Somewhere in indie land, young filmmakers dream of making an intimate film with the stripped-down, “pure” technology of 16mm or, as iconoclasts, slipping by a genre feature like The Blair Witch Project on Hi-8. Not so for the makers of LAST MOUNTAIN ( [ www.lastmountain.com ] ) , which shot in the Southland city streets and mountains.
“We’re making an epic, wide-screen spectacle on a budget that James Cameron would use for his weekly craft service â€“ and it’s all because of HD (high definition) technology.”
This is the boast of LAST MOUNTAIN’s director-writer Robert Fleet, whose last feature was a Hi-8 affair, and whose feature before that was a multi-million dollar international picture. “The intimacy and opportunities for artistic integrity on a limited budget feature make the independent route attractive,” says Fleet. “But what’s always stood in the way are the supplemental expenses of film (raw stock, processing, printing, etc.), expenses that make it almost imperative for low-budget filmmakers to adopt a rough-and-ready approach to their work that often limits the scale of imagination, and definitely forces you to ‘rush’ the acting process. With the Sony HDCAM high definition camcorder, we’re shooting for a wide-screen format, on a comfortable 12-to-1 ratio, using minimal crew and equipment, yet achieving A-picture photo quality and acting levels â€“ at a fraction of the upfront film cost.”
“Quality” was the characteristic of the HDCAM system that first attracted the Last Mountain production to this new medium. Last winter producer Alina Szpak, Fleet’s partner, began looking favorably at HD demos showcased by Sony Pictures at its High-Definition Center in Culver City. When Steve Kim approached Szpak & Fleet with the funding for LAST MOUNTAIN, an adaptation of Fleet’s published novel, Kim quickly became a convert. “I was worried about the scale of Last Mountain and the limited funds I could employ to assure that Robert would be able to fulfill his artistic vision on the screen â€“ then I saw what HD can do, especially under the eye of (D.P.) Martins (Punans). I stopped worrying.” Unintentionally, the Last Mountain filmmakers have become HD pioneers for the world of independent filmmakers.
Big-budget operators like George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise can afford to develop from scratch the supplementary equipment and technology needed to support HD movie-making. (The industry-standard Avid editing system, for example, isn’t powerful enough to handle the digitally-rich HD images.) This wasn’t a viable option for the Last Mountain production. Explains Fleet: “‘Do it in post (production)’ is a great mantra if you’ve got the money to spend â€“ we don’t â€“ so we’re making decisions in the field about filters, lighting, scale, color, et cetera.” Director of Photography Martins Punans, direct from a feature-length documentary shoot in Japan, discovered that the industry equipment houses don’t have matte boxes for the HD camera â€“ that some of the most respected houses simply had bought a camera and didn’t know what it could do. Despite the Sony demos demonstrating how independents were using HDCAM for cost-effective filmmaking, apparently no one was shooting full-fledged features solely on that medium â€“ so far.
Last Mountain will probably change that. This fantasy-adventure roams from the streets of East Los Angeles into the shadows of the surrounding foothills and the majesty of the nearby mountains hovering behind the sprawling city. It is at once an epic visual story â€“ featuring horses, low riders, freeways and wilderness â€“ and an intimate, character-oriented piece of work. “Quite simply,” says Fleet, “on our limited budget we couldn’t have shot Last Mountain without the Sony HDCAM. We could have shot the spectacle elements on Panavision, but we would have had to tighten the film ratio and push the acting into the ‘OK, it’s passable” range. But we were free to work for quality performances as well, thanks to the artistic and budgetary freedom the HDCAM medium gave us. HD means that all that separates a good picture from a bad one is talent, not money.”