Digital Filmmaking: The New Alternative?
by Stephen Garrett
"We want to be the next Sundance," declared John Scalise, managing
director of the ResFest Digital Film Festival, the nation's first
touring festival of films devoted entirely to digital media. After its
debut in Los Angeles, the festival then moves to San
Francisco (September 25-27, 1997) before heading east for stops in New York
(October 23-25, 1997) and Orlando (December 5-6, 1997). Although planning to
customize the festival with local discussion panels and musical
performances, the two-day event maintains a collection of this year's
best digital short films as well as Cinema Electronica, a group of
digital films that showcases electronic music.
What defines a digital film? "Everything has to be onlined in a digital
environment and outputted to tape," explained Scalise. "There's so much
gray area," elaborated Jonathan Wells, ResFest Festival Director. "But
the commonality was that it was posted on video." Many of the short
films being shown were shot on video, with the Sony VX1000, Sony Betacam
SP, MiniDV cameras, or Hi-8. Traditional film stocks like Super 8, 16mm
and 35mm were also commonly used, but all the entries were eventually
fed into a digital system like the AVID, Media 100, Premiere and tweaked
with software like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe After Effects. None of the
short films were a video-to-film transfer, and all are exhibited via
Blending traditional aesthetic notions of narrative film, computer
animation, graphic design, photography, and documentary, the results are
a mind-bending collection of surreal and narrative delights which defy
easy categorization. The creative dynamism and flow in the films also
epitomizes the technical facility inherent to digital filmmaking.
One major highlight, Paul Fedor's all-digital "Sympathy For The Devil"
(set to the Rolling Stones song) uses no celluloid film at all and yet
maintains a richly saturated color and lighting design worthy of
Caravaggio, while using a fast-cutting, hyper-edited pace greatly
simplified by digital computers (the piece was edited on Premiere,
Strata and Media 100).
Another festival discovery is "Wood Technology In The Design Of Structures,"
a film directed, produced, edited, and written by Eric Henry (who also
composed music for the film, was one of its cinematographers, and is in
the cast). The piece enhances its theme of "alienated desire" with a
kaleidoscope of digital capabilities (again, no celluloid film was used
at all). Cribbing narrative stylistic devices from nature
documentaries, superimposed animation
and graphics, live-action footage shot on Hi-8 video, and then all
stirred into the Adobe triptych of Premiere, After Effects and Photoshop
as well as a litany of other digital equipment, Henry's film is virtual
proof of digital filmmaking's limitless possibilities.
To help explain the potentials of this new technology, the ResFest
centerpiece was a two-hour panel discussion moderated by Thomas Ohamian,
co-inventor of the AVID digital non-linear editing system. Panel guests
included award-winning music video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie
Faris (Smashing Pumpkins' "1979,") and music video director Roman
(Mansun's "Taxloss"), as well as film director and digital pioneer Frank
Grow, whose feature "Love God" debuted at this year's Sundance festival.
The tenor of the discussion was the creative and technical liberation
the digital world offers. Every aspect of the traditional filmmaking
process is now dramatically effected, in terms of cheap, raw footage
that needs no chemical processing; long shooting loads; small, portable
cameras; low-light cinematography; more flexible editing; and faster
time in generating the digital equivalent of optical effects.
Coppola cited his "Taxloss" music video as a prime benefactor of digital
technology. "Our choice of digital was driven by practical needs," he
explained about the shoot, which entailed filming the effects of
illegally showering a crowded British train station terminal with
$40,000 in five-pound notes. "We needed to conceal the cameras - we
weren't allowed to shoot there. And we needed long loads as well to
shoot up to 30 minutes at a time." Dayton and Faris cited both the
stealth aspect of small, lightweight cameras and long loads for their
video of the Smashing Pumpkins' song "1979."
"You can go for 30 minutes without stopping, so the group stopped being
aware of the camera," Faris said, explaining how small "lipstick"
cameras were installed on the car the band drives in the video.
Low-budget feature filmmaking easily benefits from the flexibility of
shooting on video - Grow averaged 42 camera set-ups each day throughout
his three-week shooting schedule of "Love God" used two cameramen and
didn't concern himself with a high shooting ratio.
He even explained how, in post-production and a week before "locking
picture" in online, he and his editor fixed a late-night coverage
problem (a close-up of someone chewing gum) by reshooting footage
literally in the editing suite and immediately digitizing the results
into the computer. "That reshoot even ended up in the final cut," Grow
A constant refrain, from both the artists on the panel and members of
the audience was the absolute need for conceptual ideas that
intelligently utilized the digital medium. Inherent to Grow's narrative
in "Love God", a film about schizophrenia, was to use the look of video
and the ways in which digital images can be manipulated, to dramatize
the main character's mental disintegration.
Also part of his intent was to create a film that captured, as currently
as possible, the technological innovations digital filmmaking offers.
"I wanted "Love God" to look like it couldn't have been made at any other
time than in 1997," he explained, "the way a film like "Duel" looks like
1972." The final result, transferred to 35mm film for Sundance and
hopefully art-house distribution, is a deliberately hybrid product. "It
has this glow to it - it doesn't really look like video and it doesn't
really look like film."
In describing the festival's intentions, Scalise promoted the notion of
digital filmmaking as its own genre, an intriguing idea basing the
work's creative achievement on how it best exploits its digital
environment. But as digital effects are more widely integrated with
35mm celluloid in mainstream Hollywood movies like this summer's "Contact"
and the upcoming "Titanic," what then distinguishes a digital film per se?
The response elaborates John's hope to become the next major festival
that premieres innovative cinema. "Sundance is not the alternative
anymore," says Scalise. "We are now where alternative movies are being
[Stephen Garrett is an editor and writer based in Los Angeles.]