Sunday, October 22, 2000

Filmmakers go digital

Improved video technology slashes costs, offers opportunities for aspiring auteurs

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Director Adam Simpson (left) of Dana Point, Calif., watches a hand-held monitor while director of photography Elliot Greenberg of Mount Washington composes an exterior shot for The Doppenberg Theory in Mount Airy.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        In the movie-making world, the advent of low-cost, high-quality digital recording technology is rewriting all the rules.

        Every day, techie breakthroughs are demolishing barriers to entry-level filmmaking all over the world.

        That includes Cincinnati, where a fresh crop of fearless newcomers are blazing their own trails.

        Armed with digital video cameras, cash savings from their day jobs and mobs of generous friends and colleagues, the new filmmakers are bringing the revolution to the streets of their hometown.

        Their work ultimately may be no better or worse than traditional films. But easy access to fundamental tools opens undreamed-of doors to new talent. Someday, movie fans may see works of genius by artists who, without digital technology, might never have breached the walls of the film fraternity.

[photo] Actor Kevin Morgan (left) of Delhi Township readies for a scene as Kim Lloyd of Colerain Twonship marks the scene with a slate and Mr. Greenberg prepares the camera.
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        Among the strengths that the new artists bring to the effort is the brash confidence of a generation raised on movies and computer-generated miracles.

        “We had been working on other films for seven years, so we decided it was about time to make our own,” said Cincinnatian Ken Niederbaumer, during a break from his job on the U.S.S. Nightmare. He hatched the idea

        “I'm 25,” said Sean Brendan Garner of Clifton, who plans to direct his script entitled Jack and Daisy in November and December. “It was always my goal to make my first movie by the time I was 25. That's the same age as Orson Wells when he made Citzen Kane.

        New technology makes his goal reasonable.

    The difference between digital video and commonplace VHS video is similar to the difference between compact disks and vinyl records.
    With VHS, pictures and sound are captured as lines on magnetic tape. With digital video, those pictures and sounds are reduced to digital impulses — ones and zeroes. Many more lines of that code can be stored on either a disk (such as a computer hard disk) or tape. Consequently, much more information can be recorded in the same amount of space and the recorded images are much more detailed than a VHS recording.
    High-definition recordings compress even more information, for extreme clarity. Under some circumstances, it is even sharper than film.
    Film captures images whole through light. Clarity depends on the quality and size of the film. That is why 35mm film, the standard size for commercial movies, is brighter and clearer than home movies shot in the now all-but-defunct 8mm format.
    Many examples of movies shot on digital video can be found on the Internet. Here are a few places to start:
    • — Recently named to Forbes' Magazine “Best of the Web” list, AlwaysIndepdendentFilm.Com, which originated in Cincinnati, contains hundreds of features, shorts and classics. Many of the new works are video projects.
    • — IFilm.Com is a large site that includes links to Hollywood film Web sites and trailers, as well as loads of made-for-the-Internet movies, including many made on digital video.
    • — BroadcastAmerica.Com carries news and information created digitally for webcasting.

    Milford-based filmmaker Scott Barlow, whose first feature, The Last Late Night,has been picking up awards at U.S. film festivals, was selected for an unusual experiment in digital filmmaking this summer.
    He was one of 10 filmmakers chosen by the organizers of the Digital Shootout in Albuquerque, N.M., based on his script for a 10-minute comedy called Crazy Like the Taz.
    Each entrant was provided with digital equipment, a crew and an experienced professional “mentor,” then given one week to cast, rehearse, shoot and edit a short movie. When the final products were submitted to a jury, Mr. Barlow took third place.
    “We wanted to make it an action festival . . . a run-and-gun festival,” organizer Jim Graebner told the Associated Press. “We thought we'd emphasize that part of the movies that nobody sees.”
    Kathy Zimmer, a producer who worked on the fest, said it opened eyes to new possibilities.
    “I was quite impressed with some of the footage that we got with the digital cameras. Some of it was quite beautiful. The film that won had a lot of special effects. . . . In fact, we almost passed on that script because we thought this would be too hard to do with this new technology.”
    Ms. Zimmer spent some time watching the crews work.
    “It was a lot quicker than being on a traditional set, but it still wasn't quick. It's a lot of work to make things look right.”
    Citing some of the “technically beautiful” footage shot, she said, “Part of that is New Mexico; the light in New Mexico happens to be exquisite. But the cameras picked it up. That stunned me. I had no high expectations. The whole thing was much bigger and much better than we thought it would be.”

    Following are some of the features shot, or to be shot, on video in Greater Cincinnati this year:

The Doppenberg Theory
    The story: Four young boys make it their mission to find out where the missing socks from the dryer go.
    The shoot: Shot over a few weeks in July at Cincinnati locations including a home in Mount Airy.
    The filmmakers: Co-produced by Cincinnatians Marcy Fisk and Ken Niederbaumer for writer-director Adam Simpson of Los Angeles. The two men are good friends with extensive experience as crew members in film and theatrical production. Ms. Fisk, a senior in media production program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, recently completed an internship in television production with Paramount Studios.
    The quote: “We're not doing this to get rich. We just wanted to get the experience. If we happen to sell it, that's great. We just wanted to make a very fine film for the budget we had,” Mr. Niederbaumer said.
    The future: In post-production in Los Angeles. Aiming for film festival entries. Expect a Cincinnati premiere.

A Generation Lost
    The story:
Seven friends rely on one another to confront serious issues and conflicts with humor.
    The shoot: Shot in about three weeks in June in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
    The filmmaker: Directed and written by Xavier University graduate Matthew Freudenberg, whose day job is technical analyst for a telecommunications company. Nicknamed “Freudy,” he recruited friends, family, ex-classmates, friends of friends, businesses and industry professionals to work on the movie, despite paying most of them only in hats, T-shirts and golf shirts bearing the movie's logo.
    The quote: “One thing that's fairly obvious (was) the budget constraints. . . . We could have done a lot of things differently, but I'm very proud and very happy we've gone this far with the resources we had.”
    The future: Editing locally; aiming for 2001 film festival entries. Plan for Cincinnati premiere. Info online at

Jack and Daisy
    The story:
Over two days, a man and woman who first meet at the beginning of the movie learn unexpected secrets about one another.
    The shoot: Scheduled to shoot for three weeks in November and December at locations in Monroe, Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, including Spring Grove Cemetery.
    The filmmaker: Directed and written by Sean Brendan Garner, a Walnut Hills High graduate and former CCM student who lived in Las Vegas and Europe before returning to Cincinnati. He works as a finance executive for a non-profit agency “because it leaves my creative energy free for writing.” Calls his film company Iron Hippie Productions, after the nickname he earned with his skating exploits and other outdoor adventures.
    The quote: “There are no car chases or explosions. It's going to have a '30s or '40s feel. . . . There's maybe three profane words in the script, which was a conscious choice on my part. I didn't want my parents to say, "Oh I liked it, but did you have to use the f-word so much?'”
    The future: Production, post-production, film-festival entries.

    The story:
The life of a conservative young woman changes radically when she encounters a circle of free-spirited artists.
    The shoot: Shot over 18 days this summer at locations in Loveland, at 13th and Main, downtown and Mount Adams.
    The filmmaker: Writer-director Gagan (pronounced GUY-gan) Singh is a Sycamore High School and graduate of Ohio State University, where he studied computer engineering. While his parents still live in the area, the director now works as a software test engineer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His interest in movie-making dates back to childhood; he says he wrote his first script in sixth grade and previously made one feature length film, a short and a few music videos.
    The quote: “The movie was not written with intent to be easy to shoot or to fall within a certain budget. So as we were shooting, there were a lot of complicated pieces of the script. . . . I approached it in an engineering-process way. . . . Because we did that, we didn't compromise the script at all.”
    The future: Editing in Florida, negotiating with record companies for soundtrack music; aiming for film festivals in 2001. Hopes to schedule a Cincinnati premiere.

        The key is cost. Digital cameras and tape cost a fraction of traditional filmmaking equipment.

        “Film is way more expensive than shooting on (digital) video,” said Marcy Fisk of Hyde Park, the co-producer of The Doppenberg Theory who also worked on local low-budget films The Last Late Night and This Train.

        “You can get digital tape for 66 minutes for 25 bucks. Also, with film, you shoot on it and then you have to process it. With digital, you shoot on it and there it is. There is no print making.”

        There are other advantages to digital video, or DV.

        “With digital, you're able to enhance certain pieces of the picture, said Gagan Singh, writer-director of Lilies. “If there's a bad reflection, for instance, you can remove it frame by frame.”

        Mr. Singh, a Sycamore High School graduate who took time off from his engineering job in Florida to shoot the film Lilies in Cincinnati, said, “I could not have made the movie without DV.”

        Chris Strobel, who also worked on The Last Late Night, is editing novice moviemaker Matt Freudenberg's digital production, A Generation Lost.Mr. Strobel noted that digital cameras are easier to use than film cameras.

        “It certainly can change the way you shoot,” he said. “The camera is so physically small you can get it in places you couldn't get an Arri (Arriflex film camera) into.”

        Mr. Garner, who plans to shoot his movie in high-definition video, an even more advanced technology, said he expects the finished product to look and sound better than many traditional 35mm films.

        Such confidence in technology is not a youthful fad. Established filmmakers, many outside the United States, have been making features in DV, as it is called, for years. Some of the best examples include Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Lars von Trier's The Idiots and Mike Figgis' Time Code. George Lucas is shooting his next two Star Wars films in digital format, using equipment specially designed to meet his notoriously exacting standards.

        For all the creative excitement it generates, digital technology comes with its own set of problems, from the question of how DV movies ultimately will be shown in theaters to its shortcomings compared to film.

        Paired with the Internet explosion, digital moviemaking has spawned turmoil in the movie business. Major studios have poured millions into Web sites they hope will evolve into the TV networks and theater chains of tomorrow. Hardly a day passes without news of new site launches, mergers, acquisitions, expansions, contractions, retoolings and retreats.

        The highest profile failure to date has been, sold before it even made it to its formal launch date. The site, intended to be a broad-based entertainment outlet, was backed by no less than Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment.

        They fell victim to the knotty fact that no one has yet figured out how to make serious profits from such enterprises, because viewers have given little sign they wish to buy tickets to look at their own computer screens.

        That means moviemakers must still aim for traditional distribution if they want to earn any money. That also means a movie shot on video must be transferred to film. Film prints are still required by the major film festivals that provide the primary gateway to distribution for newcomers.

        There is also a strong psychological preference for film within the business, even though the traditional anti-video snobbery is fading fast.

        “Everyone wants to see themselves on film. It's just a sexier look,” said actress Laura O'Connell of Oakley. “People can tell the difference between film and video. . . . If you really want to have a serious film career, it looks best to have your demo tape filled with film instead of video.”

        However, she added, “In a year, I don't know if that will be true.”

        Said Ms. Fisk, “I do think there is more of a warmth to film, and I don't think that's going to go away. Still, with some of the new digital things, it looks a lot like film and the quality is getting to be very high.”

        Mr. Singh for one is happy with DV. He said he found the digital images in his movie “very clear and very crisp.” Plus, it is relatively easy to manipulate in post-production.

        “I talked to other people who had experience, and some of them talked about how they liked the classic film look. But I always looked at it as, "I could make this movie look that way afterwards.' You have a lot of freedom.”

        Although a process known as film-look can be applied to video, “film is still the best,” said Mr. Strobel. “It still has the deepest colors and the best contrast.”

        That may be changing, he said, noting that the latest high-definition systems available stand up in side-by-side comparisons with film. “I saw a demonstration; you couldn't tell (it was digital). It was beautiful.”

        There are other technical pitfalls to working in DV, he said. “It's not really any easier to edit. There are actually a couple of extra things to be careful of.”

        Also, “When people shoot video tape, it doesn't cost as much, so there's a LOT more. That's good and bad.”

        In the end, the promise of technology lies in the hands of the artists who use it.

        “I am not an elitist when it comes to film versus video,” said Ms. O'Connell. “I'm just glad that people have access to do their creations in whatever way they want to do them.”

        Said Mr. Garner, “From a no-budget movie to a multi-million-dollar project, for me it pretty much begins and ends with the writing.”

        “You're still doing pre-production, production and post-production,” said Ms. Fisk. “You're just using a different camera. I don't think that it's so much what you're shooting on, it's more or less what your script is and your actors and your crew.”

        “Just because you can do it physically, because almost anyone has the money to do it, doesn't mean it's something that should be done or that people are going to want to see,” said Mr. Strobel.

        “It's a matter of understanding film, understanding structure understanding continuity. You still need to understand that stuff even though the tools are cheaper.”
       Margaret A. McGurk is Enquirer film critic. Contact her by mail, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202; fax, (513) 768-8330; or e-mail,


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