Friday, February 16, 2007

Is digital filmmaking really "filmmaking"?

Yesterday on my blog at the On The Lot website, I posted this essay about digital filmmaking, and whether it should count as "real" filmmaking. I thought it would be a neat thing to share here too...
Is digital filmmaking really "filmmaking"?

From the moment we saw the On The Lot promo during American Idol and my wife said I should go for it, to when it was mailed off, was exactly 28 days. Now that my film (is it really a "film"? We'll get to that in just a sec) is finished and on its way, after a crazy hectic month of getting it together, I thought about putting this blog to some use by waxing philosophic on some things that have been pondered during my four-year old career as an independent filmmaker.

The first thing that I want to consider aloud is this: is digital filmmaking really "filmmaking"?

There are some who will argue – quite sincerely and even convincingly, I should note – that unless a movie is made with real film, that it's not really "filmmaking" at all. I've even heard some say that those who use the digital medium for their work are just "pretenders" in the trade. But is that right?

George Lucas has wholeheartedly adopted digital cinematography. Steven Spielberg has openly stated on numerous occasions that he will stick with film. Spielberg's argument is that real film has a look and "graininess" to it that's part of the movie magic, and digital can't adequately replicate that. Lucas’s zeal for digital filmmaking is in large part because it's made non-linear editing and use of special effects much easier and more powerful than it ever was doing it old-school (does Industrial Light and Magic even use an optical printer for effects anymore?).

I see a lot of good in both sides of this thing. I don't know if I could ever give up the ease and flexibility of digital. But I would also love to work with real film someday. But if that opportunity doesn't happen... could I still call myself a "filmmaker"? Could any of us, whose circumstances have limited us to using digital video?

Can it be said that modern books aren't really "written" because they were composed and edited in Microsoft Word? Is spaghetti not truly "cooked" because it came out of a can? Of course a plate of the best Chef Boyardee spaghetti probably won't compare to a main entrée at Emeril's Restaurant, but all the same: it's still spaghetti. And it's still going to be delicious (the Chef Boyardee is I know. I haven't managed to try out any of Emeril's joints yet but I'm looking forward to doing that sometime).

Digital filmmaking is in the realm of anyone's grasp. Figure that all you need is an inexpensive camcorder, a moderately powerful personal computer, your actors and props and locations of course, and lots of tape... which averages out to costing about five bucks for an hour of footage.

Now consider "film filmmaking". You're gonna need a camera 'course, which probably will cost you more than the digital variety. Consider that you're also going to need to factor in the cost of developing the film and then someplace to edit it together. Cast and other essentials shouldn't cost anymore than what they would for digital.

But then there is the film itself. Which can, ummmmm... run anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000, sometimes even $10,000, depending on what grade of film you use.

Did I also say that those are costs per minute of footage?

Already, from the outset, the mentality has changed when you do "real" filmmaking from what it would be if you were doing it digitally. When stuff costs really big money, your mindset alters drastically. The money becomes the most overbearing issue in regards to bringing your vision to life, instead of being able to focus on the vision itself. Only if you have something like major studio backing could you afford to fixate your attention on the story and the details of how to substantiate it, without the headache of worrying constantly about whether you'll be able to make ends meet enough to even pay for the filmstock to shoot it on.

Some will say that this exorbitant cost is a good thing. That it makes sure that only "the most serious-minded" will attempt the craft. I can see something to that. Recently I ran for school board where I live. You wouldn't believe the amount of hoops you have to jump through and the hurdles you have to clear just to get your name on the ballot, to say nothing about the laws you must adhere to while you're campaigning. It can be a major headache. Now, I believe that everyone should be actively encouraged to do something like that... but there should also be something in place that makes a person think about whether they really, absolutely truly want to attempt it to begin with. Otherwise that person is just wasting his or her own time and effort, and they're potentially going to waste the time of a lot of other people too. And more often than not, filmmaking does involve other people. As a filmmaker, I believe that the first two priorities should be to do right by your vision, but also to do right by the people who have trusted you with their valuable time enough to help make that vision come true.

The big problem this presents, though, is that there are a lot of serious-minded potential cinematographers out there who don't have ready access to huge piles of money and things like hunnerd-thousand dollar film cameras. Should they be completely shut out of doing something that they love, and possibly being appreciated for it, simply because they lack the funds to do it like "the big boys" can?

My wife and I watched Facing The Giants on DVD last week. It's a movie about the football team of a Christian high school. Facing The Giants was produced by a Baptist church in Albany, Georgia. It's budget was around $100,000. It wound up making $10 million at the box office.

I wanted to mention Facing The Giants particularly because I think this movie is an excellent example of something I've observed over the past few years: increasingly, we are seeing quality movies come out of places other than Hollywood. Facing The Giants was shot on high-definition digital video. If its creators had used real film, the cost would have been astronomical. But just think of it: a Baptist church, of all places, produced a movie that made a ten thousand percent profit. Digital filmmaking threw off the shackles and freed them to accomplish that. If it worked for them, it can work for anybody.

And if the major players involved in entertainment want the filmmaking industry to not only sustain itself, but thrive and grow, it's going to have to start casting a wider eye at what is going on out there in the hinterlands of America and the rest of the world. You've probably seen it too: over the past several years, receipts at the box office have been dropping. Is that because of piracy? No, I doubt it. More than likely, it's simply because the major filmmaking industry as we have come to know it has grown inward upon itself too much. Farmers do a thing called "crop rotation" where they'll use a field to plant beans one years, and then corn the next, and maybe wheat the next and the following year let the field sit on its own. That way, nutrients get returned to the field over time. Well what we're seeing happen in not just filmmaking, but even things like politics, is that the same crops keep getting sown in the field year after year after year... and it's come to the point where nothing new and fresh is being grown. The field is robbed of nutrient. Ever think about how many movies in the past few years have been remakes, or even remakes of remakes? Ever think about why politicians who in a sane world would never be trusted with power keep getting elected to office?

It's because The System is trying to sustain a hold on power on things, and it's sustained it for so long and so hard that the things have become stale, stagnant, and dilute of its potency. The Emperor Constantine had to steal from other monuments for decoration when he was building one to his own glory: the artisans of his day didn't have the skill that their ancestors had. Their own craftsmanship had become rotted and rank. And that's what is happening to our culture: not just our entertainment and our government, but just about everything across the board...

We... and I mean all of us... need new voices and new visions. And we need to encourage them to do whatever they can to bring those to the forefront of what is going on around us. I believe that there is always going to be a love and appreciation for film cinematography. But I also believe that there is a dire obligation to empower the vox populi to be able to engage in creative pursuits such as filmmaking, too. The creative impulse is out there, just waiting to be discovered: we just have to learn to feel for it.

Maybe we should drop the term "filmmaking" altogether. The Boy Scouts got it right years ago when they rolled out the Cinematography merit badge. "Cinematography" is much more encompassing and accurate. To me, that word means "visual storytelling", and isn't that what it is that we are aiming for, no matter what it is that we have to work with?

In the end, it doesn't matter if you are using a Panavision rig, a Canon GL-1, if you shoot it on Sony CineAlta high-def or even if it's with a 1970s-era Super 8 camera. What matters is this: if you have an idea for a story and you want to make a movie out of it, make the darned movie! It's the story that matters, not how you were forced by your situation to make that story happen.

The most important thing of it is, it's YOUR story. And you get to share it however you want to. Don't let anybody tell you that it's somehow "less than adequate" because of what you had to work with. You know better than that.

Make your movie, however you can. And be proud of it.


qemuel said...

Good essay.

Remind me to tell you sometime about Frank Herbert's thoughts on the common man and local government. I believe you'll be of a similar mindset.

Good luck with the film!

Chris Knight said...

Thanks :-)

You've piqued my curiosity now: what did Herbert think about the common man and local government? That guy made me think about so MUCH when I first read Dune as a high school junior, a lot of it still shapes my thinking today.

Anonymous said...

"Is digital filmmaking really "filmmaking"?"

Short answer: Yes. :-)

And thank goodness for digital. It has indeed made filmmaking much more affordable.

Anonymous said...

Let's consider for a moment exactly what IS film-making...

A purist would say that since the word "film" is part of the term, then the work HAS to be on film in order to qualify. That definition would also have to be considered an oligarchial definition, because the necessary investment to qualify as a "film-maker" is both significant and prohibitive to most who would aspire to the craft. That definition serves to keep film-making an elitist society, supporting both high salaries and controlled, predictable revenues.

On the other hand, if we consider film-making as merely the process of getting the images out of someone's imagination and displaying them in a way that is both self-satisfying to the originator and of interest to other people, it doesn't seem to be of much concern how, technically, one does this. The variations could be as wide as the differences in how each of us dream.

When I produce a commercial for Star-39, I first have to see that commercial in my head, then use the processes I have at hand (for me, Final Cut Pro and graphics available on the internet) to put what is running around in my head up on the TV screen. How well I do that depends on how well I command and finance the medium to get the message out. If I had to do my commercials on film, with a purely film-maker's budget, it would take me weeks to produce one 30-second commercial and the cost would be prohibitive for the advertiser. Therefore, no commerce would take place and I could not afford to spend my lunch break at Cafe 99 eating sandwiches for Chris Knight's films.

From this, I think you should KNOW where I stand on the issue.

Matt Smith