Earlier this month, Woodland Hills-based Panavision Inc. shipped its first digital movie camera to crews in France, where producers of a new Gerard Depardieu movie will usher in a new era in moviemaking with cameras that don't require costly film.

Though high-definition and digital cameras and editing facilities have been available for television programs for the last two years, this month is the first time moviemakers will have at their disposal cameras and editing equipment to make digital motion pictures.

Prior to the jointly developed 24P digital camera by Panavision and Sony Corp., filmmakers shooting without film had to use video cameras and then translate the footage into film format, which uses a different frame speed than video. Sony developed the camera and Panavision developed the lenses for the new equipment.

The 24P cameras were designed specifically for the movie industry. Because they use the same frame speed as video and DVD, they can also be translated into other formats very easily.

"There's a lot of people interested," said John Galt, vice president of advanced digital imaging at Panavision.

Indeed, the prototype cameras were tested by George Lucas, who will use them to film the next two "Star Wars" movies.

Galt said Panavision, which has ordered an initial 200 cameras to rent to moviemakers, has received a "reasonable" response so far, though he declined to disclose exact numbers. The digital rentals the cameras rent for about $1,000 a day are expected to comprise a minute portion of Panavision's business for now.

Pluses and minuses

One of the biggest advantages of the digital format is a substantial cost savings. It costs an average of $1 a foot to buy and process standard motion-picture film. With digital cameras, images are recorded on a digital tape, which is far cheaper than film.

But there are major drawbacks to the technology as well. Some filmmakers believe digital cameras produce lower-quality images than 35mm film. Further, there are very few movie theaters in the country with the digital projectors needed to exhibit these films meaning that a producer would have to shoot a movie in digital, then convert it to film. Of course, that will change as more theaters get digital projectors.

Only two Los Angeles-area post-production companies now offer editing for the 24P format, though neither has yet to do any work in the emerging new medium. At North Hollywood-based American Production Services, the 24P digital studio has served primarily as a display since opening in February. But owner Conrad Denke said he believes he will recoup his $2 million equipment investment once the cameras become accepted over the next year.

"It's kind of like who comes first, the chicken or the egg," Denke said. "I think you had to have the editing rooms before the cameras came out."

Denke's studio and Hollywood-based LaserPacific have been the leaders in the digital revolution, serving as two of Sony's beta-test sites for the 24P equipment. Both companies are betting heavily that the new format will make it.

So far, the new equipment has boosted Denke's company's recognition, but not its profits.

"It's kind of painfully slow, but you can feel it coming," Denke said.

APS is hoping to drum up more support and awareness of the new technology by inviting industry executives into its studios for a tour, showing what digital equipment can and can't do.

"There's a lot of people in Hollywood that think HD (high-definition) is trying to replace film," said Marianne Nassour, APS's vice president of L.A. operations. "We're not saying that. It's close to film. It allows more people to do what they love to do."

A boon for indies

Despite the fact that digital movies must be converted to film before they can be exhibited in most U.S. theaters, Denke says the digital format is ideal for low-budget filmmakers, and he expects these independents to make up most of the initial market for the cameras.

Independent filmmakers usually make their movies before they have a distribution deal in place. By filming in digital, they can save a great deal of money, produce a movie that can be shown to distributors, and then convert it to film when and if they sign a distribution deal.

Meanwhile, it may take some time before mainstream filmmakers with the exception of Lucas embrace the new technology. Galt says that's because there's a certain conservative nature in the film industry a sort of, "if it isn't broken, no need to fix it" mentality.

There is another positive aspect to the new technology in addition to the cost savings to filmmakers distributors would also benefit in the era of what is being called "e-cinema."

Using digital film, studios in the future will be able to release films via satellite, similar to e-mailing a copy of a movie to cinemas rather than delivering film reels. It would cut costs and allow studios to more easily control distribution.

Under the current system, if a film bombs there are usually too many copies of it in distribution a problem that e-cinema would solve. Likewise, if a film that was expected to fare poorly is a sleeper hit, making and distributing extra copies can be done extremely fast.

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