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January 28, 1999 2:00 AM
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Digital Reality in Park City

Digital Reality in Park City

by Jonathan Wells



The impact of two films released theatrically last year was felt in Park City this week. Thomas Vinterberg's "Celebration" and Bennett Miller's "The Cruise" were both shot on Mini DV consumer digital camcorders and released by major studios, October Films and Artisan Entertainment respectively. These films were cited as inspiration for two new production companies dedicated to making DV feature films, Next Wave's Agenda 2000 and Open City Films' Blow Up Pictures. Both were announced last week. All around Park City the influence of DV on independent filmmaking can be found.

Sundance's New Media and Technology center, now in its fourth year, has finally established a foothold with filmmakers. As the possibilities of digital filmmaking have gained compelling real life examples, the rising interest level of independent filmmakers was clearly visible. This year's program features seven panels focusing on the craft of digital filmmaking and six technology presentations from returning New Media Center sponsors Sony Electronics, Avid Technology, Intergraph Computer Systems and newcomers Roland House, GoTo.com, and Netscape.

The most highly anticipated offering was the Digital Shoot-Out, a comparison of popular video formats projected in both 35mm film and on a high-end digital projector, which sold-out the large Prospector Square Theatre. Upon entering the theatre attendees were given a detailed hand-out that explained the production of nine digital films and the film transfer process utilized including three Sundance '99 shorts and two Sundance '99 documentaries. Unfortunately the presentation, produced by Wavelength Releasing, got off to a bad start and just got worse. There was no real introduction to the program, and clips were never identified with any useful information, and it wasn't until an hour and half of film clips that the audience was prompted to ask questions. That didn't stop random calls from the audience to demand to know more information about the clips that were being shown. The clips, which seemed to be following the order listed in the handout, were diverted at times to things not covered in the sheet. At one point a long stretch of unintentionally comical HDTV footage of actor Val Kilmer surfing, riding a horse as a cowboy and looking broodingly into the camera. It was clear from the handout (which is a valuable resource) and the vast amount of clips presented that a lot of work went into the presentation, it's unfortunate that it left confused attendees without any more knowledge than when they arrived.

Next Wave Films president Peter Broderick presented an overview of digital filmmaking on Friday entitled Going Digital. The presentation, which repeats on Thursday at 3PM, was illustrated with clips from current digital features including "The Celebration", "The Last Broadcast", "Windhorse", "Headhunter's Sister", and "The Cruise".

On Friday at 3PM, the Concept to Screen dialogue (moderated by this author) will include the key production crew of the Sundance '99 digital feature The Item. Director Dan Clark plans to provide a roadmap to those who want to embark on a digital film, using his experience on the Item as an example.

Since their introduction, Hi-8 and Mini DV cameras have been popular with documentary filmmakers for their low cost, high shooting ratios, and inconspicuousness. A more recent development has been the use of video and DV for dramatic films. Haxan Films "The Blair Witch Project", shot mostly in Hi-8 with sections of 16mm, was picked up by Artisan the night of its premiere at the Egyptian. For the first time a film shot in digital video, The Item, is screening in the dramatic competition. The film described by the filmmaker as a "modern art-exploitation film" recalls another Sundance digital feature, Frank Grow's "Love God"produced by Good Machine, that screened in the 1997 Park City at Midnight program. In the introduction to a recent Park City Library screening, director Dan Clark explained that his film was shot on Digital Betacam (with a Sony DVW-700) which is one of three routes filmmakers going digital can choose. The first and cheapest being MiniDV (popular cameras include the Sony VX1000 and Canon XL1) and the third (highest quality and most expensive) being HDTV, of which Sony has been showing to filmmakers in the New Media Center.

Elsewhere in Park City at the alternative fests, DV film production was also being showcased. While they didn't promote the fact, Slamdance screened their opening night competition film, "Three Days," a documentary about the band Jane's Addiction, with a digital video projector. The quality of the projection equaled or surpassed 35mm film projection seen at the Treasure Mountain Inn in recent days. On the flip side, Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pollota's digital/animated short Roadhead will unspool from its new 35mm bump-up. At Tuesday's "No Dance" festival films were screened in video off of DVD.

There is no doubt, based on the excitement and talk of new digital projects in Park City, that 1999 will be a banner year for digital filmmaking.

Jonathan Wells is editor of RES The Magazine of Digital Filmmaking <http://www.resmag.com> and Festival Director of the ResFest Digital Film Festival <http://www.resfest.com>.

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