This article was originally published in the New York Independent Film Monitor, Vol. 7, No. 5 (March 2002).
Did you hear about the mad filmmaker who stood up at a recent festival screening and cried incessantly, “I seek Film! I seek Film!” as he provoked laughter from other filmmakers in the audience? “Whither Film,” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed it – you and I. All of us are murderers… Film is dead. Film remains dead. And we have killed it…”
I don’t know if Friedrich Nietzsche would appreciate my homage to his best known and oft misquoted phrase, but the crop of exceptional films shot on DV that screened at Sundance this year reminds me of this seminal paragraph in The Gay Science, published in1882. Digital video (in its many forms, including DV) has come of age as a viable medium for cinematic expression. Digital video apologists are no longer needed. Filmmakers are using this medium as more than just a low-cost alternative to silver halide technology” ” they are using it to tell stories that could not have been done any other way. Two examples are Personal Velocity and On_Line, both shot on DV.
At last year’s Sundance film festival, digital video was lurking under the animator’s expressionistic interpretations in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. The film started it’s life as a canvas of gritty live-action DV footage, then numerous animators painstakingly rotoscoped over the footage resulting in a beautifully impressionistic film. This year digital was more out in the open, and you can’t get any more out in the open than Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. This film trilogy is based on the director’s own book of the same name and tells the story of three women and their personal challenges: an abused wife who leaves with her children; a book editor whose sudden success strains her marriage; and a woman who reaches a decision about her pregnancy after some roadway encounters. Ellen Kuras’ creative camerawork on Personal Velocity earned her the Excellence in Cinematography Award.
What is the film industry coming to when a DV film wins the cinematography award at Sundance? For many cinematographers the phrase “digital cinematography” may sound like an oxymoron, but Personal Velocity is another piece of compelling evidence that what’s in front of the camera and who’s behind the camera is far more important than the camera itself or the medium used to acquire the images. Film does not make films, people make films. On_Line’s Director of Photography Toshiaki Ozawa attended the festival this year and told me, “Sundance 2002 was a watershed for digital filmmaking… it was the DV films that pushed the envelope, the DV films had an edge, the films shot on film were more traditional in their filming style… not that edgy films can’t be shot on film.” Ethan Hawke said in a recent panel discussion in New York on the making of his directorial debut Chelsea Walls, “You don’t make a DV film for [multiplexes]… DV now makes it possible for the Emily Dickensons and James Joyces of the world to make films. This technology gives back to the artist.”
Jed Weintrob’s On_Line tells the story of John who runs a live erotic website called Intercon-X. Though profitable, the site, which he owns with his roommate Moe, keeps John at home in a state of perpetual frustration. We get the sense that John likes living this way: he works between webcam diary entries in which he pines for his ex-fiancée. The film is built around video sessions with netizens like a man-on-man host, an Internet fantasy girl, a self-destructive artist , and an innocent guy in Ohio. Weintrob uses a mix of digital technology and good old fashioned narrative to tell a story through the use of multiple cameras and multiple frames on the screen. The film effectively captures the hypertextual and multi-threaded interactions that are made possible with the Internet.
Director of Photography Toshiaki Ozawa took full advantage of the digital medium in production using multiple cameras, web cams, streaming video over the net, even cameras strapped onto the actors themselves. During the chat scenes he shot with as many as six cameras simultaneously. Ozawa also manipulated the digital medium to create two distinct looks for the Internet world and the real world. Working in digital enabled Weintrob and Editor Stephanie Sterner to easily create multiple split screens because they always had multiple angles for every take of scene. This kind of image manipulation is easy in digital, yet cost prohibitive in film.
Digital allowed Weintrob to shoot more takes giving the actors room to experiment and a whole range of creative options in editing. Film opticals and effects are priced by the foot (and very expensive feet indeed), while digital effects are priced primarily by how patient you are waiting for the rendering once you have paid for your personal computer. You can either rent expensive facilities or purr away on your own computer. “Bits are bits” as Nicholas Negroponte once said, they don’t care what device they are being manipulated on.
In many ways On_Line follows in the tradition of the “Direct Cinema” approach pioneered by Rob Nilsson in his ground-breaking films Heat and Sunlight (1987) and Signal Seven (1986). These features were shot on video and released theatrically on film. But that only scratches the surface of their significance. Nilsson did not use video only as a low-budget alternative to film: he pushed the limits of the medium through the use of multiple cameras and multiple takes. He captured scenes in which the actors improvised and the camera operators had to follow the best they could. For Nilsson the richness of the performances was more important that the cinematography. Film technology should always be the servant of story and performance. This perspective elevates the position of the actors and makes possible more natural performances with the emotional intensity of cinema and the intimacy and spontaneity of theater.
Shooting digital video does not mean that your off the hook in preproduction. On_Line Producer Adam Brightman stressed that his film was not a rough and tumble shoot from the hip DV film. They did a lot of research in pre-production. They spent over a year planning the production. It was quite complicated to shoot with so many cameras and perspectives. Everything was shot on a tight schedule. There is no shortcut or substitute for writing, planning and design. I like to say that “all mistakes are made in pre-production.”
Just as Nietzsche opposed the normative or dogmatic and could not accept any belief system that concealed the fact that it’s simply one of many, I can’t accept that Film is the only medium you can used to make a film. DV films like Personal Velocity and On_Line prove otherwise. By “killing God” Nietzsche was attempting to overcome fear, dogma, and conformity. By killing Film, our old slave-master of silver halide technology, we supplanted it with digital bits. Bits are more easily shaped and shared with a myriad of tools and thus we escape from the physical limitations imposed by the mechanical and photochemical technologies of the 19th century.
Once our ideas are translated into the protean medium of bits, the only limitations that remain are time and creativity. Film is not dead, film has been redefined. Silver halide technology may end up on the side of the road, but “the ribbon of dreams,” (as Orson Welles so eloquently described the cinema) still floats on the wind of our tales.