Defending digital cinema

Letters. We get lots and lots of letters. In this case, the power of the search engine led the delightfully kvetchy Matt Sharkey (watch him bitch-slap F.F. Coppola!) to our ancient posting on digital cinema.

What’s he got to say here? Take it away, Matt!

This issue seems to pop up once a year in Roger Ebert’s Sun-Times scribblings, usually after one or another film festival to which he is assigned, and usually in response to one or another digital movie that is deemed by the visiting critic to be the talk of the festival. Ebert tends to see the popularity of digital movies (what few that can attain it) as enemies at the gate, bloodthirsty and hot for the demise of celluloid. He’s talked to cinematographers and industry experts, and they agree with him: Video does not look as film. Film is beautiful. Video is ugly. He rejects the idea of digital projection in favor of a process called MaxiVision48 which runs 48 frames per second, but requires a mere 150% of the film stock used to shoot with traditional 24-fps Panavision packages. “Like looking through an open window into the real world,” he sings.

A qualification: Aside from some brief work in film and video post houses, my only experience comes from being that most laughable of late-20th-century aesthetes, the film student. I graduated from the film program at Columbia College in Chicago, famous only as the largest in the country (admissions requirements are low) and as the alma mater of Spielberg D.P. Janusz Kaminski. I’ve made a handful of short films on 16 mm and Super-8, but more on video and digital video. The films are in a shoebox in my closet. The videos are in the living room, mixed in with the others.

On the first day of a camera seminar, each student gets to hoist a Panavision Gold onto his/her shoulder, gets to look through the viewfinder and rack the focus. You get to load magazines in camera bags and learn how to check the gate. The teacher takes a snapshot of you holding the big and expensive camera, and you keep the picture years later because it makes you look all professional.

On the first day of a video class, they show you the camera you’ll be using. It looks like the one your parents have, the one with which you used to make little movies with your brothers when you were younger. The ones you used to edit with two VCRs and relentlessly exhibit to anyone willing to sit still. On the first day of a video class, the teacher hands out blank video tapes and wants to talk to you about interlacing and color bursts. Certain students make mental vows to shoot all their work with Panavision camera, to have scads of assistants, focus pullers and video-assist technicians, and to never bother themselves with 3:2 pulldowns or drop-frame timecode. They are prepared to go into debt.

I don’t think about it much anymore, but back then I had a passion worthy of the manifesto I always thought I’d write. Certain axioms were repeated so often that I lost track of who’d heard them and who hadn’t yet: Moviemaking is prohibitively expensive. It needs its version of the four-track, the uptown gallery, the photocopied zine. Not every statue can be marble, not every painting a fresco.

Ebert’s stance on digital video gives him no headaches because he’s a movie consumer. He doesn’t want film to disappear any more than he wants the local grocery to stop carrying his favorite foods. What’s more, he’s been on a tasting tour for the majority of his career, feasting on the labor of the industry’s most accomplished lensmen, a steady diet of Conrad Halls and Vittorio Storaros. Why have meatloaf when you can have foie gras?

I’m a little more troubled by his opinions because I’d like to start making movies again. I don’t have the money or the freezer space for all the film stock I’d need to shoot, let alone process everything. I don’t have access to a camera or sound equipment, nor the facilities to transfer, edit, and conform the negative. But I do have a fast computer with a FireWire port and editing software. A cinematographer friend is buying a camera that can shoot fullframes and even take Zeiss lenses. And I’ve got a living room big enough to screen it for all my friends, who’ll probably constitute my cast. Few others will see it, but my friend is a damned good shooter, I’m a damned good editor, and we know what we want out of cinema. If we like what we make, if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter how it was created, just as it shouldn’t matter whether a piece of writing exists as an HTML file or between the covers of a bona fide book.

If we don’t like what we’ve done, then we’ll simply buy more tapes. Or tape over the ones we have. There’s very little separation of content and design in moviemaking, unless you’d like to consider advertising as an element of design. A shelf of screenplays is the legacy of most film school graduates, but few will see them filmed as features. The minute you decide to shoot something, you have to make a host of decisions based on what’s appropriate to the film you’d like to make. Film stock, production design, focal depth--individually or in congress, they can enhance or defeat a movie. Digital is one choice, and if it’s your only choice, then you work with it, use what it can do best and deal with its shortcomings. You learn from your mistakes, and because the additional cost is not prohibitive, you’re allowed to make even more mistakes until you get it right. And if someday your film catches the eye of somebody with scads of money, you can use them to try shooting a movie on film. After all, some statues simply have to be carved from marble.

As a closing thought, I pose: do you find the Web to be a frustrating place for which to write? Do you long for Meta and Garamond 3 and Helvetica? I mean, real Helvetica? For kerning? Precise layout control? Never having to worry about what size the user’s browser window will be or to what resolution the monitor is set? Is the Web always uglier than print? Are some Web designers better than others? Do they understand it better? Could the right designer create a page that’s better than a custom-color process job?

Despite what poseurs may have told you, “it” manifestly is not “all about the story.” Presentation is content, as the Web has made very clear indeed for us all.

We assume that, in this post-Tadpole universe (made for $300,000, sold for five mil), any visualist bellyaching concerning the ugliness of digital video is simply moot. While we wonder why digifilm directors don’t just shoot for television, a video medium by definition (why bother with theatres at all?), we concede that cheapness has made further inroads on greatness.

Posted on 2002-01-19