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Pixel This 

Digital filmmaking, part two

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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THE "DV FILMMAKING" REVOLUTION IS ENTERING a new phase, declares Jonathan Wells, director and founder of the ResFest digital film festival. "The first innovation digital technology brought to filmmaking," he says in the press material for ResFest '99, "was breaking down the boundaries of who could make a film. Now we are seeing that technology is changing the types of films that are being made. Digital filmmakers are pioneering a new film aesthetic."

This is a sales pitch, of course. Wells, who is also the founding editor of Res magazine (its tag line is "The Future of Filmmaking"), has a lot riding on the DV new wave. From the budding filmmaker's vantage point, at least, he is clearly on to something. "Access to tools" has never been easier, and the image quality of the new formats is so high that the finished products look like real movies even when projected on a huge screen, a clear improvement over the amateur formats of the past, such as Super 8. The undercover features Windhorse and The Saltmen of Tibet, which were shot on location under the noses of Chinese officials, could have been made using 8mm film or analog video equipment, but they could not have been made to theatrical standards before "prosumer" digital tools became available.

This seems to be the heart of the matter: DV has the potential, at least, to open up mainstream moviemaking. Director Nichola Bruce takes a tiny DV camera everywhere she goes, capturing images that catch her eye, like a writer scribbling observations in a notebook. On the other hand, in the 1970s, Michelangelo Antonioni prowled his Death Valley locations of Zabriskie Point with an 8mm Beaulieu, taking visual reference notes of shots and camera angles. But unlike Antonioni, Bruce can also insert her "notes" directly into her feature narratives; the final image of a cloud bank in her film, I Could Read the Sky, is one of those notebook clips, transparently interpolated. In the pre-digital age, effects like this were expensive and exotic, the province either of 800-pound studio gorillas such as Oliver Stone (who mixed and matched formats promiscuously in Natural Born Killers) or of the mixmasters of the avant-garde. Now anyone can do it, with a camera they can buy at Circuit City and some software on their PC.

That's the DV revolution in a nutshell: The current high profile of the medium was established, after all, when The Cruise and The Celebration proved that DV could "pass" as cinema. According to Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Films, a company affiliated with the Independent Film Channel, "If you want to make a movie on Digital Betacam, and have it transferred to 35mm film stock at one of the best places in the world, 98 percent of the people who see it will think it originated on film. But once it's possible to achieve a 'film look' the question becomes, is that what you want? There is a whole spectrum of looks that you can achieve."

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So far, though, only a thin sliver of the new rainbow spectrum is being exploited. Some clever directors have chosen to make a virtue of DV's perceived technical limitations, turning out faux documentaries shot in the "first person." (The Blair Witch Project is the obvious example, although a similar lost-film-crew thriller, The Last Broadcast, made in 1998, is even more ingenious, doubling back on itself for a Murder of Roger Ackroyd­style trick ending.) But first-person cinema, as such, has a fairly extensive history: Lady in the Lake, David Holzman's Diary and Letting Go were all first-person films of one kind or another, as is much avant-garde cinema. Alain Tanner's In the White City (1983), which combines conventional third person and subjective first person, remains a bolder use of the concept than anything delivered by the current revolution.

Still, the you-are-there associations that we bring to video images from TV can be manipulated in subtler ways, too. Broderick, during his digital revival meetings at film festivals and colleges, often screens a powerful sequence from Bruce's I Could Read the Sky. Most of the picture was shot on 35mm celluloid. But the central character's memories of a past love affair were shot on hand-held DV, with a guttering candle as the only light source for a heartbreaking sense of warmth and intimacy. In this case, the new digital tools are integral to a dramatic emotional effect; they aren't just being laid on to dazzle us. The point isn't that effects like this have never been employed before, but that they've never been as routinely, casually available.

What is striking overall is how eerily familiar the hyped innovations of DV actually look when you step back a bit. Video artist­turned­filmmaker Lynn Hershmann Leeson refers dryly to "things that are called revolutionary by people who don't know any better." Leeson, who was already using desktop computer graphic imaging effects and "virtual sets" in 1997 for her first feature, Conceiving Ada, argues that the new medium has unique characteristics that ought to be embraced. "This technique is plastic," she says, "and it has its own intrinsic forms," noting that in DV "you don't lose resolution when you composite." We can already see filmmakers like Grant Gee, in Meeting People Is Easy, a DV tour doc about the band Radiohead, using superimposition ubiquitously, the way Robert Altman used wall-to-wall layered sound after multitrack audio recording was perfected in the 1970s.

THERE IS ALWAYS A TIME LAG BETWEEN THE introduction of new tools and the visible aesthetic shifts, the shifts in creative thinking. There are young directors making features now who have never cut actual celluloid and take the flexibility of digital postproduction for granted. In films such as Pi, Election, Go and Run Lola Run, which jump between points of view and use split screens, cross cutting and freeze frames as natural punctuation marks, we are just beginning to see signs of a fully internalized "Avid aesthetic" -- avant-garde tropes folded into (or co-opted by) a mainstream narrative idiom.

Similarly, Web surfing and computer gaming may have inspired the "hyperlink" effects -- the interpolation of miniature narrative digressions -- in films like Pi and Lola. Computer use in general has encouraged people to think of narrative as contingent, as infinitely revisable, rather than fixed. When you play a CD-ROM game you follow the narrative in one direction for a while, then backtrack and try another variation. You don't have to sweat and strain over the variations; they're always only a mouse-click way. It will be interesting to see what happens when the Japanese creators of the CD classic Gadget, and the American wizards of Myst and Riven, come out with the feature projects they're currently working on. Robin Miller, the creator of Myst, recently told Wired magazine that he is drawn to features partly as a way of putting a lid on the indeterminacy of the game environment, the very interactivity that is supposed to be its great attraction. Miller is eager, he says, "to reveal the turns of a narrative in set sequence."

Digital tools hold out a promise of almost unlimited creative control: over the means of production, certainly, but also over the image itself. But control is a slippery commodity. Some artists, especially those working on studio films, have been complaining for years that in the digital era they actually have less control. Many film professionals would probably agree with director Joe Dante, who once admitted to me that the greatest luxury in post-production is "having more time to think." Every digital gizmo that increases efficiency only seems to give itchy executives an additional excuse to move up the release date. The independent DV filmmakers don't face the same external pressures; that's supposed to be the whole point. But even for indies who seem to be footloose and relatively fancy free, the new technology may have some pressures built in. Perhaps the tools have a hidden agenda of their own. Perhaps the tools themselves push the process in a certain direction, toward the fast and frantic.

It is easy to imagine some filmmakers taking to DV right away: a hot-wired Sam Fuller, for example, or a John Cassavetes. A temperament that is young, fast and restless seems tailor-made for DV. But it is hard to imagine a contemplative artist like Yasujiro Ozu having much use for it. An Ozu masterwork such as Tokyo Story, with its fixed eye-level camera angles, seems to be weighed down in a fruitful way by the bulky analog film tools he employed. Ozu put off making films in color until 1958, in part because the photomechanical film processes had a huge built-in fudge factor. "If you shoot two different colors with the same lighting, one of them won't come out," he once griped. Which is why Ozu might have been delighted by some of the capabilities of DV. "Some of the most interesting digital films," Peter Broderick predicts, "are going to have new color palettes. Not necessarily in-your-face new -- you may not even consciously be aware of it. The world of the movie will just have a different feeling. Perhaps for the Ozu of the future, the contemplative quality will come from somewhere else. Perhaps it will be colors slowly changing over time."

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