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If you've been to the movies lately, you probably noticed that this year's summer movies rely heavily on computer generated images.
"Shrek" and "Final Fantasy" are entirely derived from computers. In previews for "Final Fantasy" is difficult to tell whether the characters are animated or real people.
Even "Pearl Harbor" and "DD2" use computer effects to create everything from 300 attacking Japanese bombers to talking animals. It appears that the film industry is in store for revolutionary changes to the way movies are created and viewed.
The movie business has been adapting to changing technology for more than 80 years. Prior to the 1930s, movies were not only without color, but also had no sound or dialogue.
Even though the 1930s decade is known as the "Golden Age of Hollywood," most pictures were black and white. "Talking" pictures (films with talking actors on screen) began in late 1929 and were difficult to make because of large, clunky microphones that couldn't move.
Before movie studios were able to add music and dialogue, silent "moving pictures" (like some of the most famous Charlie Chaplin comedies) were accompanied by live musicians in the theater -- sometimes by whole orchestras.
When "talkies" became easier to make in the early 1930s, some very famous and well-liked actors didn't have good "screen" voices and their careers stalled. But others went on to become stars. The first full-length Hollywood film in full color was a film in 1935 called "Becky Sharp."
The growing popularity of television in the 1950's posed a threat to the film world. With more people opting to stay home for entertainment, the film industry resorted to gimmicky ploys to lure customers back to the theaters. Studios and theaters experimented with 3-D and wide-screen movies. Some movie houses even used electrically charged seats to give audience members a shock during certain scenes.
The film industry was having hard times until the 1970s, when the major studios started making "summer blockbuster" films designed to appeal to the young, especially out-of-school, mass audience.
The movie "Jaws" in 1975 and "Star Wars" in 1977 started the blockbuster trend. Begin with lots of action, great music, and a ton of special effects, and you have a hit movie. Audiences were amazed at the effects in George Lucas' "Star Wars" and although the film looks old-fashioned by today's standards, seeing life-like foreign creatures and flying ships was exciting stuff. (Fun fact: the average ticket for a film by 1978 cost only $2.50)
In the 1980s, cable television, direct broadcast satellite and the introduction of videocassettes offered new ways to see Hollywood movies. New technologies like digital sound were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s to draw audiences back into the theater. And as movies became more expensive to make, and actors' salaries went up, the movie industry began to favor movies guaranteed to make a lot of money at the box office.
The age of computers
Now, special effects have reached a whole new level. In many ways computers have replaced people. Programmers have replaced cameramen. And that's exactly why movies like "Shrek" and "Final Fantasy" have some people worried.
Two-thirds of the 250,000 people who work in the entertainment industry don't have very glamorous jobs: carpenters, grips, electricians and truck drivers. They build sets, move heavy lights, repair the cameras and do the rest of the heavy lifting so the stars can do their thing. And now some of them are worried they will be replaced by a computer.
Actors may have just as much reason to be concerned. "Final Fantasy" (set to be released July 11) contains some of the most lifelike images ever seen in film. The computer program known as HyperReal captures the tiniest human characteristics such as hair follicles and skin tone.
"Creating people has been the Holy Grail for computer animators," said Final Fantasy producer, Chris Lee, in a recent interview.
The future of moving pictures
Is this what the public should expect in the future? With movie stars like Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts commanding up to $20 million per film, no wonder studio executives are rushing to produce movies without actors.
Actors can however take comfort in the fact that the time it takes to produce a movie like "Final Fantasy" is considerably longer than the time it takes to produce a movie with human actors. The typical Hollywood movie takes between 9-15 months. "Final Fantasy" took two years to simply create the HyperReal system. And since time is money, humans still appear to be the best viable option.
Animation is not the only computer technology that has affected the film industry. Film piracy via the Internet is a growing problem, and will continue to grow as bandwidth and compression improve.
An estimated 270,000 films are pirated a day over the Internet with the help of a new technology called DivX. Divx allows users to compress movie files and download them onto CDs. The film industry hopes to avoid the problems the music industry met with MP3 files and Napster. Movie studios such as Disney and Twentieth Century Fox are trying to work out Internet distribution deals so that movies can be sold directly to consumers.
Production companies are not alone in pushing the technology envelope. Theater companies are experimenting with new technological innovations in an attempt to recapture the excitement of going to the movies. Companies such as Sony and IMAX are striving to create theaters that are bigger and more interactive.
It is expected that soon theaters will be built in conjunction with restaurants, theme parks and interactive games. IMAX (the company that makes those giant 80-foot-tall viewing screens you usually see in science museums) is now exploring "total immersion." Motion simulators make you feel like you're taking a ride while you watch. Theater seats are equipped with hydraulic lifts that allow movement and rocking to go along with the events on screen.
In the near future, a car chase or an alien attack may feel just as real in the theater as it looks in the movie.
-Contributed by Matt Howell
What do you think? Would you pay more money to see a movie with lots of technology?
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