In D.E.B.S.' crisp, candy-colored world, created by Angela Robinson, a super-secret order of kickboxing Catholic school girls lock and load Glocks to defeat evil villains while arguing over ownership of cardigan sweater sets. Even more remarkable: No one notices that this "Technicolor" dream is actually digital video.
Over half of the movies screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival originated in digital video. The majority of documentaries, many shorts, and several prominent entries in the Dramatic Feature Competition, including D.E.B.S., were shot in Sony's HDCAM format; The Best Thief in the World was shot in Sony's MPEG IMX format; and November, starring Courteney Cox of Friends, was shot in Sony DV Cam format.
But while many of last year's digital video features were lower-budget, using mini-DV cameras and ambient light, movies such as D.E.B.S. boast world-class cinematographers (M. David Mullen is the Polish brothers' preferred DP, having shot both Twin Falls, Idaho (1999) and Northfork (2003)), professional lighting packages, and even FX to create a distinct visual language that doesn't look like "video."
Without compromising the look and feel of her film (I know, I know, it's digital video, but it was transferred to 35mm for theatrical exhibition and, well, "film" is interchangeable with "feature" in the moviemaking lexicon), Robinson says shooting D.E.B.S. in 24P HD (the progressive scan rate that most closely approximates the look and feel of film) facilitated post and FX work.
"I cut the movie on an Avid Media Composer using After Effects and Maya," Robinson explains, "then transferred the project and media to Edgeworx in New York." The final feature was then transferred to 35mm, which, in Robinson's opinion, perfected the palette. "I think the color looks amazing!" Robinson gushes, and she's more than just a proud parent ... it does! See for yourself as D.E.B.S., a Screen Gems release, comes to a theatre near you later this year.
Greg Harrison, November's filmmaker, completed the film using an innovative, all-digital process with both the Avid Xpress Pro and Avid Media Composer Adrenaline systems; two members of the new Avid DNA family. The crew shot in DV, used Avid Xpress Pro as a mobile editing solution on the set, and then transferred all of their media to Media Composer Adrenaline, their primary offline editing system. Once the project was finished, the output was converted to HD for film-out. In addition, it was compressed to Windows Media Video 9 format for digital screening. This digital workflow represents a cost- effective new option for filmmakers seeking to retain high-quality images throughout the production process.
For Jacob Kornbluth, writer/director for Best Thief in the World, working with the MPEG IMX format was his first experience with digital video technology. Kornbluth was quickly impressed by the benefits of digital, notably the ability to keep tape rolling while re-shooting scenes. "Once a scene was lit," says Kornbluth, "we could run continuous takes, which was especially helpful with kids."
Kornbluth also noted digital advantages during post production. "With film, every dissolve is optical and needs to be sent to the optical house," he said. "Working digitally, with Sony's XPRI non-linear editing system, was a much more intuitive process. We were able to view uncompressed images as they would appear in the final film. That really let us follow our intuition and try different things."
The native format of an increasing number of narrative features screened at Sundance was digital video; the overwhelming majority of documentaries were DV, including Grand Jury Prize winner DIG!. Seven years in the making, and culled from 1,500 hours of footage (Sony HD), Ondi Timoner's documentary tracks the tumultuous rise of two talented musicians: brilliant yet self-destructive Anton Newcombe, leader of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and his more mainstream doppelganger Courtney Taylor, leader of BJM's archrival, the Dandy Warhols.
Far from "professional" or "polished," DIG! is hand-held and grainy, which only enhances its immediacy and intimacy.
With her enormously entertaining film, Timoner reminds audiences that, production values notwithstanding, it's an engrossing central story and compelling characters that make a movie worth watching.
With so many Sundance shorts, documentaries, and narrative features shot in digital video, is the era of end-to-end digital dawning? Well, no. Most films (again, in the generic "narrative or documentary feature" sense of the word) are transferred to 35mm for theatrical exhibition partly because the film-out process enhances the look and feel, but mostly because the vast majority of movie theatres are not equipped to screen DV. And studios and theatre owners are at loggerheads over not only who will fund the cost of film-to-digital conversion, but also whether to convert theatres in the first place.
There is a lingering perception among agents, managers, and studio executives that digital video features are not really "films," as well as concerns about consistent standards to ensure high-quality digital images at exhibition. Some, though, have argued that the standards issue is merely a red herring that enables the studio distribution system to maintain its monopoly.
After all, the studios would certainly give up market share if a wide release such as, say, Shrek 2, which currently requires several thousand prints to be struck and delivered to exhibitors, could be delivered instantly by a much smaller distributor via satellite or broadband.
But there are a handful of independent theatres springing up that offer digital exhibition, as well as alternative venues, such as museums and cultural institutions. "We use satellite or broadband over a local server to deliver content," explains Emerging Pictures' Scott Karpf, whose company acquires smaller art-house films (including foreign films) for release into a growing network of alternative venues. "Going 'direct-to-digital' in these alternative venues saves print costs and enables us to tap into their successful grassroots direct marketing efforts."
The other advantage of direct-to-digital exhibition is a more flexible release schedule. If a title is under-performing, a new title can be instantly beamed or downloaded to exhibitors, whereas with traditional film exhibition, theatre owners have to wait for prints in accordance with a release schedule set months before.
With the right project, such as last year's Ballad of Bering Strait, a documentary about seven Russian teens who come to America to become country music stars, Emerging is able to release a film into its niche network, promote it cost-effectively, and build valuable theatrical exposure for all ancillary markets, including DVD.
As equipment costs come down, production values improve, and digital distribution expands, it seems there has never been a better time to be a digital filmmaker.
Though I may give kickboxing Catholic school girl a whirl.