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January / February 2004


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3D

Photo by Michele Stapleton


3D
A new digital filmmaking research laboratory at UMaine is expected to be a tripartite drawing card for students, businesses and the movie industry

About the Photo: "I'm trying to engage in an entrepreneurial model that brings resources back into the program and into the state."
Raphael Di Luzio
 

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"Hollywood is at a turning point," asserts Raphael Di Luzio. Moviemakers are pivoting away from shooting on celluloid and toward filming digitally on videotape.

It's a pivotal moment that gives the University of Maine and the state the opportunity to propel themselves to the forefront of digital filmmaking, says the artist with an eye for what the mechanical can do for the artistic.

Standing at the intersection of the technical and the creative elements of filmmaking, the University of Maine assistant professor of new media has proposed a practical application that could boost both the state's economy and its artistry. Di Luzio is establishing a digital filmmaking program at UMaine with a lab equipped with cutting-edge hardware and software that could be used by both students and, for a fee, filmmakers in the state.

The lab will allow students to learn the latest ways to use digital equipment for filming, audio, animation, three-dimensional computer effects and compositing, which is the process of using computers to superimpose one image onto another to create a single image. Compositing is the way much of the most recent Star Wars movies were melded.

But Di Luzio is not just looking to build an educational program; he hopes to directly link students and the lab with filmmakers who come to Maine. This connection plus the potential for helping nourish the state's "creative economy," creating jobs, and generating revenues by teaching industry-approved software certification programs led the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) to provide a $201,000 grant to get the endeavor up and running.

"I'm trying to engage in an entrepreneurial model that brings resources back into the program and into the state," Di Luzio says.

He does not want to simply create a corps of adept technicians, or only to produce key grips, best boys and camera operators for the film industry. It also is about "gearing up people to be the creators and the visionaries," he says. The idea is to "produce a healthy base of digital content developers" who make Maine their home.

The hope is to put the state on the leading edge of a changing film industry. "Hollywood goes anywhere to shoot. But we don't have enough individuals out there (in Maine) who can work in the industry."


The proposal is an excellent example of adapting new technology to an existing industry that will increase Maine's competitiveness, says Janet Yancey-Wrona, director of MTI, a state agency charged with encouraging and supporting technology-intensive endeavors that help multiple industries and lead to job creation.

Jake Ward, executive director for research and economic development in UMaine's Department of Industrial Cooperation, says that the "crossover ground" between the artistic and the technological will prove fertile. Already, two Maine firms that model how bodies move through fluids (i.e., how missiles fly through air and yachts slice through water) are interested in taking advantage of the three-dimensional computer modeling that will be available in the lab.

A bonus is that it will be the only lab of its kind in New England, according to Yancey-Wrona. Filmmakers will be able to use the lab, along with students, thus helping to train the local workforce and strengthen state efforts to boost its "cultural economy," she added.

Lea Girardin, director of the Maine Film Office, says simply, "We need to have a film crew base. We do have one but it's small. We'd love to expand it and this should do it."

If film production companies can hire crew members locally rather than importing them from Boston, it saves them money and makes Maine a more attractive place to shoot a movie, commercial or documentary, Girardin says.

The film office, also a state agency, on average helps bring upward of $17 million worth of film productions into the state each year. For example, the office was involved in the successful effort to bring the movie production of the novel Empire Falls to Maine.


At UMaine, the digital filmmaking program and the lab will help to flesh out the New Media Program, Di Luzio says. The interdisciplinary program studies the systems, technologies, history, design, and theory of information artifacts and networks. It began in 1991 as a minor in multimedia. In 1998, the name was changed to new media; the program first offered undergraduate degrees in 2000.

While on one hand, the 43-year-old Di Luzio says, "I'm certifiably a cine-holic; I love movies," on the other, he says he is "an anomaly" in the New Media Program because he was trained as a painter. Still, along with his painting degrees, he holds a professional certificate in computer graphics.

It is the use of digitized information to create art that intrigues Di Luzio. As a painter, Di Luzio says he began to look at his own work and found that "the narrative was not moving or it was sluggish."

A few years ago, the concept of "time-based media" grabbed him. This involves turning music or film into a digital signal, then "digitally sampling" the piece (taking a segment, such as the refrain of a song, out of the original). Most importantly, the duration of these digital samples can then be altered and manipulated, Di Luzio explained.

One of Di Luzio's artistic projects involving time-based media is called Seasonal Fugue Disorder. Di Luzio set up a digital video camera in the Maine woods that was filming the changing seasons. It videotaped each day from sunrise to sunset, compressing the daylight hours into roughly 1.5 minutes. These segments were then digitally fused to create four films one for each season roughly 2.75 hours long. Originally done as part of a British online exhibition of digital and time-based art, the fugue will eventually become a video installation.


Hardware and software are needed for the new program, and they don't come cheap. That is why Di Luzio incorporated revenue-generating elements into his digital filmmaking plan and sought in-kind contributions from industry.

Di Luzio is bringing in new digital cameras, one of which, the Panasonic SDX 900, costs roughly $60,000 and was funded by the MTI grant. The SDX 900 allows students to digitally film to Hollywood standards and later transfer their work onto film without losing quality. While the camera videotapes footage that can be downloaded to a computer hard drive, FireWire technology allows the camera to be plugged into a digital video drive that can be connected directly into a computer. The shift from film to videotape and video drives should save film programs money, Di Luzio says, because raw film stock is expensive.

However, the digital equipment and computer programs also are costly. Investing in new hardware and software, Di Luzio says, can be akin to hauling wheelbarrows of cash to the lip of "a fiery pit" and dumping it in year after year. Without a constant stream of funds to invest in new or updated software, technology becomes a "non-renewable resource," he says.

So, Di Luzio approached computer software companies, Apple in particular, and broached the idea of having UMaine offer professional certification programs for various types of filmmaking and music software, such as Final Cut Pro, Maya 3D Modeling, DVD Studio Pro and Shake Compositing. The fees should provide a revenue stream for buying the latest software.

The certification programs are to be initially offered at UMaine's Hutchinson Center in Belfast, Maine, where the computer lab has been upgraded with new Apple G5 computers, made possible through the support of MBNA.

The lab in Orono also could be a moneymaker. The university could let multimedia and technology companies use the facilities on a contractual or project basis, Ward says.

The certification programs, along with generating income, would also create a corps of professionals skilled in using the newest top-end software, according to Di Luzio, who was able to snare an array of software as in-kind contributions to the nascent program.

The strong support of local companies, the in-kind contributions and the money-making aspects were pluses in MTI's eyes. Yancey-Wrona explained, "Our purpose is to develop capacity for industry."

The "real crazy" part of the whole idea, Di Luzio says, is that by coupling those who earn the certificates with the students in the filmmaking program, "we could set up a model of a post-production (film) company."

Eventually, "I would like to spin off a real company of students who become entrepreneurs, who can do this stuff on their own after they graduate," Di Luzio says. However, "before you can begin to ask for the sun and the stars, you should be able to produce the moon first. We want to see what our students produce and use that as a foil."

by Gordon Bonin
January-February, 2004

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.

 

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