|This article appears courtesy of Sight and Sound Magazine which first appeared in the March 1999 issue.
What's the cheapest way to make a movie? Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films explains why many American first-time filmmakers are turning to digital video.
Feature filmmaking has never been more accessible and affordable. New digital technologies are allowing movies to be made for as little as a few thousand dollars. These technologies are empowering new independent filmmakers. They no longer have to devote time and energy to protracted and often fruitless attempts to find finance. They no longer have to cede creative control to financiers. Because digital video (DV) budgets are so much lower, filmmakers can make films more often, take more risks, and keep practising their craft.
Next Wave Films was started in 1997 to provide support to new filmmakers making ultra-low budget English-language features around the world. Films are submitted to us after they have been shot and there is a rough cut. In addition to finishing funds, we provide assistance during post-production, and then help filmmakers implement festival and press strategies, secure domestic and international distribution, and find financing for subsequent features.
Between the late 70s and the early 90s, a small number of outstanding independent filmmakers made first features on very low budgets. John Sayles, Spike Lee, Victor Nunez, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang and Gus Van Sant all began this way. But it wasn't until the mid-90s that an ultra-low budget feature film movement began. Three films finished in 1992, Nick Gomez's Laws of Gravity ($38,000), Gregg Araki's The Living End ($22,769), and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi ($7,225), were well received by critics and festivals, secured theatrical distribution and launched their directors' careers. I wrote a series of articles on these and other micro-budget films (including Kevin Smith's Clerks) for Filmmaker Magazine, and included their budgets. These films (and the articles) catalysed a wave of ultra-low budget feature production which swept across the US, and reached England, Canada and Australia.
In 1997 almost all of the ultra-low budget features submitted to Next Wave Films were shot on film. The average cash budget to get them in the can and part-way through post-production was $50,000-$60,000. In February 1998 we received our first digital feature, The Last Broadcast, which was made for less than $1,000. It was primarily shot with a digital video camera, and then edited and mixed on a desktop computer. But I didn't fully grasp how fast things were changing until I attended the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998.
Lars von Trier's new feature The Idiots was in competition at Cannes, but unlike his acclaimed previous features Europa and Breaking The Waves,which were brilliantly filmed on 35mm, The Idiots was shot and edited on video, and then transferred to 35mm. The Celebration (Festen), another film in main competition, caused an even bigger stir. Its director Thomas Vinterberg shot it with a video camera the size of a paperback book. Rather than recording baby's first steps and playing them back them on the living room TV, this pocket-size consumer camera shot a feature shown on 35mm to 2,000 people in the main theatre at the world's most important film festival. The Celebration shared the Special Jury Prize, received widespread critical acclaim, and is being distributed in over 35 countries.
Cannes proved that the Digital Revolution was well underway. Since then the digital word has spread rapidly among filmmakers, and more and more features are being shot on DV. In September 1998, the Toronto Film Festival showed four digital features, and in February 1999 the Rotterdam Film Festival highlighted this new wave of filmmaking with a special programme. Following festival runs, many digital features are receiving theatrical distribution. The Celebration, Windhorse, The Cruise, Saltmen of Tibet and The Idiots are all DV films which are being distributed theatrically in the US.
A dog and a bus
All successful ultra-low-budget filmmakers understand that you must make your film within the limits of the resources available. Start with a no-nonsense resource assessment. Determine as realistically as possible which resources (cash, equipment, crew, post-production facilities) you have access to, then write your script within the framework of these resources. Robert Rodriguez had a dog and a school bus, and both are prominently featured in El Mariachi. Kevin Smith worked at a convenience store by day, and shot Clerks there by night.
This approach is the opposite of that taken by Hollywood writers and directors who write scripts, paying little or no attention to their cost of production, and then pitch them to studio executives. No one knows how long the search for financing will take and if it will ever be successful. Dependent filmmaking requires the resources of third parties, who may only supply them in return for control of the final cut. Independent filmmaking involves writing a script that can be made within the framework of available resources, and then doing so with complete creative control.
Digital video has dramatically lowered the barriers to feature filmmaking. For aspiring filmmakers who don't have $200,000 to shoot on 35mm, or $50,000 for 16mm, it's an affordable alternative. Instead of spending years searching for financing, filmmakers can devote their time to improving the script, rehearsing the actors and shooting the best possible movie. When their film is finished, they can decide if it is good enough to launch their careers. If not they can make another feature for a few thousand dollars, learning from their mistakes. DV allows filmmakers to take greater creative risks. Given the cost of production, they have little to lose by experimenting, and a lot to gain if they can make a truly original film. DV is shifting power from financiers to filmmakers, who no longer need their money, permission, or approval.
DIGITAL FEATURE PRODUCTION
by Peter Broderick, Mark Stolaroff, and Tara Veneruso of Next Wave Films
Next Wave Films has gathered the following Recommendations and perspectives from filmmakers and their allies in digital feature production. The filmmakers are breaking rather than following the rules of conventional production. They are using new digital tools that are steadily evolving. At the same time they are testing the limits of the technology, they are also experimenting with style and form.
The choice of a digital video (DV) format for production is crucial. You need to consider:
- the relative cost of each format during production and post-production,
- the image quality of each format on video and when transferred to film, and
- the ease of use, flexibility, and availability of the camera and other equipment required.
Formats and cameras can be grouped in four categories:
The least expensive DV cameras ($1,000-$2,000) provide the lowest image quality, having only one video chip (CCD), which limits picture quality but enables them to perform well in low light;. Designed to make home videos, and not recommended for features (although this is what was used to shoot The Celebration).
Cameras cost twice as much ($2,000-$4,000) as consumer camcorders. Image quality is substantially higher because they have three CCDs, more features, and greater flexibility than consumer cameras. They also have FireWire outputs, which enable DV and to be transferred between cameras and desktop computers equipped with FireWire inputs or video capture boards, without any loss of image quality.
This makes it possible for filmmakers to edit, mix and even do special effects on a home computer. Most digital features are shot with prosumer cameras.
Many digital features have been shot with these cameras including Lars Von Trier's The Idiots and Ulricke Koch's The Saltmen of Tibet. Both consumer and prosumer cameras utilize the MiniDV format.
This very diverse category includes cameras such as DVCAM and DVCPro, in the $3,000-$15,000 range. They have a sampling rate of 4:1:1 the same as MiniDV. This category also includes higher end cameras (DVCPro 50, Digital S, Digital Betacam).
These cameras are significantly more expensive ($20,000-$100,000) and a sampling rate of 4:2:2 which is higher than the 4.1.1 sampling rate of MiniDV (which is how the first two formats are categorized). Although MiniDV has less colour information than Professional DV, in many cases the differences in image quality won't be noticeable. Professional DV cameras (which include Digital Betacam) were primarily designed for television production with higher specs and more professional features than less expensive MiniDV cameras. Instead of FireWire outputs, they have SDI (Serial Digital Interface) outputs suited for TV studios and production houses. Wikm Wender's The Buena Vista Social Club was shot with a combination of DVCAM and Digital Betacam cameras.
High DefinitionTV The highest image quality, but its expense and equipment demands make it inaccessible to filmmakers working on small budgets.
Choosing a DV format is similar to deciding among 16mm, Super 16mm and 35mm when shooting film. You should carefully research the cost implications of different formats. Once you've determined how much money and which equipment you have access to, the choice may be a very simple one. You should only seriously consider formats for which you have sufficient resources to complete production and post-production. Among the affordable choices, filmmakers usually opt for the best image quality, but sometimes make portability and ease of use higher priorities.
Most filmmakers choose to make digital features with prosumer cameras. They provide very good image quality, are affordable, and enable editing to be done inexpensively on a home computer by utilising FireWire.
It's best to own a DV camera. Renting them can be cumulatively expensive, and borrowing them is often unsatisfactory. Currently the two most popular DV cameras for feature production are the Canon XL1 and the Sony VX1000. Priced under $4000, they are cameras filmmakers can individually or collectively afford to buy and then use on many films. (Other affordable 3-chip cameras include the MiniDV Panazsonic EZ30U or EZ1U, the MiniDV Sony TRV900, and the DVCAM Sony PD100. Note: Canon recently released the Canon GL1 mid-priced 3-0chip MiniDV camera.)
Pay as much attention to sound quality as picture quality. Bad audio will destroy a film's prospects. There are two primary approaches to DV sound: a) record directly into the camera with an external microphone (but avoid using the camera's built-in mic). The Canon XL1 has the option to record one 16-bit (CD quality) stereo track, two 12-bit stereo tracks or four 12-bit mono tracks simultaneously; an optional adapter provides for balanced XLR inputs. b) record to a DAT recorder (with time code) using an audio mixer. This approach provides more flexibility on the set than recording directly into the camera. (Note: Some filmmakers are beginning to use MiniDisc recorders with an audio mixer.) In addition to a recording device, you should use an audio mixer, a few good mics, and a boom pole. Directional mics help eliminate excess sounds from refrigerators, fluorescent lights, and distant traffic.
A basic kit is the Lowell, which has three 650-watt omni lights. It provides plenty of light for DV, but not much flexibility. An Arri combo kit is more versatile and more expensive. It includes two 650-watt Frenell lights and two 1K open-face lights. Battery powered Halogen lights can be used to shoot night exteriors; by sticking to close-ups and medium shots, you can avoid renting a generator. Supplement your lights with white foam-core boards for reflectors and a roll of aluminium foil to add more intense fill light. Black organza is a fabric that will diffuse light coming through windows.
Videotape The best tape stock will depend on the camera you are using. After you choose your camera, research the preferred stock.
Monitor Enables you to see exactly what you've shot while you are on the set. A colour-field monitor should be used to detect colour-temperature problems. A high-resolution monitor will allow you to check critical focus. Masking the top and bottom of the monitor to leave a 16:9 viewing area makes it easier to frame shots properly for theatrical distribution. If you intend to eventually transfer to 35mm film and are shooting in 4:3 (1.33:1), masking the top and bottom of the monitor to leave a 1.66:1 (or 1.85:1 in the US) viewing area makes it easier to frame shots properly.
Shoot test footage under different lighting conditions with the camera you will be using. If you are hoping to transfer to film, do a test transfer and talk with the lab about how to optimise your image quality. Plan with your Director of Photography (DP) how to achieve the desired look and discuss what to avoid. Also do audio recording tests, especially if you are planning to record sound directly into the camera. Then develop an audio strategy with your sound person.
Keep rewriting until you have a unique and well-written script.
Take as much time as necessary to find and rehearse your actors. Good performances are essential.
Build a core group of people who work well together and are willing to make a serious commitment to the film. While some digital fiction features have been made with two-person crews, the smallest recommended crew should include a director, DP, and sound person, with if possible, a few other people helping out. In addition, it is helpful to have a boom operator, an art director/costumer and a gaffer/grip. Some DV documentaries (e.g. The Cruise) have been shot by one-person crews, but the smallest recommended crew for non-fiction is two. If you are planning to transfer to film, find a DP with DV-to-film experience if at all possible. If not, do your homework by talking with knowledgeable DPs and transfer houses.
The smaller the crew, the more roles each person has to play, and the harder it is for each person to do every one of his or her roles well. Having more people than the bare minimum enables crew members to focus on their primary jobs.
There are several advantages to DV production. You can afford to shoot at a much higher shooting ratio than you can on film. Some video features (such as the award-winning The Headhunter's Sister) have been shot at 30:1. This is in contrast to ratios of less than 5:1 for many ultra low-budget features shot on film (e.g. El Mariachi). A higher shooting ratio provides more creative freedom, allowing improvisation and experimentation during production. But you also need to be disciplined so you don't shoot too much and then have to wade through the excess footage afterwards.
Because DV cameras can record in mixed-light situations and can capture images well in low light (in some cases better than film), lighting is easier, faster, and less expensive, and requires fewer crew members. This reduces the time it takes to set up each shot, and increases the number of set-ups that can be done in a day.
The opportunity to review on location exactly what you've shot permits adjustments to be made to lighting, and eliminates potential disasters resulting from malfunctioning camera or sound equipment.
Dos and Don'ts:
- Light scenes evenly. Most video cameras have a smaller dynamic range than film. Video is generally less forgiving in the high end of the range.
- It's better to under than overexpose.
- Favour close-ups over wide shots.
- Try to avoid moving the camera across complex patterns.
- Avoid high shutter speeds.
- Turn off the auto-iris if you can.
If you are planning to transfer to film:
- Avoid applying any type of electronic "film look" process to your video. You need the sharpest, highest-quality video you can get when you transfer.
- Your video will acquire film attributes after it has been transferred to film.
- Avoid turning up the camera's gain control. Turn down the camera's enhancement/detail control.
- Do not over-filter. Diffusion reduces picture sharpness and can make an image look out of focus on the big screen.
- Consider your final aspect ratio and compose accordingly - if you plan to transfer to 35mm, your final aspect ratio will be 1:1.85, not 1:1.33.
- Fades and dissolves should be longer than one second.
The bare minimum equipment you will need is as follows:
- The most powerful computer you can afford, with as much hard-drive space as you can buy or rent (a 13.5 gig HD stores one hour of DV footage).
- A DV capture card (e.g. Digital Origin [formerly Radius] MotoDV software codec for the Mac or Fast's DV Master hardware codec for the PC) if your computer does not have FireWire inputs.
- Non-linear editing software (e.g. MotoDV comes bundled with Digital Origin's EditDV Edit for the Mac and Adobe Premiere 5.1 for the PC; Fast comes with InSync's Speed Razor).
If you have more money to spend:
- A video monitor that accepts component and S-Video inputs.
- More digital storage (e.g. a RAID, which is basically two or more identical hard drives linked together, plus a SCSI controller card to connect it to your computer).
- A pair of self-powered near-field speakers.
Until recently most filmmakers who shot DV features dubbed their MiniDV tapes to Beta SP and then used the Beta tapes as masters. Many of these filmmakers were editing on Avids or Media 100s that didn't have DV cards. The Beta tapes were then onlined with their edit decision list (EDL). Dubbing to BetaSP means going from digital to analog, and then back to digital when it's input into an Avid or Media 100.
Today a growing number of filmmakers are following a lower cost post-production approach. Instead of using Avids, they are building their editing systems around DV cards and bringing their video into a desktop computer via FireWire. Utilizing FireWire, they are transferring the information on the MiniDV tapes directly into their computers. With enough hard-drive space, these filmmakers are editing at online, broadcast quality. They don't need to pay for dubs to Beta or have to go into an expensive online facility. The edited video that comes out of the computer is exactly the same quality as the original video.
Each route has advantages and disadvantages. As powerful as Avids are, they are expensive to purchase or rent. While much more affordable, desktop post-production can necessitate wrestling with software bugs and hardware conflict, as well as dealing with slower rendering times. The most expensive route is to master on Digi-Beta, edit on an Avid, and online the movie in a professional suite. The least expensive route is to online on a desktop computer. However, if filmmakers who edit on desktop computers can afford to do a final online in a pro-suite, it may significantly enhance the quality of their final products. Spending as little as a day in an online suite will give them much better opportunities to color correct and meet broadcast specs. In most cases, the resources available to the filmmaker will dictate the best path.
Transferring Film to Video
Is a Print Necessary?
Many features shot on video are never transferred to film. The only major distribution channel that requires a film print is theatrical. Hollywood studios are currently examing the possibility of prjecting the movies electronically during the theatrical release. In the summer of 1999, several features were shown electronically in selected U.S. cities to showcase the technology, including The Phantom Menace, An Ideal Husband, and Tarzan.
A feature that only exists on video can be shown on broadcast, cable, or satellite television and home video. However, having a print provides significant benefits. It allows the film to be shown and possibly sold at major film festivals, and hopefully raises the profile of the film-maker with critics and executives looking for new talent. It makes possible theatrical distribution, which can be a major source of revenue, and can expand the audience for a film when it is shown on television and home video. Quality Over the past few years the quality of transfers from video to film has improved. This is due partly to the coming of digital cameras and partly to filmmakers doing tests before production. It is also a result of the continuing improvement in transfer technologies. In an increasing number of cases, audiences who see digital features projected in cinemas have no idea they didn't originate on film.
Using PAL equipment in production provides two significant advantages when you transfer to film. First, the PAL format provides 100 more lines of vertical resolution (625 vs. NTSC's 525). Second, PAL runs at 25 frames per second (versus NTSC's 30 fps). This so closely approximates film's 24 fps that PAL video is transferred to film at a 1:1 ratio, and then played back at 24 fps (the four per cent-slower speed isn't noticeable). With NTSC, 12 video fields per second must be removed to get from 30 fps to 24 fps. This interpolation causes certain motion artifacts that can be very noticeable, even to the untrained eye.
Currently the price range for a high-quality transfer of a feature from video to 35mm is approximately $35,000-$70,000 (a transfer to 16mm costs less than half as much). At $35,000, the cost is about the same as a film blow-up from 16mm to 35mm. Prices vary from lab to lab. With growing lab competition, prices may fall.
There are basically three types of video-to-film transfers. The lowest cost (and lowest quality) routes are the aging kinescope process, and it's higher quality cousin, the triniscope. They produce scan lines that may betray the film's video origins for some viewers. But depending on the project, its original video format, and the budget, these processes may be sufficient. Higher quality transfers done with an electron beam recorder (EBR) eliminate scan lines. They also reduce the artifacts created when 6 frames per second are removed during the transfer process from 30fps NTSC video to 24fps film. Four Media Company's (4MC) and Sony High Definition Center's EBRs actually blend fields together to achieve the necessary interpolation from 30 fps to 24 fps; this blending blurs the jagged edges of the interlaced fields. Another high quality route used by most of the PAL facilities in Europe utilizes CRT film recorders. Several of these facilities, along with Duart in the U.S., will soon start transferring digital features to film using a new, lower-cost laser recorder manufactured by Arri.
Transfer facilities in Europe include Swiss Effects in Zurich (Saltmen Of Tibet), Hocus Bogus in Denmark (The Idiots), Lukkien in Holland (The Celebration), Cinema-L Filmtransfer in Vienna (The Inheritors), and Colour Film Service in London (Meeting People Is Easy). Transfer facilities in the U.S. include 4MC (20 Dates), the Sony High Definition Center (The Cruise), Film Craft (Homepage), Cineric, Film Team and Duart.
Peter Broderick, Mark Stolaroff, and Tara Veneruso work together at Next Wave Films
This article is reprinted from Sight and Sound magazine, and has been revised and updated by the authors.
Next Wave Films, a company of The Independent Film Channel in the U.S., was established to help exceptionally talented filmmakers launch their careers. It supplies finishing funds to emerging filmmakers, helps them implement festival and press strategies, serves as a sales agent, and assists them to find financing for subsequent films. Next Wave Films focuses on English language feature films from around the world. Its first feature Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane is from the U.S., and its second feature Following is from England.
Next Wave Films has also begun a new production arm, Agenda 2000. It is financing and producing digital features by experienced filmmakers. These films are being shot on video, and then transferred to film for theatrical release. Next Wave's President Peter Broderick participated in the most recent Galway Film Festival and Market, and is very interested in receiving films and submissions from Irish filmmakers.
Next Wave Films, 2510 7th Street, Suite E, Santa Monica, CA 90405
Tel: (310) 392-1720; Fax: (310) 399-3455
Additional reporting by Mark Stolaroff and Tara Veneruso.
Next Wave's website - www.nextwavefilms.com -
includes more information on DV production.
Next Wave Films can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ultra-Low Budget Production