“And the Oscar goes to…. Canon?”
Who’s making the film – you or your equipment? ☛
The last 15 years have seen an explosion in the technology available for filmmaking: first HD, then 4k, then the new generation of 3D. Once upon a time editing was done by an editor physically cutting up bits of film and taping them together; then this gave way to an editor cutting digital images on high-end, purpose-built computer equipment. Now this editor is cutting a feature film (called Sparks & Embers) at home using the same iMac on which he’s writing this article. As filmmakers we (usually) welcome these innovations: they make an incredibly expensive process quicker and easier, but it rarely occurs to us that it means that major trends in the stories we tell and the way we tell them are actually being shaped by the likes of Sony, Apple and Canon.
You need some examples.
The introduction of mini-DV camcorders in the mid-90s, a major leap forward in home moviemaking, inspired a generation of filmmakers to embrace the low-fi look offered by these cheap, light-weight cameras. Traditionally, 35mm movie cameras had most commonly sat on camera stands or dollies: this practice dated from the days when they were too heavy to hand-hold. As a result most movies featured the smooth pans and elegant moves that could be achieved on a length of track with a team of grips. This was no longer hip. Admittedly if you wanted to shoot an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, mini-DV was the wrong tool for the job. But if you wanted to shoot down and dirty in the style of a documentary or a home movie – forget Panavision, Tottenham Court Road was the place to find your camera. Hand-held was in; lighting and careful compositions were out. Technology was leading genre. The results included Festen, Julien Donkey-Boy and 28 Days Later.
About ten years later the Canon 5D mk.2 came along and the style of shooting changed again. Anyone still shooting on DV tape threw their camera out of the window. The new Canon shot with a narrow depth of field, allowing you to use focus to help you tell your story, much as you would with a 35mm movie camera. Despite being small and light, the 5D mk.2 wasn’t good for hand-holding, any sudden movement causing the image to skew and wobble. So the Canon returned to its place on the camera stand. Meanwhile frenetic hand-held camerawork didn’t go out of fashion, but ironically it was now shot with new lightweight 35mm cameras.
The DV revolution also affected the precision of the material people were shooting. 35mm, or even 16mm film, was dear both to buy and to process. DV tape was dirt cheap and could run for up to 90 mins. without you having to change the tape. (You wouldn’t get much more than 10 mins out of a roll of film.) When you were paying nearly a dollar for each second of celluloid that ran through the camera, you made sure you got it right. Because DV tapes felt like they were free, people often left the camera rolling. Cameramen, actors, directors – we all got sloppy. I remember as an editor that I’d receive DV rushes that ran ten times longer than film rushes, with less than one tenth of the quality of material. (Luckily the new generation of cameras use data cards, many of which can only store about 10 minutes of material before they have to be emptied, meaning that you can’t shoot quite so freely.)
The style of editing has also been affected by technology. Back in the days of cutting on film, an editor would struggle to make more than two or three joins in a minute. Digital editing on Avid or Final Cut Pro can be done pretty much at the speed of thought, if you know the machine well. We can instantly see what special effects would look like and do temporary sound edits a lot more freely than our forebears working on film. However cutting more quickly has also led us to cut more often. The hyper-active style of editing, so often blamed on the influence of MTV, owes more to the arrival of the digital technology that allowed filmmakers to edit that way. More recently the return of 3D has causing editing to slow back down because the eye needs a bit longer to appreciate the three-dimensionality of the shot. Again we go full-circle.
That filmmakers respond to new technology is not exactly news – artists have always reacted to technological advancements, whether it be the invention or movable type or the introduction of mineral-based oil-paints. Earlier generations of filmmakers, after all, responded to the introduction of sound and colour. But with the digital revolution filmmakers have got into bed with corporations who mainly produce technology for the mass-market, and that’s not always been a good thing.
So, what’s the problem? Let me give you an example. Earlier this year Apple introduced its new editing system Final Cut Pro X. I wrote about this at the time, but in essence what happened was that growth of demand in the amateur and semi-professional market caused Apple to decide to de-professionalize an editing program on which many professionals had learned to depend. To add insult to injury they decided to discontinue the old professional version at the same time. There was an almighty furore from the feature film editing community, which went pretty much unheeded. The problem was that Apple had been merely dabbling in the world of feature films. For each of their professional users there were at least ten amateurs, and guess which market they were keener to attract? Professional filmmakers were left high and dry.
Another example would be the development of the, by now legendary, Red One camera by a man who had previously only made sunglasses. To his credit, his company did offer director Peter Jackson early beta versions of the camera to work with, so that he could report back and help with the development. However, although the resulting camera’s picture quality was very fine indeed, the camera was heavier than cameramen would have liked and it had a tendency to overheat. What’s more, too little attention was paid to the effects on post-production of shooting such large amounts of data. It took a film technology company exclusively devoted to the professional market – Arri – to solve this last problem with their own competitor: the Alexa. This was designed with the interests of both cameraman and editor in mind and has taken over as the coolest camera on the block. Of course there is a higher price-tag attached.
It may be possible for a mass-market company to serve filmmakers well. Canon, after their almost accidental foray into the world of filmmaking with the 5D mk.2, have had the good sense to consult with filmmakers, getting Vincent Laforet and the like to take an early example of their new camera, the C300, for a test drive. This may be the lesson for mass-market technology companies: if they want to cross over into the professional industry, they need to talk to the professional industry and create the products that filmmakers want. The results the C300 has shown so far are pretty impressive (see below), and it will be interesting to see how the wider industry takes to it – time will tell.
Of all the arts, cinema is the only one that can’t exist without technology. It’s inevitable that the development of the art is inextricably tied to the companies who make it possible. The film industry is always fighting the high costs of its own existence (in the current economic conditions now more than ever), and it is the independent, more artistically motivated end of the industry where this pressure is most keenly felt. Of course we’ll jump at bargains from cross-over companies when they come along: but this does leave us vulnerable to the whim of those companies who lure us in. All too often we are like street entertainers who choose to juggle with whatever objects are thrown our way. Filmmakers need to drive the technology, rather than being driven by it. The more we can fight our way into the process of developing the new technology, the more we’ll find ourselves using cameras, editing machines and other equipment that works for us.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
Meanwhile, I’d like to wish a very Happy New Year to all my readers; I hope that 2012 proves a breakthrough year for you and your projects.
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