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No happy ending just yet

For all the advantages, the movie industry remains cautious about going entirely digital--in large part because many key players are unconvinced of the digital medium's absolute superiority to film.

Any digital storage medium is only as good as the resolution it supports. A DVD stores far less information than what is contained on film, for instance. Digital shooting limits resolution from the outset, because even today's highest-definition digital movie cameras often cannot match the quality of their traditional 35-millimeter counterparts.

Regardless of the quality of the original, celluloid films shown on cinema screens often appear blurrier than digital versions because of reproduction and projection. A film loses a certain amount of clarity as it is copied from a negative to a positive print. And when that print is put into a film projector, it slides around, further degrading the on-screen image.

Not a lot of (digital conversion) has been done yet. The technology has been too expensive, and there wasn't a lot of short-term financial return before. But the dynamics are changing.
-- Brad Hunt, chief technology officer, the Motion Picture Association

A vocal minority led by über-producer George Lucas is pushing for all-digital shooting and production. His most recent blockbuster, "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones," was the first high-profile movie shot entirely with digital cameras, and Lucas is lobbying others to follow suit.

With a fully digital process from production to distribution, studios would arguably save the millions of dollars now required to make celluloid prints for each theater that wants to play their movies. But for that to occur, theaters must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each on digital projectors--something they are not anxious to do in these tough economic times.

Warner's Cookson is one of the industry's voices of caution in the digital production debate. In a demonstration for other studio executives at the Warner lot, he compares a scene shot using film against three versions shot with high-end digital cameras. The film version is markedly better than all three digital versions.

Its resolution is better, and the way it handles light and shadows superior. Some of this may simply be the result of viewer conditioning. The movie-going eye is used to accepting the effects of film. By the same token, it could become accustomed to digital over time. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. will not move to all-digital production until it is certain that the archival copy will be as good as a film negative.

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