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Adapting For Digital

Adapting For Digital

Articles - Digital

Director Ryan Harper

30 Miles director Ryan Harper

While there are still staunch advocates on both sides of the film vs. digital debate who refuse to see much common ground, few moviemakers are promoting the benefits of both mediums as effectively as director Ryan Harper and producer Josh Jaggars. Their latest film, 30 Miles, is the first HD feature to make use of the P+S Technik 35mm adapter. Don’t mistake this move for “film-envy” however. A 35mm blow-up doesn’t even exist. The two moviemakers have been screening the film digitally at festivals and events across the country, helping to show audiences what the future holds for their viewing pleasure.

Harper and Jaggars spoke with MM about their decision to go digital, how they chose the Sony HDW-F900 camera, and how two motion picture mediums can wholly complement one another.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Had you always intended to shoot the film digitally, or did you consider shooting it on film at any point?

Ryan Harper (RH): We’ve always been concerned with image quality, so of course film was our first choice for 30 Miles. Obviously the budget becomes an issue at some point, and we had to reconsider. Initially, we conceived of doing the project very quickly, over one weekend. We were going to mount two lipstick video cameras in the car and one Mini DV camera to the hood, and literally shoot the thing several times in long uninterrupted takes (a la Mike Figgis with Timecode). We were then going to cut together the best elements later. After a while, we decided to make a more professional movie, and that nixed the lipstick camera and Mini DV idea.

Josh Jaggars (JJ): As the script began to take shape, the intimate nature of the story became much more apparent. Once we knew that we wanted to see this up on the big screen, we wanted a better medium to capture the story. With budget considerations still in mind, this led us to investigating 24p HD.

MM: Which camera did you ultimately decide on, and why?

JJ: Our DP, Amit Bhattacharya, who is amazing, was very insistent on using the Sony HDW-F900, and shooting in 24p. The Mini DV idea was thrown out because we didn’t want it to look like a home movie—and it seemed a waste to shoot in HD at 30fps.

We didn’t want it to look like video—that may have distracted the audience from the story. A lot of the story is left up to the viewer’s imagination, just based on what the characters are talking about, so we wanted imagery that was as clean, beautiful and inoffensive as possible. We were very happy with this decision.

MM: Besides image quality, what were some of your major considerations in picking the Sony HDW-F900?

JJ: It really came down to the budget—but not in terms of production, mostly in the post-production process. The camera itself is not necessarily cheap, and neither is the Pro-35mm Adapter. Ironically, the higher rental cost of the adapter is offset by the inexpensive costs of renting film lenses. Film prime lenses are more abundant than DigiPrimes, which cost a bit more. So, you can actually come out a bit ahead depending on how many lenses you need!

The main cost savings for us came in the post-production process, by not having to develop and print film (let alone the raw stock costs), and not needing a 35mm screening print with soundtrack. We have screened the film in five festivals, and the HDCam edited master is beautiful! Downconverts are much cheaper than developing, printing, telecine, answer printing, release printing, etc.

Josh Jaggars

30 Miles producer Josh Jaggars (here on the set of The Matrix Revolutions)

MM: Certainly the tight confines and character-driven nature of the story must have called for something very specific?

JJ: Shooting in a vehicle for most of the movie, we sure could have used a smaller camera package! But a great deal of the movie is cheated on stage, so we were able to get exactly what we needed.

MM: Had either of you worked with HD before? It’s definitely becoming a more popular choice, but it still seems like there’s a lot to learn about making it work—financially, aesthetically, etc.—on a feature film set. What were some of the biggest lessons you each learned shooting this way?

JJ: This was the first HD project for both of us. We have since produced two shorts, also in HD, and are still learning more about the medium. Aesthetically, the two biggest problems are usually the lack of depth of field and the lack of detail in highlights. We overcame the depth of field issue on 30 Miles by using the Pro-35mm Adapter, which allows 35mm prime film lenses to be used on an HD camera; no DigiPrimes are needed. This creates the exact look and feel of 35mm film.

With two characters in a moving vehicle, we shot many over-the-shoulder style two-shots where one character was always out of focus, and it looked great. We overcame the depth of field issue in the first short, Descent (about a woman trapped in an elevator with a killer, shot by Christopher Probst, who won an ICG award and screened it in Cannes at the Kodak Pavilion two months ago, courtesy of a 35mm filmout by

Laser Pacific), by designing an elevator set with removable walls, so we could have the camera as far away as possible and use 100mm or 150mm DigiPrimes (which still only give you about half the 35mm depth of field).

The highlights are still an issue; the headlights in 30 Miles and bright sun reflections off the chrome bumpers still lack any detail, but apparently the new Series-3 Sony F900 cameras have better controls for this.

RH: With a dialogue-intensive script, I knew that I needed to get amazing performances out of the actors; the performances were going to be the glue that held it all together—and they nailed it. Being able to shoot in HD, we just kept the camera running and tried several different line readings until we got each one just right. As a first-time feature director, being able to shoot as much footage as I wanted was an invaluable element in creating a great film. We only had an eight-day shooting schedule, so every moment that we could be rolling camera counted.

MM: As a producer, Josh, what were the selling points and drawbacks of selling a film shot on HD? Do you think the freshness of the technology helps get people interested?

JJ: Certain companies like HDNet are very interested and supportive of most HD projects. They are looking to fill a large programming window, and are quite approachable and reasonable. It’s surprising how many people ultimately don’t seem to care, especially when you’re talking about video/DVD or television distribution. The originating medium is less important to most people than a good story. I think being the first feature to use the Pro35mm adapter has captured the attention of several people.

It’s possible to make a professional-looking movie on HD without being George Lucas or Robert Rodriguez. Obviously, in order to get a 35mm film print, there will be some costs; but in the meantime, we’ve been able to screen digitally everywhere we’ve wanted!

MM: As a director, Ryan, what would be the best advice you’d give to other moviemakers looking to utilize the medium? How would you suggest they best prepare for an HD shoot?

RH: I wouldn’t treat shooting on HD any different than shooting on film. Rehearsing with the actors is extremely important; lighting is similar to shooting on 35mm, and what I find most important is finding a DP who shoots on film whose very familiar with the HD aesthetic. People are saying you can shoot a lot more takes with HD, but the truth is most actors don’t want to shoot nine or 10 takes. So, for me, shooting four and five takes helped me get my 10 pages a day as opposed to simply more takes of the same scenes.

MM: Let’s talk a little more about the P+S Technik adapter. You guys were the first 24p HD production to use it. When and why did the decision to utilize this adapter happen? In what ways do you think it helped the film most?

RH: We decided to shoot HD, but were very concerned about depth of field. I’d seen the Mini35 adapter for the Canon XL-1 and called ZGC, the distributor in the U.S. for P+S Technik, to see if they had anything for an HD camera, and found they were working on a Pro35mm prototype with Clairmont Camera. I called Clairmont and convinced them to let us shoot 30 Miles using the adapter, in exchange for feedback. Visually, the film looks like 35mm because you have the shallow depth of field, which is especially helpful when you’re trying to do critical rack focuses.

MM: What has the reaction to the film been thus far? I know you’ve been screening the film in HD—how do you hope 30 Miles will lead the way for not only the shooting, but the exhibition of other HD projects?

RH: The reaction to both the content and the technology has been amazing. We’ve had very well known actors, filmmakers and critics see the film and their reactions contradict the notion that digital movies lack the quality of 35mm films. As we move forward and screen in more venues, we realize the bottleneck in HD cinema is at the theater level. From the panels and reading I’ve done, this will soon be cured by people like Mark Cuban—and I really look forward to it. There is nothing worse than watching your movie screened on a bad video projector!

For more information on 30 Miles, visit www.yourhalf.com.

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