2001 projects leave novelty phase behind

What a difference a year makes. While just 12 months ago digital filmmaking was a novelty, this year everyone from Julie Delpy to the kid next door is making a digital feature.

Just the list of actors who’ve stepped behind the camera is impressive: Ethan Hawke’s “Chelsea Walls” is slated for release later this year, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming opened “The Anniversary Party” in June. Fisher Stevens, who starred in Gary Winick’s digital feature “Sam the Man,” has recently finished his feature debut, “Just a Kiss,” and Griffin Dunne will see his pseudo-documentary, “Lisa Picard Is ‘Famous,'” in theaters in mid-August

While these films may suggest that DV facilitates vanity filmmaking rather than serious projects, each of these films is impressive. “The Anniversary Party,” for example, stands out in terms of its performances.

“The acting was the most effortless of anything I’ve ever been involved in,” notes Leigh, adding, “There was a kind of spontaneity and also a quick pace. It was very alive.”

Stevens seconds this sentiment, noting that with “Just a Kiss,” produced with GreeneStreet Films, the company he co-founded with John Penotti and Bradley Yonover, “I knew all the actors, and we just had a good time, even though it was a very guerrilla production.”

That DV allows for heightened director-actor intimacy is catching the attention of many stars. Winick, founder of the New York-based DV production company InDigEnt, recently wrapped “Tadpole,” a coming-of-age story he shot on mini-DV starring Sigourney Weaver, Bebe Neuwirth and John Ritter.

When asked how Weaver felt being photographed with a diminutive plastic camera, Winick says, “I think one of the reasons that she wanted to be involved, beyond the script, was the possibility of working with DV and having the chance to act in this way. DV is very intimate and you can reorient the attention to where it belongs, which is on the acting.”

The much vaunted intimacy is just one of the factors contributing to the wide spectrum of digital features that have rocked the filmmaking world over the last year, prompting a renewed definition of the DV revolution.

“What you had in the beginning was a neo-realist movement,” explains Jason Kliot, who along with Joana Vicente co-founded the digital production company Blow Up Pictures. “It’s very traditional narrative, with almost Aristotelian rules of narrative unity.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with digital filmmaking. But the reasons these films were so successful was the bounties they afforded the filmmakers. For the first time, filmmakers are getting the time to do things until they get it right, which has always been a luxury only afforded by Hollywood.”

Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave, a company of the Independent Film Channel that offers finishing funds for digital features, notes, “When people started out, the appeal of DV had mostly to do with budget. A lot of the first digital movies were quasi-documentaries.

“In the next stage, the assumption was that digital was good for intimate character pieces. But as people have seen different kinds of movies, our ideas about what’s possible expand.”

Broderick highlights the Dogma 95 film “The King Is Alive,” which was shot in the Namibian desert in bright sunlight, as well as “Fast Runner,” which recently won a cinematography prize at Cannes.

“(‘Fast Runner’ is) snow and ice, exactly the kinds of things that people say you can’t shoot digitally,” says Broderick. “But both films look fabulous, and they’re affecting what people think is possible.”

While these films may push the boundaries of what’s shootable in natural conditions, Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” is the unanimous choice when pundits consider the most important recent DV hallmark.

According to Kliot, “‘Dancer in the Dark’ is one of the true revelatory movies of the new millennium, where camera, eye and hand are mixed together in an extraordinary way.”

Thanks in part to “Dancer in the Dark,” DV seems to be moving in at least two directions. On the one hand, directors are using increased digital effects done with desktop tools to make films that are either far from realistic or that creatively accentuate reality. Rick Linklater’s “Waking Life,” which was animated after being shot on DV, is one example, as is Stevens’ “Just a Kiss,” which mixes animation with live action to accent key emotions in the story.

Similarly, Aaron Woodley’s “Rhinoceros Eyes,” slated for production in the fall from Madstone, combines animation and live action to tell a coming-of-age story in which a boy has trouble distinguishing reality and fantasy.

On the other side are films that are driven by story and are shot with DV mainly to accommodate a budget.

Eva Kolodner, veep of development and production at Madstone notes, “We’re driven by story, and so for us, digital is just another tool. I’m looking at DV as a way to get work made, and if this can be a way to get first-time directors to tell their stories, then we’re all for it.”

Propaganda Films is adopting a similar strategy. Trevor Macy, chief operating officer, notes that the company has finished two digital features and has several more ready for production.

“Digital filmmaking as a whole is very important for us in the way that we tend to develop directors. They hone their skills working with DV on single-day shoots for commercials and musicvideos, and it’s important to us to offer the same opportunities on features.”

At the same time, however, many filmmakers are taking advantage of the medium’s low cost to experiment. Dunne’s “Lisa Picard Is ‘Famous,'” made with GreeneStreet Films, documents two struggling actors, and it was written by and stars two struggling actors. For the film, Dunne followed the pair as a documentary filmmaker would.

“For a director used to directing more traditional movies, it’s a great exercise to try something in which you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” notes Dunne. So what will we see a year from now on the digital front? For many, the DV revolution has yet to hit the distribution and exhibition arenas. Madstone is moving in that direction — the company is buying theaters in at least 20 markets and retrofitting them as arthouses, with at least one digital projector in each theater.

And in terms of production, according to John Bard Manulis, founder of the digital production company Visionbox, “digital invisibility” is the wave of the future.

“I don’t think people will be commenting on whether a film was shot digitally or on film a year from now,” he asserts. “And it’s not about looking like film; a story just has to feel right. That’s the important thing, and I think we’re getting close to that.”

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