming paradigms of television as it does to traditional movies. In fact, this revolution is already under way: in January, Canada's Famous Players chain started beaming live professional wrestling matches into its theaters. The shows have been selling out at $15 a seat.


Back in the realm of mere movies, the boosters of digital projection claim that it means that any movie will look just as good on the 1000th showing as on the first, a huge advantage over the fading, splicings and other deteriorations that besmirch film prints. This is unquestionably true. So are the claims that the digital image is sharper and steadier than what you get in most film theaters. But is sharper and steadier necessarily better?


This question didn't occur to me when I looked at a portion of An Ideal Husband last summer. The image there looked equivalent to a normal, film-projected movie, and I assumed the cumulative effect would be much the same. Dinosaur made me think again.


This latest Disney creation, I should note, is not cel-based animation like Tarzan, nor is it an entirely computer-created cartoon a la Toy Story. A weird hybrid, it features computer-generated dinosaurs (sorta like in Jurassic Park, except they're cute and talkative rather than realistic) set against backgrounds that are often actual locations shot with regular movie film. Thanks to its strange, composite nature, the movie already looks hyperreal in a slightly phantasmagoric way, and the addition of digital's bright, extra-sharp and -steady images makes it seem even more so. It's like a computer-chip mural come to life.


And I don't know that this necessarily helps. I found my mind wandering during much of Dinosaur, which admittedly is pretty formulaic and uninspired by Disney standards. Coming out, I asked several fellow viewers, "Was my difficulty in paying attention solely due to the lame story, or did technology have something to do with it?" No one had a sure answer, but everyone found the question understandable.


At the Technicolor/Texas Instruments press conference, they projected portions of Dinosaur in digital on one half of the screen and film on the other. Aside from the color differences (the film image was bluish, the digital favored yellow-greens and had blacks that were less deep), the digital image was clearly as advertised: sharper, steadier, more vibrant. Yet the very deficiencies of the film image certainly had their own attractiveness, and I'm not speaking esthetically.


The flicker, the grain, wobble, even the slight murkiness of film are somehow involving. They invite the eye into the picture, and subtly entice the mind into an imaginative collaboration with the imagemaking. Could it be that such imperfections are not incidental but essential to what we consider cinema? And that some of digital's nominal improvements actually work against the special form of imaginative engagement that we prize in movies?


This is undeniably curious if you ponder it: in several decades of voluminous research and writings that fall under the heading of "film theory," there's nothing, so far as I know, that explains why storytelling through the medium of film engages us in the precise psychological way that it does. We all know that movie watching induces a form of attention that's noticeably different from that of, say, theater or television. It's a soft, dreamlike state, but heightened and focused, somewhere between slumber and full, broad-daylight attention. And it's ideal for imaginatively projecting oneself into what the old-timers called "photoplays."


Nearly half a century ago, Andre Bazin wrote an essay called "The Myth of Total Cinema" in which he said that cinema began in inventors' dreams of reproducing reality with absolute accuracy and fidelity, and that the medium's technical development would continue until that dream, that Platonic ideal, was achieved as nearly as possible. Sounds reasonable, perhaps, but my digital experience of Dinosaur showed me just the opposite: that cinema has nothing to do with total representations of reality. It is, by its nature, a medium of half measures, of tantalizing chiaroscuro and truths that must remain, in part, flickering and veiled.


This isn't to suggest that the digital tidal wave can be averted?pure and simple, that won't happen?or even that moviemakers will continue shooting film long in the age of digital projection because audiences "like the look." What I think, instead, is that the makers of digital movies will be compelled to explore the myriad ways they can "dirty" their images in order to imbue them with some of the eye-enrapturing imprecisions of film. As it turns out, the baby needs its murky, roiling, untidy bathwater.


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