Without a doubt, 1998 was a breakthrough year for digital filmmaking. Makers took notice as digital video (DV) projects such as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Bennett Miller’s documentary The Cruise secured theatrical releases from major distributors (October Films and Artisan Entertainment respectively). Miramax released Michael Moore’s The Big One, which included DV footage. Zeitgeist unveiled Ulrike Koch’s powerful DV documentary, The Saltmen of Tibet. Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s feature The Last Broadcast and Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston’s short Roadhead broke through via less mainstream outlets (both were showcased on the popular ResFest tour, and The Last Broadcast was released in arthouses by satellite delivery to digital projectors). Paul Wagner’s dramatic feature Windhorse, shot surreptitiously in Tibet with a palm-sized DV camera, screened at the Florida, Toronto and Hawaii film festivals in 1998.
These works are no longer an anomaly. The level of interest in DV among filmmakers of all stripes is picking up speed, as was clearly evident during a panel on the subject during last fall’s Independent Feature Film Market in New York. About one third of the audience raised its hand when asked how many had used digital video. And this audience had very specific and detailed questions — about aspect ratios, in-camera effects, the pros and cons of various manufacturers’ cameras, and post requirements. Clearly, many were already knee-deep into it. If 1998 seemed a boom year for DV, it’s safe to say we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Two of the people in that room fielding questions were panelist Todd Verow, an underground filmmaker who has made three digital features in less than 18 months, and editor Steve Hamilton, a longtime collaborator with Hal Hartley. For his most recent project, the hour-long The Book of Life, Hartley opted to shoot on digital video. Both Verow and Hamilton offered no-nonsense explanations of the digital filmmaking process at IFFM and subsequently agreed to talk with The Independent about their experiences.
Hal Hartley caught the eye of the indie world following the debut of his feature film The Unbelieveable Truth in 1989, and he has influenced countless makers over the past decade with such acclaimed features as Trust, Simple Men, Flirt, and Henry Fool. A true member of the vanguard within the nineties alternative film scene, he is now poised to have an impact on a new generation of filmmakers with The Book of Life, a stylized take on the year 2000 and the end of the world. The Book of Life came about after an invitation from French television channel La Sept/Arte. Hartley was the American selected to participate in their series on the upcoming Millennium, dubbed "2000 Seen by . . ." Filmmakers from various countries were asked to create something set on the last day of the Millennium — New Year’s Eve 2000. Since Hartley had already been working on a play about Christian Millennialists, the coincidence was perfect. Hartley was presented with a modest budget and, given what he wanted to do, decided the only way to go was with digital video. (It took some persuading to convince ArtŽ, which preferred film.)
"Aesthetics and economics have a lot to do with each other, and I see no need for that to be a drag," Hartley explained in an interview accompanying press materials for The Book of Life. "It is hard to make work that is not comfortable within the realms of acceptable behavior unless you make it for almost no money. Okay, I’m not going to roll over and die. I’m going to figure out how to make work that interests me — in a way that interests me — for small amounts of cash. I actually experiment. Trying to find what it is this new medium does well and how those things that it does well cause me to change my habits of working."
Longtime Hartley actor Martin Donovan and acclaimed rocker P.J. Harvey star as Jesus and Magdalena in a rough interpretation of the Book of Revelation set on the eve of the turn of the century in New York City. After Jesus and Magdalena arrive in the city, they encounter the Devil himself and Jesus struggles with his own prophesied responsibilities as the end of the world approaches. Employing a driving electronic soundtrack that is peppered with music by P.J. Harvey, David Byrne, and Yo La Tengo, Hartley tweaked the shutter speed on his Sony DVX-1000 to create boldly colorful streaking images that provide dreamlike shots and underscore the project’s would-be prophetic subject matter. As New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote, "Shot on digital video, blown up to 35mm film, pastel-hued and filled with feathery digital afterimages, the movie has a floating, ethereal look that oddly matches its lofty subject."
One stylistic trait that DV enables is a wider variety of color temperatures within a shot. "In most films there’s a tremendous amount of energy spent on creating lighting continuity," says Hamilton, "with gels and florescents used to carefully control the color temperatures. "Here [in The Book of Life], the tendency is to let color temps do what they do. There might be three different temperatures from different light sources in a single room."
That’s a difficult feat on film, because the effect can’t be seen until dailies are processed. While some film directors take the risk (like the ever-adventurous Wong Kar-Wai), "color continuity is the safe way to go," says Hamilton. But DV provides a safety net. "You can monitor it in real time; you can see it. In film, you’re never quite sure how it’s going to match up. DV allows you more freedom; you can be more experimental, because you can see if you’re fucking up."
In addition to such stylistic flourishes, DV also enabled Hartley to adopt a shooting style that he had long been dreaming about, one that enabled him to pare down his crew to a bare minimum. On his 35mm features, Hartley used "easily 30 to 40 people," according to Hamilton. WithThe Book of Life, there were only seven or eight, sometimes less, and no lock-ups on location. "Hal and I had spoken about it for years," says Hamilton, and they eyed the work of director Jon Jost as a model. "We’ve always really strived for self-dependence and empowerment," he says. A small crew "allows you to be more flexible, with a longer rehearsal period. It lends itself to a more cohesive and focused art."
DV’s low cost, compact size, and the flexibility and mobility this allows are also factors that led Todd Verow to enthusiastically embrace digital video. Cinematographer on Jon Moritsugu’s Terminal USA and Mod Fuck Explosion, Verow debuted as a feature director with Frisk, which he shot on film and which screened in Sundance, Berlin, and Toronto. Verow and producing/writing partner Jim Dwyer launched their Boston-based Bangor Films in 1997 with their first video feature, Little Shots of Happiness. Shot on Hi-8 and bumped to 16mm for a screening in the Forum section at the Berlin Film Festival, Little Shots was the first in Verow’s Addiction Trilogy. Part two is Shucking the Curve, which previewed at the New York Underground Film Festival, and part three, The Truth about Perpetual Deja Vu, wrapped late last summer in Cape Cod. Also recently wrapped is the ’80s teen feature, A Sudden Loss of Gravity, set in Verow’s hometowns of Bangor and Brewer, Maine. He has a number of other digital projects up his sleeve (he hopes to finish 10 by the year 2000).
"I started out with the idea of shooting a feature project in video as a way of working with the actors more intimately," Verow explains. By working without a crew, "[I was] able to do a lot of improvisation and work in real locations." Verow’s crew is even smaller than Hartley’s; he is usually on set with just Jim Dwyer and editor Jared Dubrino.
Striving for fictional narratives that "feel real," Verow uses video to "document" the actors’ characters. "Video speaks to us in the image and style of the evening news and the soap opera," he explains in "A Statement on Digital Video and Indie-Wood," published on his comprehensive website [www.bangorfilms.com]. "As Americans raised in a totally televised, up-to-the minute, live global history, video is the synthesis of reality. When we see video, we see Ôtruth’ in a way that film once conveyed as newsreels."
What’s more, "Because it’s just me and the actors," Verow tells The Independent, "[bystanders] don’t think we’re making a movie, so they don’t look at the camera; they just think I am a tourist. That is a really great advantage with shooting on video."
Generally shooting in sequence, Verow often uses only available light and handheld camera. Without the crew and time-outs for lighting, "It is easier to get more intimate with the characters and to feel like you’re really there with them," he says. "The camera becomes sort of another character because of the way I shoot it." These shifts are a major departure for Verow, who previously handled lighting duties on Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up. Like Hartley, Verow clearly experiments with color temps — sometimes to indicate the altered states of his actors. By changing the frame rate and "pushing the gate," Verow manipulated the look and affected the lighting in Deja Vu.
For sound, Verow keeps it equally simple and pared down. He simply uses a shotgun mic attached to the top of his camera. While admitting that he has considered getting a sound person, Verow ultimately felt that it was "better for me to have the freedom to move around. A lot of the times when I am shooting, I don’t know where I am going to end up, because I am involved with the scene. So I decided it would be cumbersome to have a sound person there. [The sound] is not as good as it could be with someone booming, but that is a compromise I am willing to make to have the freedom.
"I think it’s great that people are going to be able to make movies now that weren’t able to before," Verow states. "They can get a really cheap camera and edit it on their computer. They don’t have to rely on anyone else to do it."
Like most DV converts, Hamilton is optimistic when imagining the potential for work shot digitally. "I just wouldn’t be surprised if film began to propagate in the ways that techno music has," he says. "I would hope that what it does is inspire people to not be so theatrical feature release focused. If the proper distribution channels support this, then we’ve got a new revolution in independent filmmaking." (On that note, Hamilton thinks the The Book of Life screens best on a 25" monitor. Although he’s happy with the 35mm blow-up shown at the New York Film Festival, "it was designed to be seen on TV. I think the best screening was the one for the actors, when everyone was crammed into my studio watching it on monitors.") Hamilton suggests that filmmakers try to see DV as a new medium, with its own properties. "Hal was trying to explore that new medium; this mini-DV medium has a different texture to it, so a different sensibility is in order."
Verow concurs. "You just have to think of it as a different medium. You can’t mix your oils and acrylics, because it is going to fall apart." He, too, cautions, "A lot of people just see it as a cheap, easy way to get their movie done, but really they want their project to be in film. They talk about things like doing a Ôfilm look’ in the computer. But if you really want your film to be on film, you are never going to be satisfied [with DV], so just wait and try to get enough money to make it on film." Perhaps best summing up the way in which digital production has inspired some makers, Hamilton says. "[It is] enabling me to reconnect with the avant garde or the alternative — having always eschewed the term Ôindependent.’ To me, it’s a road back into what feels new and exciting and revolutionary."
While producing The Book of Life, producer Matt Myers created a production diary subtitled How to Make a Digital Video Feature. Intended as an internal document to help them keep the process straight, the diary can serve as a convenient user’s guide for others embarking on this new set of procedures.
Shooting on location in New York City with a Sony DVX-1000 handycam, Hartley maintained a small seven-person crew: Jim Denault (DP), Clayton Allis (gaffer), Jeff Pullman (sound), Rich Greenberg (1st AD), Pete Thorell (Key PA), Monica Willis (costumes), and Judy Chin (makeup/hair).
Hartley and Denault utilized a Sachtler fluid-head tripod and a $100 Cokin camera filter package along with no more grip and electrical equipment than would fit into a single canvas pushcart. Sound was recorded on DAT, and Pullman employed a Denecke time-code generator plugged directly into the camera.
Dailies were created by transferring the 30 minute Sony Mini-DV cam cassettes to both D1 and 3/4" tapes. The offline edit was done on an Avid Media Composer after time-code issues were addressed. The online involved both an auto-conform assembly edit at DuArt with the Edit Box system and color correction with a DaVinci board at the digital tape-to-tape phase. This is a more cost effective option than color correction during the transfer to film or at the answer print phase.
Sound was edited and mixed from the DAT masters. The optical negative was shot with DATs running at video speed to accommodate the transfer to film at the Sony High Def Center in Los Angeles. The nine-day Sony process began with the up-conversion to High Definition, followed by a conversion from 30 fps to 24 fps for film. According to the production diary, by using a proprietary algorithm, Sony’s system accomplishes this "by mixing and throwing away fields over a series of frames" as opposed to the traditional method of simply removing 20% of the frames for the shift to film. This results in a noticable difference in picture quality. (Bennett Miller used the Sony process for coverting The Cruise to film.)
Since the Sony DVX-1000 camera does not have a switch for the 16:9 aspect ration, cinematographer Jim Denault made a frame for the viewfinder to compose shots appropriately, although this still resulted in losing significant vertical resolution in the tape-to-film transfer.
According to The Book of Life diary, the initial transfer to high definition video at Sony cost $500/hour, while the tape-to-film transfer was about $6 per foot (nearly $35,000 for a 63 minute movie like The Book of Life). A one-light color print made at a lab in L.A. cost $6,292. Total price for the digital video-to-film transfer: $40,612.