Takin' It to the Streets
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 12 (Dec 2002)

Takin' It to the Streets

During the past couple of years, George Lucas has been preaching and demonstrating the advantages of digital cinema, exhibitors at the National Association of Broadcasters convention have made the switch from all analog to mostly digital products, and Apple has been transforming its Macintosh into a digital video studio.

Recently several speakers at the Mill Valley Film Festival (www.mvff.com) addressed the impact of digital video on independent filmmakers—and opened my eyes to how deeply digital video is affecting people in the community outside and beyond the professionals.

For example, Ryan Kennedy, a recent college graduate, is using digital video tools to experiment with new forms of cinema. His film (and college thesis) Control, a dark, sci-fi thriller now making the festival rounds, was shot with a Canon digital video camera, composited with After Effects, and edited with Final Cut Pro. "My thesis was to have music narrate the piece," he says, "to tell the story through music and video." The result seems both linear and non-linear—that is, there is a linear story line, but the images don't always appear in a predictable manner.

For Bruno George, new projects director at Alpha Cine Labs, which specializes in converting video to film, the impact of digital video on filmmaking is stunning. "It's struck me in the past few weeks that when I got into filmmaking, it was high end," he says. "When I was 16, great cinematographers showed us how to take pictures. Now, the technology has moved down to consumers. Everyone from cops to Steven Soderbergh is making movies with the same gear."

Mac and PC-based editing, effects, and compositing tools have been within reach of consumers, or at least "prosumers" and, therefore, independent filmmakers for a while. And now, digital video cameras that can produce cinema-like images have begun moving downstream as well. The new Panasonic 24P, for example, captures cinema-like 24 frames-per-second digital video (or NTSC). At $3795, the palm-size minicam puts digital cinema into the hands of independent filmmakers—and its output straight into a nonlinear editing system.

"People are in love with movie making and they're obviously in love with the process, says John Sanborn, a writer, designer and director whose work has appeared on Comedy Central and the Web. "The audience is incredibly literate about what these tools can do. No one looks at an image today with a naïve eye. They know how movies are put together. But while our generation sees moviemaking as inclusive or exclusive, my daughter's generation has no boundaries. There are no barriers between having the knowledge and sharing the knowledge; movies become just another way for people to tell stories. It's a good thing. That's what changes the world."

Changing the world might be a lofty assumption, but it seems to be happening. Already, non-profit organizations are helping community members use digital video to create films to tell personal stories and sometimes do a little muckraking.

The Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California (www.storycenter.org), a non-profit computer training and arts program, is one such place that helps people use digital media. Since the Center's founding in 1994, its students have created more than 6000 video works, and the program has been offered in 26 states and 10 countries. And it's only one of several such organizations in the world. "Digital video gives more people access [than film did] and it's easier to teach," says Joe Lambert, founder and co-director of the Center. "It has put the tools of authorship in the hands of people who have responded to being talked to in the language of film but haven't been able to talk back.

Similarly, at Third World Majority, a non-profit community organization in San Francisco (www.cultureisaweapon.org), people with no computer experience are being taught how to use these tools to create short digital videos. "We're putting the tools of media production in the hands of people not represented or under represented in the media," says Amy Hall, director. "We want to help them get control of events over which they had no control."

Also putting filmmaking in the hands of people not typically represented in the media is professional filmmaker Rob Nilsson, who received the prestigious Camera d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut feature Northern Lights in 1979. Twelve years ago, Nilsson, who was trying to find his missing brother, moved into a hotel for itinerants in San Francisco's rough Tenderloin district. While there, he began holding actors' workshops for homeless, inner-city residents and for professional actors who'd drop in. And then, he started doing a kind of guerrilla filmmaking he now calls "Direct Action Cinema" (www.directactioncinema.com). "We arrive at a story notion through association," he says. "And then we take it into the street." He's currently using digital technology to create a series of feature films, called 9@Night, about the lives of 50 inner-city characters. "I'm finally, totally independent of the whole system except for distribution," he says. "I'm a digital studio. For between $12,000 and $13,000, I can do everything from the camera through Final Cut Pro."

Distribution is indeed the last piece of the puzzle. It's what keeps the "gatekeepers," the media giants, in control. Digital storytellers save their stories on CD-ROMs and some post their short films on the Web, which means that for the most part their films are usually shown to audiences of one. Independent filmmakers looking for larger audiences now have to convert their digital output to film to have any hope of showing their work, and even then they have few venues.

Although the "gatekeepers" will no doubt continue to control the mass market, new ways of showing films to people are beginning to appear. Web sites such as iFilm and Atom Films offer short films, documentaries, and animations. And companies such as InFocus have begun manufacturing digital projectors for the high-end home video market.

Unlike inexpensive projectors targeted for business use, these projectors concentrate on accurate color and high contrast and can handle a variety of digital video resolutions. They are designed to show movies in home theaters on screens up to 12 feet across for small audiences of as many as 30 people. "We started getting questions from festivals and county fairs three years ago," says Brian Carskadon, product manager for InFocus home entertainment products (www.infocushome.com), "and then from art institutes, small mom-and-pop theaters, organizations, and churches that wanted to do small viewings."

InFocus moved into the home market about a year ago with a ScreenPlay 110 projector (priced at around $5000) and added the ScreenPlay 7200 (priced at around $10,000) this year, which can handle hi-def digital video. The little projectors weigh 8 pounds and are about the size of a shoebox. "Pretty soon, [independent filmmakers] will have their own digital projectors," says Nilsson.

"Our intent is the home video market," says Carskadon, "but we're getting a lot of requests from film festivals, movie studios that want something on location, and art departments at creative companies. People are asking what it would take to set up a small screening room."

"There's a lot happening below the radar," says Helen DeMichiel, director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (www.namac.org). "This [digital filmmaking] is everywhere," she says, "and it's beginning to aggregate."

If you think digital video is something that primarily exists in post houses and corporate A/V departments, check out the Web sites mentioned in this column and follow some links. Some of you, like me, may be surprised. There's a whole other world happening out there, and it's wonderfully creative. ..

John Sanborn, a writer, designer, and director whose work has appeared on Comedy Central and the Web, used digital tools to create MMI, an experimental video he showed at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival.