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Film Vs. Video: Another Timeless Argument PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Aug 13, 2005 at 02:00 AM
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Film Vs. Video: Another Timeless Argument
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As I said (and whined and complained and explained) in my last installment, my partners and I made a movie called The Resurrection Game. We shot it on 16mm (and edited on 16mm, and cut the 16mm negative). 16mm film.

Because, at the time we began, that’s all we knew how to do. It was also all that was really available to us. And yeah, it was expensive, and yeah, it was a pain in the ass, and yeah, that friggin’ equipment was heavy, but it’s what we knew. I’d just graduated from Pittsburgh Filmmakers with a (nearly-worthless) BFA in film and video production. “Video production”, in 1997, meant largely VHS, S-VHS, or Beta SP. Digital formats were just starting to pop up on the consumer market, but the cameras were priced comparably to used cars. And the online editing systems were primarily confined to the stand-alone AVID system. At the time I graduated, Pittsburgh Filmmakers had three.

And no one knew how to use them.

Okay, not no one, but no one meaning me. There had only been one class in digital editing offered in my senior year, but it conflicted with… everything else I was taking. And at the time, I was trying to finish my senior film—again on 16mm, cutting linearly on a flatbed editor.

But thanks to the school, I was able to become a member after graduation, which granted me access to all the film equipment they had available. Arri cameras, nagra recorders, Steenbeck flatbeds, light kits, top-of-the-line microphones… Stuff I understood. So we shot a 16mm feature film.

And for two years, I cut workprint into little bits and tried to keep the negative in a cool, dry place as we moved from apartment to house to new house. And by 2002, I realized that I was completely wasting my time.

For one thing, I knew I’d never be able to make a finished print. We couldn’t afford it, for one thing. And let’s not even talk about the logistics of mixing seven-to-ten sound tracks (two dialogue, at least two music, as many effects tracks as needed) recorded on magnetic stock down to a single master. Add to that the expense of getting the negative conformed… there was yet another nightmare in the making.

But by 2002, digital film had suddenly become affordable. And our company, Happy Cloud Pictures, had just purchased a used GL-1 to experiment with and shoot our next projects. So it became obvious: I’d have to cut the negative myself, suck up the expense, get it transferred (as a single-strand, rather than in A/B rolls [with every other shot on a separate track to hide the splice]) to digital, and then resynch up the sound and picture. So that’s what I did.

For two nerve-wracking weeks, I cut the negative in my living room, on a hand-made rewind table cobbled together with parts I found at a camera store’s going-out-of-business sale. And when I got the negative back from the lab, on two little Mini-DV tapes, I could barely wrap my mind around it. I’d brought them six giant reels of negative, cut down from 71 reels of varying sizes. And now I had two tiny tapes to show for it.

Popping these tapes into my camera, already hooked up to our TV, I saw my movie for the first time. Yes, it was silent, and yes, the shots were all too long (or so I thought at the time) so I could make the single-strand… but the colors were just gorgeous! We’d shot on different stocks, primarily Kodak, but Fuji stock when it was cheaper; and we’d used different cameras—an Arri BL usually, but also Bolexes for action, an Éclair and a CP when that was all that was available—and the difference was clear if you were a trained film inspector (which I was). The reds and blues just popped out like 3-D. The blacks were heavy and deep. The details were rich and sharp. For years, I’d watched a dull, dim, flickery image on a tiny flatbed monitor screen. This was a whole new movie in front of me.

At the same time, we were shooting Severe Injuries on DV. And while the format was perfect for that story, and we got really good results with the GL-1—because we were shooting it like a movie. Three-point lighting when necessary; external microphone for dialogue; shots composed beforehand and actions rehearsed and mapped-out—it still wasn’t as sharp and rich as the film footage.

So we forged on with a new sense of pride—a pride fueled by our peers. Outstanding filmmakers like Andy Copp (The Mutilation Man) and Scooter McCrae (Sixteen Tongues) insisted that we not only hold our heads up high because we were filmmakers, but we could claim bragging rights for years to come. Art Ettinger, from Ultra Violent Magazine constantly upbraided me for not shouting about our film from the rooftops. Because, particularly today, shooting on film is no longer cost-effective.

Film labs across the country are closing their doors (including the one I worked in for three years, the one responsible for the transfer to DV in the first place). Kodak just announced that they are discontinuing their gorgeous Kodachrome Super-8 stock. Meanwhile, following the lead of Robert Rodriguez (genius) and George Lucas (demagogue), HD cameras are becoming more and more prevalent in Hollywood. Panasonic is releasing a consumer model later this year. So film, as a medium, is going the way of the dinosaur.

So we should be touting our greatness, right? We were trained filmmakers, rare as hen’s teeth in the indie scene. We had a film to show. That automatically gave us a leg up, right?

Guess what? Here’s the big secret about the film vs. video debate: Only film buffs give a shit.

It could be said that only film buffs give a shit about good movies, too, and the success of Meet the Fockers gives weight to that argument.

But the average movie-goer does not know the difference. And those that are media-savvy enough to know that Rodriguez shot Sin City on HD video don’t necessarily know what that means or could tell the difference at first glance. They might, however, be able to tell video—equating DV with the look of TV—and wanting a more “movie-looking” movie, rather than a “TV-looking movie” (an argument I actually heard at the video store I used to work—from the same person who told me that “black and white is boring”, but he was the one doing the renting).

As for distributors, there are those that prefer movies shot on film and disdain movies shot on video. But not for any aesthetic preference. It’s a marketing preference. Based on the data retuned by folks like the guy above.

To film buffs, we have some amount of cred. To everyone else, we’re just another company with another product, vying for space on the shelves. The Resurrection Game’s medium holds no real merit on the marketplace. Lion’s Gate wouldn’t look twice in our direction, but they put out Vampiyaz and Serial Slayer, both of which were shot on video. MTI loved the look of our movie, but they prefer horror sans comedy, and The Resurrection Game has ample helpings of both.

Film. Video. It’s all in the way you treat it. If you’re serious about making a good movie, it doesn’t matter if you hand-draw it and make it into a flip-book. It comes down to: good script, good lighting, good acting, good sound, good editing. And then: perfect marketing. Actually, put the latter in front of everything else.

Make a good movie. If you can only afford video, shoot it on video, but shoot it like you’re shooting a film. If you can afford film… well, if you have that kind of scratch, invest in real estate and give some to the homeless.

Okay, fine, if you can afford film, shoot film. Know the rules—know how to make a movie before you set out to make one. Don’t worry about film vs. video. They’ll be arguing that one forever.

For the record: I love the look of film. But I’ve seen almost exact results from 24p digital video shot under the right conditions and run through Magic Bullet and After Effects. HD is sharp and clear and versatile and is evolving every day. (Remember, I was trained as a film inspector, so sometimes I know what I’m talking about here.) In a few years, the argument won’t even make sense.

The entire entertainment industry is entirely subjective. You can make a great movie that no one will ever see. You can make a shitty movie that the world will embrace. And everyone’s opinion will be right (at least for them). But at the end of the day, you should make the movie that you’re proud of. And that will give you the bragging rights.

What you shot. Not what you shot on.


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