Digital films reflect filmmaker freedom, flexibility

Visit the Sundance Online Resource Center.

The focus of digital filmmaking discussions used to be on technology. With vastly improved cameras and transfer facilities available, the attention has switched to how the technology facilitates a different approach to filmmaking. It’s not just a matter of smaller cameras and unlimited shooting time — the format is changing the very process of production and the way directors work with actors.

“Once I did it I didn’t want to go back,” says Bobby Roth, whose narrative drama “Jack the Dog” shows in The Sundance Film Festival’s Premieres. The director, who divides his time between features and TV, says with digital he “could work intimately and quickly, and the emphasis would be on the story and the acting.”

Roth, whose 1984 pic “Heartbreakers” put him on the indie map, was introduced to the format by friend Rob Nilsson, who has been shooting on video for years. “Jack the Dog” was transferred to film “frame by frame” by Digital Filmworks .

In addition to substantial savings on film stock, lighting, lab work and other technical elements, Roth says another important advantage is the greater access to actors afforded by a shorter shooting sked. He was able to entice Peter Coyote and Jurgen Prochnow to make time for the self-financed production, since the digital format allowed him to get twice as much done in a day.

Other experienced directors such as Arturo Ripstein and David Cronenberg are turning to self-financing digital projects after realizing how creatively satisfying the format can be, reports digital filmmaking guru Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films.

Next Wave produced Sundace selection “Manic” and Broderick also acts as a producer‘s rep for “Some Body,” the first Dramatic Competition selection to be both shot and projected digitally.

Finding freedom

“Some Body” director Henry Barrial found the format liberating.

“It gave the actors a huge amount of freedom,” says Barrial, “There were no lights, the camera becomes invisible. We shot with two cameras and followed the actors around. We wanted to capture a reality you don’t usually see in film.”

“Some Body” was shot with Canon XL1 and Sony PC7 digital video cameras.

Broderick, who produced American Spectrum entry “Manic,” touts the format’s greater efficiency and flexibility.

“(Digital films) are virtually all shot with multiple cameras, with the cameras on nearly all the time,” he says. “You can go back and do multiple reshoots, you can own the camera and editing equipment and have the luxury of affordable time, which is a totally different way to work. Some movies are being shot in sequence, there’s a more continuous flow to the acting.”

Digital debut

Directed by Jordan Melamed, “Manic” was the first feature that Next Wave’s Agenda 2000 digital production division financed from the start.

“As it turned out, it was a perfect project to do digitally,” says Broderick of the ensemble drama about teens in a mental institution. “The camera is in the center of the action, it’s functioning a little bit like a documentary camera.”

The film was shot in PAL with the new Sony PD 150 camera, a small $3,900 instrument that, Broderick says, produces a sensational look.

Roth agrees that the ability to do reshoots is key to the format’s acceptance. When he had a realization that “Jack the Dog” didn’t go far enough dramatically, “I rewrote the ending with the actors on the set and then shot an entirely new scene,” he explains.

He also experienced the ultimate in flexibility by taking his lead actor to Paris for an ultrastreamlined location shoot, which he shot himself.

“Digital is about being able to take chances in production; 35mm production is about execution,” says Broderick,. “‘Manic’ and ‘Some Body’ could not have been made and be the movies they are on film.”

For documentary filmmakers, digital allows the luxury of following a story and watching how it unfolds. Veteran documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who had never shot on digital before, found that not only was their docu “Startup.com” (showing in the Documentary section) easier to get off the ground because of cost savings, but the small cameras allowed the filmmakers to shoot in cabs and restaurants where film cameras would have been difficult to maneuver.

“Pennebaker did have some doubts about it — he needed to be prodded,” says Hegedus. “It wasn’t so much the look of it as the archival aspects he was concerned about.”

Sound problems

While Hegedus and d.p. Jehane Noujaim appreciated the ease and economy of shooting with the Canon XL 1 and Sony PD 100, “the drawback was the sound,” says Noujaim. “The sound mechanics of the smaller cameras are very immature.”

But in the end, it was the ability to make the film at all that sold the “Startup.com” filmmakers on digital.

“We would never have shot this film without a mini-DV camera,” says Hegedus. “People just didn’t understand the idea of the story.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more