hollywood didn’t exactly embrace the new technology from the get go. unlike the arrival of sound, color and cinemascope which was trumpeted everywhere, advertisements for “shot digitally” were at first confined to trade magazines. the obvious reason is that most viewers could not see any improvement on the screen.
the mystique of film was also hard to give up. for one hundred years, the medium had been perceived as an organic and mysterious material necessitating alchemic mutations and arcane rites to see the process through. meeting that challenge was rewarding for professionals. so the new entrant was carefully scrutinized: would the images be as good? how would digital technology change the way films are made? would it put people out of work? would the film business share the fate of the recording industry?
the overwhelming advantages of digital over film however could not be ignored for long. in editing, the ease of working with a non-physical medium was quickly acknowledged by everyone. in special effects too, the ability to integrate smoothly separate images into one took the industry by storm. in cinematography on the other hand, film was said for the longest time to provide a superior image. it is only recently that roger deakins, arguably the top cinematographer working in hollywood, declared that digital had finally surpassed film. in all of this though, the narrative focused exclusively on the efficiency of the new medium, on its ability to do the same things better, without anything else being altered. the workflow may be digital throughout nowadays but one ends up with the same old images on the screen.
my standpoint in this book is that the shift from film to digital involves more than substituting one technological platform for another. instead of a more pliable system used to produce identical movies, i see digital as a polymorphous organism, the fruit of distinct technologies merging in an unexpected way: video, the computer, the web, the smart phone, social networking, etc. this heterogeneity in turn makes it possible to think beyond all we presently take for granted when talking about film. in short it lays the groundwork for a new art form.
even though the digital revolution has also impacted the music industry, musicians must still buy the same old instruments as well as use a studio to record their songs. in contrast, to shoot images one no longer needs a dedicated and expensive apparatus. a cell phone is enough. tangerine recently confirmed that point loud and clear. so the big difference between old-style shooting and today’s is that the entire paraphernalia of heavy cameras, magazines, batteries, tripods, heads, spreaders, shoulder mounts, prime lenses, zoom lenses, filters, etc., can be left behind. likewise for the heavy lighting fixtures, stands, c stands, flags, nets, silks, scrims, sandbags and generators. all that paraphernalia is not needed anymore. be inventive and manufacture your own material when needed. ditto for the labs: no cost for processing your images, printing them, cutting the negative, etc.
amen. furthermore, with a cell phone, if you are fast and discrete, you don’t need permits since no one would notice you are in fact shooting a movie. as for cutting, any free editing software is perfectly serviceable. alternatively (why not?) don’t hesitate to cut in the camera.
we still take for granted that the place of art is in theaters, galleries, concert halls, and museums. these locations however are but dignified ghettoes, crypts that have kept art away from social life. it doesn’t have to be this way: in the twenties, the soviets experimented with bringing art to the streets, factories, etc. more recently an opera, invisible cities, was performed in los angeles’ union station with the singers and dancers mingling freely among the travelers. when this is taking place, art becomes normalized. it also reaches people who would otherwise never have been exposed to it. today that public sphere for film is called youtube, vimeo, and similar hosting platforms. whereas big business decides what films are made and distributed in the usual circuits, it doesn’t control access to these channels. you not only have a chance to exhibit your work, you are able to show it to a more diversified group.
consider the difference. theaters were once the only venue where an audience could see a film. practically speaking, this meant that an independent filmmaker, with no money left and a perishable commodity on his/her hands, was easy picking for shabby distributors. once you forgo the theaters, there is no longer any contract to sign, no genre to stick to, no required length for the film, no rules to follow. you don’t have to worry about all that nonsense. you show your work as you like it. as for money, it can be left out of the picture altogether. so, it isn’t just that a digital file doesn’t have to cost anything, it also makes it possible to leave behind the raison d’être of most movies: the profit motive.
if you think this would be beneficial, a digital project can be a one person operation throughout. instead of a fully-manned army, a one-man band. all in all, a digital project can be what it is and nothing else.
in hollywood films much effort is exerted toward getting it just right: the best people money can buy, the expensive sets, the top-notch equipment, the numerous cameras, the various angles, the multiple takes, the one-hundred-to-one shooting ratio, etc.
low budget films of course never aimed that high. b movies were low budget, exploitation films were low budget, everything produced by roger corman was low budget. the best way to make such a film is still to write a screenplay knowing what you have available and keeping out what you can’t afford or aren’t allowed to do (taxi). ditto for people and equipment. because time is money and most of what you introduce in a film also costs money, you must minimize entries from the get go. for instance, all other things being equal, a film with three actors will cost less than one with ten, a lean crew is cheaper and faster than a large one, shooting in daylight is a bargain when compared to setting up lights at night, and fewer locations means less traveling time and a tighter shooting schedule.
some obvious tips regarding sound: voice-over is cheaper than dialogue and re-recording lines in post is cheaper than spending time trying to catch a clean audio take when there is traffic nearby. watch following for clues on how to shoot a film when you cannot control the sound. some self-evident techniques: viewers can’t tell what’s being said when actors are in a long shot, are wearing an anti-pollution mask or have their back to the camera. you can also insert a lot of dialogue when it’s too dark to tell. for close-ups, a cigarette in the mouth makes it difficult to connect words and lip activity.
no solution fits all projects. cavite remains for me the best example of a successful film shot for a pittance. one of the two authors acts in the film and the other shoots it. all the locations are free. almost all the dialogue is voiced-over, etc. yet the action is relentless. all for less than ten thousand dollars. to remake this film hollywood-style would cost at least ten million dollars. would spending a thousand times more money make the film a thousand times better? i don’t think so.
should professionalism and perfection even be an ideal when making a film? juan garcía espinosa
attacked this notion years ago on the grounds that a technically or artistically perfect film asks nothing of its audience. all it wants is to be admired and applauded. put another way, dazzling images shield a film’s content, protecting it from potential criticism. the new cuban cinema, he suggested, should not be afraid of imperfection because the world itself is flawed and one of the purposes of cinema is to expose its shortcomings. one antonym of perfection is authenticity…
what benjamin prophesized for film long ago has finally come to pass. audiences are no longer attentively watching films. they are no longer fascinated by images or absorbed in the narrative. in the theater, they eat pop corn, exchange loud comments with friends, or respond to messages on their cell phones. at home or on the move, on large monitors or ipads, they watch intermittently, distracted by this or that. the trend has thus been from a mesmerizing center to a beckoning periphery, from centripetal attention to centrifugal diversion. to combat this turn of events, hollywood has jacked up both the visual intensity on the screen and the audio level in the speakers. the ruckus in other words is counted on to keep viewers absorbed in the film.
instead of knocking audiences senseless through thunder and lightning, it could be more rewarding to recognize that this generation of filmgoers needs to take a breather now and then and incorporate distractions within the project itself. how can this be done? the musical provides the classic model with a protagonist suddenly bursting into a song or when a dance number takes place. even godard did his version of it in band of outsiders. other approaches are possible. in attenberg the two leads provide us with regular interludes, practicing how to kiss, rehearsing quirky leg moves while walking together, etc. another tactic is to make the protagonists rest for awhile while activity takes place elsewhere. in sympathy for mr. vengeance, a detective is interrogating the father of a kidnap victim. they are sitting facing each other in a van. since they barely move during the questioning, our attention is taken up by what we see happening between them through the open doors: an ambulance making its way up a hill, policemen looking for clues, etc. one can also renew the attention of viewers by abandoning a protagonist to his fate and refocus instead the interest on a brand new character. that is the ploy linklater used so successfully in slacker. one can also suddenly shift the story from the events in front of the camera to what is happening behind it, as panahi did in the mirror. finally, if the project is online, one can use hyperlinks to entice viewers to digress and jump from this story to another one. anything really to refresh the narrative and, in so doing, reinvigorate viewers.
instead of bemoaning the audience’s loss of attention, do not shy from disrupting your own work.
film meant time, effort, and chemicals to bring images into the world. haven’t we all be mesmerized when, processing a sensitized paper, the picture slowly reveals itself in the developing bath? before our eyes, a perfect record of what took place earlier is coming alive again. this phenomenon allowed bazin to talk of photography as embalming an otherwise evanescent present. once the photographic image was finalized, it was also meant to stay that way. similarly, with film, all the prints sent to theaters were meant to be perfect duplicates of the final answer print. in theory at least, the film could travel around the world without losing its fundamental qualities. paradoxically it is these marvelously elemental qualities of film that make it look archaic today.
as we know, digital couldn’t be further from the materiality, inflexibility, and permanency of film. what is picked up is a heap of data that never coagulates into a stable, secure formation. no longer prisoner of long term memory, the new technology naturally embraces changes. instead of freezing a perfect moment of time that is then endlessly replayed as in the invention of morel, digital longs for growth, variations, and transformations. it begs to regenerate itself, to be on the move, to engender manifold identities. in short it aspires to a state of permanent metamorphosis.
to sum up: film halides were expected to respond twice to outside forces: light first, the developer next. after that they were done. game over. with digital by contrast, millions of pixels are primed to burst again and again at any moment. the brewing magma cannot wait to gush forth. let the feast begin!
to sign a letter, to put one’s name on a book, a painting, a musical composition, or a film is to say: “i did this”. in other words, one takes responsibility for its content. living in the west in the twenty first century, one is quick to forget how dangerous it was—and still is in some places—to publish material that some would like to ban for moral, political, or religious reasons. the few who dare make a stand against public opinion or the diktats of doctrinaire clerics and authoritarian governments are courageous people indeed.
in the west, authorship is more prosaically connected to copyrights, contracts, and other financial issues. think for a moment of all the work, time, and money that is spent authenticating paintings for collectors and museums. why would acclaimed photographers limit the number of prints from their negative? why is the authors guild so adamantly opposed to amazon’s low book price policy? in all of this, the artist (followed by his/her legal successors) essentially functions as a monopolist trying to protect the financial value of the original material.
one alternative is to publish anonymously or through a pseudonym. for a long time no one knew the real identity of “pauline réage” or “elena ferrante”. depending upon the interest the work generates, it can nevertheless be difficult to remain unidentified for long. leaks develop and the whole matter ends up looking like a publicity stunt. directors could not be credited under dogma 95 vow of chastity but, when the cannes film festival gave its jury prize to the celebration, thomas vinterberg was only too happy to walk down the aisle and receive the award.
the issues of authorship, property, money, etc., crop up because traditional art is something tangible. a book, a painting, and a film negative are all physical entities. all could be held in one’s hand. in contrast, with digital, where is your work once you shut down your cell phone or your computer? linux once made a splash because it was an open source software in contrast to proprietary operating systems such as windows. a similar operation can be attempted with digital. whereas the natural tendency is to seal one’s work against further changes, why not deposit it on a media platform and invite others not just to “augment” but develop it. in short, open the file to endless appropriations and transformations. people are already contributing their own images to popular songs. others have dubbed new lines onto a famous film scene for comedic effect. video mashups can be fun and surprising. what i am suggesting here would push the envelope further. it would implement a notion dear to deleuze and guattari
that speaks of an endless, non-hierarchical formation and reformation of a prototype through space and time. once let loose, “your” project, in theory at least, would never cease to undergo mutations, some dreadful and leading nowhere, others electrifying and momentous. it could be recut, the music changed, scenes added with new actors. the story could be altered with a voice-over or, more radically, new characters and a new narrative introduced, turning the earlier events into a flash back narrated by one of the more recently added protagonists. this of course would mean saying good-bye once and for all to the idea of authorship (which i grant you isn’t easy) and accept the transformation of your precious baby into an alien creature. there are antecedents though: in the middle ages for instance it was taken for granted that a famous tale would be embellished, embroidered with new twists or even restructured by the storyteller, based on that individual’s unique abilities or predilections.
digital allows us to leave behind the traditional art object. the work no longer has to be protected, embalmed, fetishized, or monetized. let the work go. part company with it. wish it bon voyage, then get going on the next project.
as pasolini once noted, cinema is largely built on ordinary, everyday signs we learn to identify as we grow up: “this is a bus stop”, “this man is jogging”, “that’s a supermarket”. places, events, and artifacts are therefore recognized in film as easily as in life. along the years though, cinema has added its own language on top of the older, more primary signs. for instance, a car chase shot by paul greengrass adds to the physical pursuit shockingly diverse points of view and extremely fast cutting. these features, superimposed on top of the speeding car, intensify our response to the film. today, when we go to the theater, we expect these signs of cinema to contribute significantly to our experience of the film. the underlying signs produced in the world end up as mere catalysts for the flashier discourse.
if a turbocharged film language is a requisite for commercial filmmaking, it is not essential in small digital projects. let’s go back to basics rather. as the early soviets once pointed out, you don’t need to draw perspective to create art. collages, for instance, could be made using ordinary materials, paper, glass, wood, metal, etc. not only that, do not be afraid to be called an amateur. from its latin root, amare, the word implies that you love what you do, as opposed to professionals who do the work only as a job, for money. leave therefore behind the idea that you need to make a “film” with all the prescriptions the notion involves: an impressive production design, great cinematography, sharp editing, etc. you do not need glorious aesthetics at all. use the change in technology to discover new ways to relate images and sounds. above all, don’t hesitate to challenge film language. create your own dialect (bakhtin). doing things that are “wrong” can thwart the paradigm that imprisons the production process.
the standard movie length is no longer the gold standard it once was. on one side of the equation, television miniseries are more popular than ever. on the other side, the short format—always the underdog in the history of the medium—has come alive on sharing video sites. along with that, the internet and social media have accustomed us to search for the nuggets we really want. we thus regularly skip over any material when it takes a direction away from our own train of thought. it makes sense therefore that digital stories need some serious rethinking. do authors really still have to include all the details that propel the protagonists forward? aren’t we familiar enough with stories to guess what these would be? much of what we see in films is there for two reasons only, the assumption that a story must be clear as well as complete, so we keep justifying and explaining things (the end of psycho).
what is distinctive about a short digital project is that it does not have to create an all-encompassing world. nor does it have to tell a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. it could instead take its cue from something called “flash fiction”. the idea here is to tell a story as briefly as possible, suggesting a lot, but never filling up the blanks. hemingway is said to have provided the perfect example of flash fiction with “for sale: baby shoes, never worn”. a film could easily be made of this classified ad in a few shots. a woman is sitting at a desk, looking at the little shoes in front of her. her hand goes instinctively toward them. she stops, holds her breath, then faces the computer. she opens craig’s list and types “for sale, etc.”
the key in flash fiction thus consists in identifying a pivoting moment in a character’s life, focusing on it, then getting out quickly. there is no need to involve a before or an after. in hemingway’s example, we don’t need to know whether the woman is a single mother or the baby stillborn. the time passage between the tragedy and the decision to sell the shoes is not important either. whatever information you want to communicate has to be available instantly. her social status for example can be revealed through her clothing and the décor in the room. based on her behavior we could also surmise that she is selling the shoes because she wants to move on with her life rather than because she needs the money. no matter what, a lot would still be left to the imagination of each viewer.
embrace the idea that your viewer has no more than a few seconds to give you, possibly holding a cellphone while standing in a subway train. be brief, make each frame count. think of your “movie” as a burst of images that tell a lot, a jolt that leaves the viewer thinking about what he or she has just come across.
essayistic films are very different but equally rewarding to make. in this kind of films, you ruminate about something. it could even be about the very film you are presently making. or it could take the form of a personal diary (real or imagined) that is told through pictures and sounds. or you could investigate some issue that interests you. why not be the historian of your building or street, if not your life and times? in other words, rekindle the spirit of vertov’s life caught unawares, cinema vérité and direct cinema.
shoot life as it happens. no blue print, no pre-conceived scheme to circumscribe the shooting. the particular events matter less in this kind of film than the perspective through which they are being observed. the voice of the filmmaker is what makes the footage meaningful.
i find this type of moviemaking especially suited for digital projects. it tends to be more personal than stories requiring actors. you, yourself, and your thinking make up the node of the work and time is not an issue. such projects are not without interest from a viewer’s perspective either. instead of getting engrossed in the adventures of a fictional character, one becomes absorbed in the thinking of the filmmaker. marker, godard, akerman, and sokurov have all used this process quite successfully.
it does not take much to get us to think about film. kuleshov conducted his seminal investigation of editing using only four shots. john berger in his ways of seeing shows the same painting by van gogh, wheatfield with crows, twice. the first time, with room tone only. we thus have a chance to appreciate the painting—the landscape, the colors, the brushstrokes, etc.—on our own. then he shows it again but this time a somber music accompanies his telling us that this was the last painting van gogh completed before his death. our response is immediately altered. a work of art open to our perusal becomes loaded with an emotional baggage that is immaterial to the painting itself. because we are able to experience our own internal turn-around, we are shocked to discover how easy it is to manipulate perception and play with our emotions. what experiment do you have in mind?
the greek root of “cine” implies movement, the setting of motion, something coming alive. its opposite, acinesia, suggests paralysis or death. cinema is thus a medium dedicated to capturing life’s energy. yet, very much like ourselves who become acutely aware of our aliveness only after we have been told we have a life-threatening illness, most films are content showing people doing and saying things. they produce but an ersatz of the real thing.
my first encounter with a vital moment goes back to my days in film school. we were shown an old, silent french film called ménilmontant.
the copy of the film was atrocious, full of scratches and bad splices. it was hard to pay attention. but then, out of nowhere, a scene appeared that has stuck in my mind ever since. a young woman is pregnant. her boyfriend has abandoned her. she is alone in paris, destitute, with no place to go. she is thinking of suicide. when the scene begins, we find her sitting on a bench next to an old man eating his lunch. his munching reminds her she hasn’t eaten for quite some time. quietly, he puts some bread on the bench between them. she notices it, picks it up, and eats ravenously. next he hands over a slice of salami. tears flow from her eyes as she bites into it. little by little she is coming back to life. throughout the scene, the old man never looks at her.
it is true that the woman is backlit and her breath is made visible by the cold. although these factors help, they do not appear deliberate. there is also something awkward about the compositions and the editing is rather rough. these shortcomings, far from hurting the scene, help it. in other words, the moment is revealed to us without the aesthetic buffer that permeates most films. consequently, our expectations are destabilized, refracting our attention squarely on the human exchange. the shyness of the old man is touching, the woman’s face deeply moving. the interaction between them is minimal but compelling. something is happening in front of us, in vivo.
it is not a question of how good an actor is. de niro and pacino are great ones, yet nothing much happens in the scene they have together in heat. as for the actress in ménilmontant ,
she appeared in other movies, including one by renoir, but in these films she is just a pretty face. never again was she able to be as impressive as in this particular scene. so what happened? put simply, what came through is not connected to the idiosyncrasies of the character or the personality of the actress, it aroused rather from basic humanness. to put it in a larger philosophical perspective, what we are encountering here, suddenly, without warning, is the face of the other (levinas),
a face stripped of all pretense. somehow, at that moment, the vulnerable being this woman is at core managed to surge forth and we in turn cannot but respond to the disclosure.
this state of being is not easily accessible. it demands from the actor to let go of everything. some directors like fincher, wyler, or mann have experimented with shooting umpteen takes to get their players so exhausted mentally that they stop acting and just simply are. but are the performances in their films more convincing than what we experience in more conventionally produced movies?
this is where digital helps. think about it: the absence of crew, lights, a big camera, all the paraphernalia that turns ordinary moviemaking into an unnatural operation, is absent when shooting digital. your actors are no longer standing on a formal platform. they share the same everyday space you are in. any “acting” in that environment is going to sound instantly over the top. your actors will have to be convincing at the level of life as opposed to what drama usually demands of them. the situation gives you a chance to capture what is missing from most films: the livingness of a single moment of time.
the time is now
to be able to witness a live event has an appeal that canned material simply cannot match. so why not stream your work live online, using whatever technology is available by the time you read this? when doing so though, do not attempt to replicate traditional dramaturgy. engage the medium with gusto. make it real. make it cheap. make it yours. each work can be self-sufficient or you can have a series that is streamed on a regular basis. no titles should precede or follow the body of the text. promote the piece on social media: some anonymous drama coming out of nowhere, live, in the middle of the night, a one-time affair only.