Digital video (DV) feature films have gone from festival oddities (comparable to RCA's debut of the exotic, new medium "television" at the 1939 World's Fair in New York) to works of art and entertainment whose native format--digital video, 35mm, super16--is incidental. As a viewer, who cares whether Trainspotting director Danny Boyle's latest feature, 28 Days Later, was shot in DV when it's one zombie-chompin' helluva flick?
But deciding the format in which to shoot your independent feature is crucial, and will impact every production consideration from make-up to lighting, sound, and post. And, financiers will want to know: which way you gonna go?
So, at the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival, a panel featuring filmmaker Helmut Schleppi, whose recent feature A Foreign Affair was shot on high-definition (HD) DV, helpfully explored the issues and advantages--and dispelled some of the myths--of shooting in DV.
First, some background.
A Foreign Affair is the story of two somewhat dim brothers (indie darling Tim Blake Nelson and Courtney Cox's hubby, David Arquette) who set out on a "romance tour" in St. Petersburg, Russia to find a perfect mate--someone who will cook and clean for them back on the farm now that ma has kicked the bucket.
Production followed a real romance tour in St. Petersburg. Actual tour clients and would-be brides appeared as extras. "American farm" footage was shot in, of all places, Mexico, where the filmmakers found a Mennonite village charmingly replete with wheat fields, windmills, and red barns.
A "mockumentary" about Russian bridal tours (featuring Emily Watson) comprises the film-within-a-film. The whirlwind, international, 18-day, non-union shoot cost about $500,000.
Generally speaking, DV features require slightly less cash up front (there are no film stock costs, for instance), but budgets even out with 35mm on the back end as film-out (conversion to 35mm for theatrical exhibition, color correction, etc.) costs are accrued.
Here are some of a DV feature's other production considerations.
Affair had a fairly complete crew that included a director of photography (DP), first assistant camera operator (AC), assistant director (AD), lighting and sound technicians, location manager, catering manager, make-up manager, script supervisor, and so on.
If you're shooting a micro-budgeted, mini-DV feature, you can crew your shoot with a handful of friends, but professional DV features require crews comparable to those of 35mm features.
Schleppi and DP David Mullen chose a Sonny 900 "since it was the easiest camera for me to shoot hand-held," Schleppi explained.
Schleppi says working with a focus-puller (the first AC) is critical since you can't rely on the image in the viewfinder. He also recommends conducting make-up tests before the actual shoot since DV images are clearer and sharper than 35mm, and heavily made-up actors can look unnatural.
Although the rapidly evolving industry standard format for HD DV is 24P (24 frames per second), which most closely approximates the look and feel of 35mm, the filmmakers shot in 25P to make editing the feature and the mock-documentary, which was shot in digi-Beta PAL, easier. "This way, we could edit everything on the Avid with one EDL (edit decision list)," said Schleppi.
Affair used a 3-ton package (relatively small by feature film standards) with lots of gels. "In St. Petersburg, we had only six hours of sunlight, so we used lots of Kino-Flos (high-output, flicker-free, color-correct, fluorescent lights to match daylight) to shoot night for day," said Schleppi.
Many micro-budgeted, mini-DV features and short films use practical, or available light, but Affair's saturated palette and 35mm look and feel make it evident that Schleppi did not skimp on the lighting personnel or equipment necessary for a professional-level project.
Sound is an area in which DV has an advantage over 35mm. In addition to a DAT recorder, you can plug sound into the digital video camera, which won't serve as your primary sound source, but can be used as a back up in case something is garbled or missed on the DAT recording.
Schleppi also used two boom microphones, with professional boom operators. Using professional boom operators "will save you so much in ADR," said Schleppi. (Additional Dialogue Recording, or looping, is necessary when dialogue that can't be salvaged in production tracks must be re-recorded.)
Schleppi also put radio microphones and transmitters on the actors, providing a back-up source for sound. Since Affair was shot 25P, sound "slowed down" in the conversion to 35mm and had to be corrected to stay in sync.
"You can't shoot till the cows come home," said Schleppi, dispelling the myth that, without the limitations of film stock, digital video filmmakers could shoot from here to eternity. "Actors get tired," Schleppi pointed out, "and crews go into overtime."
Still, Schleppi shot 21 hours worth of video, a ratio of about 12 to 1--fairly generous for an independent feature.
Schleppi felt that the Sony 900 enabled him to gain "more intimacy" with the actors, who could be more fluid. Instead of limiting them and their movement, Schleppi and the camera followed them.
Schleppi edited on the Avid, got his EDL, then went to a post-house, where the HD version was mastered and color corrected. Affair actually played the festival circuit in its original digital video format in theaters equipped to screen DV. As soon as the film found a distributor, however, it was transferred to 35mm (at a cost of about $60,000) for its platform release (rolled in a few key cities every week).
If you're producing an independent feature, there are literally hundreds of considerations, including whether to shoot DV. But, as Jodie Foster reminded filmmakers during a directors' panel with David Fincher (Seven, Panic Room), "Story is primary. Spend your time working on your story and characters, and everything else will fall into place."