Back Drop  - 10/02
Phil LoPiccolo
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 10 (October 2002)

Back Drop - 10/02

Film vs. TV
An expert examines how digital content creation and production are changing film and television .

Pierre, you were involved with the digital visual effects for the movie Spy Kids 2 as well as the television miniseries Napoleon. Did the two projects present different sets of challenges?

The projects were drastically different. For Spy Kids 2, we had to create fantastic environments and gadgets for the sake of visual impact. For Napoleon, the effects had to be photorealistic and seamless. On one, you wanted them to be obvious, while on the other, you didn't want them to be seen. Also, Spy Kids 2 was done at HD resolution for film and Napoleon was done at television resolution. Finally, for Spy Kids 2, we did not do any editing or color correction, while for Napoleon, we edited the entire show and did all the color correction.

Which project was more demanding?

Both were challenging in their own ways. With Spy Kids 2, the difficulty was that there was no redundancy. There were so many different environments and objects that we had to start from scratch for each shot. With Napoleon, we could reuse some effects. But we could not be as free as we were with Spy Kids 2 because we needed to recreate and animate the scenes the way things really happened because the events are so well documented. I was also forced to recreate some 16 different army uniforms, between the French and their opponents. These also had to be accurate. The military is very proud of their costumes.

One seems more of a creative challenge, and the other seems more of a technical challenge. Which do you like better?

Both are rewarding. It was interesting to deal with the photorealism and all the camera moves we made on Napoleon. But after animating armies for two months, it's nice to concentrate on the visual impact of animating a lizard, for example, without verifying that the battles were completely consistent with the historical record.

How would the Napoleon series have been different without the use of digital effects?

One example is the scene in which Moscow is burning. When Napoleon reaches Russia, he decides to sleep in the Tsar's room. When the Russians set fire to Moscow, Napoleon opens the window, and we see the entire city burning. This was one of the scenes that was really impressive, as far as I'm concerned. It was done entirely in CGI. Using only practical effects, the scene would have cost a huge amount, and even then we might only have been able to see a few buildings on fire.

Are these kinds of effects necessary to satisfy today's audiences?

If you look at a movie like Ben Hur, for example, there might have been as many as 3000 people on the screen at one time. That was enough to satisfy audiences in the old days. Now people are more knowledgeable and more educated about effects. So if you put 3000 people in some scenes, audiences will not be impressed. You might need to have 20,000. But you cannot afford to do that unless you create CG crowds or shoot several hundred real actors and multiply them digitally.

Do you find that audiences are more savvy about production quality as well?

Yes. Before they didn't notice much about key quality, composite quality. Today, although they may not be able to tell exactly what's wrong, they can tell when something isn't believable. This is why people laugh when they see old movies that were not particularly well done. Old horror movies are a good example. They don't scare anybody anymore.

In general, what are the different constraints you face in producing effects for film versus TV?

First, the resolution is different. If you're doing special effects for a film, they must be done in 2K resolution. This is roughly eight times higher than the resolution required for TV. So when an artist is working on a scene, making changes, and previewing the results, it takes roughly eight times longer to process the images. The artist can do some of the other work while the image processing is taking place, but some waiting time must be built into the schedule. Second, the quality control is different. For a TV shot, if it looks good on the computer screen, your job is finished. For film, you have to zoom in and look at things that might be visible on the giant screen but not on the small screen at normal size. That also takes more time. In fact, altogether, it takes about 250 percent more time, and is therefore 250 percent more expensive, to produce digital effects for film than for TV.

But overall, is it less expensive to use digital techniques to produce the kind of effects audiences expect?

Yes, to create high-quality effects. But the point is not to do everything with digital effects. They cannot be used everywhere as a magic touch to solve all problems. I think that the mixture of digital effects with miniature sets, mechanical effects, and proper shooting is the key to telling a story better and making people believe what they see is really happening.

Is the film industry adopting HD digital video?

The big fight is in two areas: shooting and post production, or finishing. For shooting, European studios are more content to shoot in 35mm film and then transfer and edit their film using the 24P HD video standard (which has the same 24 fps rate as film). In the US, directors have a tendency to give up on film and shoot directly on video, using 24P. And in the next three years, there will be a decent number of projects done using both approaches, and we'll see which one of the two people prefer.

What are the tradeoffs?

People have much more expertise shooting film, but there are limitations for finishing the film. With HD, the end result may be better, but there are fewer people with expertise, and it may cost more.

Why would it cost more to use HD?

Because people will do more with it. For example, to do the color correction, or the timing of the film, requires using chemical and optical techniques. But the possibilities are very limited. With the 24P format, the entire film can be processed electronically, and the range and the capacity for the timing are tremendously higher. If directors can change things, they will.

Is HD coming to TV?

People tend to think that because of HD, TV is going to jump on it. But that's not the case. Five years ago, people looked at movies on VHS tapes, and they were pleased. Now they have DVDs, and they find the quality terrific. And that's not HD quality yet. I don't believe consumers really care about HD that much. I think it's the film community that is jumping on HD, as weird as that sounds, because digital video is more flexible for editing and color correction and it results in better quality production.

How fast is the film industry jumping on HD?

I would draw a parallel between the way films will be done and the way that TV commercials are being done. Commercials are sometimes shot in video, sometimes in 16mm film, sometimes in 35mm film. But regardless, the post production work is done entirely in digital form. Film is on its way to doing exactly the same thing. In three to five years, it will be as efficient to edit and color correct an entire feature film as it is to do a commercial today.

Pierre Raymond is president of Hybride Technologies, the studio that created digital visual effects for the television series Napoleon (see "A Napoleonic Quest," pg. 24), and the film Spy Kids 2 (see "Eye Spy," pg. 20, September 2002). Editor Phil LoPiccolo asks Raymond to explain the challenges unique to each project and offer a perspective on the expanding role of digital content technology in film and television.