Helmers make bigscreen jump

Fiction filmmakers still favor film, but docmakers are definitely down with digital.

In only a few years, digital video has transformed the landscape for makers of independent nonfiction features.Of 900 submissions this year to PBS’ “P.O.V.,” a key showcase for independent docs, “almost two-thirds originated on mini-DV or in some digital format,” says Cara Mertes, the program’s exec director. “Two years ago, it might have been 10%, so it’s a massive change.”

Execs at the Sundance Institute are seeing the same thing. “The Sundance Documentary Fund receives hundreds of proposals a year, and the vast majority of these projects are being shot on digital video,” says Diane Weyermann, director of the institute’s doc program.

“Huge, just huge, and it’s getting bigger,” is how the shift is described by Mary C. Schaffer, a member of the board of the Intl. Documentary Assn. and assistant professor of digital media at California State U., Northridge.

Cost, flexibility and stealth are the key reasons cameras not much different from the mini-DVs wielded at a family birthday or bar mitzvah — and in some cases, those very same cameras — have become the tool of choice for today’s indie docmaker (though analog video and film are still used for many docs, especially those funded by networks).

“With DV you can spend $3,000 for a camera and $10 for a tape and start shooting, whereas with film it would cost $400 a roll for shooting and processing, and you’d have to rent a camera, hire a sound person and a lighting crew and everything else,” says Daniel Petersen, a New York-based documentary filmmaker.

Petersen shot his feature “Let the Church Say Amen,” a gritty, intimate portrait of an inner-city church, on the highly popular Sony PD150, a prosumer-level digital camera. “I had all my gear in a duffel bag,” he says, “and I could turn up by myself and get things I would never be able to capture with a film crew.”

Early on, a churchgoer’s son was stabbed to death in front of his house. “It was a very traumatic event, but because they felt comfortable with me being around so much with this little camera, they allowed me to film the funeral, and the father’s attempt to seek justice,” says Petersen. “I was able to work very unobtrusively because I didn’t have the big machinery that signals network media.”

Likewise, the makers of “Lost in La Mancha,” a fly-on-the-wall tale of the unmaking of director Terry Gilliam’s abandoned “The Man who Killed Don Quixote,” say they benefited from the low profile afforded by the compact equipment.

“If we had shot on 16mm or 35mm there’s no way we could have captured the story we did. People would have become very self-conscious,” says Lou Pepe, co-director of the doc, which was shot on a Sony PD 150 and is slated for January theatrical release by IFC.

“When we started the project we had no financing, so the fact that we could jump right in with what we had mattered a lot.”

Indeed, Stuart Sender, co-director with Malcolm Clarke of “Prisoner of Paradise,” says that they used mini DV, hi-def and Super 16. “One thing that was really wonderful was that our co-producer, David Ebberts, always had a mini DV and we used some of his footage in the film”; it also allowed the filmmakers to create some effects as well.

The higher light sensitivity of video can cut down on lighting setups, but doesn’t eliminate them, says Daniel B. Gold, co-director of “Blue Vinyl,” this year’s Sundance honoree for cinematography.

Accustomed to shooting for network and corporate clients, Gold shot “Blue Vinyl” on his Betacam SP 600, but says he’s selling that camera and committing himself to independent documentary making. He’s involved in five upcoming docs, all of which are shooting on DV.

“I spend just as much time lighting for digital as I would with Betacam,” Gold notes. “It doesn’t eliminate the art of lighting. It’s just that if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t light, you can get do a lot more on DV.”

Despite an expansion of cable and television showcases for documentaries, finding the funds to get a production started remains tough, says veteran doc producer Tom Miller (“Home of the Brave”), whose last four projects have been shot on DV. “Ever since the stock market went bad, a lot of the foundations are not giving as much money.”

The digital format is also leading to innovative fundraising techniques, notes Schaffer. “It’s so much easier to create a small Internet piece using digital film, and a lot of documentary filmmakers are now putting trailers on the Internet for fund-raising and outreach.”

Docmakers who shoot on digital can save substantially in post-production by editing on computer software such as Final Cut Pro.

But the benefits of adopting the digital format don’t eliminate a certain wistfulness for the depth and beauty of the film image.

“There are filmmakers that have an allegiance to film, because it has a richness and texture that video does not quite achieve,” says Thomas White, editor of Intl. Documentary magazine. “And some filmmakers do vary their formats within the same production.”

Still, PBS’ Mertes notes that economics is not the only thing driving the choice. “It’s a mistake to think this is the choice of people who have no money. Increasingly, it’s an artistic choice, especially for people who are going to be following a story over a long, long period of time.

“The medium is extremely flexible and the quality is very high. We’re very happy with the work people are doing in this format.”

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