Imagine you are working on this year's major home project (not that you really have time for it), and you decide to make a habit of not putting your tools away every day. At the end of your project, you look around your garage to see what tools you didn't use. Do you get upset if you see a particular saw or clamp that didn't get a showing during the job? No, I'm sure you don't. Just because you didn't need the tools doesn't mean that they are redundant — they're just not relevant to what you were doing. So, then why are directors of motion pictures and television productions upset if they don't use every tool?
One of the worst toolkits we have been handed in recent years is the infamous Table 3 from the ATSC (www.atsc.org/standards/a_63.pdf). It offers three line standards (480, 720 and 1080) for DTV with six different frame rates (23.976Hz, 24Hz, 29.97Hz, 30Hz, 59.94Hz, 60Hz), the choice of progressive or interlace scanning and a choice of aspect ratio with square pixels (4:3 or 16:9). The result is an intense complication of native versus input formats for display, considerable complications for production standards and even claimed excuses for DTV standards that most engineers would find absurd. But the standards are the kind of compromise that has, unfortunately, become all too common because of legal threats by other interested parties.
I personally blame the FCC for its cowardly stance on AM stereo as a starting point for the scared approach to standards that we have seen since then. We have put ourselves 10 years behind the rest of the world in cellular telephone services because of infighting in standards, we have confused the public on DTV standards, and we cannot even agree on what sort of language we should use in selling display products. Compare this to Europe where, when a standard is agreed on at an engineering level, everybody shares intellectual property and fights in the market with pricing, size, look and delivery.
Speaking of production tools, many years ago, working on the original “Dr. Who” series at the BBC, we had some of the cheesiest special effects you could imagine. Spaceship props were $5 models, landing a craft involved nothing beyond what you might find in a child's art box, and audio was from primitive processing boxes. But it all worked really well because the storyline was so intense. We even coped with the incredible noise and microphonic interference to the cameras that the doctor's robot produced when it moved around.
But when you watch a modern production involving high-speed movement, intense explosions and scene changes in a small number of frames, your mind becomes numb from it all. The worst example is “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.” I left the auditorium with a headache after enduring the strained exhibition of every single special effect that George Lucas could provide.
Each scene seemed to be continuity-linked by a vision of spacecraft moving somewhere in the Lucas universe. Then it transitioned to an action scene, always short, using one of Lucas' extraordinarily tacky 1960s wipes — that not even Dr. Who would have used — before activating every single computer graphic, and more, that was on his Marin-based hard drive.
The result is a nauseating 24fps motion-problematic movie that screams technology for technology's sake, with no real story line except to tie the ends together and make some kind of perverted sense of the original Episode IV. While you want to scream, “Get a life, George,” you also know that this is but the prelude to a special edition to follow later when the technology has caught up to allow him to do the things he will declare he always wanted to do, but couldn't. But then you could always tell him that he needed to get some-one else to write the script and direct the movie — something that made “The Empire Strikes Back” the only decent production in the whole series — but then that wouldn't be using his whole toolbox.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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