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Film Stakes Out a Future in Digital Television

One of the genuine successes in today's otherwise sluggish professional video industry has come in high-end acquisition, where 24p HD video technology is challenging 35mm film as the preferred medium for making primetime television programming.

This television season more than 30 prime-time network shows were shot using 24p digital camcorders. It has taken a long time for video to get such respect. Back in 1956, after the introduction of the Ampex two-inch videotape recorder, a banner headline appeared on the front page of Daily Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper, declaring "Film is Dead!"

Such bloviation touting the death of film has continued throughout the years-reaching loud peaks in the 80s during the "electronic cinema" movement, and again in the 90s after the introduction of the first CCD-based digital HDTV cameras.


Though video has made steady and continuing progress on Hollywood's back lots, film is still very much with us, actually increasing in sales during the past year because more television programming-especially for cable-is now being produced. As good as video has become, it is still no match to the subtle, nuanced beauty of film, especially when projected on a large screen.

Just as Sony and Panasonic have raced to improve 24p video recording, film technology has not stood still either. Kodak, the godfather of American motion picture film, recently introduced a new emulsion-Vision2-that claims to make "a quantum leap forward" in film quality for both optical imaging and digital post production.

The company said faster versions of the new film "sees deeper into the shadows with less apparent grain than other low-light sensitive emulsions, as well as captures more natural skin tones and colors. It records shades and details in shadow areas while retaining pure black tones."

These improvements, Kodak added, retain their structure during telecine and digital film scanning and optical transfers at labs and other postproduction facilities.

Interestingly, Kodak noted that the new film stocks breathe renewed life into 16mm, a format that was once a workhorse of television production. The technical breakthroughs that made Vision2 could give a boost to documentary and other lower budget television productions, "where Super 16mm film provides a flexible and affordable alternative to HD 24p and the various other digital video formats," said Eric Rodli, president of Kodak's Entertainment Imaging division.


If you think 16mm film production is now irrelevant in TV production, think again. One of the film industry's largest customers-NFL Films-uses 16mm film to shoot every football game, every week, using multiple cameras. The sports organization is the largest user of 16mm film in the U.S.

Missing from the rhetoric of the film vs. video competition this time around are any claims that one medium will soon displace the other. In fact, Kodak now promotes film technology as an integral component of the digital television production process-one that will solve problems that video has yet to address.

"I believe film will remain an extremely viable medium, and that some of the most interesting progress will be made in the convergence of hybrid technologies," said Richard C. Sehlin, director of systems development at Kodak. "We are working on computer processing techniques that will make 16mm film look like 35mm, and 35mm look like 65mm."

A major advancement, said Sehlin, occurred at the fall IBC convention when Thomson and Kodak showed a new high-speed scanner that's about five times faster than that of current technology. "This scanner captures uncompressed image data and does it at rates that were unheard of just a few years ago. This will help drive intermediate technology, which was science fiction just a few years ago," he said.

One of the advantages of intermediate technology is that very high-resolution images can be stored in a common digital file format. Once an industry file standard is established, production companies can deliver common files over the Internet, on satellite or cable television to the home, or to a film print for projection. "Whatever the distribution method," Sehlin said, "you can manage the image in a way that's going to give you the optimum, perfect image in any delivery system, exactly the way the filmmakers envisioned it.

"Television screens are all different," he continued, "so one of the real issues is calibration. If you can calibrate the systems and manage the images that go through them, you can achieve a consistency in the look. Kodak always provided those types of control tools for projectionists and labs. As the systems become more numerous and complex with other technologies such as digital scanners, recorders, digital inputs and outputs, we're in the best position to manage the system. We really know how to do it."

Another technical barrier that's quickly falling, Sehlin said, is film recording. "We believe recorder technology will soon be available with film recording speeds at 10 to 20 times than what is available today. When it arrives, the economic equations that underlie our business will change."


Cost-effective film recording will open the door to vastly improved program archiving, Kodak predicted. Digital files in storage have proven extremely volatile over the years, and an archiving system with advanced metadata technology is needed for long-term program preservation.

"Film is the ultimate storage medium for moving images," said Sehlin. "Properly archived films will last hundreds of years. We believe (the studios) will ultimately decide to convert titles in digital format to film for archiving."

Throughout history, there have been dire-but unfounded-predictions that one new media technology would displace another. Of course, the powerful new medium of television didn't, as feared, replace either radio or the movies. And I doubt that video will replace film, either-at least in any of our lifetimes.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.