Every weekend through the summer, big-budget movies compete for dominance at the box office.
On movie sets, a quieter sort of contest is taking place as a handful of companies are angling to have their digital movie cameras used to capture the action, supplanting the traditional 35-millimeter film camera.
Many of this summer's most prominent releases have relied on digital movie cameras, including Superman Returns from Warner Brothers, Click from Sony Pictures and Miami Vice, a Universal Pictures offering.
But while the changeover to digital filmmaking has long been predicted, these companies are encountering an unusual degree of resistance from producers, directors and cinematographers. A majority of feature films are still shot with film cameras and some well-known directors, including Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan, have been vocal about their intention to continue shooting on film.
“People involved with big-budget features are usually risk-averse,” said Marker Karahadian, the president of Plus8 Digital, a company in Burbank, California, that rents digital cameras. “Delays are very costly when you've got stars on the set, and that means no trailblazing.” Karahadian's company supplied six digital cameras made by Thomson Grass Valley for Miami Vice.
Unlike the market for consumer digital photography, the market for professional digital movie cameras is relatively small: The major US studios released only 194 films last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. And while Panavision and Thomson Grass Valley, both based in California, have an early edge, many new cameras are on the way, from established companies like the ARRI Group of Germany and a startup, Red Digital Cinema.
Digital cinematography first appeared as a faint spot on Hollywood's radar in 1999, when George Lucas announced his plan to shoot Star Wars: Episode 2 with a new kind of digital camera adapted from Sony Electronics' television news cameras. The Lucas experiment, released in 2002, persuaded a few directors to dabble with digital cameras, but it was not until this year that the roster of movies using digital photography began to grow.
“We've reached what may be looked at, five years from now, as a tipping point in the use of digital cameras,” said Curtis Clark, a cinematographer who is chairman of the American Society of Cinematographers' technology committee.
Manufacturers have promoted the potential cost savings of the new technology. Digital cameras eliminate the need to buy and develop film, and the need later to scan that film into a computer, add digital special effects or adjust the color. Robert Beitcher, Panavision's chief executive, estimates that even though renting his company's Genesis digital camera at a typical rate of about US$3,000 a day is nearly twice as expensive as renting a film camera, they can help save about US$600,000 on film costs and processing in a big-budget feature.
But producers and cinematographers say that cutting production budgets is not the main motivation for switching to digital moviemaking.
“It saves a little money, but that was not the driving force,” said Dean Devlin, the producer of Flyboys, a US$60 million World War I picture being released in September, which used the Genesis camera.
Rather, Devlin said the main advantage was the ability to shoot for nearly an hour during airborne dogfight sequences, with the camera mounted on a replica biplane or a helicopter and linked to a digital tape deck. Tony Bill, the movie's director, estimated that a film camera would have been limited to shooting takes perhaps five minutes long, before requiring a new load of film.