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DIGITAL FILMMAKING RETROSPECTIVE
In 1999, after a successful run of thirty-five years, the NYU Institute of Film and Television was feeling the pressure of change.
It's hard to believe it now, but at that time, filmmakers and the movie industry as a whole had a prejudice against video. NYU was no exception and only a minority of faculty--those who taught documentary--truly supported it. Most turned up their noses at the thought of shooting a feature on video.
Keep in mind that the digital revolution was still a few years away at the time. Since all but the most expensive video cameras left a lot to be desired, it was understandable that directors, cinematographers, and film educators had legitimate concerns. Despite this, there was a sense that something big was on the horizon.
Those of us who were a bit more progressive could already see it happening. Industry developments and pressure from students were forcing us to move away from our trusted film flatbeds and video decks to AVID's nonlinear editing. In sound, Pro-Tools digital workstations had already buried multi-track recorders.
The staggering cost of this new technology was becoming a problem for NYU. Questions began to mount, as well. How much longer would it take before digital technology moved to production? Would video remain a "poor man's" medium? Was film dying?
In late 1999, the film department began hearing presentations to get a better handle on where the industry was heading. Faculty members covered their area of concern or specialty. I focused on the concept of digital filmmaking, which was a novel idea then, along with the term itself.
I believe I was successful in winning over some of the hardcore "film" faculty. Most of the predictions I discussed, particularly about technological convergence, have come to pass and are pretty much old hat now.
During the presentation one faculty member made a comment about the eventual "commercialization" of all things digital, including the Internet. To me this was a pessimistic comment and I thought it said more about that person's fear of change than anything else. Still, it stayed in my head.
It took over ten years, but I finally understood her point. Despite all the wonderful technology we have and the democratization of the filmmaking process that has come with it, filmmakers (and all artists, for that matter) are still faced with barriers. Instead of big studios and distributors, the new culprit comes in the form of--you guessed it--commercialization.
Today, anyone can shoot high definition (HD) movies, edit them on their desktop, and distribute them on the Internet. Unfortunately, there is so much "scraped" content on the internet that it is getting more and more difficult to get noticed by your target audience. If this was fair competition it would be fine, but scraped content is derivative in nature with the sole purpose of monetizing a website (i.e., cashing in).
A large percentage of the Internet today is scraped content. This comes the form of millions of little spammy "AdSense" websites to mega-websites like YouTube and iTunes that bring users a mixed bag of benefits along with tons of advertisements.
Still, I think the benefits to filmmakers far outweigh the commercialization that I did not anticipate. Learning the skills to transcend this clutter will be the new challenge for today's filmmakers.
I hope this doesn't sound political or preachy because that's not the intent. My initial paper presented a rosy picture and I just want to give you a balanced view based on hindsight. Along with change, it is inevitable that we get a ripple effect of unanticipated consequences and the digital age has brought us some whoppers.
With that said, I thought you might like to read the original pre-digital revolution paper I presented to the NYU faculty on December 5, 1999:
The Shape of Things to Come
In the early days of electronic media, there were two camps: video and film. Videomakers gravitated towards documentaries and broadcast, while filmmakers made narratives. Each group lived happily in their own realm, unless they were forced to interact with each other-- then they would square off like kids at the local sandlot! When digital media arrived, the old grudges didn't seem to matter anymore. Now, the focus is on becoming friends or enemies with the new kid on the block.
Videomakers are readily embracing digital media because the two technologies are akin. Filmmakers are having quite a different experience. For some, the new technology is providing a bridge to accepting electronic moviemaking. For others, it's a threat. You can recognize the latter by a stiffening in their demeanor when the subject comes up. Some may break into a noticeable sweat.
Why All The Fuss?
The reason for this apprehension is understandable. For filmmakers, myself included, digital technology seems to be shaking the very foundation of our learning and experience. Suddenly, emulsion, grain and printing lights don't seem so important. People are talking CCDs, sampling rates and compression. Like the anxiety one feels after an earthquake, it seems the floor can fall out at any time.
As bleak as this may seem to some filmmakers, the digital revolution is not about competing technologies or quashing film. Rather, it's about a new set of tools. In truth, there are not two or three camps of moviemakers, but only one. Our goal is to tell stories and we can do this using film, video and digital media, depending upon artistic and budgetary needs.
Let's take a hard look how this exciting, sometimes disconcerting revolution came upon us and where we are going with it. First let me say that "I Love Film!" I learned moviemaking using film and most of my experience is in film. Despite my passion, the technology is being displaced. In the 1980s, when the digital revolution was in its infancy, filmmakers said that film would be around for another 100 years, then they said 50, then 25, and now it’s down to 10 years. You know what? It's a lot less than that.
Film Post-Production: The First Casualty
I was at the SMPTE convention when Avid introduced the very first digital editing system. Old school editors were doubtful. They said that you need to physically touch film (i.e., the shots) to edit. I never cared for this argument. Whether you cut on a flatbed or a computer, the principles of editing are identical. Montage, match-cut, cause and effect-- this is editing, not the machine that you use. The machine is only a tool.
Others agreed, and the shift from Steenbecks to Avids happened in less than fifteen years. Today, the majority of professional movies are cut digitally, on computer. Now the old school says it's okay to edit digitally, but there's nothing better than the "look of film" for acquisition.
The primary argument against digital acquisition has been that film has a superior look. Though this is true in a strict sense, imaging technology is advancing exponentially. Today, digital special effects are cut seamlessly into live action film (e.g., Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Star Wars Episode 1). If this is possible, then digital live action can certainly stand on its own. Lucasfilm Producer Rick McCallum sees it this way:
"The world is changing and it's going to happen quickly. I promise you that in five years, in 2004, when I'm coming out with Star Wars: Episode 3, you and I will laugh at this conversation … I think people will hold their ground no matter how open-minded they are until they understand the limitations they have in shooting film … It's no longer a photographic medium; it's a painterly one, and that's the hardest thing for most cameramen to understand." 1
If the "film look" argument against digital media sounds suspiciously like the "touch film" argument, it is indeed the same, just a different part of the moviemaking chain. The final analysis is the same, too. Whether you shoot on film or digital media, the principles of cinematography are identical; the tools are just a bit different. The same is true for location sound recording. Professional sound people, in their typically quiet wisdom, made the shift from analog to digital audio tape (DAT) very early on.
Currently, digital cameras record on video tape. Recently, Sony introduced the first camera to record on digital video disc (DVD) rather than tape. DVD provides up to 25 times the capacity of CDs, which is ideal for high-quality video, surround-sound and interactive multimedia. Now you can pop a DVD right into a computer for editing, rather than download from tape. Incidentally, this particular camera also has built-in nonlinear editing. The cost: $2200.
If digital acquisition is feasible now, why are the majors still shooting on film? This is a complex question, but the argument boils down to three issues: projection, economics and artistic vision.
The weakest link in the digital chain has always been projection. Texas Instruments and Hughes-JVC have introduced groundbreaking digital projectors to solve this. A front page article in The New York Times reports on the new equipment:
"I went into one demonstration where the only way I could tell the difference between the film and electronic version was that the film one had jittery movement and the electronic one didn't," said Martin Cohen, the head of post-production at Dreamworks SKG. "They are down to the nitty-gritty. They're finally in the ball park on the quality." 2
Digital projectors mean that theatrical movies can be distributed via satellite or (DVD). This will do away with expensive release prints, saving distributors millions of dollars. Exhibitors, however, are reluctant to install these projectors because of the hefty cost of $100,000 each. The impasse will continue until distributors and exhibitors come up with an equitable solution to share the cost of conversion.
Festivals were sticklers about entries being shot and exhibited on film. To avoid missing out on some of the best new work, they have reconsidered this position. George Wing writes:
"Digital video is not the wave of the future. It's already here, and festivals are scrambling to catch up with it. Some festivals have chosen to usher in the digital age with symposiums and fanfare, while others are quietly screening a portion of their lineup digitally to see if the audience will notice. In many cases they don't."4
The final hurdle is that a respected moviemaker must take the first step and shoot an entire theatrical movie on digital media. When this happens, the walls will start to tumble for film acquisition. After that, I think the shift to full electronic production will be as swift as the shift to "talkies." Spike Lee is currently in production on an all digital feature, "Bamboozled," financed by New Line Cinema. This may turn out to be the pivotal movie.
Distribution: The Final Frontier
Traditionally, if you weren't part of the "inner circle," it was difficult to get a movie made. What many aspiring moviemakers fail to realize is that the same circle controls distribution, so it’s just as difficult to get your movie seen. After a hundred years of this control, things are changing in a big way. Soon every moviemaker will have the ability to bring their movies to a paying audience, right from the comfort of their own homes, with no middlemen!
This is not pie-in-the-sky, long range technology. It's called "streaming media" and it's here now. Streaming media is real time "broadcasting" over the Internet. It's part of a secondary revolution in the digital world involving the convergence of the Internet, TV and telecommunications. Soon, these technologies will be intrinsically linked. Robert Johnston and Sally O'Steen report:
"What's immediately ahead for moviemakers? Two recent clues: In April, at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, the theme was "convergence." Tens of thousands swarmed the exhibits and packed into conferences to talk about media-merge. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, representatives of Internet companies were besieged by bidders seeking licenses to distribute movies via the Net. "What we thought would be happening in 2002 is happening right away," said one entrepreneur." 4
Streaming media is part of this evolution, and will allow moviemakers to promote and distribute their own movies on the Internet, which is a burgeoning economy. If 500,000 people log-on to see your movie at $3 each, that's $1,500,000 directly to you, the moviemaker. If the movie is exceptional, it will transcend the pack on its own merits, possibly attracting theatrical distribution. The producers of "Blair Witch Project" used a brilliant Internet marketing campaign to achieve just that. The feature cost under $35,000 to make and has grossed over $140,000,000 world-wide as of this writing. A recent New York Today article affirms the changing dynamics of the industry:
"The whole economics of the business are basically turned upside down by digital technology," said Bruce Apar, editor in chief of Video Business, a magazine published by variety. "It will change the movie industry absolutely."5
"I guarantee you that by this time next year, there will be an 80 or 90 minute film that's released on the Internet by some kid … [The future] It's going to be amazing." 6
Film is a grand medium that has proven its resiliency over the years. The digital revolution is not about quashing film, but rather, about bringing new tools to the process of moviemaking. Engineers have given us a new technology, but it takes the great tradition of film to turn it into a storytelling medium. The exciting thing is that we, the moviemakers, get to do it!
In so doing, we must be careful to carry forth the aesthetics and rules of application that have been painstakingly developed in film over the past hundred years. Though equipment changes, these principles rarely do. This is the essence of moviemaking, not the media used. To do otherwise would be to take a huge step backwards (recall what happened to moviemaking immediately after sound was introduced).
In addition to providing a new set of tools, digital technology is democratizing the process of moviemaking because of its accessibility. The technology is affordable and easy to grasp. Yes, it can be confusing at times, but it's like that for everyone, since things are changing so rapidly. If you feel that you've been missing out, fear not. Most of these changes have occurred in the last few years, so jump on the bandwagon!
The film vs. digital argument is groundless. As an educator, my job is not to politicize students on this issue. Rather, it's to teach them how to use all of the tools and then let them, the artists, decide what's right for a their projects.
Despite the changing climate and the anxiety that it may bring, this is a very exciting time to be a moviemaker. I'm glad to be a part of this great camp.
Presentation/NYU Institute of Film and Television
1 Peter H. Putman, "A Digital Force: Lucasfilm on Digital Cinema," Millimeter, October 1999.
2 James Sterngold, "Coming Attractions: Digital Projectors Could Change Film Industry," The New York Times, February 22, 1999.
3 George Wing, "Beyond Exhibition: The Changing Face of Film Festivals," Moviemaker, July 1999.
4 Robert Johnston and Sally O'Steen, "A Moviemaker in Every House," Moviemaker, July 1999.
5 Rick Lyman, "New Digital Cameras Poised to Jolt world of Filmmaking," The New York Times, New York Today, November 19, 1999.
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