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Digital video goes mainstream

Digital video goes mainstream — As well-known filmmakers like George Lucas and Ethan Hawke start to tout the inexpensive new medium, celluloid may be doomed

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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 pro-sumer 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 (under $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 succes d’éstimé, Chuck & Buck, to show for it), while short-film websites like AtomFilms (www.atomfilms.com) 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.”

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