The Digital Post-Production Democracy

Have you rushed out to see The Fast Runner,
billed as the first ever Inuit-language film and beautifully
shot on digital video? If you missed that, maybe you saw Matthew
Barney’s Cremaster 3, a three-hour plus 24p HD extravaganza,
which includes a demolition derby of classic vintage cars played
out in a life-sized reproduction of the interior lobby of the
Chrysler Building. Or maybe you saw The Château, Jesse
Peretz’s improvised Mini DV comedy about two bumbling American
brothers who inherit an 18th-century chateau in France. Almost
daily one hears of another digital project gaining theatrical
release. While the above three films could not be further apart
in terms of production values and philosophies, each one owes
its existence to the cost savings and creative empowerment provided
by the proliferation of digital video.

These projects represent an inspiring use of new
technologies in the service of truly visionary and independent
moviemaking.
But despite their relative success, accompanied by large quantities
of critical acclaim, these films remain obscure art house pieces,
known only to limited audiences. That, however, can be seen
as the beauty of this brave new world. Smaller, more marginal
movies are financially viable—and being made.

Although more can certainly be done with less
in terms of lighting, trucks and crew sizes in the digital world,
a video movie production can embody just as much support crew
and transportation needs as any film shoot. It’s what happens after shooting that has truly been “revolutionized” by
the DV revolution. Digital acquisition streamlines the pathway
into special FX and makes it easy to use low-cost digital editing
tools that can easily be purchased rather than rented. This
empowers low-budget moviemakers to spend more time editing their
projects and gives them access to special post FX that simply
could not have been realized in films with similar budgets.

As a result of this empowerment, not only are
more projects being started, but more projects are being finished.
“Labs are graveyards for shows whose funding and energy ran
out at the 95 percent point. Digital post is helping filmmakers
get over that hump,” says Bruno George, new projects director
at Alpha Cine Labs in Seattle, a lab that has specialized in
supporting independent moviemakers.

Mystelle Brabbee, artistic director of the Nantucket
Film Festival, has seen the outcome as well: “In the past two
years, films have been coming in from so many new demographics—teenagers,
for example. To see a film from the perspective of a 15-year-old,
or an auto mechanic who has dreamed of telling his story for
years, or an experimental film from a talented filmmaker liberated
by new digital tools—all these illustrate what digital technology
has added to the cinematic palette.”

Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, shot on 24p
HD, is one recent film that has benefited from the digital
revolution.

Last June, the Nantucket Film Festival invited
me to show The Aesthetics of Industrial Scale, a short
video that I shot on Mini DV and edited, narrated, on-lined
and mastered to DVD in my own studio—on my own digital editing
equipment—in a single day. In fact, the film was finished before
my wife even got out of bed on that Sunday morning, and never
before have I felt for an entire day that everything I did after
10 a.m. was absolute gravy. I mean, I had gotten up at
6 a.m. and single-handedly written, shot,  edited, narrated
and on-lined a four-minute documentary. This is digital empowerment
at its absolute, most crystalline best! And it illustrates that
the lines demarcating film projects (narrative, cinematic, expensive
and meant to be projected in theaters) and video projects (abstract,
experimental, and/or documentary and meant to be shown on television
or in galleries) are blurring. Videographers and would-be filmmakers
are embracing digital acquisition technologies in the service
of all forms of storytelling and experimentation. A project
shot on video has an increasing chance of being shown in venues
more traditionally reserved for the projection of good old-fashioned
celluloid.

But is film post-production dead? Has the revolutionary
wave of digital acquisition created the perfect media democracy
in which labs and post houses are being wiped out by the DV
camera-toting masses? According to Vince Forcier, VP and chief
technical officer at Roland House, a post-production facility
in Arlington, VA, the effects are mixed.

“Many clients are buying their own equipment and
foregoing the amenities in a traditional post facility to do
some of the work themselves,” he claims. But rather than meaning
the death of their business, he feels this trend is allowing
more and more post houses to distinguish themselves. “The right
talent (editors, FX artists, colorists) can offer more creative
solutions to clients. This adds value and sets a facility that
has a great talent pool apart from the rest.”

He goes on to emphasize that “much of the mid-level
work is now gone from the post business, but clients
still come to us for the very high-end creative work.” George
of Alpha Cine agrees that the film middle-class is still going
strong and will not be supplanted by digital for a good
15 years. “The middle isn’t supported,” he states, regarding
digital video.
“I don’t think we’ve reached a point with acquisition, post-production
or distribution to make a successful product, except on the
extremely low and high ends.”

Why hasn’t the digital revolution been able to
democratize everything? What’s keeping the throngs of digital
mediamakers at bay? The bottleneck is distribution. Every one
of the theatrical releases mentioned in the opening paragraph
eventually had to be reduced to a thin layer of emulsion on
a 35mm piece of acetate and have a super bright analog light
source passed through it in order to be seen in a theater. Says
George: “Digital projection is coming up… it is still just beyond
the horizon. The technical issues will be solved well before
the business issues are answered.” What does this mean for all
our digital hopefuls who want to make films for theatrical release?
“They need a film product at the end of the day,” George concludes.
So neither Alpha Cine nor many other film labs are going to
be wiped out any time soon.

LEFT TO RIGHT: The Fast
Runner
and The Château were transferred
to film before hitting the festival circuit, where they
both found theatrical distribution.

Digital acquisition, continues George, “is neither
better nor worse in my mind. It’s both different and evolutionary.
Alpha Cine couldn’t deny digital filmmaking. The question was
how best to embrace the trend.”
So while not as much film is being shot, nearly all film labs
are, like Alpha Cine, racing to provide the best quality tape-to-film
transfers, so films can screen on festival and/or theatrical
circuits.

A mistake many aspiring fiction moviemakers make
is thinking that simply finishing their films on tape is enough.
Tom Edmon, president of HeavyLight Digital, a post-production
facility in New York that is currently transferring six films
a month from video to film, says that “if a low-budget fiction
filmmaker wants to get distribution, they shouldn’t wait to
do their tape-to-film transfers. They should budget it from
the beginning, because their project will be taken more seriously
by festivals and distributors if it’s already on film.” He cites
Blaine Thurier’s Low Self-Esteem Girl, which won the
Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW after being projected
there on video, but has yet to find a theatrical distributor
to finance the final step to film. Conversely, each of the three
films mentioned in the first paragraph took their project all
the way to a film print before hitting the festival circuit,
where they eventually found distribution.

“The
[festival] invited me to screen a short that I’d
made in one morning— I got up at 6 a.m. and wrote,
edited, narrated, on-lined and mastered to DVD a documentary
in my own studio before 10 a.m.”

— Steve
Hamilton

If you’re a documentary moviemaker, this may not
be as imperative. And it’s “documentary filmmakers who have
seen the greatest benefits from the emergence of digital,” according
to Edmon. “Documentarians embraced video early on due to the
huge cost of film stock and processing.” But that doesn’t just
mean that more documentaries are being made. It means that more
are getting theatrical distribution as well.

Edmon believes that documentaries bypass some
of the distribution bottlenecks outlined above. “A low-budget
documentary is much easier to get distributed than a low-budget
feature because distributors can sell the story, whereas with
fiction films they’re selling who’s in it. If a fiction film
doesn’t have some kind of marketable star, it’s a really tough
sell.”

Indeed, some documentarians are foregoing traditional
distribution channels altogether. Witness the success of Trembling
Before G_d,
whose producers have been four-walling cinemas
and self-marketing in key markets throughout the country.

The success of many recent documentaries notwithstanding,
there is still hope for fiction projects as picture quality
improves. Roland House’s Forcier says that the growth of digital
acquisition has effected a shift in the type of projects coming
their way. “We are doing more feature work now due to 24p High
Definition.” But while he’s not convinced that digital will
achieve the look of film anytime soon, he’s also not so sure
that it’s absolutely necessary in order for digital to take
over. “There will one day be [digital] cameras with all of the
resolution of 35mm film cameras. To exactly mimic the reaction
of film to light is a trick that is further off into the future.
The real question may be ‘Does digital need to look like
film?’ The look of film is certainly real, but the preference
for it over any other look is a function of culture. Who would
have thought that the extreme looks that we see in music videos
and ads—and more recently, in films and television shows—would
have been appealing to viewers?” Concludes Forcier, “Because
the preference for the look of film—if it exists—is cultural,
it is subject to change.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: Bruno George
(l) and Master of the Game director Jeff Stolhand
review settings for transferring his HD 24P master to film
at Alpha Cine; participants in the Teens-Eye on the Nantucket
Film Festival program.

So it seems that the revolution hasn’t completely
succeeded. There is still a comfortable middle-class when it
comes to 35mm film for distribution and acquisition on bigger-budget
projects (and even on many lower-budget shorts and features).
But there are some new candidates in town, and they’re gaining
momentum.
I still make a living editing relatively large-budget feature
film and commercial projects, but my own art is being fueled
by the digital technologies these projects have enabled me to
afford. And while my own tools are relatively high-end and sophisticated
(Pro Tools Audio, Avid digital non-linear video editing), Forcier
points out that soon “every third grader will have editing tools
available at home or school. The manipulation and distribution
of issues/48/images and sound will be a process practiced and understood
by most of the population.”

Indeed, while at the Nantucket Film Festival,
I participated in a program co-sponsored by Eyebeam Atelier,
a digital media museum and workshop in New York City. It was
a program called “Teens-Eye on The Nantucket Film Festival,”
which invited seven Nantucket High School seniors to learn moviemaking
from visiting festival artists while writing, shooting and editing
their own one-minute short films. The intensive program packed
it all into the week of the festival and the students’ one-minute
shorts were shown to a full house before the closing night film.
Working with these young people as they struggled to express
themselves cinematically was extremely rewarding, particularly
because the digital tools they used to make their films were
as simple as they come.

Using off-the-shelf iMac computers, free iMovie
software and the simplest Sony one-chip Mini DV cameras, these
kids were completely unhindered in any way by the technology.
The tools were stripped down and simple, and forced them to
focus specifically on shot, story and montage.

The first and the largest digital post waves were
in special FX, but as Brabbee says, “filmmaking is at its best
when rooted in human emotion—no matter what the format.” As
we see more stories from all different types of people, it seems
the revolution is still raging—and it’s being broadcast live
via HD satellite into your living room, showing at a theater
near you or clicked and dragged onto your computer desktop.
It’s a democratic revolution, though, because now you and I
can go out and tell our stories the way we want to. And whether
the audience we find is large or small, we will have a better
opportunity to find it. MM

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