Digital Cinema: More accessible but not less complex.

This piece appeared originally on The Illusion of More, but it seems appropriate for this blog as well.

I saw this link the other day from one of my indie filmmaker friends about Black Magic’s new 2.5k cinema camera.  I recommend reading the article for anyone interested from a professional standpoint, but the reason I cite it here, as I continue to focus on digital cinema, is the headline:  7 Reasons Why Black Magic Rules — and DSLR is Done. 

Let me be clear.  I’d love to test drive one of these cameras, and they sound very exciting, but this headline is a very basic example of just one reason why digital cinema is not simple — it never stops changing.  Even the statement “DSLR is done,” which refers to motion capture using high-end still cameras like Canon’s 5D, implies that DSLR itself is some sort of standard, which is most certainly not the case.  More to the point, based on the description of the Black Magic camera, its look will be very different from a DSLR, and the cinematographer doesn’t always think “better” or “worse” in this context, just “different.”  I imagine an engineer reading this might tilt his head like Nigel in Spinal Tap, and say, “But this goes to eleven.”

Digital cinema offers a lot of exciting products and possibilities for the artist, but one of the challenges, especially as we move up the ladder from guerrilla, indie film production to high-end, large-scale features is that every new product is actually a disruption in a very complex process that begins with planning a film project and ends with storage of the material.

It is true that, when cinema was celluloid only, the means of production were out of reach for most bootstrapping independents; but at the other end of the spectrum, professional cinematographers were able to amass a body of knowledge that enabled them to control a film’s look from start to finish because imaging science wasn’t moving quite so quickly as it does today. One thing many laymen may not realize is that there is a qualitative and instinctive aspect to cinematography that cannot be quantified in a spec sheet.  An experienced DP exposing a particular film stock in a given situation, knowing how he’ll process, correct, and print that sequence is able to operate on a feel for the medium beyond the numbers that has been acquired through years of repeated use.  While the same instincts apply to a DP working with digital, the reality is that both the quantifiable specs and the more subjective characteristics of each system are in constant and rapid flux.  You get used to the behaviors of one technology just as a new one comes along.

Digital cinema for quality feature filmmaking is only about a decade old, depending on where we choose to start the clock, and we already have capture technology that acquires more visual information than may be desirable in some cases.  As I discussed briefly with cinematographer Steven Poster the other week, producers are just beginning to realize, for example, that hyper-realistic resolution demands an increase in detailed work by every department, which actually drives costs up at the high end of film production.  “We have to apply makeup with airbrushes now instead of paint brushes, and sets have to look like finished homes” says Poster. In short, artisans and craftspeople don’t do better, and more refined work for less money.

So, what about the DIY, indie filmmaker, who doesn’t have a makeup artist at all, let alone one with airbrushes? Is 2K resolution, for instance, helpful, or will magnifying every pore on an actor’s face have a negative impact on the audience experiencing her film?  The smaller the budget, the more the filmmaker relies on real locations, available light, and small crews wearing many hats.  In these situations, for instance, this new camera’s wide exposure latitude is likely helpful, but its resolution could actually be a hindrance, if the filmmakers want the backgrounds to go nice and soft. These are crude examples that are not meant to critique a camera I’ve never touched.  My point is that digital cinema is a complex and dynamic medium that does not begin and end at the engineer’s bench.

In general, I tend to think of camera systems as analogous to different film stocks, taking the attitude that no one is better or worse than another, so much as each has unique characteristics that are either suited or not to a particular project. Thinking in these terms is one way to avoid being buffeted by the dynamics of competing manufacturers, but only if one maintains a practice of renting instead of buying equipment.  Of course, with cameras coming out at low price points like this one from Black Magic, renting is often impractical or impossible. So, at the point of considering an investment, the experienced filmmaker will ask questions like “What is my post-production workflow? What are my storage demands?  Which lenses can I buy or rent in my market?  What will this camera allow me to do, or what obstacles does it pose for my next film — or next three films? Bottom line:  how much mileage will I get out of the investment before it too is obsolete?”

And that’s the one thing we can know for sure about each low-priced, digital product that comes on the market — something new is always around the corner — and soon. I can assure you that competitive products are already in the works and that the success of any particular camera will have more to do with market dynamics and the types of film projects people want or need to make than with the impressive specs of the product itself.

I often think back to a meeting with a Sony representative at the rental company in New York that I’ve always used.  The Rep showed me and the owner all the specs and a demo video for Digital Betacam. Sony’s whole push at the time was replacing film, and they spent a fair bit of time and money producing programs for their demo that yielded some gorgeous images to be sure. Of course, their pitch was based on a combination of technological achievement and saving commercial and TV producers money on camera rentals, film stock, and processing.  What they had failed to do in my opinion was to take a holistic view of production and realize that once a producer brings together certain elements — talent, crew, logistics, set pieces, etc. — that cost a lot of money, the line items DigiBeta presumed to replace were negligible. Plus, nobody was going to thank a producer for the savings if the final product didn’t look right. Hence, why would any DP or director choose a good but inferior and untested technology in this situation?

Like I say, this camera from Black Magic sounds very cool, and I look forward to trying it.  But after twenty years of watching the emergence and disappearance of “game-changing” technology, I like to remind myself and others that films are as good as the people working on them, not the toys in their bags.

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He Dreams of Being an Actor

This time last year, my short film Gone Elvis premiered at the FilmColumbia Film Festival along with two other shorts.  One of these was called Dreaming American, written and directed by Lee Percy and starring an Albanian actor named Praq Rado.  Dreaming American is a glimpse into Rado’s real-life, immigrant story, one of escape from his deadly homeland and dedication to work and live in the United States.  Praq is a talented and interesting young man. We met in person at the festival, and he contacted me on Facebook afterwards, paid kind compliments to my film, and would check in from time to time.

I just learned through his Facebook page that Praq currently sits in a U.S. federal detention center awaiting a deportation hearing.  It turns out he’s been in the United States illegally for several years.  I don’t know what, if anything, his lawyers will be able to offer; and I wish that I could produce some argument for his cause beyond a personal desire to see him allowed to remain here. He is certainly an individual who can only add depth to our ever-changing culture. I hope for the best for Praq’s safety and well being and hope that we can find a way to keep his dreams American.

Regardless of immigration law itself, anti-immigrant political rhetoric in America usually reminds me of this old, insulting joke:

Q. “How do you keep the jews out of your country club?”

A. “Let one in and he’ll keep the rest out.”

UPDATE:  Praq is currently out of detention and remains in the Untied States, thanks to the assistance of Lee Percy, as I understand.

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Coming Soon!

Coming to theaters this Fall, moviegoers get to choose between two radically different, yet equally psychotic views of the United States. Culturally and artistically speaking, all I can say is that catering to the lowest common denominator has never cost quite so much.

Red Dawn

For the completely illiterate, there’s the remake of Red Dawn, a film even dumber in 2012 than it was in 1984.

The premise:  A foreign army invades the United States, and it falls to a handful of heavily armed and extraordinarily attractive American teenagers to protect the homeland.

The stupid:  The invaders are the North Koreans, a nation that lacks adequate food, fuel, ammunition, money, allies, or military experience to launch an effective assault on a small troop of nearsighted Cub Scouts.

The amazingly stupid:  When filmed, the invaders were actually the Chinese, but someone in marketing figured out that insulting millions of potential movie viewers was a faux pas. So the entire film was digitally altered to change flags, insignia, etc. to North Korean.  I really wish I knew which Asian shop did the digital fixing.

The prediction:  Not only will this film stoke a lot of jingoistic chest-thumping and be quoted by chicken-hawk conservatives, it will also send hundreds of unqualified slouches to military recruiters who have to explain why they can’t be in Special Forces without an education.

Atlas Shrugged II

For the semi-literate, there’s Part II of the never-before-produced-and-for-good-reason adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

The premise:  Communist-ish ideas invade the United States, and it is up to a handful of very talented and extraordinarily attractive middle-aged Americans to protect what belongs to them.

The stupid: This sexless commercial for libertarianism isn’t even a true-to-spirit adaptation of the tedious comic book on which it is based.

The really stupid:  The film’s producers want to run its trailers ahead of a new Clint Eastwood movie in order to court every single one of 327 people who thought his performance at the RNC wasn’t a cringing embarrassment.

The prediction:  General audiences will be at least as wowed by Atlas Shrugged Part II as they were by Atlas Shrugged Part I.

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Discussion continued . . .

To those who have visited this site to read, discuss, or even complain about posts relating to digital age issues, I have moved that conversation to a new site called The Illusion of More.  Please visit www.illusionofmore.com and bring your observations and ideas with you. The site is designed to include many voices in both written and audio form, and I hope yours will be among them.

In coming weeks, I shall return this site to its original purpose and certainly hope to simultaneously figure out what that is.

Thank you!

DN

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Moving Target

Greetings!   I want to thank everyone who has been following this blog with an interest in (or bone to pick with) my writings on digital-age issues, piracy, et al.  I never quite intended to make this particular blog a forum solely dedicated to my interest in these matters so much as place for things related to film and unabashed self-promotion of my creative work.

So, in roughly a month’s time, I’ll be launching a new blog site designed to expand the discussion and debate about living and working with the Web as cultural and economic phenomenon.  In addition to my own op-eds that the folks at TechDirt seem to enjoy so much, I’ll also be offering written and audio podcast interviews with interesting, qualified, and entertaining people on all sorts of subjects.  Stay tuned for news and a new URL.

Also, I want to thank everyone who has commented here.  I will be taking down all or some of the archived articles from this site and migrating all or some of it to the new site.  I cannot promise to carry over your comments, but I hope you’ll forgive me enough to join the conversation after the move.

Cheers!

DN

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Hudson, NY

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Words I Don’t Use – Memorial Day 2012

I am the father of three and would probably be defined by most people as a liberal (although I generally reject that term these days), yet our eldest child wants to be an officer in the U.S. Navy.  He knows more about geo-politics than most adults, let alone kids his own age.  He believes Iraq was a strategic mistake, agrees that it is an example of bad leadership misusing both the heart and the might of the military.  So, I asked him, “Why would you want to sign up for that?” His answer was, “Because I want to affect policy.  I want to be one of the people who decides how and when we use the military.”  Selfishly, I’d like to argue with him, but it’s hard not to be proud of his answer and tough to reject its logic.

On the actual 9/11, that child was 7 years old, and we were still in Manhattan.  A handful of us parents decided to take the kids out of school as a group and keep them away from televisions while we waited for news about one dad whose office was in the Trade Center.  We took a bunch of the boys to Central Park to play, and I remember thinking then how strangely idyllic this scene was while just 10 miles to the south, all Hell really was breaking loose.  It was so quiet uptown; the only indication of the unfolding disaster was the periodic roar of an F-16 circling Manhattan.  It was a gorgeous day.  We we were absolutely fine.

In 2002, the president addressed the nation and told what I believe to be one of the biggest lies uttered as part of an orchestrated prelude to the invasion of  Iraq. “They hate our freedoms,” he said.  I thought then, as I do now, that this was an act of gross misdirection; and as the saying goes, you cannot tell just one lie.  This one was a doozy that set off a chain reaction that became a clusterfuck.  That terrorist organizations and rogue nations threaten safety, even stability, is certainly true; but the idea that any external force can threaten our freedoms seems like a hysterical assessment of the contemporary geo-political landscape. Specifically, our freedoms have never been the target of al Qaeda, and even if they were, one might have paused a moment before the war and asked exactly how that organization might have succeeded in that agenda.

It’s impossible to imagine how a threat to our notion of freedom could come from anywhere other than from within.  Still, we tend to say that our men and women in uniform are “fighting for our freedom” to the point that it is now a throw-away, politician’s mantra.  I never say these words because I believe it is a disservice to perpetuate a lie.  I truly respect and honor the individuals who are part of the military, especially as my oldest child proposes to join their ranks; but I believe we civilians owe these people our integrity in return for their service, a willingness to call things as they are instead of how we’d like to perceive them.  If we cannot do that, we will always squander their blood with the fallacy of our words.

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