Sunday, August 19, 2001

Digital is on a roll

As its visual quality improves, area filmmakers join the focus on this low-cost, high-tech format

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When cameras roll today on Tattered Angel, a local independent feature starring Lynda Carter, the filmmakers have digital technology to thank.

        After struggling for two years to raise enough money to shoot on traditional 35mm film, the company earlier this year decided to use the newest high-definition digital format.

        Their decision reflects changes sweeping the movie industry, from the Academy Awards to the film festival circuit. The same changes are in play on the streets of Cincinnati among ever-hopeful novice moviemakers cranking out homegrown productions.

        Not only are digital formats cheaper and easier to use than film, but the technology has improved so much and so fast that it is quickly becoming the standard for low-budget movie making, in and out of Hollywood.

        Cincinnatian Mike Caporale will be the cinematographer on Tattered Angel.After more than 20 years shooting commercials and movies on traditional film at his Madisonville production house, he is so convinced of the value of digital that he is selling all his film equipment.

        “I don't see the advantage anymore in owning film equipment,” Mr. Caporale said. “It's very costly, and commercial clients and corporate clients are using it less. . . . I think high-definition (video) production is going to soar. I just don't see the obstacle anymore. Within the next two years, you'll see this replacing film all over.”

        Signs that digital movie making is quickly breaking into the mainstream abound:

        • George Lucas is using exclusive, extremely sophisticated digital cameras to shoot the new Star Wars movies.

        • The Academy Awards this year agreed to accept entries exhibited by new, still-experimental digital projection systems, similar to those first tested in commercial movie houses on Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

        • Established moviemakers are turning to digital technology at a breathless pace. Spike Lee used digital cameras on Bamboozled and The Original Kings of Comedy. So did Mike Figgis on Time Code, Alan Cummings and Jennifer Jason Leigh on The Anniversary Party and Wayne Wang on The Center of the World.

        Upcoming independent features Session 9 by Brad Anderson and Jackpot by the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho) were shot with the same brand-new, high-definition camera that will be used on Tattered Angel.

        • Important film festivals are accepting and exhibiting digital movies more widely, and in some cases, posting them on the Internet.

        Professionals who have worked in both formats still tend to argue that even the best digital technology does not equal the depth of color, richness of detail and subtlety of light that can be captured on film.

        “I know digital is coming on and film is going to become obsolete eventually, but that's a depressing thought to me,” said Milford native Scott Barlow, a budding screenwriter and director. “I can't imagine Apocalypse Now being shot digitally.”

        Yet, the economics of the new technology are hard to beat, he said. “Film stock is so expensive, it's nerve-wracking. Every time you call "action,' you're just burning money.”

        Mr. Barlow's first feature, The Last Late Night was shot on 35mm film and screened at several film festivals. Last year, he shot a short, Crazy Like the Taz, on digital. It is making the rounds of festivals now.

        “Obviously it looks different,” he said. “Nothing looks like film. But for beginning filmmakers it creates a lot easier access for people to go out and make movies. It's incredibly cheap and easy.”

        An example of that phenomenon is former Forest Park resident Jerry White Jr., who chose digital video for his first feature, Get Right or Get Left, shot in and around Cincinnati this summer.

        “Accessibility, first of all, is the reason,” said Mr. White, who had no previous experience with filmmaking. “That's the future. I live in Los Angeles, in the land of entertainment, and (digital technology is) the wave of the future, so it's just like a gift.”
        Tattered Angel began with a script that Duffy Hudson completed in 1999. His friendship with Lynda Carter led her to the project.

        “It's only fitting that we are going to be shooting this film in the latest technology,” he said. “Since day one, it's been uncharted territory.”

        Mr. Hudson, director Will Benson and their company, Cincinnatus Motion Picture, clung to plans for a 35mm shoot as long as digital video was still associated with bargain-basement work. But as digital movies gained respectability, the financial advantage grew more compelling.

        Mr. Hudson noted that a 46-minute high-definition tape of the kind to be used on Tattered Angel costs $55. An equivalent amount of 35mm film stock would cost about $2,200, not counting processing, which nearly doubles the price.

        Processing film was enough of a headache on Eric Chatterjee's first attempt at a feature that he and his partners abandoned the project unfinished. They hope to revive it as a digital work after they finish their current digital project, Grimm Reality.

        Mr. Chatterjee, who also worked on the recently completed local project Blood Sisters: Vamps 2 and on Mr. Barlow's The Last Late Night, said geography made it even harder to use film.

        “You have to order stock from out of town, ship it here by refrigerated freight. Once you shoot it, you have to put it in field containers, get it back on a plane to get it processed, then they mail back to you air freight, you take that and then you can go into editing. You couldn't even get dailies in Cincinnati, you could only get weeklies. . . . That's another thing that led me to say, "Ah! Digital!' ”

        Mr. Chatterjee said digital technology also allows him to use his laptop computer to edit footage and watch scenes played back instantly after they are shot.

        He said when he first switched from film to digital video, he saw it as a sacrifice.

        “I've always liked that warm, flickering image. Film feels very warm compared to video, which is very cool.”

        Using the new technology, he said,, “was just getting used to a new set of clothes. Now that I'm in it, I don't know that I'll ever go back to film.”
        The advance of film-less movies is particularly evident on the film festival circuit, where fresh ideas and low budgets are welcome.

        Next month, for instance, the Toronto International Film Festival, the largest in North America, will show digital works, via digital projection, for the third year. Four venues have been equipped with systems donated by festival sponsors Sony Corp. and Digital Projection Ltd..

        Compared to last year, said festival director Piers Handling, digital video submissions doubled. The more advanced high-definition format accounted for one submission last year; this year there were 25. In total, 43 digital video works will be presented.

        “It's new and everyone's curious about it,” Mr. Handling said, “but in fact I'm sure some parts of the audience don't even know or recognize that they're watching something that is digitally projected.

        “I don't think the audience is bashing down the doors to see stuff on DV, I really don't think they care at all. The movie experience is the movie experience, the way it's delivered is unimportant to them.”

        To Mr. Caporale, a high-definition digital camera means more than technical prowess. “It's a more democratic process,” he said. “This puts very high-end production capacity in the hands of people other than the large studios.”

        Jeff Lipsky, a movie industry veteran who now heads independent distributor Lot 47 Films, recently said digital filmmaking “isn't merely an excuse for low-budget, artistically limiting filmmaking. Rather it's the most liberating creative format that has ever been available to moviemakers.”

        George Lucas, the industry's most powerful advocate of the new technology, voiced similar sentiments in a recent interview with Sony Corp.'s Network Magazine:

        “My feeling is that the artist really needs to be free, not to have to think about how he's going to accomplish something, or if he can afford to accomplish something. He should just be able to let his imagination run wild without a lot of constraints. And that's really what digital is allowing us to do.”

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