Children Of The Digital Revolution

Broadcast, 13.2.04, p. 30-31

Producer Carl Schoenfeld (My Brother Tom, A Sarajevo Diary) on the traps & blessings of shooting drama with a lightweight DV camcorder

The appearance of small DV cameras may have facilitated the emergence of Reality TV but also a proliferation of feature films like The Celebration, The Blair Witch Project, and most recently the £50.000 Raindance Film Festival winner The Last Horror Movie, all of which impressed audiences and critics alike. Time Out’s Jonathan Romney quickly observed after The Celebration won in Cannes: ‘Suddenly directors who wouldn’t have touched video with a ten-foot pole now wanted to use it’. A light sensitive handheld camcorder saves initially in camera and stock expenses, and further savings snowball as less light and grip equipment are needed, fewer people are required to operate a smaller kit. Working on ‘as is’ locations, actors spend little time looking for their trailers as the crew moves very rapidly through a dense schedule that can be as short as 2 weeks. Less mouths to feed and fewer bodies to transport result in less fringes and insurance, thus continuing to cut budgets dramatically.

In particular, filmmakers who work far from the big postproduction establishments are embracing a technical process that allows them to own their means of production, like an entire camera kit that fits into a gym bag and editing facilities included in an off-the-shelf Apple Mac. But as digital production offers advantages to certain story material, directing and visual approaches, other projects lose their visual potential with this technology. Hence, anybody tempted to invest into their own ‘means of production’ may benefit from tapping into the low resolution experience so far.

Long before some clever but cruel US filmmakers dumped a bunch of scared actors in the woods, years before the Dogma movement put Danish cinema and hitherto unknown directors like Susanne Bier an d Thomas Vinterberg on the map, UK Broadcasters explored the potential of small low resolution cameras with groundbreaking results: The BBC’s Video Diaries established the new genre of autobiographical film making, Russian Wonderland provided unprecedented access to a Russia coming to grips with capitalism as in my own experience Sarajevo Diary delved into daily survival efforts in a city under siege.

Thanks to a fast moving yet cheap camera and crew, the curiosity soon spread from documentary to drama. Jonnie Turpie directed RTS award winners ‘Wingnut And The Sprog’, ‘The Visit’ and ‘Blazed’ for Channel 4 on DV. He works with teenagers, “improvising from scripts compiled from the actor’s experiences and fantasies, often staging the action at the ‘real’ location”. Producer Andy Porter confirms the point of this approach: “There is an unserved market of young people who don’t see themselves on TV or in the cinema”.

On ‘The Visit’ they had only 1 1/2 hours to shoot, twice a day, in HM Prison in Hull. Apart from simplifying the planning of the production, Turpie finds the low tech shoot also allows for a ‘discrete relationship’ with the actors, thus getting better results particularly from emerging talent. It’s much easier to spend time building relationships, a second camera for matching footage is much more affordable, there is no need for the performer to hit focus marks on the floor, the camera set up is less intimidating, and it’s easier to stay in character during much reduced set up time. Kudos’ Jane Featherstone produced Channel 4’s recent ‘Pleasureland’ on DV: “it’s cheaper, you can throw the camera around more, it’s more flexible particularly when you work with a small unit, and it looks terrific.” For the same reasons ‘Eastenders’ is now shot on DVCPro, but BBC Head of Production Nigel Taylor finds that the main disadvantage of the format is that Execs and Talent don’t want “to shoot on a home video format”. In his opinion audiences neither “notice nor care whether Drama is shot on Digibeta or DV.” Hence with possibilities and popularity growing, “we certainly do more low cost Drama and we are actively seeking a project that could benefit from the advantages of shooting on DV.”

Jerry Rothwell, who recently worked with Turpie and Porter on Channel 4’s single drama ‘Pure’, finds ‘There are advantages that are also disadvantages, like the shooting ratio. It’s easy to overshoot’ If the actors have a particularly good day or the director is sparkling with last minute on-set ideas it is easy to pick up more tapes at a high street shop. But the cost of transferring to a more rugged format for back-up, digitising into an offline system and cutting an epic assembly down to a more digestible running length can grow rapidly.

“You should be more prepared with DV than you are with 35mm film”, warns Gary Winick, director of “Tadpole”, a US$250.000 feature that attracted Sigourney Weaver and reportedly sold to Miramax for US$5 million. It’s not that he’s out to spoil all the fun of working the shoot out on set, but “The actors can do it 100 different ways” and there is a tendency to take the work less seriously “because it's DV they don't have to work on the script. Bullshit.”

Moreover, postproduction schedules increase as opportunities to control the ‘look’ are growing rapidly. ‘We can now make Betacam look like DV as well as the other way round,’ says DP Terry Flexton. He was cinematographer on ‘Out Of Order’, the first ever feature film shot on video to be burnt onto film in 1987. In the meanwhile he shot five dramas on DV, many with scripts and shooting style derived from actor’s improvisation. Now he sees the format as a way in to the industry. ‘Runners and Researchers are now given DV cameras to use, as cinematographer I don’t mind but need a kit with good lenses and filters as I concentrate on quality.’ Dogma cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle on the other hand, speaking at a London Film Festival Masterclass, finds his colleagues too cautious. He finds that he doesn’t need massive equipment to tell a story, and prefers the intuitive facility of handheld camerawork. Clearly a camcorder is never the first choice tool if you want to present swarms of extras crossing sweeping landscapes, but good work has been done catching the emotional intimacy of good acting.

Picture quality may depend much on lighting skills, as the DV camera’s CCDs lack resolution and struggle much harder with high contrast than film or more expensive video formats. But it’s not just inexperienced operators who come up with the infamous shakycam, burnt out highlights and dull shadows, also veteran 35mm DPs have misjudged the challenge of conjuring up stimulating images with a camcorder. Arranging lights, often for 360 degree shots, complementing available light to maximum effect within the limited contrast of a CCD Chip is an art very different from good old Hollywood studio lighting.

“DV enjoys great popularity not on TV but in motion pictures,” finds Andy Setos, President at the Fox Group in L.A. “Independent filmmakers have historically used 16mm film and Super 8, so they embrace DV for speed and ease of entry” into the industry. He finds DV has less quality on a television but that this is, “not as much of an issue for the independent movement. But TV is a regularly scheduled phenomenon”. However, Fox uses a lot of DV on its cable channel ‘Fuel’ and Setos further notes that, “today decisions are made on the totality of the programme, what it looks like. It’s not a technical decision anymore.”

Darren Bender used to commission “Dogma TV” for Channel 4 on DV as “good storytelling doesn’t depend on special effects and huge production values. It’s stripped down to the bare essentials: scripts, actors and a camera.” Initially working with new writing and directing talent, some of them went on to further their career on the DV serial “Offenders”. Now Bender executive produces Rick Stroud’s “Joffer”, using also ‘magic realist’ possibilities that DV affords in post. “You can put things in, use other styles, it’s good for genre busting. It’s a route to other exciting things we have not invented yet, other forms we haven’t seen yet.”

After the camcorder revolution has injected an immediate, realist style into mainstream visuals, now postproduction is further advancing the change. CGI effects prices are dropping 90% every five years, and already undergraduate students inspired by their DVD collections cook up stylish SciFi or Horror effects. Before long it’s going to be Punk Rock on screen.