Moving Into Films: Part 1


Digital Filmmaking

By casting non-union talent and non-union crew, by utilising an available pool of college interns, and by making other creative decisions early on, I managed to bring down the budget for Bad Blood considerably. But this was not enough. Productions costs had to be trimmed even further. But no matter how many times I stirred the pot in my head, what surfaced as a last-resort money saving solution was to shoot the film in a format other than 35 mm film (the industry standard). Still, I could not bring myself to bite the bullet.

My other options were to shoot the film in 16mm film or in analog video. Shooting in 16mm would be less expensive than shooting in 35mm but even this proved too costly. Likewise, remembering how crappy films in video looked when projected into a big screen made me squirm. Finally there was digital video. But up to that time, what I had seen in digital, was far from good. I worried about the quality of the finished film and was not convinced that any of these choices was the way to go.

Pondering the problem and finding an agreeable solution took longer to emerge and many wakeful nights. I could not make up my mind until I read a book fresh out of the press. The book was Digital Moviemaking, and the author: Mr. Scott Billups. Scott's book was an epiphany. At four thirty in the morning I saw the light. Next thing I did was to buy several copies of the book and pass them around to my friends. Slowly but surely the light began to dawn on their faces too. This was reassuring, but I was not searching for their consent, I was sharing with them the decision that sealed the destiny of my film: I was going to shoot my movie in Hi-definition (HD) digital video.

Before ever hearing about Scott Billups I had heard about digital technology. Everyone had. This was a huge deal. The Internet made its way into dictionaries and new forms of communication (and communication gagets) were invading the market in tidal wave force. Even better, the way movies were being made was changing in a revolutionary way -literally- before our eyes.

The traditional one-hundred-year-old filmmaking process was, or so it seem, looking over its shoulder the way a rabbit looks back at a fast approaching tiger. The transformation in the film industry (and life as we know it) has been miraculous; It was an evolution into the next species that was welcomed with open arms by independent filmmakers and directors wanting to be free from the budget restraints of the movie industry.

To understand why independent filmmakers and directors were dancing naked in the streets talking digital and babbling mostly a lot of nonsense, you have to understand this very simple principle of movie economics. "Money", let me be precise -"the lack of money", is the black hole that separates Hollywood from thousands of aspiring filmmakers. ‘Hollywood money’ equaled getting your Hollywood-type film made. Movies are so incredibly expensive to produce, market and distribute, that without the mega-bucks and the technology perfected by the Hollywood system, aspiring filmmakers were facing an unbridgeable abyss.

Okay, let's have a reality check. Yes, it is possible to break into films by working through the system, but let’s be honest. Only the very best and the very few and the very, very lucky ever managed this feat. Ninety-nine percent of aspiring filmmakers –thats you and me, dude- could as well be dreaming (and scratch winning the lotto while you’re at it). But this bleak scenario was completely turned on its head with the emergence and explosion of digital technology. Then, when movie-god and uber-cultural-icon George Lucas completely embraced ‘digital,’ the party went into excesses of drunkenness and debauchery the likes the movie world has never seen before.

In Digital Moviemaking, Scott Billups, who had been in the digital trenches since the very first shot was fired, explains the digital revolution with this measured assessment: -“Virtually overnight, anyone with an idea and moderate means could now create a motion picture... Digital cameras, personal computers, powerful editing programs and affordable software have shaken the status quo in the film industry as the price point of entry into moviemaking was brought down to the means of just about everyone... And, with digitally recorded films lessening the Hollywood grip on the entertainment market, more and more filmmakers are going independent to produce movies on their own.”

The Cleveland Digital Scene

It did not take long for independent digital filmmakers to appear in the Cleveland scene. The possibilities of being able to create a complete film in the solitude of your basement -where most local independent filmmakers had set up shop- were truly remarkable. For many film enthusiasts digital was the natural progression from analogue video and soon small independent films were sprouting all over the place. Unfortunately, having the tools to make a movie does not make a Spielberg, just as having an amazing digital painting tool like Adobe Photoshop does not make a Michelangelo.

The new crop of digital movies was very bad for all the reasons I have previously stated and because the digital quality, while better when compared to analogue video, was very poor when compared to traditional film. Digital technology was still evolving and consumer digital cameras at a price range acceptable to most independent filmmakers where not suitable for doing feature films. But, digital technology was catching up. And by the time I read Digital Moviemaking, technology had reached my needs requirements.

To understand the impact Digital Moviemaking had (and continues to have) on the emerging new crop of filmmakers, you have understand who Scott Billups is. The best way to do so is to read his book and by visiting his website Pixelmonger (look for the link listed in the ‘Contact and Links’ page). But until you do so, let me give you my impressions of him. Scott Billups is an original -part pioneer, part guru, part entrepreneur, part artist and part rebel. He is also the rarest of prophets –he answers his e-mail!

It was Scott’s confidence in the future of digital filmmaking and his authoritative arguments plainly stated in his book that convinced me to go digital. I got caught up in his vision and it hasn’t stop since. I read Scott’s book several times and it still continue to do so as my knowledge of digital technology increases. What is great about Scott is that he communicates in a practical, no-nonsense conversational style that is easy to understand. Even when some of the technical things he writes about went over my head at the time, there was enough there for me to get a clear picture of the proverbial forest.

After my new introduction into digital moviemaking, my personal library grew tremendously with a collection of books covering every subject on digital technology, which I began to absorb with my usual zeal. I called people who were experimenting with digital video, I began surfing the web for digital filmmaking and digital technology websites, and I even communicated with Scott a couple of times. So by the time George Lucas announced that his new Star Wars movie was going to be filmed one hundred percent digital, I knew enough to understand that digital was the way to go.

Today, many Hollywood filmmakers and television producers are following Mr. Lucas’ lead with great success. The horizon for digital films seem very rosy indeed, but there was a catch. With the exception of Hollywood filmmakers such as Mr. Lucas and Robert Rodriguez (Once upon a time in Mexico, Spy Kids), I had never seen smaller independent digital movies showing in the local theatres. There is a reason for this. A digital movie still needs to be transferred to 35mm film to be shown on the big screen (as most theatres are not equipped with digital projectors). This alone is a hugely expensive process.

So here’s the catch: for a feature, you need a minimum of fifty thousand dollars to make the digital-to-film transfer alone. This fact explains in part why the ten to twenty thousand dollar movie ‘miracle’ most independent filmmakers preached about was not the reality it was preached out to be. Mark Twains words that said: -"Faith is what you know ain't so," kept drilling a hole in my head, especially when confronted with the reality that you still needed to dish out the fifty grand for the transfer. But if I wanted Bad Blood to show in theatres, this is what I had to do. And this was only the beginning.

In addition, it stood to reason that if I were to begin a balance sheet with an initial negative of fifty grand, I should make my digital feature with the highest digital standards I could afford. The higher the standards the better my film would compare to 35mm film when the transfer was completed. The digital standard I settled with was HD digital video.

And so, having decided to make my first movie a digital film, and knowing that the finished quality depended greatly on the quality of the hardware, I began to research professional digital filmmaking equipment to see what would fit my needs and how much it would cost to equip a digital production studio.

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