Updates on Digital Cinematography: Recreate Reality or Just Tell Me a Damn Story? - Digital vs. Analog Week on BTR


Photo illustration by Rachel Steinhauser.

Cue Don LaFontaine: In a world run by the disturbing convenience and accessibility of digital media, a man and his camera flee to a small village outside the city. “This place is amazing!” But what he encountered, he never would have expected. “Oh…my…god!” DUM DUM: Two Dimensional People.

At the helm of every digital reality-based initiative in film is the venerable James Cameron, who at this past March’s CinemaCon pulled a TED and anointed the crowd with his vision of cinema realism as a function of frame rates instead of resolution. He really is the Steve Jobs of Hollywood (look at the goatee and that well-earned smugness), making ridiculous claims about reality like this one:  “When you author and project a movie at 48 or 60 [frames per second], it becomes a different movie. The 3D shows you a window into reality; the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window. In fact, it is just reality. It is really stunning.”

The conceptual difference between digital and film is in how close to the speed of image reproduction the audience wants its cinema to be, and in terms of 3D or 2D, how close to the action the audience feels comfortable being. Resolution, the former focus of industry technical advancement (and creator of toy wars between suburban dads and their flat screens), has leveled off around 2,000 pixels per square inch. That is a crisp picture even when projected, but many filmmakers want to push to 4,000 pixels in hopes of creating a more realistic picture.

Digital media is different from film, and as we viewed in the spectacle that was Avatar, the differences between viewing a film and subjecting yourself to a 3D movie have been carefully demarcated. People have been attending theaters for many years with the sole intention of being entertained, of hoping to be impressed in the same way Houdini’s fans needed more, more, more magic! We all know what happened to that poor man (his appendix was punched to death, upon his request, leading to his real death).

Digital film is the Canal Street of reel film, which is itself the Canal Street of sitting in one spot for 90 minutes, staring blankly at interesting people. 3D is like sitting in the middle of a bunch of people and expecting them not to acknowledge you, which is one big reason why 3D is frightening; the spectacle invades the dimension separating images from reality – the fourth wall – causing a more heightened sense of awareness of those images. Why pornography has not leapt on this opportunity like a James Cameron to a sequel is inexplicable. Where are our new pornographers?

To its credit, 3D technology exploded in the early 1950s and again in the 1980s and 90s, failing each time to attract the masses or more significantly the theaters, whose projectionists had comical trouble synching up the stereoscopic film (depth manipulation using juxtaposed images). Let’s just say the janitors were paid overtime (clean up on aisle puke).

Even Steven Spielberg, an anti-digital force in the industry, has jumped on the 3D bandwagon with the upcoming Tintin film, which is sure to upset all those die-hard Tintin fans in America. Non-linear digital editing is perhaps the greatest freedom granted to production, allowing editors to jump back and forth between scenes and make cuts without permanently losing or botching deleted clips. Most professional films are edited on Avid, but Adobe’s Final Cut is still a heavily used program in the industry.

One of the more ludicrous high-end digital cinema camera manufacturers is RED, whose Epic 617 model runs for $53,000 and can shoot at a pixel rate of 28,000 x 9,334 (4,000 is considered to be ‘enough’). Director Werner Herzog used a RED to film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and called it, “an immature camera created by computer people who do not have a sensibility or understanding for the value of high-precision mechanics, which has a 200-year history.” Angry geezer’s gripe, or legitimate comment about technology overshooting its boundaries in the film world?

Other film production processes have gone digital like  script supervising, but any sweeping movement to outsource film crew duties to digital processes does not seem to be looming in the near future. Big and small film companies still rely on the classic crew setup of the producer, director, cinematographer, gaffer, make-up artist, actors, set builders, et al. to create their films.

So what is it like outside of Hollywood?

Lyman Creason, a 25 year-old Louisville-born filmmaker, trekked over to Connecticut for college in 2004, won $10,000 in a short film contest in 2005, graduated with his BA and moved to Brooklyn in 2008, returned to Kentucky to shoot a feature-length film in 2010 on a $7,500 budget, and now in 2011, he will put his education, his passion, and all the work he put into Projection on display for festival judges, friends, and eventually the public.

Family and friends, as well as people he had worked with in New York traveled to Louisville to help him film, none expecting compensation other than the pleasure gained from a finished product. Of course, one has to find people who are willing to do this sort of thing, but Creason had a good support network. “I called in all of my favors and spent the money I had on tape, light bulbs, food, things like that. I knew I could get my camera kit and my lights for free, because I knew people that had them.”

Borrowing equipment from friends and community members and relying mostly on the kindness of his crew, Creason skipped most of the prohibitive overhead costs in order to shift the focus in the direction of filming rather than feasibility.

“The immediate availability of digital media,” he explains, “has made it easier for someone like myself to make a professional feature film at a very modest budget. That being said, there are a lot of others out there doing the same thing, so the field is much more difficult.”

With a Panasonic HVX 200 shot at 24 FPS and HD1080 interlaced pixels, the camera’s highest resolution, he finished the film in 21 days on a 10 to 12 hour per day production schedule. The frame rate and resolution were as close to a standard full-length picture as he and partner Brian McCarthy could attain.  “I always see this as being able to one day shoot on film,” says Creason, “there’s a richer texture; the images just feel fuller and deeper. We shot it to make it look as close to film as possible.”

For higher budget films (upwards of $200 million), the savings from going digital are negligible at best, but for smaller, indie films, sticking with film stock can break the bank as well as the willingness of a small film crew to spend extra time handling physical components, adjusting exposures, and dealing with any number of unexpected imperfections inherent to film development.

“Digital was always what we used,” says Creason, “like from the very beginning, because it was just easier to do that. When we took an experimental film course, we used reel film and were able to use a Steenbeck machine, and went through the whole process of literally making a cut and splicing film together. If I had to make 1000 of those cuts for one movie, I’d probably go insane.”

“I have stories to tell and I want to tell them. And I guess I should start thinking about [new technology],” he relents, humbly admitting his ignorance to new gadgetry and film industry trendsetters, “but it doesn’t really have an effect on me because I don’t have access to that. Cameron is the one with patents on the design, so not everyone is going to be able to use it. Check back with me in 5 or 10 years, and it might be effecting me.”

When serious figures in the art world lambast digital media, they deride those whose pockets are not lined by big production companies and corporate sponsors, projecting a cranky elitism onto cinema upstarts whose priorities are far from shiny new technology fetishism.

Within Cameron’s undying desire to amaze with technology and Creason’s history-proven need to tell relevant and engaging stories, the decades-old convergence of spectacle and narrative expands: Do those whose conception of film as a medium of story-telling mind the encroachment of extravagant CGI, 3D immersion, and high frame rates, or will this question one day be akin to asking whether the pen will transform the stories we once passed on only through speech?

“I’d like to think that movies will get more 3D,” Creason tells BTR, “and there will be more aliens and zombies and explosions, but there will still be smaller films that are more personal. It’s not really about how it’s made, but what is made.”

Written by: Jakob Schnaidt