London Film Festival '99 index
Edinburgh Film Festival '99
New UK videos/DVDs
New US videos/DVDs
UK theatrical releases
The Blair Witch Project showed that you can shoot a blockbuster on
an old video camera. And it can be done again..
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
Peter Broderick goes a step further. "'Will producers be worried about
distributing my film if it's shot on video?': that question has gone
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
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
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
"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."
Next Wave Films
Dogme 95 (Denmark)
Blair Witch (UK)