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Sundance Gets in the Digital Groove

by Susan Boyer

Good news for digital filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival this year: there were a record number of features shot in DV.

Nearly all of the documentaries and more than a third of the features were shot in either miniDV or 24P HD (24 frames per second, high definition).

New Tools for the DV Filmmaker

As the medium becomes more commercially viable, the array of products and services that makes digital filmmaking accessible to even the lowest of low budget producers is likely to expand.

Apple has released Final Cut Express, for example, a scaled-down version of its Final Cut Pro online editing and authoring software, for under $300. Meanwhile, Avid -- the company that pioneered digitized editing -- will counter with a free version of its Avid Express DV (the full package is $1,500), available for download in the next month or two.

Avid also announced at Sundance that it will support Panasonic's 24P miniDV camera, the AG-DVX 100. According to Avid's VP of video development and operations, Joe Bentilegna: "With support for this camera in future Avid products, filmmakers everywhere will be able to get their hands on a powerful, affordable combination of tools that will allow them to capture, edit, and output at 24P."

Of course, 24P is the magic number for digital video since it most closely approximates 35mm film speed of 24 frames per second (as opposed the video-standard, 60-field per second interlace scan known as NTSC). Closely approximating the look of 35mm is the end game if your feature or short film is intended for public exhibition.

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To that end, P & S Technik introduced the new Pro35 Digital Image Converter at Sundance, which promises to give the look and feel of 35mm on 2/3 standard and HD video cameras by enabling filmmakers to attach any Arri PL mounted prime 35mm lens. According to the manufacturer, through this convergent device, a video camera can capture the same depth of field, focal length, and angle of view as 35mm.

The "Look" of DV Projected

But, despite major progress, can DV ever truly look like 35mm? The answer is a qualified "maybe." Part of the problem lies in projection. Although the age of end-to-end digital is coming, few theaters are currently equipped to screen digital video, so theatrical features and shorts must be transferred to film. While HD softens and often improves in the process (capturing the diffuse quality of film), miniDV suffers horribly in the conversion, which exaggerates all its imperfections.

The Sundance feature Cry Funny Happy, for example, was shot in miniDV and transferred to film for exhibition. While some may have liked the Cassavetes-esque immediacy and intimacy of the film, I found the poor lighting and grainy print distracting. But, the look and feel of DV is not only an aesthetic consideration.

Distributors are still uncertain whether movie goers will plunk down ten bucks (in some markets) to watch a feature film that, in many cases, looks like a glorified home movie. Last year's Sundance sensation Tadpole, for example, was picked up by Miramax for $5 million. But Miramax executives were quite disappointed when "Tadpole" failed to sprout legs at the box office due, in part, to its amateur look and feel.

Still, the DV aesthetic is getting better all the time. Writer/director Peter Hedges' Sundance feature, Pieces of April, looked great, as did Helmut Schleppi's A Foreign Affair (despite some gimmicky camera-work that wouldn't have looked any better in 35mm).

Perhaps the best use of DV at Sundance was filmmaker Angela Robinson's short, D.E.B.S., a campy parody of a WB action series starring four kick-boxing Catholic school girls. When asked about the differences between shooting 24P HD and 35mm, Robinson responded that she has never worked in 35mm.

As the age of end-to-end digital dawns, the next wave of successful DV filmmakers may well be those for whom 35mm is nothing but a distant memory.

Susan Boyer covers the effects behind motion pictures and video games for O’Reilly.

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