Digital Insecurity; Or should I be making a $35M 35mm picture instead?

Digital Insecurity; Or should I be making a $35M 35mm picture instead?

Harry Shearer wrote and directed the feature Teddy Bears’ Picnic for which, at press time, producers were still finalizing U.S. distribution plans. He is a founding member of Spinal Tap, one of the stars of the The Simpsons, and hosts a weekly, nationally syndicated radio show on NPR, Le Show.

John Manulis is the CEO of Visionbox Pictures, a digital production company and sales/distribution consultant, which produced Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Tortilla Soup, and Falling Like This, winner of several festival awards as Best Picture, Best Cinematography and for Advancing the Art of Digital Filmmaking.

The following dialog/cautionary tale/advice is based on their recent experiences on the frontier of digital acquisition.

Digital production offers a great pitch for independent filmmakers, but momma never warned you about those little unpublicized psychological traps laying quietly in wait for the unsuspecting filmmaker.

Prologue: Empowerment

Manulis: Sure, digital economics empower you to wrest “greenlight” power and creative control over your film from those creatively bankrupt studio system minions who just don’t get it. But, those same economics can also empower you right into financial bankruptcy. Because, after that glorious long run of freedom, films still need to fit into the traditional system of distribution in order to be widely seen. So, unless you just want a tape for your shelf, take some advice from a couple of people on the frontlines of the distribution wars before you go into production with your script. Or, just pretend to take it. Now that’s empowerment. But, the earlier you start thinking about sales and delivery issues, the better.

Shearer: Well, last season’s dream – Internet broadband distribution – is deader than the XFL, so you are left back in the hands of the people from whom you were trying to escape, that’s true. Nonetheless, none of the executives who ended up showering the four partners who made This is Spinal Tap with offers for a sequel originally showed any interest in making or distributing the initial film. The company that distributed it was threatening to shelve it, unseen, unless the first couple of reviewers liked it. So nothing’s a sure bet, and you’re always looking for a fluke, a secret door through the machine.

Act 1: The Smell of Fear

Manulis: Get ready…it’s out there: the agent who somehow hasn’t heard that George Lucas is shooting Star Wars entirely digitally and decides the night before your first day of shooting that you’ve deceived them and their client and have callously set out to destroy a perfectly good career with your “home movie.” The actor who loves the independent spirit and creative freedom, blah, blah, blah, but suddenly questions whether such a small camera can truly capture the full glory of their large talent. Or the director, who faithfully chants the digital mantra “ideastoryperformanceideastoryperformance,” but can’t quite get that image of Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind out of their head. So, do your research. You will have lots of questions to answer and jitters to calm. Remember, it’s always better if you answer people’s questions before they have to ask you.

Shearer: Some of my actors got a little antsy when they heard this film was going to have very few close-ups, but most of them bought the line of horseshit I fed them – it’s a stylistic choice to encourage and enhance the ensemble feeling of the piece – rather than the reality that the budget wouldn’t allow it. Seriously, it was both. Fear struck me a few times during the shoot, usually when we lost a location the day before we were planning to be there. But, on the subject of locations, the most frightening thing is trying to shoot low budget in and around L.A.; everybody with an attractive location thinks that you’re bullshitting when you say “low budget,” and most of them try to nick you as if you’re Spielberg. God bless them.

Act 2: Honey, Who Shrunk My Crew?

Manulis: It’s great to get rid of that big demanding 35mm beast in the middle of the set and bring the focus back to actor and director, performance, and text. But, pity your suddenly freaked-out DP, whose small army of assistants, grips, and gaffers that was guaranteed to provide them plenty of time to “study the shot,” has been transformed into a lean, multi-tasking, fast-moving team tweaking a few PARS and struggling to negotiate a truce with the camera’s auto-focus and waveform monitor. Indie and digital crews tend to be interested in the material and the overall venture, not just the paycheck – which is good, since the word “paycheck” isn’t yet in the digital filmmaking vocabulary – and their attitude and work can make or break a production. Treat them with respect, as collaborators in the process, and consider giving them a piece of the profits.

Shearer: I’ve always worked indie-style, with small crews, and I make this deal with them: I expect them to perform at the top of their talent, and in return, I welcome any input or suggestions they have. This gets them thinking while putting the pressure on them to be part of the active heart of the process, rather than sitting back and watching things unravel. I also advocate considering giving them a piece, as long as you don’t actually go ahead and do it.

Act 3: Post Notes

Manulis: DP shock #2: They fell for your seductive “with digital, what you see is what you get” line, only to find out that his/her visual destiny actually lies in – God forbid! – other people’s hands during the hugely flexible postproduction process where the quality of digital imagery is made or muffed.

Shearer: The digital color correction process does let you do much more than just pretty the thing up. Save some money to go through this process with a real pro at a top-notch house. I loved not having to worry about video playback (for scenes involving material in TV monitors) while shooting, being able to insert the stuff at relative leisure later on, when only two people are on the payroll.

Manulis: The new need is for someone to fill the gap left by the exit of the film lab in the process; someone to take responsibility for technically QC’ing the dailies of each day’s shoot. Don’t let the ease of the new technology lull you into complacency – make sure you’ve actually got on tape what you think you’ve got.

Epilogue: Transcendent moment to avoid

Manulis: True story from our Visionbox Help Line (in other words, it didn’t happen to us!): The post house disingenuously asks you (after your sound mixer has long since cashed his final check) how you were expecting to sync sound that was recorded at 29.97fps to picture that was recorded at 25fps and whether you’ve considered posting in London since you took your tech whiz cousin’s advice and chose to shoot in PAL.

Shearer: We’re going to sound like the anti-PAL coalition, but I still can’t forget the large number of people who stared blankly at me when I asked them how one deals with the fact that digital 25fps PAL ends up on film 4% longer and slower than what you shot. A high official with a respected transfer house told me, and a DGA auditorium full of directors, “Nobody will notice 4%.” Apparently, none of them were shooting comedies.

Manulis: If God wanted us to shoot PAL, we’d still be a colony. The lesson of Visionbox’s success is to take the time to address and test the full gamut of technical and logistical issues from prep through to delivery, before you roll a single progressive digital frame.

Closing Credits:

Manulis: With Teddy Bears’ Picnic, we’re excited to be setting a standard of “digital invisibility,” where audiences don’t realize they’re watching a film that was acquired digitally. Making good films has always been tough, but making technically high-quality digital films is more complicated and treacherous than working with a traditional film process that’s had over 80 years of beta testing.

Shearer: Actually, I believe the audience doesn’t care if you shoot the damn thing on toilet rolls as long as you entertain them. The digital advantage is that the definition of entertainment can be broadened beyond the restrictive formula set by the industry. But the audience still deserves to be entertained, and they kind of expect it, too.

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