The Move to Digital Production: Faster, Cheaper … Fewer Employed

Shooting a pile of footage, farming it out to service shops and retreating into post-production for months? A thing of the past

With the digital revolution overrunning traditional delivery systems, it's clear that the century-old way of shooting movies is the next to fall.

The practice of shooting a pile of footage, farming it out to service shops, then retreating into post-production hell for six to 18 months? Soon to be a thing of the past.

Also likely a thing of the past: the jobs of the thousands of professionals working at outside post-production service firms like Deluxe and Technicolor, which have traditionally processed dailies, transferred tape and handled myriad other Old World tasks.

“My company can punch out 40 movies a year, and we have less than 15 people on staff,” said Michael Cioni, president and founder of Culver City's Lightiron Digital, who provides digital production tools to filmmakers like J.J. Abrams.

Thanks to the tools Lightiron and other technologists can offer, more filmmakers and showrunners are not just shooting projects with digital cameras — but are digitally processing everything on the spot.

“The source of all this processing can be one (IT) person on the set,” Cioni told TheWrap.

To shoot NBC's new fall series "Undercovers,” for example, Abrams is using Lightiron’s Outpost mobile processing unit — essentially a cart-full of advanced computer hardware and software.

Hooked directly to a Red One MX digital camera, the Outpost system — which rents for about $2,500 a week and is manned by a single Lightiron-employed IT specialist — allowed allows Abrams to view dailies on his iPads moments after they were shot.

Director David Fincher used a similar process on Sony's upcoming "The Social Network" — all the tasks traditionally sent outside were handled on set, with the exception of film-print processing for theatrical distribution.

An executive for one major Hollywood services shop said the movie business is “still very much in the middle of the transition” from film to digital. And Cioni considers his ahead-of-its-time system “the electric car of movies.”

But an increasing number of filmmakers appear poised to give up fossil fuels.

“Our workflow is 100 percent paperless and filmless,” producer Dean Devlin, whose Electric Entertainment functions pretty much as its own self-sufficient island, told TheWrap. “We bought a building in Hollywood and tricked it out into a state-of-the-art post facility.”

Being able to do everything in-house with a Red One camera- and hard drive-based digital pipeline, Devlin said, allows him to produce shows like his TNT caper drama “Leverage” at a significant cost savings.

While some network dramas spend $90,000 an episode just on processing dailies, Electric’s cost to port dailies digitally onto Devlin’s iPad are nil.

Devlin's pipeline even dispenses with the need for outside special-effects shops. “In the past, just to get in the editing room, you had to go to so many different places. Now, we can right-click on a shot, and the visual effects show up.”

Under this new digital paradigm, tasks that used to be delayed until the end now can happen sooner, which lends itself to all sorts of efficiencies. 

Director Steve Quale — a longtime underling to James Cameron — began shooting Warner’s “Final Destination 5” on Monday in Vancouver. His editor is cutting the film as it's shot, using a new Arricam Alexa digital camera.

“We can stream it right off the Alexa and into the Avid,” Quale told TheWrap. “It allows us to be more organic, rather than having these distinct phases of production.”

“Under the traditional Hollywood pipeline, you pitch a movie, raise some capital, shoot it, then live in a cave for the next year and a half, while your cast and crew disperses to the wind,” said Scott Billups, a noted architect of digital-production facilities who recently built an all-digital “smart stage” on the NBC Universal lot. 

As a result, he said, "you’re saving the bulk of the work for when the money you’ve borrowed has gotten very expensive. If you can bump up your post work earlier on in the schedule, the money is a lot cheaper. And you’re also not facing the time pressure that tends to erode the creative process.”

And with the film kept on the set, and under the control of a finite number of people — instead of being shipped all over town — the risk that dailies will show up on some entertainment news blog are largely mitigated, too.

Still, while technologists like Billups and Cioni seem to be peddling tools that cut costs, enhance creativity and reduce piracy, the methodology faces barriers to wide-scale adoption.

An executive for one major Hollywood services shop said the movie business is “still very much in the middle of the transition” from film to digital. And the post houses insist they’re not going away.

Holding on to the belief that many filmmakers will still farm out these highly technical digital services rather than get too involved themselves, several service shops are investing in their own digital post-production wherewithal. (Technicolor will open an all-digital lab on the Paramount lab next year, for example.)

And a number of big shops also are diversifying their portfolios well beyond production services — Technicolor provides set-top boxes to cable and satellite companies, for instance.

“I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s out there to eliminate jobs,” added Cioni. “But if you’re using the right tools, you can do more work with less people.”