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More and more of our lives seem to go digital nowadays. Digital television replacing regular television, digital radio replacing your standard FM/AM tuner, digital camera and digital video replacing their analogue counterparts.

One bastion of the analog, however, has been the cinemas . Sure - quite a few films, beginning with smash hits such as Toy Story and Dinosaur are created almost exclusively digitally, culminating in realistic masterpieces such as Shrek. However, when you go to see it at your local cinema, the film that runs through the projector is still your average 35mm film most of the time.

The recording process

Star Wars:Episode II, the Attack of the Clones, for example, was shot exclusively using digital video cameras. This has an environmental gain (see vegan photography), but if you know the cost of recording one hour of "real" film, you realize how much there is to be gained from shooting digital instead. For small, independent productions, the choice between digital or film can mean a massive price difference - In hollywood, even though the digital video cameras and lenses are slightly more expensive than the film cameras, the removal of film means that the actual shooting cost is next to nothing.

As a general rule, 1 hour of 35mm cinema film (including developing) costs about 8000 US dollars. In comparison, 1 hour of high quality digital video tapes costs less than 75 US dollars.

Another advantage of shooting digital is that the results can be seen right away. That way, the director and producers can decide right away if the shot is the way they want it, rather than to get nasty surprises after the film has been developed.

Of course, there is a problem, too: Film and video has a massive difference in "feel". For one thing, the frame rates are different (24 fps / 30 fps), but the technology are also vastly different - the data capturing, the depth of field and the lens capabilities are different. Most producers agree that even 8mm film has a lot going for it in the competition with digital video, because film just looks prettier!

However, there are high-end digital video cameras that will mimick the progressive mode (i.e shoot entire frames instead of interlaced frames) 24 fps that is common for cinema work. In Attack of the Clones, Sony F900 HDCAM digital video recorders were used, shooting with extremely expensive Fujinon (Fuji) and Panavision (Panasonic) lenses.

The editing process

Digital editing is already used in most Hollywood productions, for adding effects et cetera. It makes perfect sense to shoot digitally, because transferring all the image (and sound) data to the editor's desks (see Avid Symphony for details on digital video editing) takes less time. Also, even though digital video has less resolution than film, with digital video, you don't have to convert the footage twice, as you have to with film footage. This means that the drop in resolution is almost countered, and that the quality is approximately the same.

It is commonly accepted that the quality of digital video is not yet up to Film standards, but it is slowly getting closer. If you have seen Attack of the clones (which was, upsampled to 6 megapixels per frame before it was written back to film for showing in theatres), chances are that you couldn't tell that you were watching something other than film.

In the final stage of the editing, after upsampling the entire film (we are now talking about 120 minute s of film, 24 frames a second at 6 megapixels - in other words a roughly a terabyte of finished picture data. In addition you will have five channel sound thoughout the entire movie, which means another few terabytes of information), several filters are ran over the picture data, to make it look even more like film.

The showing process

All of this is nice for tech-freaks, but the average cinema-goer won't care. We just want to see the damn movie. This is where another digital advantage rears its head: picture stability. Have you ever been to a movie that has been running for a while? When you look in the light areas, you see millions of tiny specs of dust, scratches and blemishes, from the film being ran through the projectors hundreds of times. Digital film - like CDs, DVDs and all other digital media - stays the same every time it is played.

Because the pictures cannot be shown digitally yet, because neither the projection quality or the standards of the cinemas is good enough. To tackle this, the footage is transferred back to film to be shown in theatres in the conventional way.

Per today, digital projection systems are good enough for living rooms and office applications, but for the brightness and size a movie theatre makes up, the technology is still pushing it. Three-colour (like those three-eyed monsters you see in pub s, you know) and single-lens LCD projectors are quickly developing, but are not quite there yet. JVC is currently being backed by several major picture studios, to intensify the development in these technologies. Another exciting technology is Digital Light Processing (read more about it in that node - this is likely to be the "killer app" for digital cinema.

George Lucas is hoping that for the last Star Wars film - Episode 3 - that the technology will be good enough for the film to be shown completely digitally.

The future...

... Who knows. All I can say is that I feel it will be very exciting, and it is highly likely to be fully digital within 5 or 6 years.. Bring on those films!

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