FESTIVALS: Sundance's Digital Features Break Down Barriers
by Scott Smith
(indieWIRE/02.05.01) -- In the wake of Sundance 2001, it's hard not to see the event as an unqualified breakthrough for digital filmmaking. First, there was the prominent use of digital projection equipment in nearly every exhibition venue. Then, there was a trio of computer-animated features that stole the thunder from live action films toward the end of the week. And finally, the jury selection of Kate Davis' winning High-Def documentary "Southern Comfort," a decision that seemed grounded more in throwback indie spirit than in commercial appeal, ended the festivities with an air of acceptance for low-budget unorthodox storytelling. Ultimately, substance triumphed over style and video coexisted with celluloid.
This year's Sundance program was not only the best chance to see digital entries stand toe-to-toe with traditional films, it was also the best place to see how those lofty "digital initiatives" announced last year by the nimble independent companies like Blow Up Pictures, Next Wave Films, and the newly formed InDigEnt panned out.
On the wings of its successful screenings of Dan Minahan's digital feature "Series 7," Blow Up Pictures used the snowy setting to announce a three year distribution deal with Lot 47 films, which should offer them some security in finding a theatrical home for their digital productions. Although longtime indie producer Christine Vachon, who co-produced "Series 7" through her company Killer Films, was reluctant to make any definitive statement about DV or its promising future, others readily jumped in to define the changing face of the festival.
"This Sundance is different from other Sundances," explained Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Films, "because filmmakers were always afraid that if they shot a film digitally it would be seen somehow as second-class cinema. We said, 'we're proud of the fact that these films were made digitally and that they look great when projected digitally.'"
Broderick had good reason to celebrate this year; three selections in the Sundance program were represented by Next Wave Films, including the Grand Jury Prize winning "Southern Comfort," the well-received Dramatic Competition entry "Some Body" by director Henry Barrial, and Jordan Melamed's debut feature "Manic," which stunned industry skeptics with its beautiful film-like cinematography.
"Manic," one of the first films produced by Next Wave's new digital division Agenda 2000, tackles the difficult story of manic-depressive teens institutionalized for their violent behavior. Anchored by the natural gifts of star Don Cheadle, the film also showcases an ensemble of young actors who stretch the immediacy of their emotions through improvisational techniques. Perhaps the greatest compliment was paid to the film when several of the Q & A sessions, which followed its screenings, failed to raise a single question from the audience regarding its shooting format.
But for those who appreciate the challenges of digital cinematography, "Manic" is an eye-opening example of turning technology negatives into positives. Rather than shy from the harsh light and difficult colors often associated with video flare, Melamed and crew composed shots that directly violated some well-worn caveats about shooting with DV. For several action sequences, they removed the Steadyshot stabilization features of the camera and rocked their handheld takes at blazing speed. Normally, these shots would produce telltale edges of sharp detail around the subjects that betray the photographic blur commonly found in real film stock. But cinematographer Nick Hay cleverly diffused the light in these scenes to capture a distinguished fluidity.
Then, Next Wave handed over the footage to LA-based effects artist Andrew Chiaramonte for special post-processing which dropped frames to get the PAL formatted 25fps video to a theatrical standard 24fps, and subsequently a 3:2 pull-down telecine step to arrive at the 30fps required for digital projection. The result is a movie that "feels" as if it was shot on film.
Even the high-tech experts of The Orphanage, the San Francisco effects house that provided post-production services for several Sundance digital movies, lauded the film look of "Manic" after the premiere. These digital gurus worked extensively on Alison Anders' gorgeous DV feature "Things Behind the Sun." Her exploratory film, from one of America's most personal filmmakers, deals with the recollections of a gang rape that Anders herself experienced years ago. It was the job of Orphan Aaron Rhodes and fellow FX artist Stu Maschwitz to recreate Ander's flashback sequences with distinction.
"When Alison's footage came to us, it really had a video feel to it," said Rhodes of The Orphanage. "She just shot the scenes from her memory, and then sat down with us at the computer to selectively enhance the colors in the scenes. We were able to create a dream-like look and then she determined that the 'bad' people who participated in the crowd should have highlights of red colors in their lips and t-shirts that really pop. For the 'good' kids, she asked us to accentuate the blue and greens in their clothing and eyes."
A large part of the success of digitally projected features is due to these computer-assisted post-processing functions. The Orphanage approach to DV projects includes a proprietary system of steps they call the "Magic Bullet" process. Primarily, it consists of deinterlacing, frame correction, colorization, and the application of filters to simulate bleach by-pass and other chemical reactions that ultimately affect the way a traditional film negative finally appears.
The Orphanage also consulted on two Sundance projects for InDigEnt, the New York based production company whose name is cleverly derived from the words Independent Digital Entertainment. InDigEnt's digital entries included "Women in Film," by director Bruce Wagner, and a feature by indie beacon Richard Linklater called "Tape." Although "Tape" opened to modest praise, it was overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding a second submission by Linklater, the feature-length animated "Waking Life," which fueled tremendous buzz at the premiere screening and received a rare standing ovation from the Sundance crowd as well as a considerable amount of fawning from critic Roger Ebert at the follow-up discussion.
[CORRECTION: The digital effects house The Orphanage did Magic Bullet, color correction and visual effects for Bruce Wagner's movie "Women in Film" not just "consulting" as was reported.]
"Waking Life" preceded two other animated features; one was the hyperkinetic and meditative skratch masterpiece "Wave Twisters" by the eclectic After Effects artists Syd Garon and Eric Henry (cut to the cosmic soundtrack of legendary turntablist DJ Qbert) and the other was a startling film called "Mutant Aliens" from the animator Bill Plympton. Much of the innovation of these digital-made animated features was lost among the audiences. But Linklater insists other directors will find the liberation of camcorders and automation of computer software a boon to their creative output.
"I shot 'Waking Life' with a one-chip DV camera," confessed Linklater, "without worrying too much about lighting or composition. If the animators needed room in the frame for other action, they just recomposed the shot by moving the live-action footage off the working canvas. Animation just gives you that kind of flexibility. This way, it allowed me to shoot 'Waking Life' quickly and move onto 'Tape,' while the animators did their thing."
Both Linklater and Broderick seemed to share a Cheshire-cat smile that betrayed their supreme confidence in the work they represented. After all, one had easily directed two popular entries in the same year. And the other had successfully financed three features in the same festival. If that's not a breakthrough year for digital, what is?
[Scott Smith is the Senior Editor of Res Magazine.]