INTERVIEW: The Gamblers; Polish Brothers Bet on 24p HiDef for "Jackpot"
by Tara Veneruso
(indieWIRE/ 07.27.01) -- The new era of digital filmmaking is well underway. Many traditional 35mm directors have already embraced digital cameras and are enthusiastic about the creative and financial freedoms they afford. The entire film industry is holding its breath to see if 24P HiDef images rival the quality of celluloid.
Michael and Mark Polish, known for their 35mm debut feature "Twin Falls Idaho," give us that long awaited look this Friday with the theatrical release of the 24P HD feature "Jackpot," a tale about the misadventures of seeking the American dream. Taking us across the country from low-lit roadside bars to expansive landscapes, the Polish Brothers also take us on a journey through the blazing digital frontier of 24p HD production.
Working as a tight team, "Jackpot" star Jon Gries, cinematographer David Mullen, and the Polish Brothers set out to shoot their first digital feature. At the start, they did not have a specific camera in mind. They were seeking a "hyper-real" look and wanted to reflect the personality of the lead characters, Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) and Les Irving (Garrett Morris), two desperate characters looking for fame and fortune.
The most alluring feature of the 24P HD camera is the 24 frame progressive rate, which is identical to a 35mm film camera. Principle photography lasted 15 days with up to 3 locations a day. The total production budget was $400,000, including the $80,000 film transfer.
Tara Veneruso speaks extensively to Gries, and Mark and Mike Polish, about shooting with the format of the future, from aesthetic issues to cost effectiveness to the post-production process.
indieWIRE: Before you decided to shoot with the Sony HDW-F900 24P camera, did you look at any of the other digital cameras on the market?
Mike Polish: It was always going to be digital. We were considering prosumer cameras on the market such as the Sony PD150 and VX1000. After a round of tests, we decided the prosumer cameras did not give us the quality image we needed to comfortably light both Jon Gries and Garrett Morris. We were concerned technically with Garrett's dark African American skin tones and Jon's very light skin tones. We felt the dark tones could not be captured well in low light situations on these lower formats and we weren't interested in shooting on the standard HiDef format.
Jon Gries: Coincidentally, my friend cinematographer Rodney Charters was shooting tests for the television show "Roswell" using the HDW-F900 24P camera. He invited all of us, including D.P. David Mullen down to the set. We were so impressed with Rodney's tests that we began doing our own and did the transfer at EFILM in Los Angeles. It handled the low-light and dark areas of the image very well.
Mike: The key advice that Rodney gave us was to treat this format like film and light it like film. He suggested low-key film-style lighting techniques.
Mark Polish: We looked for 24P HD cameras in Los Angeles, but back in August 2000, no one had them in yet. We were able to get a very good camera package from SIM Video (a Toronto-based video rental house). [Rental houses began carrying 24P HD cameras more readily in September 2000.]
iW: Did you choose 24P HD as a financial or aesthetic choice?
Mark: We made this film on 24P HD based on an aesthetic rather than financial choice. Shooting "Jackpot" gave us the opportunity to experiment with the latest digital technology, which seemed well suited for this subject matter and these characters. Conceptually, the film is all about imitation. Our lead characters are trying to imitate country western artists while we're imitating film. 24P HD really gave us that hyper-real look we were seeking.
iW: What 24P HD equipment did you have on the set that you would consider essential?
Mark: The immediacy of the 24P HD monitor was great for Mike and I. It was incredible. We also decided to shoot the movie in the 2.35 Cinemascope aspect ratio. We cropped our monitor image so we could always view it in the correct aspect ratio. We never had to look at dailies because everything was right there. Because you can see what it is capturing on the monitor it allows you to push the envelope. You don't have to play it safe because you can see exactly what you are capturing.
Gries: That might not be so great if you have a bunch of producers standing around you all telling you what to do.
iW: What other equipment and crew was necessary?
Mike: There is one big misconception about HD: don't bring your lights and don't bring your crew. You need almost the same equipment and crew as a regular 35mm production except for the camera loader. The camera is not that mobile, but with our style it was fine.
Gries: We mainly used long lenses just for the sake of blowing out the look and to get that shallow depth of field. Film is about the lack of depth of field. Video is about having depth of field. And we were trying to bring them together. For example, there is a scene where Sunny looks in the mirror while Les looks at us and we can still see two other people. Everyone is in focus.
iW: A lot of filmmakers are not necessarily happy about this flattening feature of the video image. Are you embracing it?
Mike: It allowed the entire scene to play differently because you don't have to continually rack focus on the person who is talking. We were able to get deep focus and the low-light situation. Those two combined are usually a nightmare because you'd usually have to supermarket light everything just to get that deep focus.
iW: You have a lot of long expansive landscape shots and on the opposite spectrum, low-light close-ups. The landscapes were so impressive. One of the biggest issues with HD is achieving a depth. It tends to look very flat. How did you achieve this variety of looks in "Jackpot"?
Gries: In the exteriors, we were always lucky with the beautiful blanket of soft clouds. We purposely shot in Oxnard, CA because of the constant marine layer so we had a built in silk. We did not need generators and in many of the diner scenes we were even able to use natural light with just a kick or bounce light. A lot of the exteriors were shot after principle photography was completed, but we stayed away from using a lot of diffusion. [DP Mullen shot the extreme wide shots without filtration].
iW: The film print I saw at Sony was beautiful and very clean. I was unable to see any digital artifacts. Were you able to detect any artifacts in the print?
Mike: If we had shot in standard HD you certainly would have seen artifacts. We could only see them in the neon lights. They were not on the original HD image. We had flashing lights directly into the camera lens and there were no problems with it. It takes flares beautifully.
iW: I noticed a very definite crisp look. Did you try to achieve this look or were you still battling to get it a bit softer?
Mike: I knew when we went to film that would change the sharpness of it. All of our choices including the lenses were to decrease the sharpness of it. I knew that as it passed through its various permutations it would soften up, but it is still crisp.
iW: Perhaps this is still an area that needs to be improved upon. How do the actors feel about each line being so visible?
Jon: I think this is the one area that is working against HD in general, but there is diffusion.
iW: How did you initially navigate through post-production?
Gries: We cut on the AVID and were required to down-convert the 24P HD footage to 30i Beta SP tapes for the edit. There were many sync and time code issues to overcome because the software was not yet up to speed with the 24P process. It has since been integrated.
Mike: Just as we are doing this interview we are finishing the first surround sound HD movie.
Mark: The Post Group in Los Angeles bent over backwards. They wanted to learn the entire process since no one had done a 24P feature post at that time and they picked up a lot of the up-front costs in exchange.
Gries: It was like being Lewis and Clark and sending letters back. On the second day of shooting, our editor Shawna Callahan cut together a test reel and brought it through the entire post process. She showed us the tests that were transferred to the 1.85 aspect ratio at EFILM. We were all so happy with it. It was really phenomenal.
iW: Many people feel the digital tools are speeding up post-production. How was the post process on "Jackpot" changed?
Mike: The editors felt pressured at the beginning of the post-process. After we overcame the 24P technical hurdles, the editing process became as normal as traditional film. The editor, Shawna Callahan, treated it just like film. We felt rushed because of money not because of the immediacy of the equipment. Time equals money. We were able to go into the edit room directly after our two-week shoot. That was the most bizarre thing that happened to us.
iW: In the final steps of post-production were you able to utilize some of the big benefits of digital photography such as color correction?
Mike: We did not do a lot of color correction or digital manipulation. I didn't want to play with the image until I knew what it would look like on film. Having the monitor on set we were able to see the exact palette with precise results.
[DP Mullen was only able to have six hours to supervise the color correction of the entire movie due to budget and time constraints.]
iW: Would you project your feature through digital distribution if it existed at this time?
Mark: We would have loved to have gone straight from our 24P HD movie and open it in digital theaters. It is a pitfall that it is not in place yet. You have to see this picture to know how amazing it is. It will blow you away.
Mike: If we could show it digitally, the audience would be getting exactly what we intended. Everything would be pure.
iW: Is shooting on 24P really cost-effective for independent feature productions compared to 35mm?
ALL: This is how it breaks down. 50 minutes of tape = $75. 50 minutes of film is about 5000ft. of film, which costs about $2600. That negative has to be developed and transferred to video tape in the telecine for editing. There is at least a $4,000 difference per 50 minutes. That ends up being about an $80,000-$100,000 difference in the budget which is made up for in the transfer. When you start shooting over 200,000 feet than that's where the price starts to break down.
[HD cost benefits add up when factoring in a second camera in production, optical effects, and titles. It is important to also consider costs for down-converting the master footage for your offline edit.]
iW: Did you discover a new freedom in filmmaking by shooting digitally?
Mike: It allows a freedom. We did not feel like we were blowing through money by shooting. The whole crew was able to experiment more. This not only included the lighting and camera department, but the actors as well. Shooting digitally gave us an enormous freedom.
[Filmmaker/director Tara Veneruso, a graduate of NYU, is a consultant for Next Wave Films (http://www.nextwavefilms.com), a company of The Independent Film Channel. She has written articles for Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, and contributed to Scientific American.]