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Harry Potter film taps tech wizardry

Companies work their magic getting films to the big screen, using new technologies such as clips that are wrapped in heavy-duty encryption and beamed over a satellite transmission.

Behind Harry Potter's much-anticipated flight to the big screen is a bit of technical wizardry that is helping transform the way big movie studios do business.

The upcoming "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" movie, to be released next week, is one of the early films to take advantage of satellite technology set up and managed by IBM and smaller partner NeTune Communications. Bringing together facilities for creating digital versions the daily film shoots with a fast satellite network, the system allows people on different sides of the world to view film clips and work on visual effects together.

The work on the Harry Potter film is one of the early examples of a change beginning to sweep through the film industry, with more than a half-dozen companies bidding for the rights to serve as the digital backbones for big-name studio productions.

IBM and NeTune executives declined to discuss the Harry Potter movie specifically, although their involvement previously has been reported in industry publications. Sources close to the production confirmed that the technology was used to make the film.

Digital technologies have been transforming the face of movies for years, from "Terminator 2's" first widely imitated shape-shifting villain to "The Matrix's" high-tech kung fu. Movies such as "Toy Story" or "Shrek"--which used a Linux-based system in the production process--have taken animation to new computer-driven heights.

But merging these techniques with the old-fashioned film-based process can cause hiccups in the production process. The level of special effects in films requires close communication between people working on the actual shoot and the people working on visual effects to ensure that the two teams stay on precisely the same page.

That's where technology like that of NeTune's and its competitors comes in.

With IBM, the company has created a service in which films are placed in a digital format almost immediately after a day's shoots and then sent around the world to anyone who needs to look at them. These "dailies" were once flown on airplanes to studios, run through duplication facilities, and then distributed to executives, backers and people at remote production facilities.

Now, the clips are wrapped in heavy-duty 256-bit encryption and beamed over a satellite transmission so that anyone who needs them can watch them on their computers, shortly after they've been shot.

The technology also lets the visual effects designers see what's being shot each day--whether it's Harry at Hogwarts or Russell Crowe standing in front of what would ultimately be "Gladiator's" digital Coliseum--so they can tailor their own work to what's actually on film.

"You can get a much better sense of what the pulse is in the production environment," said Steve Canepa, IBM's global vice president of media and entertainment. Canepa declined to discuss the Harry Potter film but confirmed that its producer, Warner Bros. studios, is using the company's technology.

The business has drawn enough interest that IBM took a stake in NeTune earlier this year and now serves as that company's infrastructure partner, helping to set up hardware and satellite transmission facilities on remote movie sets.

A handful of competitors are bidding on similar contracts, however. Warner Bros. actually owns a small stake in PicturePipeline, one rival. Global Crossing is pitching its fiber-optic network as a conduit for film transmissions. Others include WamNet and JCI.

The technology is still relatively new, although remote transmission facilities from these companies were used on 2000 blockbusters including "Gladiator" and "The Perfect Storm."

An AOL Time Warner representative did not return calls for comment. The Harry Potter film is due in theaters Nov. 16.