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The Story Behind the Screens

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The AVR Railroad Command Center from Unstoppable.
What do the following feature films have in common? Unstoppable (2010), Star Trek (2009), Body of Lies (2008), Déjà vu (2007), Mission Impossible: III (2006), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), National Treasure (2004) and Bad Boys II (2003) No. It’s not Kevin Bacon, but  a company with a history that spans more than 20 years – Cygnet Video, which provides an important, but little know aspect of the motion picture industry – 24-frame video playback. Few outside the entertainment industry are even aware of what 24-frame video playback really is. “When I tell people what I do for a living,” says Monte Swann, president of Cygnet Video, “they respond with comments like “It’s video assist, right?” or “It’s some kind of visual effect, right?” Wrong. 24-frame video playback is the process that enables a video screen to be photographed by a film camera without a shutter artifact and it may surprise you to learn that this process is not a digital process composited in post but is, more often than not, captured in camera.

Movies have been featuring computers and television screens in their storylines for decades, but despite the latest wave of digital technology sweeping the film industry, this specialized craft is still doing business as usual. Less than 40 years ago, filmmakers had few choices if their film involved television or computer screens. They could alter the shutter of the camera to all but eliminate the shutter artifact or they could burn in the image in post, a time consuming and expensive proposition. All this changed when the technology of 24-frame video playback was introduced in the late 1970s. This revolutionary technology enabled filmmakers to sync the 30fps speed of a television image to the 24fps speed of a film camera, enabling directors to imagine, and production designers to create large scale sets populated with television screens and computer monitors with little restriction. The 24-frame process even garnered a technical achievement Oscar from the motion picture academy in 1982.

Swann has had a long relationship with the motion picture industry. Growing up in Culver City, “the heart of screenland,” he and his friends used to sneak into the back lots of MGM and Desilu studios. He often jokes about the experience now saying, “I used to sneak into the studios all the time. Now I‘m trying to sneak out. “

Although the technology of 24-frame video has advanced significantly over the years, the process is still essentially the same. “On the film The Hunt for Red October (1990), for example, graphics were created and rendered in an off-lot facility by a graphic artist using a slow and cumbersome computer system. Everything was then transferred to 24-frame ¾” U-matic videotapes, the standard back then, and delivered to the set for playback. In those days, if the director wanted to change a graphic, new tapes would have to be recorded and usually delivered on the following day – an unimaginable turn-around time in today’s instantaneous digital world. Today, directors take it for granted that things can be altered quickly and they make last minute changes all the time.”

Monte Swann, president and supervising engineer, Cygnet Video.

In director Tony Scott’s latest action film Unstoppable (2010) an unmanned freight train rumbles towards the likely demise of a small town in Pennsylvania. The heart of the story telling however, is in the Command Center of AVR – the fictitious railroad giant, responsible for the unstoppable behemoth. It is here that the story of the runaway train is weaved together through the use of TV news reports broadcasting the unfolding story live. “For Unstoppable, we employed an on-set computer graphics team that generated graphic images to the multitude of screens using off-the-shelf Mac desktop computers. When Tony asked for changes, the graphics could be altered quickly with very little turn-around time. The news footage was acquired in the traditional way using a video crew who worked along side the main unit film crew during principal photography. The footage was then edited and assembled to create three distinct news channels, but tape transfer and playback on videotape are a thing of the past. Now, the footage is transferred to QuickTime movie files and played back on set from a computer enabling the material to be instantly re-cued or edited on the fly.”

The latest trend has filmmakers taking advantage of the revolution in digital compositing, and some are opting for the use of a greenscreen when shooting a computer or video monitor. “During production this seems an easy fix, but really only delays the inevitable.” The playback material still has to be created in the traditional way, so shooting a greenscreen only eliminates the necessity of making a decision on the day. Unfortunately, it also eliminates the interactivity between the actor and the screen and, instead of photographing the natural light emitted by the video screen, a pale green glow washes over the scene, and shows up on every reflective surface on the set. This green of course, all has to be removed and replaced by compositors later, adding unnecessary costs to the postproduction process.” More and more young directors are finding this out too late and if anything, the trend seems to be heading back in the other direction. “Just because digital technology is new, it doesn’t mean it’s better technology,” said Swann.

So, the next time you’re watching a movie featuring a broadcast television studio or a secret government surveillance center, pay close attention to the images on the monitors. If the images look real, then they probably are.

Cygnet Video is currently completing work on Mission Impossible IV, the next installment in the popular franchise starring Tom Cruise.

1 COMMENT

  1. […] Do you remember the days when if you filmed a picture of a TV screen, you saw black bars moving across it? You don’t see than anymore, right?  If you’re like me, you just took the change for granted, but there is a special technique behind it: 24-frame video playback.  If you’re asking “What’s that?”, click this link: http://www.btlnews.com/crafts/visual-fx/the-story-behind-the-screens/ […]

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