Q AND A with director Randal Kleiser on the death of film and the rise of digital format technology on the Internet and in other media, including its use in George Lucas’ “Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones” and virtual reality entertainment.
Since graduating from USC in 1968, Randal Kleiser has directed films for the such companies as ABC, Paramount, Columbia-Tristar, CBS, MGM-UA, Universal and Disney. His 1995 theme park film, “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” is playing Disney pavillions on three continents. In 1999, he segued into made-for-Internet narrative, directing 7 webisodes for an early-blooming DEN (Digital Entertainment Network). In 2000, Kleiser began consulting for USC’s immersive training simulation (virtual reality) R&D shop, Institute for Creative Technologies. His first theatrically-released film was “Grease”.
This Q AND A was conducted on 06.09.01 by Simon Fraser.
Q: As a director who has primarily worked in a celluloid medium, how have digital formats altered your relationship with the camera?
A: Well, you can experiment a lot easier with digital formats. I just got this VX-1000 and I think differently; like in the car, I was driving along, thinking about doing a film, a short, like in a half-hour, where I would put the camera on a tripod and play both parts and do something about some twins who are thinking about killing someone. Just to see what that would be like. The idea that you could just — knowing everything I know about screen direction and acting and directing and photography — to be able to put it all together in a couple of hours, do a little short and do everything without anybody else and have it make sense.
You know, like the reason I’m interested in Flash is just being able to do something without having to ask anybody or get approvals or have them tell you how to do it. All the freedom that most directors would like to have is now becoming something that we can have.
Q: How has made-for-Internet and other forms of digital content affected how 24fps feature film content is produced?
A: The digital stuff has really made it possible for many people to do things they could never have gotten off the ground before. Such as “The Anniversary Party” which I’m going to see tonight. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an actress I’ve worked with and she’s very intense. She, I think, got the idea for this by doing “The King is Alive” by the Dogme people over there and witnessed how it’s done and said, “Well shit, I could do this myself.” And she did. I can’t wait to see it.
John Bailey shot it. I went to school with John and I visited the set when they were shooting. It reminded me very much of film school, especially with John shooting it. But everybody was kind of like — it was the size of a film school project and had that vibe of everybody just doing it cause they wanted to. Rather than, you know, “Where’s the catering truck and I can’t wait to go for the weekend in my Winnebago, water skiing.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced in made-for-Internet filmmaking?
A: It’s really a primitive form of filmmaking. But I must say that AOL has a very good streaming system and that looks almost like regular television. When we did “The Royal Standard”, I think maybe we had three people out there who could see it. This was in ’99. And even today, there are very few people who get really good reception. Although I did see BMW’s films, with John Frankenheimer, who broke all the rules that are taught in terms of shooting for the Internet. You know, you’re not supposed to move the camera or have fast motion. He broke everything and it all worked, at least with my DSL.
It has to be like a commercial. It has to be short, sweet, fast, pack a lot of stuff into the frame in a short amount of time. I think that’s probably, you know, MTV started the short attention span, and commercials, and the Internet is perfect for it cause people don’t have a lot of time to sit around and watch the screen anyhow. I mean it’s not designed — you’re not comfortable when you’re sitting in front of a computer. Y’know, you don’t lay back and watch a three-hour movie.
Q: What cinematic differences exist between a digital format for a theatrical market and a celluloid format for a theatrical market?
A: I don’t think there’s a difference, when you’re working with HiDef 24. I’ve done some experiments in that and it’s just like a movie. I went up to ILM and saw some of “Star Wars 2” projected. And it looks just like a feature film. There’s no difference. The scene I saw was a couple standing in sunlight against a lake in Italy and the sun is bouncing off the lake and silhouetting them. And it looked totally like a 70mm film. It was just amazing; so I don’t think there’s a difference there.
In terms of the Internet, well, based on what I saw with John Frankenheimer’s work, I don’t think there’s a difference there either now.
Q: What are some of the pre-, during and post-production pitfalls of digital layering of subject matter?
A: You have to work with story boards so you know what the final result is that you need and you work in whichever layer you’re working on. It’s very very much like working in PhotoShop; you can work your layers there. I’m just learning that now and I’m fascinated by it.
In terms of shooting digitally, working with green-screen or blue-screen, you can do the same thing you can do in PhotoShop. I was up with George Lucas, watching him edit “Star Wars 2” and he’s done the whole movie that way. I’d say 80% of the all the shots in the movie are done with just a floor and actors and a blue-screen, with dots on the blue-screen for tracking purposes. And then he just layers, layers, layers, all of them together. He showed me how he did it; it was just amazing.
And it’s the type of shooting that will become more and more useful in the future. It’s perfect for a sci-fi movie but I just think those elements are going to be used more and more in the future.
Q: With the introduction of Sony’s HiDef 24p digital camera, the frame rate between film and video has been balanced. What is the next major challenge in the convergence of these two media?
A: It seems to me that celluloid is a doomed medium. There doesn’t seem to be enough reason to hang on to it when the end result is as good or better than using that expensive medium. Digital projection doesn’t have any weave, it doesn’t have any scratches, it doesn’t have any splices. And it looks rock steady and sharp. Digital shooting is very very inexpensive. You can get 80 minutes for $50 or something. I don’t remember the numbers, but even that will come down. You don’t have to wait for the developing. I mean, it’s all pointing towards the death of film and it just seems like it makes sense.
One would think that IMAX would be the savior of celluloid. However, I saw a demo at Universal’s IMAX of HiDef 24-frame projected on to an IMAX screen. And it wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad. And this is 2001. I can see in 2010 that it’ll be as good as 70mm or IMAX. Cause it’s just a matter of getting more information, more bytes, projected digitally on to the screen, it’ll look just like film. So I don’t think there’s a chance that film will continue.
Q: How does a virtual reality medium affect the film making process from conception to delivery?
A: Virtual reality. Basically, you’re trying to create an environment that seems real so you’re dealing with smells and sights and sounds and feelings and wind and all that stuff. Story is not usually the primary goal of that here at the early part of virtual reality. It’s more like trying to create something that’s real and believable, as the main thrust. And then figuring out ways to use it.
Because right now, the technical stuff is so complex to make that happen. The studies that are going on at USC’s Institute for Creative Technology are really in depth. They have people working on sound, where they can, with two speakers, they can place a sounds behind you or above you using all kinds of algorithms.
Picture-wise, they are working on Cinerama-type projections where there’s no peripheral. It’s all completely covering your eyes from all directions. And they’re working on some flat-screen kind of, projections on to flats so that you have a physical shape and then the texture is projected on to it.
So all these different ways are ways that are not headsets but they are — you walk around and see and feel and experience these environments. And then, the primary goal is for training soldiers so they don’t have to have giant sets, basically. They have those right now where they put on test exercises where the soldiers have to go in and take over a village. And they’ve built the village and they have guys playing one part and vice versa. And they set off live ammunition and they blow things up and they have helicopters coming in.
All those things are expensive and they can only do it once every so often. But with virtual reality, you could do it all the time or whenever you want. So that’s why they’re funding this research.
An interesting part about it is because they are funding the research, the research is being done. And then it can be adapted for educational use or entertainment use. Theme parks or education.
One of the things that I’ve done that’s sort of in this virtual reality field is the attraction that’s playing at all four Disney parks, called “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” where the audience is seated in like, maybe 500 seats that are all on one platform that moves together in sync with the screen. There’s things that tickle the audience and spray them and winds that blow and all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of like George Orwell’s ‘Feelies’ from “1984”, the book. And that’s sort of like a primitive form of virtual reality. But all this technology is going to make it very very real now.
My brother, Jeff, just finished a ride film for Busch Gardens which is one of these virtual reality experiences for like 60 people at once. It feels like they are shrunken into a little box and these regular-size people are huge and everybody’s wearing 3D glasses. The motion base moves as they carry the box around and show it to people. These big giants come and look in and they’re carried up a hill on a horse. And then a griffin flies them around. It’s opening in a few weeks at Busch Gardens and it’s all digital, all done in the computer, no film, no actors, sort of like “Shrek” in 3D. And this is a really good example of trying to create that.
Also, at California Adventure, there’s a new thing that they’ve been working on which is where you sit in a chair and you fly — it feels like your hand gliding and you’re really in front of a big screen that envelopes you so you can’t see the sides. And they have things like when you fly over the orange groves, they pipe in the smell of oranges and things like that.
These are the beginnings of that whole field that will get more and more sophisticated.