LAIFF Does Digital: The Revolution Continues...
by Daniel Pereira
With a mixture of seminars and film screenings at the recently wrapped
Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAIFF), digital filmmaking
continued its subtle movement towards widespread acceptance and
adaptation within the independent filmmaking community. As was the case
with the Sundance Film Festival in January, word of mouth trends have
fast become pragmatic filmmaking realities (see indieWIRE's "Digital
Reality in Park City" article).
At the LAIFF, the hunger for fundamental answers to technical questions
and issues of future modes of internet-based distribution were answered
via Q & A sessions with industry leaders. More importantly, the
themes of films such as "Pop and Me" and "Better Living Through
Circuitry" (both documentaries that were shot digitally) provided insight into the
types of narrative and production choices which are already available in
this early adoption stage of digital filmmaking.
On the seminar front, two sold out and jam-packed panel discussions were
held at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard. The first, entitled
"Digital Filmmaking: A New Wave for Feature Films," was moderated by
Res Magazine editor Jonathan Wells. Panelists included Bennett Miller,
Director of "The Cruise," a film cited by many (along with Thomas
Vinterberg's "The Celebration") as a breakthrough for digital filmmaking
due to its wide domestic release following its entry in last year's
LAIFF. The information discussed during the hour and a half-long
seminar leaned towards specific technical questions from the audience
regarding the digital video to film transfer. Other panelists included
representatives from such companies as Next Wave Films and Blow Up Pictures -- both companies which have been created in the last year to deal
directly with digital film production and theatrical distribution
The second seminar, entitled "Digital Distribution: Breaking Down the
Marketing and Distribution Barriers," and moderated by Next Wave Films'
Peter Broderick, addressed issues directly related to the distribution
of independent visions via the Internet. With one million true
broadband consumers already installed in the domestic United States, the
independent film community is positioned as strongly as any other
content creators to be the first to directly market and distribute their
wares to a growing high bandwidth, internet-friendly consumer base.
"It is the best of times, it is the worst of times," paraphrased
moderator Peter Broderick, "It is the best of times because film
production is at an all time high. It is the worst of times because
theatrical distribution is at an all time low, and will be for the
Joining Broderick to address directly the issue of digital distribution
were representatives from five companies whose business plans live and
die by the inevitable, but unpredictable growth of this still evolving
delivery medium. The Box, Hollywood Online, Atom Films, ifilm.NET and
the Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) all presented their vision of
short film delivery via the currently available internet bandwidths
(56K, DSL), and the delivery of feature length films via the broadband
network of the future (cable modem, etc.).
"We are looking for specialized programming," DEN President David Neuman
said. "Programs too scary for one reason or another" for the traditional
media outlets to broadcast. For now, Neuman noted that the trends for
his network have focused on programs which reflect ethnic diversity
and specificity of topic, which is rare in traditional television
programming. Overall, the panelists agreed upon two long-term forces
affecting the legitimacy of digital distribution as a real market
alternative. First, that a digitally distributed film still needs to
make some money, at which point the delivery medium will be a
non-issue. Secondly, that the changing viewing sensibility of an
audience more accustomed to the convergence of film, television and the
internet as a singular entertainment medium is the only market force
which is going to make such a financial success a reality. On that
note, the seminar ended with attendees taking the contact information
from each company, in the hopes of being the independent visionary who
delivers the breakthrough digitally distributed film of the next
Meanwhile, in the screening venues of this year's LAIFF, two films were
busy making statements about the otherwise impossible themes and
narrative devices enabled by shooting a film digital. "Pop and Me" and
"Better Living through Circuitry," both shot on the Sony VX1000 and
transferred to film for world premieres at the LAIFF, were successful
testaments to the latest in digital technology on a variety of levels.
To begin, the digital video-to-film transfer prints screened at the
festival were impressive: the colors popped while deep blacks,
highlights and contrast all held up extremely well -- not to mention the
fact that the transfer process rendered such an aesthetically pleasing
video-to-film 'look', strangely contributing to the unique charm, voice
and spirit of these films. In fact, both films debuted to sold out
screenings in the largest theater available at the LAIFF, while "Pop and
Me" walked away with the 1999 LAIFF Audience Award, the highest honor
given at the festival.
"I bought the VX1000 a few months before leaving on the trip," said "Pop
and Me" director Chris Roe, whose film chronicles a six-month around the
world trip taken by the filmmaker with his father, Richard Roe, during
which time they interviewed fathers and sons from various regions
discussing their relationship. And while the interview footage was
primarily shot on digital video, a 16mm Bolex is almost a third
character in the film, accompanying the young Roe everywhere he goes.
8mm home movie footage is also used liberally throughout the film,
giving the film a sense of suburban nostalgia and, for a potential
domestic US audience, a strange historical grounding.
Commented Roe: "We took all of the footage - 16mm, DV and 8mm - and
transferred it to Betacam SP. We then edited the film, color corrected
and onlined to digibeta using a Discreet Logic Smoke system, then
transferred to film from the digibeta master." The result is a highly
personal, beautifully shot travelogue -- and a film which would have
been completely impossible were it not for the compact, unobtrusive
nature of the digital video camera and the higher shooting afforded the
filmmaker via the decision to shoot digital video. "For this project,"
says Roe, "the VX1000 was a dream camera."
Stuart Swezey, the producer of "Better Living Through Circuitry,"
shares Roe's enthusiasm for the Sony VX1000 model. His production team's
attempt to document the parties, personalities, and philosophies behind
the often misunderstood rave counterculture would have been a complete
impossibility without the ability to throw a compact camera into a small
order to attend the usually remote rave locations. "Coordinating access
and actually getting approval to cover the events was hard enough
sometimes," says Swezey, " having compact equipment made what was
sometimes a difficult situation that much easier."
"Better Living" director Jon Reiss, no stranger to the challenges of the
narrative dramatic feature (his "Cleopatra's Second Husband" debuted at
the 1998 LAIFF) had this to say about the lessons of his two year
digital documentary odyssey: "We made this film in a very digital
keeping with the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) and 'empowerment through
technology' themes of the film, it only made sense to have the film's
means of production reflect some of the ideas revealed by the rave scene
and the film itself. But, what I learned as a director, is that
shooting digital is going to liberate filmmaking the way technology has
liberated the music scene depicted in the film. We are going to be
liberated from the dogma of the script. Performance and ensemble pieces
will somehow be easier, and how the story is told structurally is going
to matter more. It is a question of time and talent," concluded Reiss.
"And thanks to Bennett [Miller, director of "The Cruise"], there is no
longer a stigma attached to shooting digital."
[Daniel Pereira is the manager of the UCLA Extension/IBM Media Lab
located at Universal Studios, and an LA-based writer.]