Thursday, August 31, 2006

How digital is changing filmmaking

The digital age is upon us and film is dying or at least that is the mantra that has been shouted from the Hollywood hills for years.

In 2002, George Lucas thought he had put a stake in the heart of film by shooting and editing Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones using only digital equipment.

“Because he’d been able to make a stiff, crummy-looking, overblown faux-epic on a new plaything, Lucas felt completely justified in foretelling the death of film,” wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon magazine in 2003.

Four years later film is still around, but digital filmmaking is becoming increasingly more mainstream. In the wake of Star Wars several more films have been made using digital cameras including Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Michael Mann’s Collateral and Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon Time in Mexico and Sin City.

But before proceeding let us take pause for a clarification of terms. The digital camera is a cousin of the video camera, the same one your neighbour used to make those cheesy home videos or that you use to shoot your child or younger sibling’s recital, play, etc.

“The buzzword is ‘digital,’” cinematographer Wally Pfister told Zacharek in her article “Film is not dead, damn it!” “It’s the same buzzword that’s used in the consumer world, the same word that was used to sell CDs and DVDs and anything for home computers. But it’s not an accurate way of describing it.”

The chief difference is that the images are captured and processed digitally, but are stored on a video chip. In other words, a digital camera is really a digital video camera.

As these digital video cameras improve, they are increasingly the preferred method of production for blockbusters that are heavy on computer-generated imagery (CGI). This summer sees Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns going that route, but digital is showing up even in the most unlikely places, namely Adam Sandler new comedy Click.

There was a time when digital video was of a noticeably lesser quality, but as the cameras improve digital video it is becoming harder and harder to tell the video and film apart.

Film is still the norm for shooting, but digital is the new standard for editing, which in the past consisted of the splicing and reassembling of film stock by hand. Now whether shot on digital video or on film that is later transferred to a digital format, editing is done with computer programs.

“You can have multiple cuts made of something without having to re-splice film, take a lot of time and have a lot of prints made,” says cinematographer/editor Jeff Clegg. “You can see things back to back, change them easily as well as making things easier once you have everything transferred.”

Michael Dana an indie filmmaker and assistant cameraman on such films as Once Upon a Time in America and Sweet and Low Down agrees that it give the editing process more freedom.

“The process of cutting film was so deliberate and it took so long, if you cut you didn’t just say, ‘Oh let’s now try doing the whole film in reverse,’ but you can do that now,” says Dana.

While in Hollywood the digital is just starting to take off, the independent scene has been using the technology from its inception. For the struggling filmmaker trying to get their vision across it can open doors.

“I was always a film purist, but then they came out with digital cameras,” says Dana. “I could just shoot and it cost me barely anything.”

Anyone who has switched from a film camera to a digital one for taking their snap shots knows how much is saved in film and development costs. Now imagine the costs that could be saved by making the same switch on a film production.

“The marginal cost per minute is trivial in the digital format,” says Patrick Towell, Chief Executive of Golant Film. “Where before if you had not done it quite right or if you’d wanted to change something the risks and costs associated with that were just too high. Now you’d be more likely to say let’s try this another way, let’s try that another way.”

However, Clegg warns that with this new technology and drop in production costs there can be a lose of accountability.

“There are a lot of people who because they have an idea for a film just sort of assume because DV is so cheap they don’t have to raise money,” says Clegg. “If you’re spending let’s say even 20,000 dollars on a film you’re going to be rechecking yourself and being sure this is going to come out great.”

Towell also believes that the technology while a great tool for aspiring filmmakers does not automatically mean everyone can create professional level work.

“It is great that it has enabled so many people to try this out as an option, either as a compelling hobby or as something that is part of their career. But you still have to learn the language bit,” says Towell. “Just because you can hold the pen doesn’t mean you can write War and Peace.”

Dana, who had years of experience working with film, encountered one such young digital filmmaker that let the technology do all the work.

“I asked him, ‘What are you trying to do here? What shots do you need?’ He told me he didn’t like to tell the crew what to do,” says Dana. “I used to get crazy about that. How are we supposed to bring his image, his vision to the screen. He didn’t even know what his vision was.”

Coming from a background of setting up shots, lighting and composition this guerilla-style filmmaking was a shock to the system for Dana.

“Hitchcock was the other end of this,” says Dana. “He didn’t even need to shoot his films because it was all so carefully calculated. On paper, in his mind, every edit, every scene, every image was done. Now you get a couple cameras with a bunch of people, you run around and you shoot a bunch of stuff.”

Towell compares a young filmmaker getting a hold of a digital camera for the first time to experimenting with cooking. In both cases, the results can be a bit messy, but you learn from your mistakes.

“When you first learn cooking you discover herbs and spice and kinds of ingredients and you wind up with something with about 75 ingredients,” says Towell. “Then you realise you exercise judgment and you exercise choice. You develop a sense of the aesthetics and what works communicatively in that medium.”

It is hard to say whether digital will eventually kill off film, but it does not necessarily mean the old aesthetics of the film camera will die with it.

“You still may wind up with directors who have plotted every second, but I suppose what it may affect is the smaller budget things more,” says Towell.

In Clegg’s experience, the new technology does not necessitate a change in methods.

“A lot of general things are the same as far as how you’re going to have work your crew and work your camera,” says Clegg.

What digital video camera and digital editing is doing is creating more options and opportunities whether it is the Hollywood executives or the guy in his backyard just trying to get his first film completed.

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