Digital Features: A Brief History of Directors Who Chose Digital Production over Film

When digital video cameras first became available, people who were already shooting analog video flocked to the new technology, but film-oriented directors remained hesitant. Years ago, I went with some friends to see The Cruise, a feature that garnered significant attention on the festival circuit as one of the first projects shot and edited using entirely digital equipment. Everyone I went with liked the movie, but one friend (who to this day is still a particular devotee of 16 mm film) looked at us afterward and said, “You know, it’s still video.”

Modulations: DV interspersed with film

Even in an all-digital context, many filmmakers doubted the quality of video in any form. Cinematographers earn a living by making the world look good on screen, and many were reluctant to trust a DV camera if it meant risking their reputation on an unproven technology that might not produce the greatest possible image. Film is, above all else, a visual medium.

One of the first filmmakers to use DV in a large-scale documentary was Iara Lee, who used DV equipment to shoot interviews for her 1998 film Modulations, which explored the world of electronic music. To produce Modulations, Lee shot interviews with musicians, producers, and DJs around the globe, then combined the edited interviews with observational footage shot in clubs, at concerts, and at other venues. Lee is highly conscious of the importance of quality images, and had shot her previous work Synthetic Pleasures entirely on film. In Modulations, she used digital video to shoot her interviews and shot her observational sequences entirely on 16 mm. Lee’s films are strikingly visual in their approach, and they’re fun to watch because of her innovative use of styled imagery.

Shooting DV interviews allowed Lee to save considerable sums of money. On-camera interviews require a director to shoot far more footage than what winds up on screen in the finished product. Often, only minutes of an hour-long interview make it into the edited version, and many interviews get nixed altogether. Lee filmed hundreds of interviews for Modulations and told Res magazine (, which has been covering digital video since its inception) she would not have been able to afford the cost of shooting them on film. Placing the interviews alongside 16 mm observational material that she edited and manipulated on an Avid digital editing system helped her achieve the look and style she wanted without going beyond her budget.

Buena Vista Social Club: DV in place of film

In this project, released theatrically in 1999, Director Wim Wenders used a combination of prosumer, consumer, and high-end professional digital video cameras to shoot in environments where traditional 35 mm or 16 mm film would not have worked. Buena Vista Social Club documents a Grammy-winning group of Cuban musicians as they record a new album and travel to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall. The entire film is beautifully shot in digital video, including a number of sequences in a recording studio, where the mechanical sound of film running through a camera would have interrupted the work of the musicians who appear on screen.

The bulk of the film was shot in Digital Betacam, which was, at the time, the top quality digital format available. Wenders employed a cinematographer for the principle camera work and recorded additional footage himself using a prosumer DV camera, as well as a very small consumer DV camera. “This way I could sometimes shoot in places and situations where you’d just never get with a film camera, even a 16 mm,” Wenders is quoted as saying on his web site, “This film could have never been made, such as it is, on film. This is truly a product of the new possibilities we have as filmmakers with the digital tools.”

The power of Buena Vista Social Club, in addition to the music, is the film’s warmth and its ability to make you feel close to the musicians it portrays. I’ve shown this film to several classes as an example of filmmaking that reaches audiences on an emotional level. Much of this is due to Wenders’s ability as a director—his filmmaking doesn’t get in the way of his story—but the film is also aided by the technology Wenders used in production. The flexibility of digital filmmaking enables directors to work with very small crews and create an intimacy that audiences can see in the final product. Digital cameras don’t require crews to set up cumbersome or intrusive lights, and they can be used for such extended periods of time that people tend to relax and almost forget a camera is in the room.

Southern Comfort: digital immediacy

Southern Comfort, Kate Davis’s film about a female-to-male transsexual fighting a losing battle with ovarian cancer, won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Davis, a professional film editor with extensive experience in 16 mm film, shot the project herself in DV. She used a small Sony VX1000 camera that looks remarkably like a standard home movie camcorder. Davis often worked on this film alone, and because she used a small camera that didn’t draw attention to itself, people felt very comfortable having her around. Amy Taubin wrote in the Village Voice that the “unobtrusiveness” of Davis and her camera “proved invaluable.” Davis “is treated by everyone on the screen like a dear friend,” according to Taubin. “They talk to her as if they were unaware of the camera and simply want to include her in the conversation.” Creating an environment where people feel comfortable in front of a camera is important for any film, but especially important to a film about a controversial subject. Working in DV helped Davis shift the focus away from herself and develop a close relationship between the audience and the film’s protagonist, Robert Eads.

The lower cost of digital production also allowed Davis to go out and start shooting instead of endlessly having to fundraise to cover the expenses of working with film. “Ms. Davis had brains enough not to wait for funds because she knew she had a great story right in front of her,” Elvis Mitchell wrote in the New York Times. Since Southern Comfort chronicles the last year of Eads’s life, it’s quite possible that if Davis spent her time fundraising instead of filming, the project might never have been completed.

The Hotel Upstairs: digital accessibility

Digital video has not only created opportunities for recognized filmmakers like Wenders and Davis, but has opened doors for filmmakers at the start of their careers. Traditionally, newly minted film school graduates went to work for established filmmakers and, using their bosses’ equipment after hours and on weekends, slowly began to create works of their own. Today, film school graduates still work for other people to earn money, but DV technology has enabled many to start making their own projects right away, without the oversight of a more senior filmmaker. (The same technology has also enabled people to make great films without ever attending film school or working for another filmmaker—it’s created a whole new world of access.)

The Hotel Upstairs, a portrait of a San Francisco residential hotel and its long-term occupants, was made by director Daniel Baer shortly after he graduated film school, using DV equipment he purchased with a small grant and an editing system he bought with friends. Baer and some former classmates jointly purchased a used Avid digital editing system. Before the introduction of high-quality software-based editing systems like Final Cut Pro, nonlinear digital editing required the use of expensive hardware-based systems, like the Avid, which used specially modified computers in addition to software and generally cost more than $60,000. Each time Avid came out with newer models, the value of the older models dropped to a small percentage of their original price, because the hardware became permanently outdated. Baer and three friends purchased an older Avid with money they scraped together, and he used the system to edit his project. (As I was writing this section, a friend emailed me that the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles was selling an old Avid for $125. Baer paid significantly more for his Avid back in 1998, but it still cost much less than the original retail price.)


At this point, the main price difference between mini DV and HD is the equipment you need to shoot and capture. While applications like Final Cut Pro and Premiere both offer affordable HD editing capabilities, HD cameras and decks cost significantly more than their mini DV counterparts. At the time of this writing, a Panasonic HD deck compatible with Final Cut Pro retails for more than $20,000 and a compatible Panasonic HD camera retails for more than $65,000. Prices will likely come down in the near future, but for the moment, high quality HD is still outside the purchase price range of most independents.

Newer versions of Final Cut Pro are compatible with a format called HDV, which records compressed high definition video onto a mini DV tape. HDV cameras generally fall into the prosumer price range. For example, the Sony HDR-FX1 retails for less than $4,000.

Baer had directed two successful 16 mm student films before starting The Hotel Upstairs, but shot the project in digital video because he could afford to, and because DV performs better in low-light situations than film. The rooms of the hotel were too small for Baer to set up lighting equipment, but even if they had been big enough, he feared lights would have created an unnatural situation. “I wanted to shoot without lights to give subjects the idea there wasn’t a hard line between their life, and their life when I was shooting.”

Baer purchased a newly available Canon XL-1 digital camera and used it to shoot the film himself. The XL-1 retailed for slightly more than $3,000 but recorded images comparable to cameras that cost significantly more. Baer used additional money from the grant to cover his share of the Avid. To affordably give his work a more “film-like visual quality,” he shot exterior views of the hotel in 16 mm, and incorporated them into his project along with sequences of still images shot with a 35 mm still camera.

Traditionally, independent filmmakers paid rental fees by the day or week for cameras and editing equipment that they couldn’t possibly afford to purchase, but because Baer now owned a high-quality camera and a professional editing system, he was able to create a documentary without spending a lot of money. The Hotel Upstairs premiered at the 2001 Los Angeles Film Festival and went on to screen at festivals around the world.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Call AT&T—big budget digital

At the other end of the scale, big-budget Hollywood directors like George Lucas, and high-end advertising agencies such as Young and Rubicam, have embraced digital video. Lucas shot Star Wars Episode II using High Definition (HD) digital video cameras specifically developed for the latest installment of his sci-fi epic. Young and Rubicam, the advertising agency for AT&T, used similar HD technology two years later to film a series of commercials staring comedian Carrot Top.

High Definition is currently the highest quality digital format available, and many filmmakers are attracted to HD because it uses the same frame rate and aspect ratio as film, which helps make it look more like film at a much lower per-minute price. (Frame rate and aspect ratio are described in detail in Chapter 2.) Because of the technical similarities between HD and film, material shot on HD provides directors with a more cinematic look than other forms of digital video and a more efficient transfer to 35 mm film for projection in theaters. Star Wars Episode II was projected digitally in theaters equipped with digital projection systems, and on 35 mm film in those without. AT&T created digital versions of its "Call AT&T” commercials for television broadcast and 35 mm film versions to screen in theaters between coming attractions.

Lucas, who has become known for computer-generated environments, characters, and action sequences in his recent work, chose HD because it provided him with an unprecedented level of control. “It’s a much more malleable medium than film, by far,” he told American Cinematographer magazine. “You can make it do whatever you want it to do, and you can design the technology to do whatever you want to do.” (You can view selected American Cinematographer articles for free online, at


Millimeter is a very cool and easy-to-read magazine about postproduction techniques and effects creation. You can read it online at, or subscribe to the print version of the magazine at no charge in exchange for submitting your demographic information (see subscribe for details).

HD is generally a more expensive format than other forms of digital video but still costs far less than shooting in film. In addition to increased affordability and control, like other digital formats, HD also lets directors shoot longer takes and immediately see the results of their work. “HD won’t bite you,” Ken Yagoda told Millimeter magazine. Yagoda, Young and Rubicam’s Managing Partner/Director of Broadcast Productions, said HD saved time not only because production is very efficient, but because directors didn’t need to guess about what they did or didn’t get on film. “One of the advantages is that you really do see what you’re getting, so you can safely wrap a sequence and move on with a great deal of confidence.”

November: big screen HD success with a prosumer DV camera

Unlike Star Wars Episode II, which was shot with custom-designed HD cameras far beyond the price range of an independent, November, a dramatic film staring Courtney Cox, was shot on a mini DV camera that retails for less than $3,000. November, which won the 2004 Sundance Excellence in Cinematography award, is an example of a growing number of successful art house films shot in a prosumer format and then released on film in theaters. The film’s director of photography, Nancy Schreiber, used a Panasonic AG-DVX100 camera, carefully lit each scene, and manipulated the camera’s exposure and focus settings to create a visual feel that Sundance judges were obviously pleased with, and Filmmaker magazine says, “changed the look of mini DV.”

The AG-DVX100 uses the same mini DV format as the affordable cameras used by Davis and Baer, but is one of few prosumer cameras that can be set to record at the same frame rate as film. Using this frame rate allowed November’s producers to smoothly transfer the finished product to 35 mm film for theatrical distribution. The HD cameras Lucas used to film Star Wars Episode II also recorded at the same frame rate as film, but did so at a much higher cost. The shooting budget for November was only $150,000, according to Filmmaker, and the budget for the entire film was only $300,000. This may seem like a substantial sum of money if you’re funding a production on your own. In the world of theatrically released features, however, films that cost $5 million are often described as low budget.

November’s production company InDigEnt, which stands for independent digital entertainment, also produced the theatrically released film Tadpole staring Sigourney Weaver and John Ritter, which was shot in digital video and edited in Final Cut Pro. Tadpole was such a successful film reviewers didn’t even mention it had been shot in DV—the Hollywood Reporter called it a “scrumptious amusement.” Technological advances in digital filmmaking now allow directors to create low-cost, high-quality projects that people respond so well to, audiences don’t even realize they’re watching video. (I knew this was a film I had to see when I went to see another film and heard Tadpole’s audience laughing from outside the theater.)

Film is still expensive, but the ugly-duckling format of video has grown into a beautiful swan.

Let’s put it to work.

This book is structured to provide an overview of digital video technology in the opening chapters, and then move into more specific details and techniques later on. This chapter explored the benefits of working in digital video (it’s both affordable and flexible) and also provided a brief history of directors who chose to work in video over film, and why. Chapter 2 explores technical fundamentals such as aspect ratio, frame rate, and the difference between lines of resolution in a video monitor and pixels in a computer monitor. Understanding each element is an essential step toward producing a good video project, and the earlier you get a handle on them, the earlier you can start making the film of your dreams.

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