By Film Threat Staff | July 1, 2003

James Mathers offers a “few words” about his documentary “Digital Cinema Solutions,” coming to DVD August 1st –
I’ve been around this business for more years than I sometimes like to admit. A lot has changed in our industry and in the world over those years, but the motion picture camera is pretty much the same as the kind I grew up with. Sure, we now have zoom lenses and Steadicam, and there have been great refinements in motion picture film stocks, but for better or worse the photochemical process has remained relatively unchanged. Now, quite suddenly it seems, we are deluged with a flood of new digital tools and techniques that are available to help us tell our stories. With top Filmmakers and major studios, as well as many up and coming independents venturing to use these for cinematic image acquisition, there has been a tremendous interest generated in this area. In an effort to keep up with it all, many of us eager to stay on the cutting edge of technology have been looking for all the information we can absorb; and I would venture to say that is the reason you are now reading this magazine.

This thirst for information led me to propose a documentary to try to objectively explore the whole world of production and post. I wanted to cut through all the hype and sales pitches to cull the information we all need to make informed decisions about shooting digital. In order to get the straight answers, I decided to interview fellow filmmakers who had actually been through this process for both feature and television production: Producers, Directors, Production Managers, Cinematographers, and Editors. I also wanted to speak to representatives of labs and rental houses but with particular care not to favor any one brand or format over another.

After hearing my plan, various industry service companies including Sunset Digital, Birns & Sawyer, Location Sound, and Crest National agreed to support the project. Digital Cinema magazine also came on board offering guidance and help with access to interviewees who had previously been featured in the magazine.

Since I was going to be exploring digital and HD production, it only made sense to also shoot with it, so I decided to use the Panasonic 27V HD camera. It’s been over a year since I first set out to shoot, and it took a lot of wrangling with schedules and legal paperwork for releases, but I did finally manage to shoot or gain access to interviews with not only the most influential Filmmakers like George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez and Steven Soderbergh, but also my less famous, but digitally savvy colleagues from the world of independent film and TV, where digital production seems to be making the fastest inroads. Following is just a sample of what they had to say.

Some were exuberant about Digital; Rodriguez said, “Everyone loves it. It’s revolutionary. It really changes the creative process.” And speaking of his experience on “Attack of the Clones” Lucas added, “We had no problems whatsoever…and the film looks absolutely gorgeous.” James Cameron, regarding his test prior to shooting the first feature length 3D Imax underwater project, commented, “We’ve looked at the results on tape, projected through HD projection, and filmed out to 35 mm film and projected, and filmed out to 1570, ‘Imax’ format 3D and projected. And, I’m completely satisfied with the results.”

Allen Daviau, ASC, DP on such classics as “E.T.” and “Bugsy” was a little more cautious. “Stay calm, it’s coming; it’s a new tool. It’s great that we have this tool. It’s good for some things right now, and it’s not good for others.” As a DP, I always feel it’s the Cinematographer’s job to act as guardian of the visual image and in my own interview, representing the independent portion of the cinematography spectrum, I wanted to remind everyone that “Digital is not a replacement for film, but rather just another tool that can be selected for the right job.”

In terms of the aesthetics of shooting digital. James Cameron feels “Getting HD to exactly duplicate a film look is in a sense, almost counterproductive because it produces it’s own aesthetic. And, I think it’s possible for one to embrace that aesthetic and say, ‘no, this is a good thing.'” Producer/Director Sean Cunningham relates, “In my experience right now, what’s going on, is that people are starting to get used to this different look.”

Regarding his technique of shooting a movie within a movie for “Full Frontal,” Steven Soderbergh pointed out, “that it gave me the opportunity to contrast the DV footage with 35mm film footage. Because, part of what the movie’s about is questioning why a certain style of shooting and a certain aesthetic is more real to you than another style, when it’s all fake.” Walt Shires, of DigitalFilm Tree theorizes, “that we as a viewing audience have been trained to suspend disbelief when we see film because we’ve sort of learned this grammar, learned this language. When we see video, we believe that to be real life.”

Regardless of the atheistic differences and the different ways to take advantage of them, I related that in my experience, “On most digital productions it seems the objective is still to create a ‘film’ look, and the best way to achieve it is to use film production techniques and good lighting.”

Dale Launer, writer of such classics as “My Cousin Vinny,” “Ruthless People,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” offered us a case study of his latest production, “Tom’s Nu Heaven.” He described the thinking that led up to his decision to go out and purchase his own Sony F-900 HD camera, to not only write, but also produce and direct his own film outside the studio system. “I did some research into it and looked at what was available in video cameras and there was this new process coming out they called 24P, which shoots at the same frame rate as film and it was a high definition format. So, it looks, although not as good as film, very close. Close enough to make movies and tell stories and have pretty images.”

I think the majority of the interviewees would agree that the most important thing is to tell your story. Sean Cunningham put it this way, “We used to tell a story and record the images on film. Now we’re telling a story and recording the images digitally. So, we still have to tell a story in front of a camera. None of that changes. And, none of the support stuff around that changes. It all has to be there to be done well.”

In terms of cost comparisons and how they effect the Filmmaker, Bill Meurer, President of Birns & Sawyer explained, “For someone who’s an emerging filmmaker and preparing a feature film that they want to get aired at a film festival, and then hopefully sell and distribute theatrically, it might be more appropriate for them to originate in High Definition, finish on tape and then, when they get additional funding from the distributor, to go to a film out.”

We also tried to cover some practical matters including selecting equipment, sound concerns, and post production. On choosing a format, Scott Billups, Visual Effects Supervisor and author of the book Digital Moviemaking feels, “All the digital formats are good, from MiniDV on up. They all have their purposes and reasons and good points and bad points and you just have to choose and pick based on what you are going do in post.”

Regarding sound, David Missall, Service Manager of Location Sound, points out that “It seems that the manufacturers are finally paying attention to the audio side of the cameras and we’re getting really good quality. One of the benefits of going to audio on the camera is that now you are saving a little bit of time and money by having audio already connected to your picture.” David Panfili, Location Sound CEO cautions, “It’s a separation of the mixer from the recorder and that creates a couple problems for us. One is the monitoring capability and also the inability to check the recording as frequently as one would like.” Both Location Sound experts agreed that they would still run a back up DAT, as David Missall explains, “Just to make sure that if there’s any problems going to the camera, you have it on the DAT. People are still running their standard time code slate in front of the camera, just like you always do and it keeps everything in sync and it keeps everybody happy.”

Ramy Katrib, our post production expert from DigitalFilm Tree, told us that “Digital has really opened up the post production area. You can now have many many choices of editing on digital. You can start with a laptop computer or you can use traditional editing. Whether you shoot film or digital you can still take advantage of all these new solutions for post production.”

Allen Daviau also spoke of the archival value of shooting on film, “If it was my money, and I don’t care whether the picture cost a hundred thousand or a hundred million, I’d like to have a negative at the end. Because, down the line a negative will give you such a beautiful result when you go back to it. The telecine has developed to the point where now it’s just giving you more and more information that was in that negative or inner positive and it’s so stunning to see that I think if you have an original film element and it’s a good, well exposed negative and it’s properly kept, you can come back every five years and make another transfer and you’ll see more. You’ll see more quality, more dimension to your image, it’s a terrific thing.”

In the end, good movies aren’t about what kind of cameras are used or the medium they are viewed on, but the quality of the story, the acting, and the Filmmaker’s technique. Great Filmmakers will continue to make great movies regardless of the tools they use to tell their stories. Brian McKernan, who is the Associate Publisher and Editor of this magazine, Digital Cinema, (and was also kind enough to offer his services as Narrator of the documentary), summed it up this way, “In the hands of a creative person, the tools exist for storytelling. So, really now, if your passion is to make a motion picture, there’s really nothing stopping you. There’s no excuse not to go out and tell a story. This technology is only going to get better. So, it’s really a wonderful new chapter in the brilliant century long history of filmmaking.”

These are only some highlights from the many insightful interviews, case studies, visual comparisons, and stories from behind the scenes. If you would like to get a copy of the DVD, they are being offered free of charge via our website. There is a nominal fee for shipping and handling, with students, educators, or others who might be financially challenged exempted; but only a limited number will be produced.
For more information, visit the Digital Cinema Solutions website.

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