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New Frontiers in Digital Moviemaking

New Frontiers in Digital Moviemaking

Articles - Directing

At first glance, it would seem hard to find two
films more different than Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2 and Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. But if cinema has taught us anything it’s that looking
beneath the surface of things can often yield surprising results. For
example, both pictures were shot in practical locations in Southern
California and feature Smith in a supporting role. Both films also
took advantage of the latest technology and explored the benefits of
using a digital intermediate, or DI process, whereby a conformed
negative is scanned and converted to a digital file.

There are two primary advantages to using a DI: One is that the
cinematographer and director can isolate and alter any element of a
frame. So skin tones can be made paler, the hue of a candle can be
made warmer, objects can be removed or backgrounds can be made
darker. The second advantage is that the digital files are recorded
directly onto the film, eliminating the need for optical blow-ups for
films produced in Super 16 and Super 35. In 2005, an estimated 200
films were timed at some 20 U.S. facilities offering DI services—Clerks 2 and Southland Tales among them.

Clerks 2 begins in New Jersey, where the two main characters from
the original film are now working at a fast food restaurant. Smith
dreamed up a character-driven comedy where the camerawork is
subjective, as though the audience is an invisible character observing
the antics of old friends. Southland Tales is a surrealistic journey to
the year 2008, where L.A. stands on the brink of social, economic
and environmental disaster. With elements of drama, science-fi ction
and music, the story is set over the course of three days and features
a large ensemble cast.

Clerks 2 marks Smith’s fourth collaboration with DP David
Klein. Smith and Klein met while they were students in a oneyear
moviemaking program at Vancouver Film School. Clerks, their first professional venture, was filmed
during the late evening hours at a convenience store
in New Jersey, where Smith worked during the day.
The film earned critical raves when it was released
in 1994 and quickly attained cult status.

One of the first conversations between Smith and
Klein was, of course, whether to shoot on film or
digital. (The original Clerks was shot on black-and-white, 16mm film.)
“I didn’t feel that digital was right for this film for several reasons,”
Klein says. “One reason is that an entire wall of the set consisted of a
window that would be in the background on many shots. We needed
every stop of latitude that film offers. If we were shooting with digital
cameras, we would have had hard gels coming on and off windows all
the time; I didn’t want to waste precious time.”

David Klein shoots Kevin Smith’s Clerks II (2006).

In contrast, Southland Tales is only the second go-around for Kelly
and DP Steven Poster. The two met in 2001 when Poster lensed Kelly’s
cult favorite Donnie Darko. Like Smith, it was the writer-director’s
first foray into professional moviemaking after graduating from film
school at USC (Poster already had some 40 narrative credits).

With a six-week shooting schedule for both films, both DPs
suggested DI as a solution to the time crunch. “We had a scene with
one of our main female characters sitting on the steps at the bottom
of a staircase,” remembers Poster. “Richard and I agreed that we
wanted a darker look in the background. Instead of spending time
flagging ambient light off the background, I decided we could do it
much faster in DI.”

Southland Tales presented a unique visual challenge in that a large
portion of the film was shot as surveillance footage. “The surveillance
issues/64/images have a distinct video look that is very different from the rest of the film,” Poster says. “It sets an emotional tone that audiences will
recognize on a subliminal level.”

Poster recorded issues/64/images onto Kodak VISION2 5218 film, which
he describes as a relatively fine grain 500-speed film that renders a
texture that he felt was right for the story. For Clerks 2, Klein chose
the same negative, “pushing” (or manipulating) it a stop for night
scenes. Black-and-white negative constitutes the opening shot, and
Klein also opted to record a romantic dance sequence on Kodak
VISION 5274 film for its ability to record richer colors.

Poster describes the DI process—which took 15 days to complete—
as an interactive experience. The digital issues/64/images were projected onto
a cinema-sized screen and Poster worked with colorist David Cole at
LaserPacific to bring his and Kelly’s original vision to life.

“The main advantage of a DI is to allow the cinematographer to
editorialize the issues/64/images just like a director would do in the editing room,” says Poster. “You have the ability to focus the attention of the
audience on the elements that are important to tell the story. I believe
that every part of every image informs the audience. Therefore, the
importance of this process cannot be overemphasized.”

Sarah Michelle Gellar in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006).

Aesthetic aspects of Clerks 2 were also subtly enhanced during the
DI sessions, which lasted nearly eight days. The film opens and closes
in black and white, paying homage to its cinematic predecessor.
Those issues/64/images were desaturated and grain was added in DI as the last
shot gradually fades from color to black and white.

DI also enabled both productions to trim 25 percent of film and
lab costs. Poster explains that issues/64/images were recorded onto frames
of 35mm film that are three (rather than four) perforations long.
After the offline edits were completed, the scenes were scanned and
converted to digital master files to be graded during the DI. The
resulting digital master film was then recorded onto four-perf 35mm
film, which was used to generate final prints for the cinema.

Though it has its place in the world of moviemaking, both Klein
and Poster think it’s dangerous to think you can fix anything in DI.
Just like in the editing room, having an ample amount of material to
play around with is the key to completing a film just as the director
and cinematographer envisioned it.

Both DPs suggest getting as many details in colors, contrast and
resolution as possible on the original negative, to give more flexibility
for manipulating issues/64/images while amplifying emotions and creating a
sense of place and time. After all, a film is only as good as its best
footage. Concludes Poster: “You can’t enhance what isn’t on the
original negative.” MM

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