Filmmakers are mixing and matching a wide variety of options –
in their choice of cameras,
transfer methods, and final format. For a digital round-up see sidebar.
ALMOST OVERNIGHT, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY has landed firmly the hands of the indie film community. Thousands of us who had previously been working in isolation have found we have something in common: we are part of the digital revolution.
To be honest, I never particularly wanted to be part of a revolution. In turning to digital technology, I was just trying to answer some nagging questions that most filmmakers face: how do we make and distribute films less expensively?
Last year, while trying to address these questions, I teamed up with Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos, makers of The Last Broadcast. These two had already answered my first question, having made their mini-DV feature for under $900. Now they wanted to have a theatrical release while avoiding a costly film transfer. After researching many different options, we released the the film by satellite. We created a unique sponsorship model, bringing in technology partners like Cyberstar, a division of Loral, to handle the satellite-to-PC link, Digital Projection, Inc. to handle the digital projection, and the Independent Film Channel to release the movie through their broadband network and assist with promotion. Finally we beamed the film 22,000 miles into the sky and back down to five arthouse theaters nationally. Obviously, this glosses over the frequent moments of extreme terror – when we worried about funding, about the technology crashing, about whether audiences would come – but at its most basic, this process was simply a series of choices that made sense for this movie.
As a result of this experience, we’ve appeared on dozens of panels about digital filmmaking over the past year – in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, England, France, Holland, Ireland, Singapore, and more. Everywhere we go, we hear the same questions from filmmakers. They usually boil down to this: "Does shooting digital make sense for my project?" I’m always compelled to say, "I don’t know; does it?" Then there’s, "Once I make this project digitally, how do I release it?" But there is no easy answer to either question, since each project is so highly individual. What I can say is that there are essentially three main reasons people are shooting digitally – and hundreds of sub-reasons. So consider the following when confronting the questions: "To shoot or not shoot digitally?" (answers 1-3) and "How can I release my film digitally?" (answer 4).
1. Mobility and unobtrusiveness of the equipment.
This is a strong motivator for documentarians and narrative filmmakers alike. Documentary makers like Michel Negroponte and Bennett Miller often say their ability to remain both mobile and unobtrusive allows their subjects to feel at ease and them to have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment, which is key to a good doc. However, there are also compelling reasons to consider DV if you’re shooting a narrative. With The Last Broadcast, Lance and Stefan used all non-actors (this is also true of the work of Rob Nilsson) and found the smaller camera was less imposing and allowed a more natural performance. Todd Verow (Frisk, Shucking the Curve) was able to capture an impressive spontaneity by shooting his drama like a doc, using improv from both the actors and the camera. For Paul Wagner’s Windhorse, a dramatic feature shot in Tibet, the camera needed to be unobtrusive because the Chinese government would never have allowed the filming of a narrative with such a specific political agenda.
2. Video complements the aesthetic vision for your film.
Documentaries have a long tradition of a grittier video look; however, with the advent of reality-based programming, this "video vocabulary" is growing increasingly prevelant in all arenas. For films that want to adopt or utilize this vocabulary (like The Last Broadcast, Shucking the Curve, or The Celebration), the combination of DV’s docu-drama-mentary feel with a narrative structure can be very potent.
3. You don’t have enough money to shoot on film.
This is the reason that brings most people to consider DV. But lack of cash should not make digital a foregone conclusion. It’s important to consider all the ramifications and to make sure the look of your film won’t be overly compromised. For example, audiences will have an easier time accepting a video look for a romantic comedy set in the 1980s than a period drama set in the 1890s.
4. Ability to be non-traditional with your release strategy.
Making a digital film gives you two release possibilities. The first is to transfer the digital movie to film and go the traditional route. The second is more difficult but can be equally rewarding – you can keep your film digital and try other opportunities. These days more and more film festivals are screening digital works, and on-line opportunities abound. However, most of the opportunities your film will have will be made by you. When we released the film by satellite, we organized the entire thing and brought in all the necessary equipment – not a feat for the faint hearted! However, in addition to our profitable five-city release, we’ve had successful releases on ifctv.com and over broadband networks in England and Singapore. While this requires research and chutzpah, it also allows you a lot of control over the fate of your film and the possibility of helping to define new modes of distribution – an asset to all filmmakers.
All in all, DV is not a stand-in for film; it’s a different medium and should be treated as such. Learn all you can about shooting digitally and dealing with DV sound. Get a good, reliable, and experienced DP, or at least someone willing to do the research to make up for lack of experience. Also, if you are thinking about transfering to film, you should get in touch with the transfer house in advance of shooting. They can give you useful tips for maximizing your image quality while on location, saving you extra work or a compromised film once you return.
Finally, the main thing to remember is that digital video is only technology. It will not change the world or wipe out the many hurdles independent filmmakers face. It won’t enable you to tell a better story, have a strong cinematic vision, or make a movie someone would want to buy. What it can offer is a chance to lessen your economic risk and give you more tools to invent new models of production and distribution. We’ve only seen the beginning of what’s possible using digital technology. The rest is up to you.
For an in-depth resource list, see www.nextwavefilms