Now that every cell phone has a digital camera on board it hard to imagine life before digital. My career as filmmaker started in my tender teens when my father bought home an old VHS video recorder on loan from his work. It was a huge contraption which was a hefty shoulder mounted monster with cables leading to another shoulder strung VHS recording device and it was magnificent.
Much later I, in 1999, I found myself working with a company called Fresh Air Crew They had recently sunk hundreds of thousands of Rands into a state of the art Media 100 edit and where kicking themselves all the way to the bank. You see an amazing thing had happened, the digital revolution.
In that same year I had bought an G3 iMac for under 10000 and this little machine running Final Cut Pro version 2 did back-flips all over their obsolete beige beast.
1999 was a good year for digital, the national broadcaster had finally started accepting programming shot on three chip DV cameras, the VX1000 had undergone metamorphosis to emerge as the groundbreaking PD150 and George Lucas’s DreamWorks released “The Phantom Menace,” the fist block-buster shot on HD.
Back then while working at Fresh Air Productions people used to travel across town from far and wide to gaze in wonder at the RAID array of four eight gig hard drives. Eight gigs - isn’t it funny how you commonly get that many gigs memory on a little memory stick now?
Fresh Air Crew’s next move was to hop on the digital band wagon and invest in the Sony VX1000’s, they haven’t looked back since. The VX1000 was the first 3 chip DV cameras and it sold for under 20 000 rand at the time.
These where the first cameras that enabled the user to transfer video information via IEEE 1394 firewire. It was also the first camcorder in which both the MiniDV format and 3CCD color processing technology were used.
The light coming into the lens was split by a prism into red, green and blue components and each of these colours was processed by one of three 1/3 inch CCD chips and its resolution and video clarity was unrivaled at the time. On board was also a four capsule microphone which provided good stereo separation. The VX1000 was shortly replaced by the PD150 which quickly became the camera of choice for the documentary and low budget filmmakers.
Movies shot on the PD150, like and Gary Winick’s Tadpole and Personal Velocity, by Rebecca Miller, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2002 helped legitimize this new digital medium. (Ballmer, 2002)
Obviously there where still technical problems. The choices for compression and decompression systems (codec) at the time where limited and there where problems with artifacts, stepping and contrast. If your camera settings where slightly off it was all to easy to end up with a completely burned out image and the digital image also obviously lacked the tonal range of film.
Back then the goal was we to emulate the film look on digital and a whole host of plug in applications evolved such as Cinelook. None of them actually worked very well. DV, especially badly lit DV, still looked like video all too often hard and somehow too stark.
Film on the other hand, represented a physical process of light burning into a emulsion and could deliver a dreamy poetic reality.
But as one of my favorite bloggers, Todd Miro points out:
“It’s over - film is dead! Long live digital! Standard film technology is arcane, inefficient and unnecessarily expensive. Based on 19th century technological advances, celluloid, mechanical shutters and sprockets were exciting stuff back in the day, but c’mon it’s time to move on already - we’re not still riding horse-drawn buggies people!” (Miro, 2010)
The major advantage to film has always been it superiority in terms on the latitude at which it can replicate light and the resolution achievable on a 35mm. The major advantages of video has always been costs and portability. As the technology has developed the differences between the two are reconciling.
Once High Definition video was introduced the gap started narrowing, even more recent developments which deliver 2K and 4K resolution are making the difference negligible. After all there are only so many millions of pixels the human eye can discern. (Miro, 2010)
Back in 1965, the former president of the electronics firm Intel, Gordon Moore described technology as the driving force of social change in the 21st century. Essentially a trend in the development of computing hardware that he identified if that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every 18 months. This is now know as Moores Law
The result is that the speed at which computers and other electronic devices including digital cameras can process information is likewise improving at a similar exponential rates. (Moore, 1965)
The Futurists school of thought as championed by Ray Kurzweil, Bruce Sterling, and Vernor Vinge take this a step further by postulating that the exponential rate of improvement identified by Moore’s Law will result in what they term a technological singularity: a period where progress in technology occurs almost instantaneously. (Vinge, 1993)
This isn’t as far fetched as one would imagine if you consider that continuous firmware updates which improve your cameras functionality are already released every few weeks by the major manufacturers. In essence as soon as you buy your camera you have to upgrade and keep upgrading its firmware.
The relevance of all this to the purposes of this discussion is that the difference between the resolution that is achievable on film as compared to the resolution achievable through digital has narrowed to negligibility.
This applies to the higher end cameras such as the Viper, Genesis, F900, Red 1, Red Epic, Arri Alexa, but even at the low end of the market what is achievable with cameras such as the Sony EX3, Panasonic HVX200, Canon HV20 and the SLR’s such as the Canon 5D mk II and 7D was previously unimaginable.
“The DSLR’s (Like Canon 5D MkII) means we now have complete control over where and when we shot and for how long. We can also work with a micro crew who are multi talented and wear many hats. And the biggest and most exciting change is that we can now control distribution enough to ensure that, at the very least, we have a good chance of making all of our investment back. And if things go well, we should make a healthy profit.
This is in stark contrast to film making just six or seven years ago when it was near impossible to self distribute and the production process of a high quality product was still very expensive. Back then it was absolutely ridiculous to even consider owning a camera that could capture images as cinematic as a Canon 5D MkII.” (Jones, 2011)
Film purists, and there are many, will argue that the physicality of film will always surpass digital in terms of latitude and light sensitivity but the pragmatics of film production dictate that the economic implications of a digital workflow from production to post to distribution and exhibition just make better sense.
For the past 10 years or so Hollywood has been forced to adopt a Frankenstein workflow for making movies. Movies have been shot (mostly) in film, then transferred to video tape or digital files for editing, special effects and color-grading, then printed back onto 35mm film for distribution and exhibition. 35mm film as the standard for the motion picture industry is barely viable today and will quickly disappear as Moore’s law rips through the antiquated process of recording, editing and viewing motion images. If today, a $2000 camera can make pretty damn good images that certainly are better than 16mm film (great for indi-filmmakers), and a $60,000 camera can make amazing images that easily stand toe to toe with 35mm film (great for mainstream Hollywood), then just imagine what will be available 5 years from now, or 10 years from now… The digital revolution is a fast, violent, economics-changing process, and it always looks forward. Jump onboard or be left in the dust. (Miro 2010)
These quantum leaps in technology are by no means confined to production. Take for instance the innovations that have happened with the advent of cinemas equipped with digital projectors which means you deliver your finished film to the distributor not as an expensive 35mm print but on a hard-drive in the form of a Digital Cinema Package or DCP for short.
If you want a 35mm print of your digitally shot motion picture you have to layout to film, converting your digital files to film print. The cost for a feature film “filmout” is typically $40,000-$50,000 or more. Each additional print is about $1000-$1500. (Lipton et. al, 2008)
DCP is the digital equivalent of a 35mm film print. It is what you give to a commercial theater so that they can screen your movie on a digital (also known as “D-Cinema”) projector. Like a 35mm print, a DCP is a world-wide standard.
According to dcpinfo.com a professionally encoded feature DCP typically costs about 80-90% less than a film-out, with additional copies running about $150-$250 each.
Another benefit is that DCP’s don’t wear out like 35mm and they don’t degrade with age. Often film prints that are shipped to cinemas all over the world are handled roughly by uncaring technicians, dust or fibers in the gate of the projector can scratch and damage 35mm prints. On the other hand digital copies do not degrade, scratch or break, unless vigorously hammered with a heavy object and even if there is a loss, a replacement copy is a fraction of the price when compared to film.
The major film studios always have their eye on the bottom line and therefore it is not surprising that there is a massive move towards digital distribution. (Lipton et. al, 2008)
The revolutionary implications of technology for the dominant mode of production is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of motion picture as we know it, the business of making movies has relied on new developments to win an audience, streamline the production process and boost profits.
It seems however that in the golden age of Hollywood cinema the industry pioneers hit on a winning formula and stuck with it. For the best part of the last century the nuts and bolt of how films where made where unchanged. (Brian, 2005)
The watershed innovations where obviously the introduction of sound and colour, but after that things remained more or less the same when it can to how the final product was experienced by the viewer. The changes that did occur where subtle shifts that at first glance would not register as a major change for the pop-corn munching consumer.
For example smaller and lighter cameras and sound capturing devices that came into their own after world war two freed the filmmaker from the contaminant of the studio, these developments where to be midwife to the profoundly significant Italian Neo-realists and later cinéma vérité movements. (Zimmerman, 1988)
The next major technological innovation to impact filmmaking was the invention of the steadicam by Garret Brown in 1976. Brown shot a demo reel of what the steadicam made possible and began hawking it around the industry. His reel was seen by directors such as John Avildsen and Stanley Kubric who used it to great effect in “Rocky” (1976) and “The Shining” (1980) and the rest as they say is cinematic history. (Geuens, 1994)
One can now buy a hand held version custom built for lightweight cameras such as the Canon 5D for 6200 ZAR. (B&H Photo Video Store online catalogue)
The digital explosion in the 90’s continued in the 2000’s with the renewed excitement around 3D. Forerunners where James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Steven Spielberg’s digitally animated The Polar Express (2004) which paved the way for James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) which is the highest grossing movie of all time according to www.boxoficemojo.com, taking in a whopping $2,782,206,970 at the last count.
Perhaps if 3D become the next big thing it will reign indi-filmmaking with prohibitive costs. In the traditional method of production the complexity and cost of the actual equipment you needed to make a film acted as a filter, stopping just anyone from making a movie. (Xenopoulos, 2011)
As it stands now anyone with a cellphone can make a film and access an audience by posting it on you tube. What will the legacy of this be for serious filmmaking, well as Todd Miro points out:
The good news is that anyone who wants to make a movie can now make a movie. The bad news is that anyone who wants to make a movie can now make a movie. (Miro, 2010)
Just because it is easier to make movies doesn’t mean that its easier to make a good film. The art and craft of making cinema with any artistic merit is just as important whether the cameras we use are cheap or expensive.
GUERILLAS IN OUR MIDST
Having laid the foundation for the argument that now is a good time to make films for the simple fact that gear has come down in costs and you get many more pixels for the price I would like to explore ideas around how this could impact on the mode of production as well as the aesthetic of future filmmaking.
Acknowledging the breadth of this topics I will narrow my focus to small to medium budget films, with very specific reference to the African context.
What sort of films do we make, what sort of films should we make and what do they look like?
It is widely believed that the changing landscape in terms of the means of film production and the opportunities have made things easier for the guerilla filmmaker, but what exactly is meant by this term.
The term “guerilla” filmmaker is a populist term that perhaps hold as much cultural resonance for so many because as Zelik (2006) points out, guerilla warfare and asymmetrical warfare have become such a defining feature of post world war social reality.
Since 1945 the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction had the result that there were less and less state-to-state wars. In the two military blocs, the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, it was known that a clash was only to make at the price of total destruction. In the same period partisan warfare got more and more importance. (Zelik, 2006)
Essentially guerilla warfare is fighting an offensive war while staying on the defensive. The idea is to operate swiftly carrying out missions that take the enemy by surprise and then get out as soon as possible before there is any time for retaliation. (Dupuy, 1939)
Guerrilla filmmaking shares similarities. It is characterized by low budgets and skeleton crews using what is available. Often scenes are shot quickly in real locations without any warning or permission. Guerilla films are often self funded, and made my small groups of multi-tasking people. Like the guerilla partisan of last centuries conflicts, there is a decentralised “cellular” control structure, missions are carried out on the basis of get in fast and get out. Just as guerilla combatants often operate on the fringes of the law, guerilla filmmakers often film without the legal technicalities of location permits and permissions. Guerilla filmmakers have to relying on the good will of the local population
Perhaps the most striking feature of this mode of production is the way in which the filmmaking project participants are often united by an idea, a message or an ideology
“Guerilla filmmaking is about making your movie now, with the resources you already have, plus and a little extra that you pull together – and this ‘little extra’ is often easier to find than expected as once you commit to your journey to make the film, people around you begin to help, to contribute and make stuff available to you (be it products, locations, time or cash). They want to be involved in your adventure.”