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Digital Technology and the Modern Day Documentary: A Report From Docfest ’98

Digital Technology and the Modern Day Documentary: A Report From Docfest '98

Digital Technology and the Modern Day Documentary:
A Report From Docfest '98

by Eugene Hernandez

A wave of digital technology washed over this weekends docfest: the first
New York International Documentary Festival, from the inclusion of two
totally DV films, to the high-tech video projector moved up to the DGA
Theater booth for the duration of the event. Hi-tech ultimately met high
interest on Saturday morning as a large crowd gathered to witness the
promise of the digital age.

The trend towards digital technology in documentary filmmaking, whether
the final project is exhibited on film or conformed to the new digital
broadcasting standard which will be implemented later this year, was
the focus of the special seminar, “Documentary Making in the Digital World”.
The panel tended to weigh heavily on the side of the commercial,
underscoring the likelihood that the move to a higher tech creative
community will be scarred by endless pitching from business and marketing
reps. Yet, while Sony, Kodak, and DuArt, among others, each delivered a
pat presentation for the captive audience, the underlying message
promoting digital awareness and understanding was quite clear.

First up to tantalize the crowd was John Dowdell, a VP at The Tape House
Editorial Company. The highlight of Dowdell’s lengthy presentation was
a solid explanation ofthe new high definition digital standard which
debuts in America just in time for the holidays. While all TV outlets
currently broadcast to NTSC television sets in the traditional 16 x 9
picture format, he explained, in the high-def world digital files will
arrive at new digital sets and be presented in the new 4 x 3 ratio.
Dowdell projected that the NTSC format will be a thing of the past
within the first decade of the new millenium — 2006 to be exact. The
new standard is of course important, Dowdell said, as it will require
makers to conform work for a new format, and allow the opportunity
for others to create unique projects for the new standard.

Don Moskowitz, the VP of Business Development at the Sony High
Definition Center in Southern California, explored an array of digital
options for the documentary filmmaker. With the increasing use of
digital cameras, Moskowitz explained, filmmakers “have to have a way
to get back to 35mm.” Enter the Sony Center, where Bennett Miller’s
miniDV docfest film “The Cruise” was transferred. Moskowitz said that
last year filmmakers discovered the opportunites that Sony had to offer,
and he added that the Center has worked on eight features so far this
year. As filmmakers continue to experiment with new video technology,
sometimes lighting projects as they would if it were shot on film or
capitalziing the bigger depth of field, he predicted that the hybrid
video/film look will create a new aesthetic for future audiences.

ZUMA digital‘s David Anthony introduced the crowd to the emerging
potential of DVD technology, and Linda Young of the famed DuArt Youngs,
pitched the services that her well-known Manhattan facility has to
offer — including a Quantel online editing system, and promised a a new
high-def conversion system later this year. Meanwhile, Steve Garfinkle
from Kodak weighed in with a presentation essentially devoted to the
analog — traditional motion picture film. He demonstrated examples
of Super 16 to 35mm transfers and touted a variety of new company
film stock.

In what became the most intersting demo of the morning, Filmmaker
Maggie Hadleigh West, who’s film “The War Zone” would screen the next
day, showed the opening moments of her project to the seminar
audience on two formats — video via the festival’s Emmy-winning
state of the art projection system, and a traditional 16mm print. She
then polled the crowd about which version she should show at her
Sunday screening. While the film print of the Super 8/Hi-8 project
showed better contrast, the video-thrown image maintained a better
focused picture and higher quality sound. Attendees were essentially
split when asked to vote — with many remaining wedded to traditional
film exhibition. Old habits die hard.

[As mentioned, indieWIRE will publish a thorough exploration of miniDV
filmmaking opportunities next week.]

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