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By Ron Wells | January 17, 2001

The introduction in the 1990s of low-cost digital cameras and post-production tools to edit features for professional exhibition was heralded as the greatest development for filmmakers since the arrival of sound and color. By the dawn of the 21st century the technology was expected to have consumed the indie film world. What happened? Now that 2001 is actually here, we can see what filmmakers have been able to do with this equipment, what new methods have developed, and what impact has been made. Looking back on the results of the last few years, we can answer the following questions:
Does the ease of digital tools promote sloppy filmmaking? ^ One myth popular among old-tech traditionalists is that filmmakers, free from the stress of a large production budget and crew, just don’t put the same of effort into their movies or do the needed amount of pre-production work. Producer Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films, involved with three features at Sundance this year, doesn’t find that necessarily to be true. “It seems easy to just take a camera and go out and shoot a movie, but rarely does that approach amount to anything,” he said. ^ One feature in this year’s dramatic competition is Henry Barrial’s “Some Body”. Broderick describes, “with ‘Some Body’, they started with an idea of what they wanted to explore, and then over a two year period they were able to workshop it, try different things, they cut characters that weren’t working. The movie evolved in a remarkable way.” Director Barrial and his team had bought their own cameras and shot their film over a period of two years. After brief periods of shooting, they could turn to their digital editing tools to review their work more in the way a novelist or musician would. Barrial stated, ” We made decisions where the story would go from there.” ^ Broderick describes the situation as, “It’s just not a situation where you’re on the clock for the equipment rental. It changes the process to something where there’s a period of initial photography and editing and then some more writing and then some more photography. The tools are actually changing the way movies are being made.” Barrial, who had worked on film previously also added, “Because it was cheap doesn’t mean we didn’t bust our a*s to do it.” ^ Broderick did indicate one pitfall. “People shoot so much footage that they get overwhelmed when they get to post-production. Most films shoot at unused to used film ratios of 4 or 5 to 1, and it’s possible to shoot a digital feature at 100 to 1, and then you have to deal with it.”
What was the first digitally-shot feature that really paved the way for others? ^ In talking to different filmmakers, if one feature in particular came up the most, it was Thomas Vinterberg’s, “The Celebration”. Peter Broderick agrees, “‘The Celebration’ has had tremendous influence. I think of it as ‘The Birth of a Nation’ of digital movies, in the sense of its influence on other filmmakers.” ^ “The Celebration” was the first film to comply with the rules of “Dogme 95”, a manifesto made five years ago by a group of four Danish directors (including Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier) after a night of drinking in an effort to strip all the artifice out of their work. Digital cameras were used for all four films produced under the Dogme 95 banner (“The Idiots”, “Mifune”, “The King is Alive”), not as a requirement, but as the natural choice for their goals.
This choice was not lost on filmmakers like Henry Barrial. “We saw ‘The Celebration’ in the midst of shooting,” he remembers, “and that was inspiration to us. It was a great film, regardless of what format it was shot on. You forget that it was shot on digital within 5-10 minutes. I realized maybe you can’t make it look like film, but if you present a strong enough story, you bring new elements to it that digital video allows you to have.”
Who today is actually using digital filmmaking tools? ^ As expected, many novice filmmakers, conscious of cost have gone digital. Documentary filmmakers, limited in distribution possibilities, have gone the same route. What was not expected are the number of established directors that have turned to the technology for recent projects. In the past year major shorts or features have come from filmmakers as diverse as Spike Lee (“Bamboozled”), David Cronenberg (“Camera”), James Toback (“Black and White”), Mike Figgis (“Timecode”), and Arturo Ripstein (“Such Is Life”). At the other end of the multiplex will be George Lucas, who is currently shooting “Star Wars: Episode II” entirely with new high-end Sony digital cameras.
What are the pitfalls for filmmakers new to digital cameras? ^ In many ways, selecting a particular brand and model of camera is like selecting a specific film stock. The filmmaker needs to know what the results will appear like at the final stage, to fully understand how to use it during shooting. This is most true if the digital video will later be transferred to film. Peter Broderick offers, “It’s very important for people to do tests before they go into production. Shoot some footage and then go to some labs and have it transferred to film so they know what it’s going to look like at the end.”
How many of the narrative and documentary features at Sundance this year are digital? ^ At first glance, the new tech hardly appears to dominate the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Only 3 of 15 Dramatic features, 4 of 16 from the American Spectrum series, and a measly 2 of 17 Premieres were digitally shot. It’s a different story in non-fiction as 14 of the 16 Documentary features are digital.
Don’t all digitally shot films look the same? Is there a “digital æsthetic”? ^ While many of the notable digital features to date have a similar look, many others look very different as filmmakers gain experience and knowledge of the tools. The first pair of the Dogme 95 films, “The Celebration” and “The Idiots”, don’t really look like either of the last two, “Mifune” and “The King is Alive”. There can be a lot of variance as well among the range of cameras, as a one-chip camera will not produce anything like the ulta-high end Sony models employed by George Lucas in the production of “Star Wars: Episode II”. ^ David Cronenberg screened his first digital short film, “Camera” at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival. It’s about a group of kids who find an old, discarded Panavision camera and decide to shoot their own movie. The director shot the entire piece digital except the final shot, which used the Panavision camera. Peter Broderick remembers, “Cronenberg thought that the difference in visual quality would be so obvious. Nobody could tell the difference. He later tried adding music to that last shot and it still didn’t help.” ^ The real turning point for the technology will be when an audience can no longer tell the difference. In the theater, if anyone actually spends time wondering what kind of camera the filmmakers used, they’ve probably made a bad film. Director Henry Barrial agrees, “People just want to go to the movies and be entertained.”
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