In 2007, I was watching some 8mm family movies of a Hawaii vacation, projected on my bedroom door — the crisp blue sky, an orange sun behind a passing 757 dyeing the clouds. In another flicker, it was Aunt Margaret wearing a lei, standing proudly next to a rented white Hudson Jet, and suddenly, my friend Steve and I got the feeling that we had travelled through time to the mid-1960s. It was the epiphany that made me the pro-film Luddite I am today.
People have different psychological responses to images on film versus the same images on digital video. Roger Ebert described the feeling: “Film carries more color and tone gradations than the eye can perceive… Those characteristics somehow make the movie seem to be going on instead of simply existing.” The suggestion is that what you see on film seems real, existing in some other universe; there’s a feeling of depth and resonance beyond what we can perceive. Digital and HD reduce everything to pixels.
Watching Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in theaters the other day (shot partly on the Arri Alexa), this notion was further reinforced, as I saw the streets of Springfield with what seemed to be a very muted palette of colors. The pixellation — although it has gotten better since 2006′s Miami Vice, with its blizzard of greens and blues — still seems to keep a disconnect between us and the action happening on screen. There were moments during the train sequence that I felt like I was watching a production featurette, rather than the film itself, as the lighting became slightly uneven, and the chromes all seemed to saturate into a muddle of orange and bright light. It seems the greatest thing backing the digital revolution is new 3D technology, as the Alexa was used for Hunter‘s 3D sequences.
Now that the movement is entering its second decade, one must begin to think about the impact it will have on the film industry as a whole — something I’ve wondered since my days in film school, when my classmates and I were terrified at the idea of shooting on a 45-year-old Bolex. I had the unfair advantage of my father, a former wedding photographer, acting as cinematographer to help me set up the key lights and time the f-stops, and the result was a decently exposed black-and-white short, cut together on a Steenbeck. The experience, although I lost count of the hours I spent on Sundays in the film editing room (the only day slots weren’t taken), or trips to New York for film, somehow paid off. It felt like some rite of passage, like a law student who survived his first semester.
In the early ’90s Indie Revolution, thousands of hopefuls rented Eclairs and light kits and bought film stock to bring to life the scripts they spent late nights pouring their hearts into. Some finished, some didn’t, some got caught in bidding wars among studios, others never spoke of their movies again. Today, in the style of Robert Rodriguez’s “Film School,” virtually anyone with a camcorder can go out and make a movie (and his or her own bullets in Paint). We should be proud to live in such an exciting time — but I feel this is where the pitfall lies.
I would like to say that the indie revolutionaries who succeeded did so despite their hardships, that the constant under-the-gun threat of perpetual debt was what kept them on target to make a good movie, but maybe that’s not entirely fair. In my experience, finding a resourceful and reliable crew to handle the individual aspects of the film (and usually to multitask) — writing, locations, sound, cinematography, directing — is sometimes more difficult than coming up with the movie itself. In this way, the playing field stayed even. Everyone shared in the headache of raising the money and getting thrown off locations unexpectedly, and the process felt like an endurance contest, of sorts.
At the end, you gave up, found yourself on the Teamsters’ enemies list, or had “an authentic, human story” to impress the big studio buyers at film festivals. If you survived the indie scene in New York or LA, you were ready for anywhere; Christine Vachon’s success as a producer for Killer Films is living proof. With camcorders, it’s the bigger, the better, and the line between playing and filmmaking is blurred more than ever. While raising money for film still remains a serious and intimidating goal for the aspiring filmmaker, and only the few — generally the ones better skilled at making money — come out on top, the “cost-effectiveness” of video that allows everyone to tell his or her story is also the problem. The market is saturated with all the more amateur videos, and the works of the true professionals get lost in the shuffle, both at festivals and in the hands of producers.
I think a further, ever-emerging question with the rise of video is the question of aesthetics. Film always has and continues to be an aspect of telling a story: the grittiness of reversal film, the sleekness of the Super 35 process, and the vintage style of Super 16. At the moment, Red Epic, among the most trusted digital cameras, is praised for its similarity to a “film look.” While the Red is impressive, perhaps it is time for the higher-end digital cameras to give something unique to film storytelling by developing their own recognizable styles. One advantage that the camcorder subgenre seems to have is the ability to convince audiences that everything within the movie is truly happening. Chronicle, taking on the form of YouTube videos, pulled this off perfectly, and perhaps, the wave of the future is movies that are an extension of real life — ones that you don’t believe are actually movies.