Why the Film Industry Isn’t a Film Industry Anymore


It’s a scene that’s jerked tears from even the most jaded filmgoer.

After attending the funeral of the small town movie theater projectionist he had spent his boyhood helping, “Cinema Paradiso’s” protagonist, Salvatore, returns as a grown man to Rome with a battered canister of film left to him by his mentor.

Salvatore, now a renowned filmmaker, loads the film into a reel-to-reel projector, sits down, alone, in a darkened theater, and watches. What unspools before him: scenes from the films that had been cut by the village censor over the decades – and saved by Salvatore as a young boy – spliced into a single film.

Strung together, these moments tell a bigger story about Salvatore’s friendship with the sly, subversive, wise projectionist. It’s the perfect ending for a film about film, and the enduring emotions film can evoke.

Despite the romance, film is expensive stuff: hard to handle, difficult to store, and expensive to distribute.
Film is expensive stuff: hard to handle, difficult to store, and expensive to distribute.

No longer. While the ability for movies to stir emotions will remain, film won’t. In a historic step, Paramount Pictures in January became the first major studio to stop releasing movies on celluloid in the U.S. Paramount won’t be the last.

This isn’t news in the film industry. Movie-makers have been driving a shift away from film for years. Despite the romance, film is messy stuff: hard to edit, difficult to store, and expensive to move from one place to another. And it’s taken more than a decade for moviemakers to disentangle themselves from it.

A few milestones:

  • Non-Linear Editing — The digital moviemaking revolution was kickstarted by Avid Technology in 1989, with the introduction of the Avid/1. It let movie-makers put down their X-Acto knives and mix and match pieces of film digitally to create a shot plan that would guide them when they finally spliced all that film together.
  • Digital Cinema Video Cameras — The Red Digital Cinema Camera Company created a sensation in 2006 when it unveiled the Red One. The camera promised all the flexibility of a digital camera, with the ability to capture sharper images than could be displayed in theaters, giving movie makers the ability to pour digital images directly into the production process. Canon, Sony, and ARRI all now sell digital cameras that can be found on movie sets all over the globe.
  • Digital Cinema Initiative — Created in 2002 by five major movie studios, this group has helped hammer out standards for how movies are encrypted, distributed, and displayed. It’s an effort that’s had a huge impact. More than 90 percent of the 40,000 screens in the United States have moved to digital, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

These developments have resulted in a movie industry that’s digital from “glass to glass,” in industry parlance – from the cameras and digital tools that create images to the projector lenses those high-definition images are streamed through.

Sitting in the middle: GPUs. Originally targeted at gamers, the first GPUs – introduced in 1999 by NVIDIA – eventually put the kind of visual computing power possessed by high-end workstations and servers onto desktops, and, eventually, laptops such as the Dell M3800 and MacBook Pro, that can be tossed into a bag and taken anywhere in the world.

GPUs mean VFX can be used to sharpen stories large and small, not just creature features.

GPUs have had a huge impact on visual effects, of course. This year, for the fifth consecutive year, every film nominated for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects was powered by NVIDIA technology.

But the impact goes far beyond creating scenes that blend the real and the digital in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Movies such as “The Social Network” may not contain strange creatures or elaborate effects. But they rely on hundreds of digital effects — such as digitally putting the face of one actor onto two pair of bodies so he could play a pair of twins — that help build the story.

GPUs not only let digital animators create more ambitious effects — they help them create rough cuts of their scenes in just moments, so they can see what works, creatively, on the fly.

And on set, GPUs are used to speed up the process of putting dailies — or rough cuts of a day’s shooting — in front of directors, giving them similar freedom. And, of course, film editors can fly through the editing process without ever having to touch film.

The result: big budget films blend the fantastical and real in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago; while amateurs equipped with little more than digital cameras and GPU equipped laptops are creating films that rival the polish that only professionals could achieve.

Just look at YouTube. Film may be gone, but there are now more movies than ever before. Not an unhappy ending.