Spotlight on Digital Filmmaking - Redefining Indie Filmmaking

With continuing advances in digital video, technology is allowing low-budget filmmakers greater opportunities to make their movies a reality.

Digital video has had a long path to acceptance. For the last hundred years, film has been a tried-and-true medium—and one beloved by directors, cinematographers, and viewers alike. When video first hit the scene, the quality was quite obviously inferior to film, and the cameras were heavy and bulky. Its uses were limited to news-gathering, local commercials, and documentaries.

But no more. Today's digital cameras are changing all the rules. The number of digital cameras has multiplied. Both Sony and Panasonic offer high definition camera systems as well as popular mini-DV cameras. Panavision has teamed with Sony to offer a filmic-style High Def camera with lenses comparable to those used to shoot film. And German camera company ARRI is also in the midst of creating its own version of a digital camera. All of these HD players have been recently joined by JVC, which added an inexpensive high def camera in the HDV format to its existing line of professional camcorders. Cutting-edge digital cameras also come from Thomson/ Grass Valley Group and Dalsa.

From the high-end Sony CineAlta High Definition camera to a range of mini-DV cameras, the technology is now providing better images than ever before at increasingly less expensive prices. This generation of digital cameras gave birth to the possibility of a truly independent movie. Not only are cameras lightweight, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive, but the fact that the output is digital makes it easy to input into a desktop digital nonlinear editing system. No wonder that creatives have gravitated to it with increasing enthusiasm.

Let's start with one of the top festivals for independent film, the Sundance Film Festival. In 2004, Sundance equipped each of its 16 theatres for digital Sony HDCAM projection, and nearly half of the movies in competition this year originated on a digital video format. "Sony's digital cameras first appeared at Sundance in the mid-1990s," reports Ian Calderon, director of Digital Initiatives for the Sundance Institute. "Since then, there's been a natural migration toward digital. The images delivered by Sony's camcorders and decks have led more and more filmmakers to embrace the technology."

Sony marketing manager for content creative systems Andre Floyd notes that the company's offerings for indie filmmakers fall into three categories: DVCAM products, MPEG IMX cameras, and High Definition. The DVCAM product line offers small cameras with small tapes and a wide variety of postproduction tools, generally with Firewire connectivity for laptop editing. The current product range starts with the DSR PDX10 to the DSR PC-170, the newest 3-chip camcorder. Easy to find at camera rental companies, an extended production with these cameras makes it cheaper to buy than rent. The DSR PC-170, which lists for nearly $4,000, can be found for closer to $3,000 in the marketplace, says a Sony spokesperson.

The next rung up is the MPEG IMX product line, which includes the MSW-900 and PDW-530. The IMX format is based on the international MPEG standard. The new Sony cameras have the manufacturer's latest DSP chip, technology that allows a tremendous amount of processing within the camera head to deal with issues such as saturation, highlights, and lowlights. Floyd notes that the IMX format cameras use half-inch tape, the same "footprint" as Sony's other half-inch tape formats (which will playback on IMX videotape recorder decks). But, as opposed to Digital Betacam, for example, the IMX cameras are based on the MPEG international standard, which many companies build into their products. Avid takes the MPEG stream and edits it natively and in full resolution, without a need to uncompress and then recompress at the end. All the typical ENG (electronic news gathering) lenses and peripherals work with the IMX cameras, which, Floyd points out, are intended to replace Sony's very popular Beta SP cameras.

The MSW-900 is the tape-based version of the IMX camera, with a 12-bit A-D front-end recording onto MPEG IMX tapes. The videotape can also be plugged into an Ethernet network to send its imagery as files across the network into another VTR in another part of the city, country, or world—or into an edit system, in lieu of coaxial routing.

The PDW-530 is the same front end as the MSW-900, but it records onto a professional blue laser optical disc. This offers the benefit of immediate accessibility to the footage on a nonlinear editor, without logging the tape's content. The format also creates a proxy file—small, low-resolution representation—with the same timecode and metadata, which can be seen on any laptop or e-mailed. This disc recorder–based camera, however, is more likely to be used for news gathering for than independent filmmaking because of the still-high costs of storage. In summer 2004, Sony plans to add a 24P option board for the camera, creating a Standard Definition 24P camcorder. Filmmakers will enjoy the 24-frame-per-second, progressive format for its match with film's 24 fps, which maximizes ease in recording from video out to film.

The MPEG IMX format camera was used by writer/director Jacob Kornbluth (Haiku Tunnel) to produce his second feature, The Best Thief in the World, which premiered this year at Sundance. It was his first experience working with digital video technology and a positive one. "Once a scene was lit, we could run continuous takes, which was especially helpful when capturing scenes with kids," he says. "We often had to stop and start again, and being able to keep cameras rolling allowed us to make the actors feel more at ease and get the best performances out of them."

Sony's flagship high-definition camera is the CineAlta HDW-F900, which was developed in concert with camera manufacturer Panavision. This camera has captured the headlines with George Lucas and the recent Star Wars episodes. Introduced last year was Sony's HDW-F950, which is the CineAlta camera that is capable of recording full RGB signals and outputting them digitally to the new HDCAM SR videotape recorder. "With that VTR, because of the much higher bandwidth, it even more closely approximates what you can do in film," says Floyd, who reports that the HDCAM SR VTR starts at $88,000. This is Sony's top-end of the digital camera spectrum, however, and is most likely too costly for the low-budget, indie filmmaker.

More likely to be used is the HDW-730S, introduced at NAB, which is the company's "introductory level HD camcorder," for $48,000 and accordingly less expensive in the rental marketplace. "It's a good way for people to shoot HD cheaper," says Floyd. Even though this new HD camera shoots in the interlaced format, Floyd points out that there are numerous software systems (such as Magic Bullet from The Orphanage) and hardware systems (such as one from Teranex) that create a "film look" for videotaped imagery.

Panasonic Broadcast offers the AG-DVX100A (upgraded from the DVX100) Mini-DV 3-CCD camcorder and the AJ-SDX900 DVCPRO Cinema Camcorder, which is a step up in price and capability. Both of the cameras are able to capture in 24 frames per second, although the imagery is laid down to tape in video's 30 frames per second. "But by virtue of capturing at 24fps, it gives a filmic motion blur to what's going on in front of the camera," says Panasonic Broadcast product line business manager Jan Crittenden. "It's the same capture rate as film, so after you shoot you work in 24 frames throughout the edit." Numerous nonlinear editing systems, from Avid and Apple among others, "extract" the 24 frames from the recorded 30 frames. The AG-DVX100's CineSwitch technology supports 480i/60 (NTSC), cinema-style 480p/24fps and 480p/30fps image capture. ("P" refers to a progressive frame rate, similar to film; "i" is an interlaced frame rate, similar to video.) Both cameras also have Cine Gamma, which gives a more film-like gamma curve for more control over highlights and shadow details. "It improves the contrast available and allows you to manipulate the contrast of the scene," says Crittenden. The AG-DVX100 has a list price of $4,000.

Baggage, a six-minute fantasy short, was shot with the Panasonic AG-DVX100 Mini-DV 3-CCD camcorder. Produced by Kent Nichols and Meghan Dowd and directed by Nichols with Ryan Sheridan as director of photography, the short won "Best of 2003" at the 48 Hour Film Project, an international competition promoting independent filmmaking in which filmmaking teams have one weekend to make a short film, four to eight minutes in length. "Having a camera that can be run in multiple shooting modes was outstanding," says Sheridan. "In our project, we chose to show the difference between fantasy and reality not by color, contrast, or perspective changes but by temporal feel [change in frame rate]. We didn't have to switch cameras, tapes, or video formats. We got everything visually in one camera."

Another indie film shot with the Panasonic AG-DVX100 was Market 175, a 40-minute feature playing the festival circuit, which was shot by Linn Productions, an advertising agency and production studio in South Dakota. Based on a story suggested to company principal Michael Linn by his actor-friend Toby Brusseau (who stars in the film), Market 175 was shot in six weekends with a budget of $700 for food and miscellaneous expenses. "We lit the movie using a basic Tota/Omni tungsten light kit with Chimeras and were pleased how the AG-DVX100 handled the lighting," notes Linn. "In some cases we couldn't use lights at all, and the AG-DVX100 handled the natural, low-light situation amazingly well."

The AJ-SDX900 DVCPRO Cinema Camcorder is a leap up in quality and price. The body of the camera costs $26,000 but, after adding lenses and other peripherals, comes close to $45,000 (of course rental is another route). Crittenden notes that some filmmakers shoot most of principal photography with the SDX900 and use the smaller DVX100 for tight shots. First-time director Noah Kadner shot his feature Formosa with the AJ-SDX900 DVCPRO Cinema camcorder. An independent project from High Road Productions, with Anita M. Cal producer, the film will have a limited festival run later this year. "When budgeting the film I was very concerned about the costs involved in shooting 35mm," shares Kadner. "On the flipside, I was intrigued by 24P, but only if the quality could approach that of 35mm. When I heard about the DVX100's 24P capture system, full-size Cine-style lenses, native 16:9 CCDs, and Digital Betacam-equivalent quality DVCPRO50 compression, I reasoned it was a camera that, put in the right hands, could create footage comparable to 35mm at a fraction of the cost. And I was not disappointed."

The top of Panasonic's line is the Varicam HD camera, which allows for variable frame rate, from 4 fps up to 60 fps, and records at 720 progressive lines of resolution. Though it's the high-end camera, it's been used by indie filmmakers, reports Crittenden. "Is it film?" she queries. "No, but it's a cost savings overall. This allows more films to be made and young filmmakers to gain experience in telling a movie story. Now you can get your film finished, and even if it never sees theatrical release, you can release it on DVD, get feedback, and make a better film next time."

An unusual high-end digital camera comes from Thomson, whose Viper FilmStream camera offers three 9.2 million pixel Frame Transfer CCDs (chips) and delivers an RGB 4:4:4 10-bit log output that hasn't been compromised by electronic camera signal processing. It also supports several HD formats, including 1080i, 1080p, and 720p. Before the camera was released, a small group of independent filmmakers had a chance to use it to complete their project, QIK2JDG, which is currently in negotiation for distribution.

Actor Nick Spano (Even Stevens), who wrote and directed QIK2JDG, which was produced by Melissa Balin, says his first attempt at directing was a 30-minute project shot on 35mm film. It was a five-day shoot with 10 actors and 35 crew members. The result made Spano realize that his time and energy would be better spent on the script than on the logistics of running a film production. He wanted to try again and go smaller in scale "without all the extra things to worry about." When his cinematographer, Joe DiGennaro, who keeps up with digital developments, heard about the not-yet-released Viper, he made some calls. "I had already decided to do digital," says Spano, "and this was a greater opportunity to use something that was pretty advanced and wasn't available to anyone else yet."

Spano notes that the Viper isn't a small handheld camcorder. "It's a very aggressive, impressive, professional-looking camera," he says. "On appearances alone, it's amazing. Beyond that, what I was most impressed with was the accessibility. I could see what I was shooting on the spot, in high resolution, and get rid of takes I didn't like. If you're shooting with 35mm, it goes right in the can, and you make decisions based on your video prompt. But the quality of the Viper blew me away. You can even do some rough composites with this computer to figure out if your blue-screen shots are right, if lighting is right." Currently the Viper is attached by cable to a storage array, with plans afoot to develop an onboard storage system.

From JVC comes a surprisingly inexpensive digital HD camcorder, the JY-HD10U, which records 720p, as well as 480p and 480i, and plays back various HD formats, including 1080i. The 1-CCD (one chip) camera features a newly developed lens for HD capture, an optical image stabilizer system, and audio level indicator, among other features. This HD camcorder, which has a suggested list price of $4,000, includes basic editing software. When it first came out in 2003, its MPEG images required the JVC editing system. The camera's popularity has led other nonlinear editor (NLE) manufacturers to come out with MPEG-based editing systems, making the camera's use more accessible and flexible. The JY-HD10U is just one of many professional camcorders from JVC.

From Canada, the Dalsa Origins camera is aimed specifically at feature filmmaking, with 4k x 2k resolution, exposure latitude to match film, and at least 12 stops of linear response for more nuance in shadows and highlights. The Dalsa Origins camera also enables use of an optical viewfinder and 35mm PL mount lenses. German camera manufacturer ARRI is working on its D-20, a digital camera that is initially aimed at the television (not feature film) market but which might also be suitable for short films.

The choice are dizzying but also liberating. There's a digital camera for every budget and for every use. No, it's not film, which still remains the top choice for image capture and the medium of choice for high-end distribution. But, with the right cinematographer at the helm and a format chosen for its look as well as its price, the digital camera can offer an independent filmmaker on a budget a chance to make his or her movie. BSW