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DV Filmmaking by Ian David Aronson

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Chapter 1. The Freedom of Digital Video

In this chapter

The Flexibility of Digital Recording Versus the Expense and Constraints of Film
Digital Features: A Brief History of Directors Who Chose Digital Production over Film

Film is expensive. Shooting a feature-length—or even a short—film means spending money to purchase film stock, paying to process the film once it’s been exposed, and then spending more money to create and distribute prints after a film has been edited.

Video, on the other hand, is both flexible and affordable. You can shoot, edit, and output your project for a fraction of the costs of working with film. Unfortunately, for many years, analog video was just plain ugly. While film offered remarkable depth and clarity of color, video images were flat, had harsh edges, and colors that didn’t look natural. Film was the only medium suitable for people aspiring to cinematic excellence. Even audiences with no technical background could differentiate between video and film, because video simply didn’t look as good. When Happy Days stopped shooting film and started using videotape, lots of people in the audience saw that something had changed, even if they couldn’t identify what it was. To many viewers, video equaled cheap production and only film signified quality.

Until recently, the most selective film festivals, awards competitions, and theatrical distributors considered only work shot on film. Because of the expense, however, film production remained beyond the reach of many directors. As a result, many good ideas never made it to the screen, and many great video projects never made it to an audience. Independent producers pined for a medium that would let them shoot film-quality images for the cost of shooting video.

Enter the digital camera. In the mid-to-late 1990s, filmmakers discovered affordable mini DV cameras that captured surprisingly high-quality images. These cameras, such as the Sony VX1000 and Canon XL-1 (Figure 1-1), fell into a relatively new category of products known as prosumer—they blurred the line between high-end consumer equipment, and lower-end professional gear. Prosumer equipment employed newly available digital technology to produce $3,000 cameras that rivaled the quality of professional analog video cameras that cost 10 times as much. The digital camera, followed shortly by affordable digital editing systems, created a new age of opportunity for the independent filmmaker. People could now realize their film ideas on a low budget without sacrificing quality. Today, independent producers use digital technology to create academy award–winning documentaries, theatrically successful dramatic films, and everything in between. As digital technology improves, prices drop, and new opportunities present themselves to independent filmmakers across the globe.

Affordable mini DV cameras like the Sony VX1000 and the Canon XL-1 enabled filmmakers, for the first time, to shoot professional-quality images at consumer-equipment prices.

Figure 1-1. Affordable mini DV cameras like the Sony VX1000 and the Canon XL-1 enabled filmmakers, for the first time, to shoot professional-quality images at consumer-equipment prices.

The Flexibility of Digital Recording Versus the Expense and Constraints of Film

Digital video is, without any doubt, a flexible medium. From the way you shoot to the way you edit and store your footage, digital video offers a tremendous number of options. Digital video is, in fact, so flexible that it’s changed the way people make movies.

Length

Digital video tapes are widely available in lengths of 6 to well over 120 minutes. In terms of both price and sophistication, digital video equipment ranges from consumer categories to high-end professional uses. The most widely used format is mini DV, found in both consumer camcorders and prosumer equipment. The mini DV format is often abbreviated as simply DV, in part because it’s so prevalent. Other digital video equipment and tape formats include DVCAM, DVCPRO, and Digital Betacam. These more sophisticated formats use differently formulated tapes and record increasing amounts of information, resulting in more detailed images, but you can still do great work using mini DV equipment.

Shooting with a longer tape in the camera enables a cinematographer to record for extended periods of time, often an entire hour or more, without stopping. This has created an entirely new style of shooting for documentary filmmakers who can turn the camera on and seamlessly capture everything that happens around them.

For Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent two years filming members of the metal band, Metallica, in various endeavors, including 50 group therapy sessions that lasted four hours apiece. The filmmakers used two DVCAM cameras, a high-end Sony DSR-500, and a prosumer Sony PD-150 to record 1,600 hours of footage that reveals band members in some remarkably unguarded moments. Unlike producing a fiction film where the directors know the outcome in advance, “we work in the exact opposite way,” Berlinger told indiewire.com (an excellent web site for news on independent film). The directors sifted through their footage in postproduction to find the most important scenes and then structured the film around those clips—a working style that is made possible, in many ways, by the introduction of digital video.

In Super Size Me, director Morgan Spurlock spends 30 days in front of a camera, eating nothing but food from McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (he says he only supersized when people asked him to). Using a Sony PD-150 camcorder, Spurlock and his director of photography, Scott Ambrozy, traveled together as a two-man crew. He told Filmmaker magazine that working in digital video helped keep costs down and provided the flexibility they needed to capture his entire experience on camera: “We filmed nonstop for six or seven weeks during my eating phase.” Shooting constantly for an extended period of time enabled Spurlock to record every interaction and eating experience—even the unseemly ones—then decide which he wanted to share with an audience. Nothing had to be ignored.

Shooting film is an entirely different process. 16 mm film, the format traditionally used by independent filmmakers, comes in 400 foot reels, which only last about 10 minutes apiece (100 foot reels are also available, but these are even shorter). Because 16 mm film limited documentary filmmakers to shooting only 10 minutes or so at a time, they often missed a fair amount of action. To compensate, filmmakers would often conserve their film, turning the camera on only when they were certain something was worth shooting, and the rest of the time, they would record only audio. In postproduction, editors would then weave different shots together, along with the recorded audio, using a patchwork of material to cover gaps in the footage.

Note

Regardless of flexibility and cost, there are still filmmakers—and even a number of viewers—who believe video will never look as good as film. As a result, some directors continue to shoot film but edit using a nonlinear editing system. In Appendix A, I interview two successful filmmakers who, for various reasons, shoot film and use digital technology in postproduction.

In the film era, very few projects, documentary or narrative, contained continuous shots longer than a few minutes, simply because the technology made it so difficult. Orson Welles opens his 1958 film, Touch of Evil, with a single continuous shot of the characters winding their way through a Mexican border town. The shot is extraordinarily well choreographed, and extremely risky given the technology he was using—think of how expensive it would be to stop and redo everything if someone made a mistake several minutes into the shot (I discuss this film in more detail in Chapter 17). These days, thanks to DV, lengthy continuous shots are increasingly common, and if you run out of tape while you’re shooting, you can just pop a new cassette into your camcorder. Because directors don’t need to worry about continuously changing reels of film, they can let actors improvise for longer periods of time, record multiple camera angles, and shoot numerous takes of a scene to make sure everything works exactly the way the want. If a scene runs longer than anticipated, that’s okay; tape is cheap. If an actor makes a mistake, retakes are no problem. To a director shooting film, it’s a different story: if the camera runs out of film, the director’s pretty much out of luck. Changing a reel of film is a difficult process, requiring complete darkness, exceptional care, and a skilled professional. If a crew member accidentally exposes the film to daylight or incorrectly threads the film through the camera, the work of everyone on set can be instantly ruined.

The cost and anxiety of film processing

Good quality 60-minute mini DV tapes retail for less than $10 apiece and cost half that when you buy in bulk. A 10-minute reel of film, in contrast, can easily cost $100. The expenses don’t stop there—the real cost of shooting film lies in lab fees. Once you shoot film, you then need to process the negative, which costs you even more money before you can see your work. Processing 16 mm negative costs about 20 cents a foot, so a 10 minute reel of film costs about $80 to develop (400 feet of film at 20 cents per foot). Since you can’t watch a negative to see what your footage looks like, you then need to create a workprint, which serves as your viewing copy (workprints are often referred to as rushes or dailies, because they’re quickly processed film prints used only for initial screenings and editing, and they aren’t shown to audiences). Workprints cost an additional 32 cents a foot, so before you can even bring that 10 minute reel of film into the editing room, you have to pay another $128 in processing (400 feet at 32 cents per foot) on top of everything you’ve already spent.

The scariest part of all this is you won’t know if your film looks good—or is even usable—until after you’ve paid for each step. If you add up the previously listed costs, including the initial film purchase, it comes to more than $300 for each 10-minute reel. If you’ve shot an hour’s worth of film, you can easily spend more than $1800 before you can see what you’ve got, and what you have may not be what you want. In fact, it may not even be usable. The image you see when you look through the viewfinder of a camera is often not the same as what shows up on film. You might not notice exposure problems, focus issues, or a stray hair caught in the gate (the part of the camera that film passes through as it’s exposed) until after you’ve finished shooting and you get your film back from the lab.

Shooting DV is a much more straightforward process—what you see in a well-calibrated field monitor or viewfinder is exactly what’s reordered on the tape. At the end of each take, the director of photography knows what he’s recorded. If something isn’t right, you can easily identify the problem and fix it in a retake. With film, you won’t see the results of your work until the next day (at the earliest) when the negative is processed, so the same problem might present itself in reel after reel of film but go entirely unnoticed during shooting.

Video tolerates mistakes

As a medium, digital video is far more forgiving than film. Higher-end video equipment offers a range of technical options and requires you to make significant decisions that shape the outcome of your project, but if you make a mistake, chances are you can fix it in postproduction. Filmmakers often come back from a shoot and realize that something went wrong (Murphy’s Law, that whatever can go wrong will, is a big part of life for the independent producer), but DV is flexible enough that you can fix a wide range of problems when you edit your footage. DV tape, like anything else, still has its limits. Repeatedly rewinding a cassette to watch a segment in your camcorder can physically damage the tape, ruining your footage. Because DV tapes use a magnetic process to record information, you can also erase a tape by accidentally passing it through a magnetic field (you may be amazed to find how many magnetic fields there are in your home; keep your tapes away from the TV). Additionally, DV cassettes are vulnerable to human curiosity—sometimes people can’t help themselves, so they fold back the protective cover guarding the tape itself, leaving their valuable footage exposed to dust and other contaminants.

For more information on capturing and storing video, see Chapters 9 and 10. No matter how you slice it, film is far less forgiving, and technical problems can easily leave you with unusable footage that you spent tremendous time, energy, and money to capture. Because film requires processing before you can view it, it’s also vulnerable to environmental hazards and lab mistakes while DV is not. When you take a DV tape out of your camera, it’s ready to work with, and if you handle the tape carefully, you can more or less be assured your footage is safe. Once film is exposed in the camera, it’s highly vulnerable until it’s processed. A friend of mine recently traveled across country to shoot the latest installment of an ongoing documentary project and returned with 10 reels of film. Shortly after dropping his film off at the lab he got a call that, due to a problem with the lab’s equipment, several reels of his film had been damaged, and the last two had been rendered unusable.

These were, of course, the reels containing footage that was the hardest to get, and as a result, the hardest to reproduce. This doesn’t mean digital video is immune to mistakes (it isn’t—see the sidebar, “The Vulnerability of Any Recorded Media”) or that 16 mm is an antiquated magnet for technical errors, but DV clearly is a more cost effective, straightforward production medium, and it’s changed the world of independent film forever.

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