From Mags and Gates to Bits and Chips

In 1976, Jean-Luc Godard began dreaming of a 35mm camera that would be small enough to fit into the glove compartment of a car. He wanted a camera, in other words, that he could cart along and use to shoot images spontaneously, as he came across them, rather than have bulky equipment determine the time and place. "You’re in Holland," he said in an interview in Camera Obscura, "out in the country, and you see a windmill that is completely motionless. . . . You take the camera out of the glove compartment, you shoot, and you get a 35mm image with the highest resolution possible in cinema or television. Suddenly you think of Foreign Correspondent (the sequence when the windmill turns the wrong way). Or of something else. Because you already have an image, and once you have an image, you do something else with it."

The advent of the new consumer-level digital video cameras answers Godard’s desire. Small, lightweight, and cheap, these cameras produce a broadcast-quality picture, and suddenly cinema as we know it is shifting. People who have traditionally been limited or excluded from filmmaking for financial reasons are now making films, and those stories that seemed too intimate or intense for big, bulky cameras and large crews are getting made. Over the last two years we’ve seen a range of amazing digital projects, from Bennett Miller’s The Cruise to Wim Wenders’ The Buena Vista Social Club. And, as Gene Youngblood so rightfully noted in his 1970 book Expanded Cinema, "New tools generate new images," so we’re seeing new aesthetics, from the campy comic-book look of Dan Clark’s The Item, to the luscious faltering blur of Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life, to the hypnotic lyricism of Jon Reiss’s Better Living through Circuitry. What follows is an overview of shooting digitally through the eyes of several directors and cinematographers. They outline the methods they used, the results they achieved, and the advantages and difficulties of an array of cameras.

The result of Godard’s desire was a lengthy and contentious collaboration with Jean-Pierre Beauviala, an inventor with Aaton, but what Godard so forcefully illustrates is that filmmaking equipment determines the kinds of images that can be made, as well as the ways in which stories can be told. For a long time, directors have been dreaming of what until recently was a filmmaking oxymoron: lightweight, portable cameras with high-quality image output.

One reason to shoot digital is obvious: money. Consumer-level digital cameras like the Sony VX 1000 or the Canon XL 1 are available for well under $5,000. "The main reason I chose digital video was affordability," notes Dempsey Rice, who recently completed Daughter of Suicide, a documentary on the impact of her mother’s death, using a Sony VX 1000. "I could go out and buy the camera and sound equipment and start shooting, rather than waiting around to get the money to shoot on film."

And affordability reverberates throughout the whole filmmaking experience, allowing for all kinds of things that are way too expensive when filmmakers are shooting film. Writer/director Eva Brzeski, who recently finished a rough cut of her first feature, Last Seen, and who shot on the Sony, explains: "I like having the ability to experiment and play," she says. "I like to surprise myself in the middle of things, to use the camera to sketch images and ideas. If we’d been forced to have a polished script and financing before we began, this film never would have been made. As it was, we got it in the can for $5,000, and more than half of that was spent on turkey sandwiches for the crew."

Director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) also chose to shoot digital for his new feature, Chuck and Buck. "When you’re shooting on film, every time you yell ‘action,’ you’ve spent $150," he says. "That’s very frightening for an independent filmmaker." He continues, "We tried to raise the money to do Chuck and Buck on film, but it’s very challenging material and I wanted total freedom in casting and cutting. DV let me have that freedom." Chuck and Buck is one of the first projects for Blow Up Pictures, the digital production company founded by Open City’s Jason Kliot and Joanna Vicente and run by Sharan Sklar.

But Arteta didn’t only choose digital for financial reasons. "When we were researching digital video, we saw Celebration and thought, ‘My God, all those close-ups look great.’ I think that if you’re doing a character-driven story, this format is perfect. Also, when you’re making an independent film, the performances are everything. Nobody really cares about fancy camera work. But how do you get good performances? By shooting a lot of material. We shot 80 hours of footage–three times as much as Star Maps–and the performances are excellent."

Todd Verow, who has shot a long list of projects on video, including Shucking the Curve, which was shot digitally, concurs. He notes that shooting on video allows him to get the best performances–not only does he shoot a lot of material before and after a particular scene, but he tends to shoot in sequence, letting the actors progress organically through the narrative.

And it is this particular shift that some people claim will be DV’s most appreciable factor. "I think digital video will revolutionize acting more than anything else," says Kliot. "The relationship between the actors in both films could not have been set up with the traditional approach. You couldn’t have gotten the complex, intricate performances with traditional filmmaking."

Directors note that both the size of the camera and the lack of stress over wasted footage contributes to an on-set ease which in turn can build to an intensity that simply isn’t possible on film. For documentary filmmakers, the camera’s innocuous presence allows for an intimacy that is often difficult to achieve with a film camera and crew. Daughter of Suicide is a good example. Dempsey Rice worked with cinematographer Jim Denault, whose previous projects include Michael Almereyda’s Trance, Another Girl, Another Planet, and Nadja, as well as Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life. "Daughter of Suicide is a very intimate film," explains Rice. "I was going into situations in which people had experienced very intense and painful things, and it just wasn’t possible to bring in a large crew. Since we were shooting digital, though, Jim and I could do it alone, and his personality worked well, making it very easy to get the intimacy we needed." Eva Brzeski agrees: "The camera in a certain way disarms people. There seems to be less pressure, and in the more documentary-like situations, people don’t even notice the camera because they are so ubiquitous."

Another way that DV contributes to this sense of intimacy is in its lighting requirements–the cameras tend to do very well with low lighting. This is not to say that there aren’t a series of tricks for getting the images you want, or that lighting can be ignored altogether. Cinematographer Howard Krupa shot Mary Katze’s feature Tuesday Morning Coffee in Minnesota in March. "This was an aggressive project with a lot of locations," he says, "and we treated it as if it were a regular feature film project. We got a complete lighting truck with fresnels, HMIs, and tungsten lights, and, as with film, we used the HMIs for daytime interiors and the tungsten for nighttime. However, with video you usually have so much light that the issue is not about getting enough illumination, as it is with film, but rather containment or taking light away." Krupa advocates using small light sources and being very careful not to over light.

Another thing to look out for with DV is your range. "You have to be very careful with your highlights and avoid letting them get too hot, and you have to watch your darks so that they don’t disappear," notes cinematographer Michael Barrow, who is perhaps best known for his work in 35mm on films like Toni Kalem’s A Slipping-Down Life, and whose two digital projects so far are the short film Rosen’s Son and Alan Wade’s The Pornographer–a Love Story (another Blow Up Pictures project). "I think lighting for DV is similar to lighting for film, except at windows where you can get those highlights. On both films we often just used sunlight on the windows and then NDed them down."

Rice notes that she and Denault were sensitive to the Sony’s limited range, and with the individual interviews, chose not to light as you would for film. "The object is to light things pretty flat," she says. "The black outline that you get that way creates depth. If you light like you would for film, the contrast would be way too broad for the camera to handle."

Barrow also notes another helpful feature: "In low light situations you can turn up the gain." The gain is the adjustment feature on video cameras that boosts the signal from the existing light, allowing filmmakers to get an image in low light, but at a cost. As you increase the gain, you also increase the noise in the image. The result is a distinctly video look which some people avoid at all costs, and which others prize as one of the best features of video. "My favorite images are the low light ones," says Brzeski. "The image gets broken up and looks painterly, and the color becomes very sepia. Sometimes I couldn’t even see much through the viewfinder, but the result was beautiful. You lose all contrast and depth, and the image becomes this strange jumble of motion." Rice also used the gain adjustment. "As the gain increases, a lot of chunky grain starts coming through. I think it’s gorgeous."

Accepting, and even accentuating, the qualities of video seems so far to have produced the most interesting results. Denault did a range of entirely inappropriate things to create a rich new look for The Book of Life. "Rather than trying to make it look like film, we went the other direction," he explains. "We wanted that Wired magazine, cyberpunk look. I started by going to B + H Photo to get these plastic filters that are for amateur photographers to do these jazzy special effects. I also used gel swatches from a swatch book to get these wild colors. None of it was really preplanned or rational–we’d go through the book and say, ‘This looks like a cool color!’ and the fun part was that we had this image in mind, but it wasn’t anything we’d ever seen before."

One of the key adjustments that Denault used, or abused, for artistic reasons was the shutter speed. "There’s a little switch on the camera called a shutter speed switch, and we set it at 15 fps or lower for the entire shoot." He continues, "One of the things that makes video looks so distinctively like video is the frame rate. In video, the screen never goes dark, as it does with film. Instead, there are two interlaced fields, and some part of one of them is always glowing. In film, however, literally half of the time you’re in the dark because the screen is black every other 1/48th of a second. So psychologically, film and video are very different. Also, the longer shutter speed of 24 fps film gives each frame a little more blur, which makes the motion feel smoother. So, even though, technically, it’s not the same, the slower frame rate on the video camera feels more like film, and, as important, masks the motion artifacts that occur when transferring 30 fps video to 24 fps film. It produces the same effect you get with step-printing film. On a film shoot this is particularly helpful when shooting in low level light. If you’re shooting 12 fps, which is half the normal frame rate, you get twice as much light on each frame. This is why, I suspect, you see this effect in the films of filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai, who shoots a lot at night with available light. When you then print each frame twice, the action plays out at the same speed as it did in life, but is broken up into only 12 intervals rather than 24. Adjusting the shutter speed on the video camera lets you do the same thing."

The result in The Book of Life is a gorgeous series of blurring, trailing images that convincingly establishes a new aesthetic direction for video. As Sklar of Blow Up Pictures notes about the film, "It’s exploring the medium in terms of color and motion, and it’s definitely pushing the boundaries in interesting ways."

"The way I see it, we built this tunnel of reality around them, wherever they walked. It’s almost like having a sound stage that just doesn’t end. We controlled it. We tried not to get them near houses. We tried to keep them away from roads. In the town, they’d get to a coffee shop and there would be a couple of actors in there planted by us. But they didn’t know who was who." Told to act as themselves and led through a world controlled by unseen forces, never knowing where reality left off and fiction began, the actors had a kind of total experience with the Blair Witch shoot. "That’s what Method Filmmaking is," Sanchez says. "In this case it was an eight-day play. They were completely inhabiting the world of the characters, twenty-four hours a day. You get things that way that you really can’t get any other way."

The film’s colors are also spectacular, and indeed, as Brzeski notes, adjusting the shutter speed affects color. "I like to play with the shutter speed because that’s when you get these beautiful saturated colors, colors like those produced by super 8 Ektachrome." She continues, "Film has a kind of literal quality, but the video image has this very surreal, dreamy quality."

Denault also notes that, compared to 35mm film, which has an image area of about 1" diagonal, the very small target areas of video cameras–1/2" on professional digital cameras and 1/4" on consumer level cameras–give the cameras tremendous depth of field, another distinctly video look. "Usually with film you are trying to increase the light to increase the depth of field to get an acceptably sharp image, but with video the problem is too much depth of field. It’s harder with video to separate the foreground from the background using focus. So I try to shoot in low light. I tend to want to shoot wide open to reduce the depth of field."

Howard Krupa says that he used the wide angle attachment on the Canon XLI for both of his projects, as did Brzeski on her film. "You absolutely need the wide angle attachment for the Canon," Krupa says, "because when you’re shooting in tight situations, like in a car, you can’t get wide enough." And Brzeski notes, "I like to use a wide angle anyway. I like the optics–a wide angle gives the image an edge."

As far as camera movement is concerned, most cinematographers exploit the camera’s light weight to shoot handheld. As Denault says, "Putting a handicam on a dolly seems, to me, to defeat the main advantage of digital video. Handicams are the next evolutionary step beyond the Steadicam. Why would you want to go back to the Stone Age? If that’s what you want to do, you probably should be working with a more polished medium."

And Denault should know. In describing some of the more exciting moments on The Book of Life shoot, Denault recalls getting a shot in the Queens Midtown Tunnel: "I was hanging out the window with the camera about a foot off the ground with everyone yelling that I was going to die," he laughs. He also notes that he was able to shoot without permits on the Staten Island Ferry for the scene at the end of the film, at La Guardia Airport, on the subway, and at Tower Records. "These scenes were the most fun–we could just walk in and shoot, and no one knew or cared what we were doing."

Although the cameras for the most part offer terrific advantages, several people commented on basic problems. Krupa notes that the Canon’s viewfinder is not accurate, while Denault notes that the Sony lens is less than great. "It’s really difficult to focus, and if you’re at all used to a professional camera, it takes a lot of getting used to." Brzeski says the Sony is not good for zooms. "It has an automatic zoom that you can’t override, and it lurches forward in a way that makes it almost unusable." Barrow, who shot The Pornographer on digital beta using the PAL system and the Sony DVW 700, says that he doesn’t like the design of the viewfinder. "There is no safety zone outside the frame," he says. "With a film camera you generally have between six and 15 percent more room at the top, bottom, and sides of the frame so you can see a problem coming and adjust for it before it’s too late."

That said, however, the cameras offer yet one more advantage. "I was just sitting in the editing room with my co-writer, Holiday Reinhard," says Brzeski, "when we realized we needed a shot. I unhooked the camera from the Avid, ran into the bathroom, got the shot, and came back, and now I’m editing it into the film." She concludes: "That ability to have that first raw image look so right is amazing to me. This camera has brought me closer to my own process as an artist." Miguel Arteta also comments on the effect of the new cameras: "When we started, several other directors were looking into digital filmmaking, and there was a real sense of discovery and a sharing of information. I think digital video has energized the American independent film community." He continues, "But for me, the best thing is that there will never be another year that I won’t make a movie."

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