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The Auteur as Gearhead 

Notes on the digital video revolution, Part One

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
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Motion pictures are just a special case of data broadcast.

---Nicholas Negroponte,

Being Digital (1995)

Way back in the dawn of e-time, in 1996, George Lucas foresaw the future. In Thomas A. Ohanian and Michael E. Phillips’ book Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures (Focal Press), Lucas prophesied that all-digital movie production would ”eventually create a more democratic filmmaking environment. Anyone will be able to create movies. Pretty soon you‘ll be doing it on your PC.“

Even then, digital moviemaking was not a new idea: Francis Ford Coppola had been talking about ”electronic cinema“ since at least 1982, and he brought his dreams to life in One From the Heart. Much of the current interest in digital video (DV) filmmaking -- a freshly minted oxymoron -- has been generated by the startling success of ultra-cheap shot-on-video features like The Celebration, The Cruise and The Blair Witch Project. But the dream of digital cinema was first embraced by big-budget gearheads like James Cameron, and trickled down from there, as cheaper ”prosumer“ versions of industrial digital tools slowly became available.

Hollywood is going digital at breakneck speed. Most of the subroutines of movie production, from screenwriting to title design, are already either fully digital or digitally assisted; closing the circle -- by making the process networked and digital from start to finish -- is just economic common sense. The last stubborn celluloid holdouts are the pricey release prints, thousands of them for major openings, and Hollywood is scrambling to put that $3 million albatross to sleep. Two companies, Hughes-JVC Technology and Texas Instruments, developed the theatrical digital-projection systems used this summer to show Tarzan, The Phantom Menace and An Ideal Husband in selected venues -- often to moviegoers who never realized they weren’t watching ”real movies.“ Within five years (according to one estimate) images burned into strips of film will be as hard to come by as sounds physically scratched onto disks of vinyl.

By now, the pressure to go digital is coming with just about equal force from both ends of the class andor economic spectrum -- from the megabudget Hollywood side and also from the microcinema indie camp. The advent of relatively inexpensive DV cameras and desktop postproduction systems -- and high-capacity FireWire connections to transport images between them -- has flung the doors wide open. Holly Willis, writing in Res magazine (a DV quarterly that bills itself as ”The Future of Filmmaking“), boldly predicts ”a shift of power, one that turns in favor of independent filmmakers and away from the studios.“

With the price tag for a well-equipped home moviemaking suite still hovering around the $10,000 mark (starting with $4,000-plus for a respectable DV camera like the Canon XL1), the democracy angle is clearly being oversold. But prices have already begun to drop. Apple has begun bundling a consumer postproduction program with its new iMacs, aiming to make desktop cinema as user-cuddly as desktop publishing. Inevitably, Apple‘s iMovie software will be used mostly to add titles and dissolves to wobbly vacation videos. But if it’s democracy you‘re after, this is a step in the right direction.

Producer’s rep John Pierson, who gave Spike Lee and Kevin Smith (and Blair Witch) early boosts, hosts the peripatetic ”Split Screen“ series on the Independent Film Channel. He has been employing regional DV filmmakers as freelance segment producers for three years. The new digital gizmos, he says, are inspiring people in every nook and cranny of America. When it comes to revolutionary pronouncements, though, Pierson is more cautious. He says that DV is important primarily as ”a low-cost way for people to have access.“ It is still, he says, ”very hard to make a good feature film. But putting that possibility in the hands of more people, maybe that‘s a net gain.“

In contrast, Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Films, an arm of the Independent Film Channel that provides finishing funds for independent films, is a tireless DV booster. For over a year, he has been traveling to festivals and college campuses, winning converts with an impressive program of DV clips. ”When people ask me how much they need to make a feature,“ Broderick says, ”I ask them how much they have, because that will probably be enough.“ Viable feature films can now be made for as little as $1,000. Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos supposedly made the clever thriller The Last Broadcast for $900, although budgets in the $10,000 to $20,000 range are more typical. According to a breakdown published in Res, The Cruise cost exactly $139,064 -- but $58,000 went for the celluloid release print alone. Blair Witch cost just $40,000 and has grossed over $140 million -- a ka-ching that echoed around the world.

Of course, it has always been much easier to make a movie than to get it shown, and the more pictures there are, the wider the gap will grow. The theatrical market for independent films has been shrinking steadily, from its high-water mark in the early ’90s. Of more than 1,000 indie films produced last year, less than a dozen found theatrical distributors. Highly touted alternative pipelines, such as streaming media on the Internet, are still a pipe dream -- although filmmaker Lynn Hershmann Leeson (Conceiving Ada) warns that all innovative technologies look like stumblebums in the early stages. For the time being, self-distribution on home video, with an Internet e-commerce tie-in, may be a more practical alternative, Broderick says. ”If you can make a movie for $1,000, you don‘t have to sell many DVDs to break even.“ If the DV movement increases the total number of films four- or fivefold, as many predict, the odds against success for a neophyte DV auteur will soon be astronomical. A dose of that harsh reality will quickly rein in the DV cinema bull market, if anything can.

The new medium is promising, nevertheless, and in ways that transcend economics. One of Broderick’s trump cards is a litany of ”established filmmakers, guys who could easily get money to shoot in more conventional ways, who are choosing to shoot digitally for creative reasons“: Eric Rohmer (at 79), Arturo Ripstein (at 55), Tom Noonan, Gus Van Sant, Antonia Bird, Peter Greenaway, Spike Lee, Wim Wenders, Harmony Korine, Hal Hartley, Jon Jost, John McNaughton, and Mike Figgis -- all have made or are currently at work on DV features. Some of these projects embrace DV as the fulfillment of the sardonic ”Dogme 95“ vow of cinematic chastity forged by the mad Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Artists are going digital, Broderick says, in order to ”make films on their own terms, without having to get permission or approval from anyone.“

Grover Crisp, vice president for asset management and film restoration at Sony Pictures, has introduced many traditional film-oriented cinematographers to the digital tools, in order to use those tools to restore scratched or faded film images while creating new digitally produced negatives. The digital mastering of films for new, demanding home-video formats like DVD and HDTV has turned many avowed ”film people“ into DV converts because of the opportunity to further define the ”finished“ film.

”Feature films often look different on DVD than they did in the theater,“ Crisp explains, ”because what was projected -- a print from an internegative made from an interpositive made from the original negative -- doesn‘t always reflect the filmmakers’ intentions. Electronic formats allow directors and cinematographers to control things they can‘t control on film, where the variables in color tones, contrast and density are less precise because of the nature of traditional laboratory processing. This is their chance to go in and say, ’Okay, this is what I really wanted to do.‘ They may come in with an almost romantic attachment to film, but often it’s the manipulated digital image that ends up being closer to what they had in mind.“

Res magazine‘s touring DV film festival, ResFest ’99, rolls into Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 10, with screenings at the Egyptian, the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild theaters. Call (310) 641-8932 for information.

In Part Two: What‘s in store? How the digital cinema of the near future will look and feel.

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