THE REVOLUTION WILL BE DIGITISED
As Hollywood budgets get higher and higher, a group of rebels is storming the citadel of the studios. Their weapons? Digital camcorders that you can buy down at Dixons. Story: Leigh Singer
The Cannes Film Festival: reputedly the biggest media event on earth behind the Olympics, undoubted capital of Planet Cinema yet all too often, the major marketing tool of Planet Hollywood. International films for the critics, French chic for the tourists, glossy US movies and stars for the world’s media. The town’s not twinned with Beverly Hills for nothing.
Case in point, Cannes 1998. Opening film, John Travolta in the Bill Clinton-inspired satire ‘Primary Colours’; closing proceedings, unbelievably, ‘Godzilla’. Yes, ‘Godzilla’. Thankfully the festival’s lasting memory wasn’t soulless, multi-million dollar giant lizard pyrotechnics, but a film from Denmark shot on digital video for probably half the cost of Godzilla’s launch party.
‘Festen’ (‘The Celebration’), was the vanguard of the now legendary Dogme 95 manifesto, a counter-movement to contemporary cinema concocted by a quartet of Danish directors, led by the maverick Lars Von Trier. Their aim: to strip away the superficiality inherent in most modern movies. Their method: strict adherence to a set of rules cheekily titled ‘The Vow of Chastity’ - that advocate a back-to-basics approach bordering on the primitive: handheld cameras, no artificial lighting, no sets or costumes, no added music and other limitations that would leave Jerry Bruckheimer’s head spinning (in slow-motion, naturally, shot from multiple angles through a Tony Scott-mist, backed by a pounding synth score).
‘When the thing started, everybody thought we were completely crazy,’ recalls Kristian Levring, one of the four Dogme founders. ‘But seeing ‘Festen’ in competition at Cannes - a tiny Danish film shot for, like, £400,000 on a consumer camera in the enormous cinema with 8000 people applauding for at least 15 minutes after it ended, that’s one of the biggest experiences I’ve had in my life.’
After the Cannes screenings of ‘Festen’ and Von Trier’s own ‘The Idiots’, this raw, urgent, Digital Video footage was branded as the new New Wave. Interestingly, DV was against their original rules, though once allowed it was quickly, and wrongly, assumed to be a stipulation. DV was always about more than the Dogme restrictions but nevertheless the chaste Danes were directly responsible for digital filmmakers going forth and multiplying at an astounding rate.
Call it ‘Wagging the Dogme’. In London, director Danny ‘Trainspotting’ Boyle took one look at ‘Festen’s camerawork, called up the lenser Anthony Dod Mantle and commandeered him into working on two upcoming digital films for BBC TV. ‘I flew to Copenhagen the next day,’ enthuses Boyle. ‘I think he was so blown away by how upfront I was that he agreed to do it.’ It’s a collaboration that has extended to Boyle’s recent DV zombie-thriller ’28 Days Later’.
In New York, little-known filmmaker Gary Winick was inspired to set up his collective InDigEnt, ‘a company specialising in low-budget digital films to give experienced filmmakers a chance to work in this medium,’ he explains. InDigEnt already has the likes of Richard Linklater’s ‘Tape’, plus last year’s Sundance winners ‘Personal Velocity’ and Winick’s own coming-of-age comedy ‘Tadpole’ - snapped up by Miramax for a whopping $5 million - on its ever-increasing slate.
Even major studios momentarily came off autopilot. Director Mike Figgis, hot off the success of his Oscar-winning ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, was already switched on to the nascent technology and planning to shoot his ambitious four-split-screen-in-one-take digital feature ‘Timecode’ ‘in London for nothing.’ One Hollywood lunch with the head of Sony Pictures later and the project was a greenlit studio picture shooting in L.A with Salma Hayek, Kyle MacLachlan and co. ‘He got very excited by the PR aspect of it and said “Can you shoot it for under $5 million?”’ Figgis smiles. ‘You know, $5 million is what they normally spend on the catering.’
The list goes on. When possibly Hollywood’s hippest director, Steven Soderbergh, funded by Miramax, shoves a consumer DV camera in the face of the biggest female star on the planet, Julia Roberts, for his ‘Full Frontal’, it’s clear we’re no longer confined to student film festivals. For now leave aside the high-end, High-Definition stuff of the new ‘Star Wars’ product, or Pixar’s cutting-edge animation and focus on why big name directors like Figgis, Soderbergh and Boyle, and A-list talent like Roberts, Ethan Hawke ‘Tape’ star and debut director of ‘Chelsea Walls’, both InDigEnt productions - and ‘Tadpole’ lead Sigourney Weaver have signed up to this grassroots revolution.
Technological experimentation may inspire Von Trier, Levring and fellow filmmakers but such reasoning is a foreign language to studio CEOs. Saving money, however, is a tongue that any movie executive is fluent in. Dogme and its ilk are based on small, portable cameras and equipment available on the high street, not CGI that ILM needs to spend millions on. VHS was cheap and looked it. Go digital and suddenly, for a comparatively small price hike (miniscule relative to the budget of a feature) you have pictures and sound good enough for public broadcast.
So DV is cheap. Hardly a revelation. What’s less obvious are the other advantages it proffers. Traditionally, getting a film made is like launching the Titanic: a huge, slow, cumbersome, technically dependent enterprise, chock full of people that usually hits a critical or commercial iceberg. And you only set sail after years of rewrites and studio politics (called without trace of irony ‘development’), while your original vision gets distorted at every turn.
By contrast ‘The Full Monty’ writer Simon Beaufoy’s latest film, a gritty DV chase-thriller ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ was shot in 12 days after mere weeks of preparation. Winick filmed ‘Tadpole’ in 14 days and Soderbergh wrapped ‘Full Frontal’ after 18. ‘You could never have done it on any other format,’ maintains Beaufoy. ‘The gear would be too heavy to lug around apart from anything else.’ Keeping costs down and moving fast both help a more undiluted vision to hit the screen.
Logistical benefits soon become apparent too. For the stunning opening scenes of a deserted, post-plague London in ’28 Days Later’, Boyle is adamant that ‘we wouldn’t have been able to do it without those cameras. It’s not even a question of money in London, it’s the sheer impossibility of it.’ Similarly Gary Winick was able to discreetly manoeuvre Sigourney Weaver around various Manhattan locations without attracting attention. Indeed, actors seem to be galvanised by this, as Weaver described DV, ‘hybrid between theatre and film’ that cuts down waiting time on set and takes away the pressure of wasting expensive film stock. ‘DV’s fantastic,’ claims Janet McTeer, star of both Kristian Levring’s digital films ‘The King Is Alive’ and ‘The Intended’ (which she co-wrote). ‘You can really fuck it up and do it twenty times, as opposed to only having the money for two shots.’ And you thought they were all luvvies.
So if DV’s so much cheaper, faster, more independent and more enjoyable (Soderbergh aped the Dogme rules in a letter to his ‘Full Frontal’ stars informing them that ‘you will have fun whether you want to or not’), what’s the catch? If hands-on artists like Figgis and Soderbergh have the clout and the know-how to go it alone, and the technology improves at the same rapid rate, isn’t the battle already won?
Not so fast. DV image quality, admittedly much improved, is not and will never be celluloid. Today’s visually sophisticated audiences may be used to rough ‘n ready camerawork (reality TV, surveillance cameras, commercials), but they’re still conditioned to accept it more for certain ‘appropriate’ material voyeurism (‘My Little Eye’) or pseudo-documentary (‘The Blair Witch Project’) for example. It’s hard to imagine James Bond or Harry Potter being greeted with quite the same enthusiasm without their slick surface sheen.
Or is it? Boyle, who claims ’28 Days Later’ is ‘the first serious attempt to make a mainstream DV film’, concurs but also sees filmmakers perpetuating this cinematic apartheid themselves: ‘Soderbergh’s a fantastic director but he makes it very clear that he’s using [DV] for his experimental work rather than his mainstream work so ‘Full Frontal’, DV, gets a small release, but ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ is celluloid and gets a mega release,’ he argues. ‘I think that’s a shame because the danger is that a glass ceiling will be erected over DV which stops the public getting accustomed to it.’
However filmmakers promote their work, they still have to reckon with an archaic distribution system that’s ill equipped to show digital films. ‘We’re stuck in the dinosaur age of showing films in big theatres,’ insists Simon Beaufoy, ‘where you have to get a big Friday night box-office otherwise they won’t put it on after the weekend.’ Little wonder that small-scale DV films can’t find a foothold.
Further irony is that a film shot and edited on digital has to transfer to a film print to even be shown theatrically. Beaufoy’s ‘Love Song’ is still awaiting UK distribution, ‘Tadpole’s release has been shunted back to make way for more prestigious Oscar bait and Soderbergh has even overtaken himself, his new sci-fi epic ‘Solaris’ in all likelihood forcing ‘Full Frontal’, Julia Roberts and all, straight to DVD.
And yet… those involved in the DV revolution remain quietly confident. The filmmakers here might be seen as the complete opposites of George Lucas, but when Weird Beard’s high-tech Empire strikes back pushing High-Definition digital facilities as standard, there will hopefully be room for everyone. ‘I think DV is coming and I think High Def and DV will work as a pincer movement and just abolish celluloid,’ asserts Danny Boyle. ‘I don’t know how long it’ll take but multiplexes, when they get the digital projectors, they’ll put digital stuff in if young filmmakers bring them their stuff.’
Others like Mike Figgis don’t even see the need to wait for these predictions. ‘You know, a cinema doesn’t have to exist as a space, all I need is a space that can be a cinema,’ he suggests. ‘The fact is for about £1000 you can buy a very good small digital projector, some speakers and an amplifier and actually create a 50 seat cinema that has very good high-resolution projection quality, where all the equipment can fit in the back of a little white van.’ And we haven’t even mentioned the Internet yet.
Let’s be clear: digital isn’t loved for what it is, but for what it allows. For the first time, a large number of individuals have the power to control the economics, own the equipment and enjoy real artistic freedom. As with Cannes ‘98, the challenge is for filmmakers, exhibitors and audiences alike to identify the genuine innovators from the hyped-up, dumbed-down pretenders. ‘Now there’s no good excuse,’ shrugs Kristian Levring. ‘It’s not about getting your crane or steadicam. If you’ve got something to say, you can do it.’ A revolution is underway. For real movie lovers, it’s already reason enough for a celebration.
‘Personal Velocity’ opens on March 28th; ‘Tadpole’ and ‘The Intended’ will be released later this year. ‘Timecode’ is released on DVD in April.
DV 101 THE (VERY) ROUGH GUIDE
Cameras: 3 CCD (Charged Coupled Device since you ask) chip cameras give sharper pictures. The pros use either the Canon XL1 (Soderbergh, Boyle) or the Sony PD100 / 150 (Levring, Winick, Figgis). They cost around £2-3,000. Alternatively hire them in.
Sound: In-camera sound recording is limited. Try for external mic XLR connections.
Editing: Basic digital editing packages for PC (e.g. Adobe Premiere) or Mac (Final Cut Pro, or for real budget-busters, I-Movie)
Post-Production: Now the key area. Says Winick ‘once Miramax picked up ‘Tadpole’ they paid for a whole new sound mix that cost more than the actual film.’
Now just sort out a script, actors, locations, tape stock, marketing and distribution and hey presto! You’re a DV filmmaker!
RULING THE GALAXY.
Revealed for the first time, George Lucas’s own moviemaking mantras.
Hallowed be thy blue screen
Dialogue will be in words of one syllable, except planet names and cool space stuff.
A CGI seven-foot Rastafarian fish who says ‘doo-doo’ is cool and funny, no matter what anyone says.
Every background extra shall be dressed up and named; you’d be amazed how many extra action figures kids will buy.
No replacement of human actors or Natalie Portman with ‘synthespians’ until the last possible moment. Honest.
Hey Steven, Francis, Marty, Jim Cameron! Who’s King of the World, now, huh? Huh? Hang on, where’d this Peter Jackson guy come from…?
'© Highbury Entertainment 2003. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
BACK TO FILM JOURNALISM INDEX