Despite occasional outbreaks of Art, the movie biz has always been about the numbers. The figures Hollywood is talking about these days, however, are the zeros and ones of a digital revolution that some say could launch the biggest industry upheaval since the brothers Warner released ”The Jazz Singer.” Converts insist that digital video represents the first truly cheap and easy end run around the studio system — and possibly much more. ”It’s huge. We’re redefining storytelling,” says filmmaker Gary Winick, whose New York-based company, InDigEnt, is producing 10 DV features (each budgeted at a mere $100,000) directed by the likes of Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater (”Dazed and Confused”).
Doubters counter that for now, digital just looks cheap. Says established cinematographer John Bailey (”The Big Chill”), who recently shot ”The Anniversary Party,” a digital feature directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming: ”There isn’t anything about [DV] that I couldn’t have done better and just as quickly on film.”
So what is digital video? Go to your local multiplex and watch Spike Lee’s ”Bamboozled” (shot with Sony DCR- VX1000 prosumer Minicams), or Lars von Trier’s ”Dancer in the Dark” (a period musical made using Sony DSR- PD 150s). See how the shots, while sometimes afflicted with zigzagging visual artifacts, still seem raw and immediate? That’s DV, a format in which images are captured not in the photochemical grains of film stock but as on/ off pulses on a digital video camera’s chip — data that can then be computer manipulated with far greater ease. (Don’t like the actor? Take him out of the shot entirely.)
While transferring celluloid to digital during post has been the Hollywood norm since the rise of the Avid editing system in the mid ’90s, the latest developments — affordable (less than $1,000) cameras that let directors shoot in low light with minimal crews — are affecting movie production itself. DV allowed Spike Lee to make ”Bamboozled” at twice the speed and for roughly half of what it would have cost on 35 mm film. ”It was just run and gun, run and gun,” says the director. ”We had one day where we did 160 setups. We were rolling.”
That’s just the beginning. George Lucas is using new high resolution Sony/ Panavision video cameras to make ”Star Wars: Episode II” a digital production from start to finish (while ”Episode I — The Phantom Menace” was loaded with digital effects, it used digital cameras only for a few live action shots). Special effects houses like San Francisco’s the Orphanage can give digital footage any visual finish a director desires, from high fashion gloss to Cassavetes style grit. On the distribution front, DV has made a solid beachhead at Sundance (and has this year’s succès d’estime, ”Chuck & Buck,” to show for it), while short film websites like AtomFilms provide an Internet outlet for up and coming digidirectors.
And when digital projection becomes a mass market reality in the next decade — allowing studios to upload a file of ”Austin Powers VII” straight to a theater in Dubuque — it’s not unthinkable that film stock may go the way of the magic lantern. Lucas, for one, is convinced. ”Film has been around 100 years, and no matter what you do, you’re going to run celluloid through a bunch of gears,” says the director. ”It’s gotten more sophisticated over the years, but it’ll never get much more than what it is right now. With digital, we’re at the very bottom of the medium. This is as bad as it’s ever going to be. This is like 1895. In 25, 30 years, it’s going to be amazing.”
While ”Star Wars: Episode II” may yet convince studios that their future is digital, for now the buzz centers on the ragged, exhilarating freedoms of indie DV. To make ”Chelsea Walls,” an InDigEnt production inspired by Dylan Thomas’ play ”Under Milkwood,” actor turned director Ethan Hawke spent two weeks shooting in New York’s famed avant garde roost the Chelsea Hotel, knocking on doors, bribing tenants with bottles of wine, and bringing in actors like wife Uma Thurman, Kris Kristofferson, and Vincent D’Onofrio for off the cuff taping. Says Hawke, ”With film, we would have had to shut the hotel down.” Similarly, Campbell Scott relished his experiences making ”Final,” his DV drama and another InDigEnt project: ”It’s like a family making a movie as opposed to a huge machine.”
It’s no surprise that actors are turning up as directors on the front lines of DV. With the mechanics of production dramatically scaled down, the focus falls squarely on the performances. ”[You’re using] a little plastic camera instead of this big metal object that there’s five people dusting off and everyone’s worshiping instead of the actor,” says Winick. ”Now we can get back to the actor.” Confirms Hawke with a smile, ”Actors like that.”
It’s too early to tell whether DV will democratize the film industry or whether Hollywood will simply adapt and absorb, as it has done with sound, color, television, and video. One director, however, isn’t looking back. ”I’m not going to miss film a bit,” swears George Lucas. ”I love film. But, you know, I love Victorian houses, too. That doesn’t mean I still have to use an outhouse.”