Fast Forward Revolution

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Wed, 01/09/2002 - 02:03
Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project showed that you can shoot a blockbuster on an old video camera. And it can be done again.

Independent filmmakers are discovering that you don't need to be a lottery winner or even win lottery funding to get that film onto celluloid. Advances in technology mean that you can now shoot a feature film on a consumer mini-DV camera, edit it on a PC or Mac G3 and, for the price of a new car, transfer the final edit to 35mm film.

"It used to be everybody is writing a script in LA, now it is everybody is shooting a digital feature," says Peter Broderick, president of Californian-based production company, Next Wave Films, who provide up to $100,000 in additional funding for select micro-budget features.

Broderick sees new technology ushering in an era where filmmakers are only answerable to themselves and their vision, rather than financiers, for their films. "If filmmaking's your passion and you want to spend your life making movies, not making deals, not chasing money, not endlessly networking and trying to set it up," says Broderick. "With DV you can actually do that."

Not surprisingly, Broderick's "ultra low budget" filmmaking formula has found an eager audience on the international festival circuit among those looking to make original or debut features.

DV filmmaking offers savings over conventional 35mm filmmaking at virtually every stage of the filmmaking process. You can now buy consumer MiniDV cameras for well under £1000, although "prosumer", MiniDV cameras like the Sony VX1000 (average street price £2,400) or the forthcoming Cannon XM1 (anticipated average street price of £1,800), offer noticeably better picture quality and can take inputs for high-quality sound. The latter cameras use three CCDs or chips for processing colour and light. As light enters the camera lens it is split into its red, green and blue constituents and then each beam processed separately.

With low-end mini-DVs one chip does all the work. The quality may not be quite as sharp, but the palm-sized one-chip cameras are favourites with fly-on-the-wall directors because they are so portable and unobtrusive - they can be whipped in and out of a coat pocket in seconds - and they still work well in low light conditions.

Another advantage of the Mini-DV format is tape is cheap. Mini-DV cassettes cost pounds per hour compared to the hundreds of pounds per hour for film stock and processing.

There are obvious benefits as far as actors are concerned. Where, in the past, budget constraints might mean an actor had as little as one or two takes to get a scene right, with video the filmmaker can let the camera roll and roll, he can rewind, replay a shot to check over footage, and record over old tape. And because mini-DV crews are smaller, and the director probably owns the camera, the crew is released from the tyranny of shooting schedules.

On the post-production side, entry-level computers are now powerful enough for editing and manipulating video. You can add credits and special effects, using a number of editing and effects software packages, like Adobe Premiere and Adobe After Effects. What's more the footage can be imported directly onto a computer's hard disc via FireWire in the native DV format. Since the video is uncompressed, it maintains its original quality until the final edit is output for internet use, video/DVD distribution, broadcast or for transfer to film.

There are still pay-offs in terms of image quality when the video is blown up to 35mm. "On video you are obviously compromising the colour depth," says Alex Bicknell, who as senior producer at Cinesite in London worked on post-production for the The World Is Not Enough. "If you are looking at a palette of colours you may be looking at five or six hundred different coloured greens making up an area, whereas you are looking at millions when you are looking at an organic response on film. That is not necessarily a problem, depending on the nature of the film."

As the runaway success of The Blair Witch Project has shown, a good story can go a long way. Shot on 16mm and often extremely jerky Hi-8 (a lower resolution format than Mini-DV), the $50,000 chiller is now scaring its way to box-office nirvana ($150m at the time of writing).

"Video gives you a harsh reality. I think the Blair Witch Project has benefited from having a lot of its footage shot on video," points out Bicknell.

Peter Broderick goes a step further. "'Will producers be worried about distributing my film if it's shot on video?': that question has gone away overnight."

Broderick's view has been emphatically backed-up by other recent cinematic successes, notably Wim Wenders video-to-film documentary feature, Buena Vista Social Club. Wenders used an array of different DV cameras to film this uplifting story about how guitarist Ry Cooder brought a group of Cuban musicians out of retirement to make an album which catapulted them into international stardom.

For the live concerts Wenders hired a top end, professional digital Betacam (for about £1000 a week) to ensure that he got the best image quality. But he also made extensive use of the Sony VX1000, a popular Mini-DV cam with many DV filmmakers, as well as a palm-sized, one-chip mini-DV (Sony DCR-PC1). The small size of the cameras and the fact that Wenders was able to shoot around a hundred times more footage than was finally used, undoubtedly helped him to get so close to his subjects. The film has earned rave critical reviews, and, at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August, it clinched the Standard Life Audience award.

The success of the Dogme 95 films, notably Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen" and Lars von Trier's "The Idiots", have also acted as a catalyst for DV filmmakers.

Dogme 95, arose back in 1995, as a reaction to what the two Danish film makers called "certain tendencies in the cinema today". Their semi-serious, dada-esque "vow of chastity", a set of ten commandments for filmmakers, advocated a guerrilla style of filmmaking where low-budget values reign supreme. Dogma filmmakers, it states, must only use handheld cameras, natural lighting, only props available on location, and no added music, although they also stipulated that the feature must be shown on film.

Adrian Wootton, director of the London Film Festival, believes that the fact that established directors like Lars Von Trier, who directed the commercially successful Breaking the Waves, embraced DV filmmaking provided an enormous impetus to what was previously perceived as an underground phenomenon.

"Lars Von Trier legitimised that style of filmmaking and a lot of other filmmakers have bought into that," says Wootton, adding that he believes the raw aesthetic of the "DIY" school of film-making is more readily accepted by younger audiences weaned on a diet of degraded VHS tapes and low resolution internet movies, rather than the older generations used to the lavishness of traditional cinema. Wootton points to Harmony "Gummo" Korine's decision to do a Dogmaphile video-to-film feature with his second feature, julien donkey-boy, as a sign that the trend is catching on.

Ultra low budget filmmaking may be all the rage, but some DV filmmakers are also trying to emulate the film aesthetic by shooting on top-end digital Betacam cameras. Exponents say that even at this level the cost savings can be huge. David Smith, cameraman for "Starry Night", a romantic comedy about Vincent Van Gogh coming back from the dead, estimates that the stock and processing alone for the same feature in 35mm would have cost thirty times more than the film's budget. The production was also made possible by the fact that Smith runs a digital post-production house, Digital Facitilies, in Edinburgh.

Although "Starry Night" belies its low-budget roots, the transfer is impressive. Particularly, as Smith admits, that since shooting the film a year and a half ago the technology has already been overtaken by new innovations. Smith's now looking forward to the introduction of the Sony HDCAM, expected in around six months (in time for the next Star Wars feature). A high definition digital camera, it will have 1080 lines of vertical resolution as opposed to 625 lines of current digital Betacam. "It will be a quantum leap to another level of quality."

As video continues to improve in quality, and an expanding broad band network opens the way for widespread, high quality video on demand, many filmmakers may see increasingly fewer reasons for shooting at all on celluloid. However, until digital projection in cinemas is the norm - something that is still a long way off - filmmakers will want to transfer their DV features to celluloid for theatrical release.

For many the issue remains how to get the best results on film using Mini-DV formats, that although always improving, offer less resolution, and latitude for error than film. UK DV filmmakers have a slight technical advantage over their US counterparts in that the UK video system, PAL, has 100 more lines of vertical resolution than the North American video system NTSC (625 vs 525). Also, PAL produces video at 25 frames a second which makes it more suitable for transfer to film, which is 24 frames a second. NTSC is 30 frames a second which means that six frames out of every second have to be removed in the transfer. Wim Wenders shot Buena Vista Social Club on PAL DV cameras for this reason.

Despite this advantage the same problems arise when blowing DV up on the big screen. Film can still be unforgiving on small misjudgements at the shooting stage, in exposure or fast-moving pans.

"We are working very close to the edge here all the time," explains Soren Kloch, whose Copenhagen-based company, Hokus Bogus, is one of the leading European companies specialising in transferring video to film. "That's why we actually spend a lot of our time with directors when they are planning these productions, so that they can hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls."

One of his latest projects has involved experimenting with Lars Von Trier ("a crazy, maniac director") on transferring Mini-DV to cinemascope, the extra wide-screen format. Isn't that a massive leap? "Yes, it looks horrible," Kloch chuckles. "But we think it is great fun."