Will Video Kill the Celluloid Star?
Fast, cheap, and out to upstage film, hi-def video is ready for its close-up
Listen: that noise in the background. Can you hear it? It's the low thrum of history, the tidal grind of change. It's the sound of incoming obsolescence, skimming low over the present, scything the tip of now, vanishing what came before.
Listen: It's the dull, ratchety winding down of broken teeth in sprocket holes gone all crumbly from ill-use, the triumph of ease-of-use over tradition, and the slickly glossed sheen of better-faster beating out older-wiser-slower, the victory of new technology over the romance of purist tradition.
It's the --
" -- death of film? Oh yeah, it's been dead since Technicolor came in -- that was the peak -- and it's been going downhill ever since, stinking up Hollywood. And good riddance, you know?"
Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Rodriguez: native son, world-class filmmaker, and one of a growing legion of film-types who have declared the emulsion-based filmmaking processes of the 20th-century's pre-eminent art form deader than Marley's ghost. From Rodriguez's friend and contemporary George Lucas (he of Skywalker Ranch and the unrestrainable technogeek ambitions) to Jonathan Demme (whose fall release The Truth About Charlie utilizes film, digital video, and High Definition cameras) and Andrew Niccol (his upcoming Simone features Al Pacino's stymied film director creating an entirely digital, HD actress), High Definition digital filmmaking is mounting what can only be called a concerted attack on traditional filmmaking.
So much for the Wizard of Menlo Park; the new kid on the block is Sony Corp., whose recent developments in digital wizardry have leapfrogged the century-plus old film medium and resulted in a sudden zenith of sorts: High Definition 24p digital video, embodied in the company's HDW-900 CineAlta, the first Hi-Def camera to be embraced by the filmmaking mainstream and the first to emulate the 24 frames-per-second progressive scan rate of film, allowing for an image similar to that of a 35mm movie camera but featuring superior clarity, more vivid and vibrant colors, and zero lab costs.
Rodriguez has shot his last two films -- Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the sequel to 1995's Desperado, and Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, both of which have yet to hit theatres -- using a "hot-rodded" version of the Sony cam. A host of other recent films have also utilized the technology, including Lucas' Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones and a raft of independent works whose filmmakers were drawn to the format's inherent simplicity and cost effectiveness.
Indie filmmakers like the Polish brothers (Jackpot) and Brad Anderson (Session 9) have embraced the nascent technology. Locally, several filmmakers, including Jeff Stolhand and Rodriguez have begun using Hi-Def cameras rented from local cinematographers or, in the case of Austinite Alex Holdridge from new outlets like Houston's Modern Movie Machines. (Currently there's nowhere to rent an HD package in Austin, although Kirk Miles at longtime Austin rental house GEAR says it's only a matter of time.)
So what, exactly, is the difference between Hi-Def and traditional film? Without entering too far into the land of geek, it's this: Traditional filmmaking relies on photons of light striking a frame of film -- which is coated with a thin layer of emulsion made up of tiny silver halide crystals that are suspended in the mixture -- resulting in a photo-electrical reaction that results in a latent image being imprinted on the film.
High Definition digital video, on the other hand, contains sensors with two-dimensional fixed grids of pixels (those little dots that make up the image on your computer monitor or television screen) that, like film, undergo a photo-electrical reaction when struck by light photons, which are then stored for future amplification directly onto those aforementioned monitors. Got that? Basically, the big difference is between film's random grains of silver halide and Hi-Def's fixed grids of pixels.
It's the look of Hi-Def that's appealing to filmmakers, though; unlike traditional film, which has what can only be called "that film look," Hi-Def has a sharper, more realistic image that's much closer to what the director sees while looking through his viewfinder. It is, as Robert Rodriguez notes, "infinitely closer to reality."
Houston-based Shared Patel, the director of photography on Alex Holdridge's upcoming Hi-Def feature Our Merry Life, has worked with HD before on the film Convertible, which ultimately resulted in Holdridge picking Patel to lens his second feature. Holdridge's story, a "very Austin" dark comic tale of romantic foibles and a slackerized look at "how our generation perceives marriage," gained an instant foothold and air of legitimacy when his debut feature Wrong Numbers scored big at last year's Austin Film Festival and set studio heads spinning. The big-league attention has since netted Holdridge a more-than-respectable $200,000 to work with on Our Merry Life, a mammoth budgetary increase over his first film that instantly allowed him to cover Hi-Def's $5,000 per week (on average) rental fees.
That isn't cheap enough for most indie filmmakers, but money is saved in other significant ways. Gone are costly reshoots, due to the safety net HD can provide (and film cannot).
"When you're a cameraman working with film, it's a matter of faith, because you're setting all these lights up, and you've got a light meter that you rely on, completely, to know if you're going to be able to light the scene the way you want to," Patel says. "It's only when you get that film back from the lab that you know if it really truly worked.
"One of the best things about choosing HD over film," he adds, "is that you can immediately view what you just shot right there on the set. You can see the color, the lighting, whatever, and you can see exactly what you caught right there. It's not a matter of having to wait a day and spending all this money to get some lab to rush you a copy of your dailies, which is what you have to do when you're shooting film. That's a huge advantage for independent filmmakers because it helps to eliminate that fear of being in the dark as far as what you actually got in the can."
Another Austin filmmaker who's sold on the advantages of Hi-Def is Jeff Stolhand who, along with local DP Ian Ellis, shot his WWII drama Master of the Game on Sony 24p Hi-Def. Stolhand -- whose previous films, the award-winning Seeking the Café Bob and 1999's What I Like About You, were both shot on 16mm -- says he was won over by Hi-Def after visiting the Sony's HD center in Los Angeles. When Stolhand was later corralled to shoot Master of the Game, the gig arrived with the stipulation that it be shot on 35mm. "The only trouble with that," he says, "was that they didn't have the money. I told them the only way they'd be able to get even close to that sort of look would be to shoot on HD, and so that's what we did. And it looks fantastic."
As a director, Stolhand's been delighted with his HD experiences thus far -- his next project ("if it's an independent") will almost certainly make use of the format again -- and says that the advantages of working on HD over film are impossible to ignore.
"With film you tend to have a 4:1 shooting ratio," he says, "which means you get a good take and you move on because you just don't have the money to shoot any more takes. On Master of the Game, because we were working with HD, I think we had something like a 14:1 shooting ratio, which is huge. The tape is so cheap you can do that. We could shoot a lot more, we could see exactly what we were getting right there, and for the cost it just looks fantastic. It really looks amazing."
Creative freedom -- the freedom to try different ideas on the spot, thanks to HD's cheaper cost -- is another benefit, allowing actors to work out disparate scenes without fear of getting a beating from a disgruntled producer or a financially hamstrung director. "There are some actors who are great on first, second, and third takes," says Stolhand, "and then there are some who are great on ninth, tenth, and eleventh takes. HD allowed us the freedom to essentially shoot as many takes as necessary to get the best possible performance from our people."
Ultimately, says Stohland, the only drawback the production experienced with HD came "when we were searching for cast and crew. They'd hear that this was a 'digital video' production and think that meant mini-DV, not HD, which turned some people off. It was hard to explain to them -- until they could actually see it -- that this was a totally different ballpark."
Robert Rodriguez is Austin's biggest proponent of High Definition filmmaking and a man who has zero qualms about declaring traditional Hollywood filmmaking dead and buried. (The guy's got a sexton's spade in one hand and a turbo-charged Sony 24p HDCam -- two of 'em, actually -- in the other.)
Having shot everything from the legendary El Mariachi to last year's Spy Kids on film, he's now sworn off that bad habit forever, becoming in the process a champion of HD filmmaking. Along with superfriend George Lucas, Rodriguez knows the current revolution in filmmaking (and film distribution, too: the switch from film to digital cannot help but carry with it an abrupt change in the way movies are distributed and viewed) is long overdue. And make no mistake -- it is a revolution.
Before there was El Mariachi -- even before there was "Bedhead," his acclaimed UT student short film -- Rodriguez began his career working on ... video. His shorts compilation Austin Stories (no relation to the MTV series) was shot and edited using late-Eighties video technology, on a Handicam, then edited on a pair of home VCRs. It was only when his career began to gain its first initial rush of momentum that he began to think of himself as a filmmaker. And that's something he's been waiting to get away from ever since: the limitations inherent in film.
"When I did move into film, on El Mariachi," he says, "I remember thinking, you've got to be kidding, this is like the Dark Ages compared to video. Film was just so archaic. Then when I got into real movies it surprised me even more just how backward and old-style everything was. It was like still being in vinyl or reel-to-reel taping when consumers were already into recordable DVDs. It felt like the industry was way, way behind the times.
"And creatively, too, it just sucks you down, to have that many technical hang-ups. Suddenly you're moving very slow and everything takes forever, especially when you get into special effects. For all the reasons that film is just terrible I had been hoping that something better would come along. And HD is it."
Like Patel, Holdridge, and Stolhand, Rodriguez revels in the format's obvious pros -- being able to see what your shooting on the set and not having to wait for dailies, the medium's crystal-clear image and color saturations, and the freedom to go wherever your imagination takes you without having to stop and argue with the money men -- but for him the move from film to Hi-Def seems more like a sacred mandate than an aesthetic choice.
Talking to Robert Rodriguez about Hi-Def versus film is like talking to a 6-year-old about Hershey bars versus lima beans. No contest, kiddo. His giddy eagerness to proselytize the HD Word is in itself exhilarating. By the time he winds down -- after a good half-hour of non-stop HD chatter -- you're ready to storm the cinematic castle with torch-bearing villagers, purge the land of Hollywood of its emulsion infection, and burn the wicked witch of the Eastman Kodak all in one day. He's the point man for the revolution, and it's a role he's particularly suited for.
Rodriguez's intro to the wonders of HD came while mixing Spy Kids' sound at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Eager to pass the barely smoldering torch, Lucas showed Rodriguez some Phantom Menace footage shot on HD. Rodriguez's reaction? "I was blown away. This, finally, was how it was supposed to look."
Rodriguez made the decision then and there to begin working exclusively in HD as soon as possible, and to that end he rushed out and bought himself a pair of Sony HD cameras, which he then immediately used to shoot his Desperado sequel.
"Even though I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I got these two cameras and went down to work on Once Upon a Time in Mexico -- essentially I learned as I went, you know? Here I was shooting this movie with Johnny Depp and Willem Dafoe, and I couldn't get too nervous about it because I had a monitor right there and I could see everything I was getting. It was a case of, 'Well, I know this is going down on tape, and it looks great,' so even if I'm not doing it correctly it's going to be fine because there it is -- I can see it."
Despite the fact that the production marked Rodriguez's first time working with 24p HD, the shoot went "amazingly well," according to the director. Far from having to wonder whether he was actually getting the actor's nuances, the explosions, the gun battles, and the love story on film, all anyone had to do -- from the director to the actors themselves -- was take a look at the camera monitor, which played back the shots for all to see. Want another take? "Just do it" became Rodriguez's on-set mantra, and the actors were by all accounts thrilled to be able to see themselves and their work then and there.
"Oh, man," says Rodriguez, "they were all amazed and in love with it. The actors thought it was just unbelievable. Antonio Banderas grabbed me, put me on the phone, and said, 'Talk to my next director! Tell him to shoot with HD!'
"It made such a huge difference creatively to be on a set and be able to see what you were getting because, as a movie director, you never feel like you're getting what you want. Each day is a total drag shooting, and frankly I've always hated shooting movies on film, because you never feel like you're accomplishing anything. You always feel like the day has been a series of compromises and you're not quite sure if you got what you wanted. The next day you might see the dailies and say, oh, that's better, but you never know. It's tremendously frustrating working with film."
With HD, however, "each day feels like Christmas. You know you've got everything and it changes your complete attitude. It also changes the actors' attitudes, because if they have any doubts -- which they always do, especially when you're trying to push them in a direction beyond what they usually do -- you can tell them, don't take my word for it, come over here and check it out for yourself."
In the editing room, too, shooting on HD makes a world of difference. For Rodriguez at least, gone are the days of transferring film to tape to digital so that it can be edited on an Avid editing system. HD cams input directly into the editing bay, thus eliminating costly transfer fees and the hassles that go with lab work.
"With Spy Kids," Rodriguez says, "it was so much trouble to scan in the film into a computer to do an effect and then output it back to film where it's then degraded. Even if you try to do a simple dissolve or a title, you'd get the film back and it'd be scratched or have hair on it or whatever. You were forever doing things two or three times, especially when you got into post-production. It was just a nightmare. And then at the end, when you go and watch the finished product on film, it just looks like garbage! All the color has been sucked out of it. Film is just terrible. I mean, it's just the worst!
"That's what always upset me the most," he continues. "Film companies and even DPs, they're just quiet about it, they keep silent, and they know it looks like crap! But they just accept it and lie through their teeth about how HD is nowhere near as good as film. And it's all a lie."
But is Hollywood really ready to make the great leap forward from crystals to pixels? And once the move is made, does it really signify the end of film as we know it? Or is this simply a case of another new toy in the filmmaking bag of tricks? And by the way, doesn't film have more "soul," anyway?
That question is being asked by many in filmmaking's old guard, though UT-Austin's film department head and multi-award-winning documentarian Paul Stekler thinks nostalgia for film itself is irrelevant.
Stekler has shot his films -- George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire and Vote for Me: Politics in America, among others -- on both film and digital video, but due to the cost of shooting on HD (filmmakers save a bundle scrapping film's inherent lab costs, but HD is still a costly option out of reach of most documentary and low-budget filmmakers), he has yet to take up a Sony 24p HD cam.
As for the aesthetics of HD, Stekler says, "I've got to say that a couple of years ago I saw Penelope Spheeris' doc We Sold Our Souls For Rock 'n' Roll [shot on HD], and it was fabulous looking. I was really taken aback by how good it looked; it had a lot of vérité stuff involving changing lights and low light levels that looked very, very good, as well as those gigantic shots of the outdoor heavy metal concerts.
"That said, HD is very, very expensive. It's not cost-effective at this point for someone who is doing lower-budget films or documentaries. The reality is that movie theatres are going to be switching over to HD and digital projection systems in the next five or six years -- all they need to do is to figure out how to make their projection units cost-effective -- so I think to a certain extent Robert Rodriguez is correct: HD is going to be a big part of the future of filmmaking."
Stekler, who teaches film at UT in addition to his documentary work, notes that for many young students coming up through the ranks and working toward a career in film, the notion of actually shooting with a 16- or 35mm camera doesn't even come into play at this point.
"A lot of my students have hardly ever used film," he adds. "I feel like a dinosaur having edited film myself -- I remember doing trims and using an 8-plate Steinbeck for doing my first film. So there's a certain romanticism for me, but that may be just because everyone's twenty years younger. After all, you can't really be nostalgic for something you've never experienced."
Too true. Even Oscar-winning directors perhaps marginally less inclined to leap on emerging technologies with the two-fisted glee of a Robert Rodriguez -- like, say, Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) -- have little but praise for the new medium.
Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto used a combination of traditional film, digital video, and HD on the Paris-shot The Truth About Charlie, primarily using the latter for the film's extensive night scenes when Fujimoto noted that summertime Paris' evenings were barely long enough to light a set for traditional filming.
"Tak told me that there was no way on our schedule to shoot these scenes," related Demme, "because by the time he had everything lit, the sun's going to be rising, so he suggested using HD. So we used it for practicality reasons, and the bonus was that the resulting footage was so gorgeous. We also decided to use some little digital video cameras to make a textural decision, and it worked out great. It doesn't really scream out at you, it's not, 'oh, look, they're doing something different.' But texturally, it added a very different feel to [the film], and it really helps to sell the dimension that we were trying to achieve."
Demme's only real complaint was about the camera's weight: The film's frequent hand-held shots made for some sore shoulders and strained backs. "The camera we had was this huge beast," he says, "and to my knowledge there isn't a lightweight version of that just yet. It's as big as a Panavision camera and it's really heavy, like 80 lbs., just so much heavier than the lightweight CinemaScope 35mm cameras we were using. So, yeah, I was a little frustrated by its relative immobility, but dazzled by the imagery. We used it for some very romantic imagery, and it's just so lush. It really looks fantastic."
("And by the way," he adds, "Robert Rodriguez is my hero, not only because he's such a great filmmaker but because he's leading the charge on this new technology.")
With Rodriguez and Lucas spearheading the revolution, it appears that the move from Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers' beloved film to the myriad tiny pixels of Hi-Def digital video has finally begun in earnest. For better or worse, the genie is out of the film canister and into the tape-slot. For all the kicking and screaming and dragging of heels by the filmmaking industry and the camera and stock manufacturers -- not to mention all those theatre owners who are eventually going to have to outfit their multiplexes with costly digital projection systems -- there's little chance of going back now.
Ultimately, though, film and HD (and bastard stepchild DV) will likely find some sort of peaceful co-existence once the two sides stop throwing slates at each other and settle down. As with any emerging technology, there's initially a sense of winners and losers, of the new school shutting down the old. HD, however, for all its simplicity, relative cost-effectiveness, and crystal-clear imaging, still has a ways to go if it wants to completely mimic the textural look of film.
Steve Mims, the Austin-based director of The Perfect Specimen and the man behind the popular Austin FilmWorks workshops (which taught Robert Rodriguez a thing or two back in the day), has worked with all three mediums -- film, DV, and HD -- and says that "film still has the edge in terms of the information that is captured every time you expose a frame of film."
When it comes to true colors, shades of gray, and the genuine warmth of an image captured by emulsion-based filmmaking, HD still comes in second. Mims compares the difference between the two to the audiophile's argument that analog vinyl records trump those shiny CDs by virtue of their warm tonal range and fullness -- admittedly, a benefit that often eludes the layperson's ear. A similar argument holds true in the film vs. HD debate: Film's basic warmth, which comes from the randomness of those little silver halide crystals, still beats out HD's fixed-grid pixels. And then there's the romance of a hundred-plus years of filmmaking that simply can't be denied. The notion that a filmmaker is utilizing essentially the same tools that Griffith, Chaplin, and Wilder used carries with it a heavy dose of historical panache. For all its bells and whistles, HD can't compete with a century's worth of cinematic glory.
Just don't tell that to Robert Rodriguez, who scuttles the argument with revolutionary zeal: "With HD," he says, "this is the worst it will ever look, right now. It's just going to get better and better from here on out. And film is never going to get any better. It's just going to get worse. It's just plain dead."