Why Shrek won’t be appearing in Star Wars – The technology behind the blockbusters

From the tone of the email, I thought the conversation was going to be about CGI and rendering – needless to say, I was wrong.

As an aside, it seems there’s little room for raw, untinted reality in movies these days – if it can be imagined then it can be improved with a dash of rendering and a few pixels. However, search for specifics on the technical processes used in the forthcoming Star Wars movie and the trail goes cold, with confused articles discussing the relationship between Hollywood and the games industry and how the two platforms are getting close to crossing over. This is of course mostly a keyword-hitting smokescreen, riding on the back of a global marketing effort designed to ensure that you can’t go anywhere without seeing Stormtrooper helmets, lightsabers or bumping into leaflet-wielding Wookies around every tinsel-decked corner.

But it was my conversation with Matt Starr, CTO of deep storage company Spectra Logic, which spun off into a completely unexpected orbit. When it comes to the nature of modern film production, they still find a compelling use case for magnetic tape. Everybody believes that the movie-making process has gone not just digital, but solid state – the truth is, as ever, far more nuanced and peculiar.

“Digital movie cameras write to P2 flash storage, a format pioneered by Panasonic in 2004.”

Digital movie cameras write to P2 flash storage, a format pioneered by Panasonic in 2004, but as Starr told me, that’s almost immediately backed up right on set – or on location. One production he’s actually allowed to discuss, and which neatly illustrates the point, is the Deadliest Catch – a documentary series about crab fishermen filmed deep in the freezing squall of the Bering Strait. On that shoot, footage in the form of ejectable P2 flash cards is picked up from each boat by a helicopter from a production boat. Here it enters the production process, and becomes a head-scratching, record-keeping, copy-making data nightmare: welcome to the world of the digital asset.

How does a company like Spectra Logic, which has long been treading a trend-busting path of specialising in tape backup and archiving, come to be so intimately knowledgeable about the film business? Because there’s actually very little sign that the movie production business is going to run entirely digitally – at least not any time soon. 

“It’s all about the impact of the image, and that’s why there’s still a place for actual chemical, reel-by-reel film.”

As you can see from the above video interview with the Star Wars: The Force Awakens cinematographer, the decision for a filmmaker isn’t about which digital platform to use – it’s all about the impact of the image, and that’s why there’s still a place for actual chemical, reel-by-reel film. If you’re a movie producer and you know you’ll need to handle and process reels of old-school film, then the transport and warehousing processes necessary for that will make you much more amenable to tape for putting your digitally captured footage into the same transport, logging and production processes. There will of course be a QR code printing, label-making and inventory-tracking app to go with that, which is very likely to be online, tablet-enabled, camera-friendly and superconnected – but it’s still tracking a physical entity, and neither flash storage nor a disk-in-a-box quite does it for matching the transport and warehousing durability of a shot film, like tape does.

Of course, that’s not the only field where tech takes a left turn in movie making. Even after that actual film reel has been shot and stored, it’s most likely to be then digitised and edited together with the CGI footage, which generates frankly staggering amounts of data. Deluxe Digital are the absolute kings of colour correction: that incredibly boring process that ensures Leia’s white gown looks exactly the same shade of white in every shot and environment it’s in. This is a curiously non-automated activity, and of course requires many iterations of “let me just go back to the original” or “how about we press ‘undo’ on all that work?” Deluxe Digital, says Starr, has 14 tape libraries scattered across the world for this precise reason. Movie makers have ways of striving for a kind of perfection that neatly runs at right angles to the optimum process for movie technology businesses.

Which brings me to the story of Shrek. These days it pays to keep track of allegiances between movies and tech companies – Avatar was very much a Microsoft movie, and the Shrek series was HP’s baby, thanks to its association with render and animation studio DreamWorks.

The story goes that enough time passed between each successive release of Shrek that the whole animation, rendering, data model and storage format for each movie is utterly incompatible with one another. So, although DreamWorks has archives of the early movies, it can’t access or use any of the data on its current CGI platforms. Lucasfilm has similar limitations: although it’s shown off its original render farm in videos for The Wall Street Journal and others (of which there is some footage over at the Wall Street Journal), it’s noticeable for nerds like me that the original render cluster – named, naturally enough, Death Star – is sufficiently old tech that the rackmount servers clearly come with floppy disk drives. Little wonder the Empire ran out of luck on their final campaign.

Star Wars excitement has reached fever pitch, so what better time to stock up on Star Wars-flavoured stocking fillers than right now? Click here to get some festive Force-related inspiration. 

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