Here's a magic glimpse into the future of movies. A big blockbuster opens. Some people see it in sparkling digital clarity on wraparound screens in ultraswank theaters; others watch the same movie the same day on an 8-ft.-wide screen in their home media center; still others get it transmitted instantly through their computer, iPod or cell phone. It's a looking-glass scenario that could happen in a future near you--if the people who finance and exhibit Hollywood movies want it to.
On Oscar night last week, though, the looking glass was not a crystal ball but a rearview mirror. Hollywood's gentry celebrated the past--the misty history of cinema, evoked with montages of ancient genres and deceased artistes. From the films honored, you would hardly have noticed that under the academy members' smartly shod feet, a seismic shift was taking place.
We are at the bright dawn of the movies' digital age, but the Hollywood establishment still has its shades drawn. In the Oscar show at the Kodak Theatre (named after a company that is crucially invested in the film-stock status quo), the most popular live-action digital movie in history, George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith, won no awards, not even one for technical achievement. The year's boldest, most innovative digital experiment, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City, got no nominations at all.
The Oscar revelers seemed unaware that movies have two big problems: the way they're made and the way they're shown.
It has often been noted that if Henry Ford were to come back today, he would wonder why no one had come up with a better idea than the internal combustion engine. A similar thought may occur to any visitor to a movie shoot. Dozens, maybe hundreds of technicians adjust the lights, apply the makeup and dress the set, much the way it was done almost 100 years ago. And as in D.W. Griffith's day, the film still runs through a camera, then is processed, reproduced many times and sent to theaters.
The addiction to doing things that way baffles Lucas. "Do you still use a typewriter?" he asks a TIME movie critic. "Do you go to a library and consult books for most of your research? Is your story set in type, letter by letter? No. Your business takes advantage of technological advances. Why shouldn't my business?"
Well, for one thing, say the movie atavists, film has a more human texture, an emotional weight. "Digital is just too smooth," says M. Night Shyamalan, writer-director of The Sixth Sense and a defender of the film tradition. "You almost have to degrade the image to make it more real. If you take a digital photo and I take one on film, there's just no way you're going to compete with the humanity that I can create from my little Hasselblad. Yours will be smoother, crisper, perfect in every way, and mine will be grainy, but you would definitely grab my picture over the digital one."
Directors who have worked in digital don't agree. They say it's capable of a chromatic subtlety that film can't match. Michael Mann, whose 2004 Collateral was, he says, "the first photo-real use of digital," is using the same process to shoot the big-screen version of his old Miami Vice TV series. "In the nightscapes in Collateral, you're seeing buildings a mile away. You're seeing clouds in the sky four or five miles away. On film that would all just be black."