Monday, June 9, 2008

Rebels Without a Clue: The Downside of the Digital Revolution

The new age of cinema is upon us, right? Well, yeah, sort of. It’s new. But is new always a good thing? Much has been made of the new technology available to the low and no-budget filmmakers out there—people like me. With new HD cameras that cost only a few thousand dollars, more and more young people with big cinematic dreams are being presented with the opportunity to take a crack at filmmaking. And that’s a great thing! Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. After all, I’m one of these big dreamers who has gotten to make some rather good looking short films because of the new HD technology that is available for a rather small wad of cash. However, the fact that my short films have been praised by industry professionals as being beautifully shot and surprisingly polished has less to do with the camera we used than with the skills we have developed.

Yes, the new technology affords indie filmmakers everywhere new flexibility and opportunity. A more professional look is within reach for more people. That is something to be excited about. Yet, while there’s all this talk about how wonderful this technology is, there is a flip side to this story, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

High Definition ≠ High Quality

“While the ease of being able to make films on low-cost digital video equipment has increased the quantity of independent movies being made today,” writes Phil Hall in his book Independent Film Distribution, “it has had an opposite effect on the quality of such films. To be frank, there is a lopsided ratio of quality to quantity.” *

In his book, Hall takes the time to address the digital revolution from a distributor’s perspective. He states clearly that both distribution companies and film festivals are being bombarded with unprecedented amounts of crap. New filmmakers are constantly popping up, and the vast majority of them have little to no experience, almost no technical awareness, and often a real lack of storytelling abilities. This is causing a real burnout effect among festival judging committees and distributors. They’re getting sick of sitting through these poorly made films.

Independent filmmaker Jedidiah Burdick points out that due to this cheap new technology there’s “a lot more crappy media floating around. It’s easy to create a finished film on your own now, from start to finish. [T]his simplicity can also foster laziness. Laziness in planning. Laziness in shooting (lighting).” Burdick warns against the urge to move fast, which is so easy with digital video. “[Y]ou don’t wait for the good take (with your actors),” he says. “Just go to any short film festival and you can see what I mean.”

Planet Sick-Boy online magazine editor, Jon Popick, has this to day about it: “The fact that any schlub can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a digital video camera for a couple of hundred bucks means that anybody can make their own Blair Witch later that day, in their backyard with their drunk friends. Ten years ago, the only people who would try something like this were pretty serious about what they were doing. It’s possible a few revolutionary filmmakers get their big breaks this way, but it’s mostly going to produce a whole lot of garbage. I picture film festival programmers putting guns in their mouths after a few weeks of watching these movies.” *

Yep, he used the word garbage. No one sets out to make garbage, but if you’re not careful, you just might do that. A mentality that has been propagated by some filmmakers who have made it into the Hollywood system is that if you want to make a film, you should “just do it.” And, to some degree, they’re right. But there’s a right way to “just do it,” and there’s a wrong way.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The new technology does open doors for indie filmmakers such as myself. And for that, many others and I are very thankful! I am the first to admit that I couldn’t afford to make independent short films if I had to shoot them on celluloid. Honestly, even shooting on Super 8 would have been cost prohibitive for me as I started out. So, yes, there is much to be excited about in this “digital revolution.”

In speaking with writer/director Jedidiah Burdick as I prepared this blog entry, I asked him what he felt were the greatest advantages to all this new digital technology being affordable for new filmmakers. “I think there are specific advances per technology type,” was Burdick’s reply. “But overall, accessibility. People that couldn't previously afford to get creative with these tools can now get their hands on gear and go at it.” And that’s something to be thrilled about, if you’re a new filmmaker. After all, there’s no better way to learn than by hands-on experience.

The problem with many new filmmakers is that they forget that film is a craft. And as with any craft, there is so much to learn. One of the greatest advantages of digital video is that I can run out with a camera and do a whole lot of shooting on my own, then come back and edit it alone on my home computer. However, this is also one of the greatest disadvantages! I can foster an unhealthy "solo-filmmaker" complex. I once worked with an aspiring filmmaker who instead on having to do nearly everything himself. Unfortunately, we were not in film school (where this might have been acceptable). Now, sure, making yourself do nearly everything is a great way to learn, if you’re into the stress, and can live with making a less than professional product. But if that’s how you wish to approach a project, make sure it is a 5-minute short film you’re shooting over a weekend with some friends. Don’t try to pull that kind of amateur crap with working actors or other professionals on your set. The last thing you want to do is kill your film career before it gets started.

I asked Burdick what he thought new filmmakers should do to avoid such pitfalls. “Don't reinvent the wheel,” was his response. “Maybe give the wheel a better tire, some traction control for the snow or rain. But don’t reinvent it.”

He went on to explain, “Good filmmakers have been using extensive planning for years to ensure a quality product. Plan, plan, plan. And then plan some more. The stuff that cuts through the ‘crappy film’ noise of today is the stuff that was really well planned.”

In other words, one thing has not changed at all: Preproduction is still preproduction. It is still essential! If you want to make a film, you will still need to breakdown your script, schedule your shooting days, secure locations, and find good a cast and crew, among many other things. All of this takes planning so that when the camera does roll, you’re making something worthwhile and no random surprises bring your filmmaking to a screeching halt.

I asked Jedidiah Burdick if he could elaborate on his planning process. “As a writer/director it starts with a compelling story,” was his reply. “It’s not okay to think you have a film based only on visuals or dialogue or one ‘well done’ element. The story has to be well done. Then, you have to support the story with great filmmaking.

“Planning for me starts with the outline, then by the time I am in the script, I have the bulk of the visual directing worked out based on ‘supposed’ locations. Then we try to find these locations. While looking, sometimes a better suited location pops up,” Burdick explained. “It is important to be flexible to a point. But . . . if you really know what you want, then don't settle for less. A lot of planning comes down to simple mechanics: making lists and executing, weighing options over and over, a lot of testing.”

Burdick is a “big believer in rehearsing,” he said. “I think it shows your script in a whole new light. This is where flexibility is key. . . . I find that there is often a way to get the actor to own what they are acting if maybe a few small things are tailored to them. It’s delicate, though. This can be abused easily. So, you have be careful to stay true to the story.”

Having attended festivals where one of my short films was playing, I have seen a wide range of projects by new filmmakers. Some were quite good, many were rather unimpressive, and others were just plain revolting. The truth is that planning and preparation will go a long way in helping your film stay out of that last group.

Advice for the Aspiring Filmmaker

So, what might an aspiring filmmaker take away from this? First of all, speaking from my own experiences, we should all value the importance of learning the craft of filmmaking. No one, and I want to be clear on this, no one is a born filmmaker. We all have to learn, and we’re all going to make mistakes. Thus, my best advice for the first-time filmmaker is, start small. Yes, go grab one of these HD cameras everyone’s raving about. Then sit down, write out a short script, grab some friends, and shoot a short film. Then, once you have that one done, show it to your friend and family, and be prepared for some real feedback. Ask them to honestly tell you want works and what doesn’t. Then, get busy making another short. And then another one. Until you’ve got something that’s getting into film festivals and catching the eyes of production companies.

Learn the technical side as well as you can. There are many books out there that can help you better understand how to light a scene well, how to capture good audio, how to direct actors, and so on. Take some time and read these. I’m always reading about filmmaking. The truth is, once you get through reading some technical books on lighting and camera, there’s books to read about budgets, business plans, legal requirements . . . it never ends. But if you love what you’re doing, then you keep at it. The learning has to continue!

Get on a film set. Get out there, and work on other people’s films! You’ll really learn so much more this way than you can on your own. I’ve gotten to work on numerous short films, I work regularly on TV commercials and other professional video productions, and I’ve worked on two feature films so far. Learning through observation can be so amazing. In fact, it’s only been through observation on sets that I’ve finally started to grasp good lighting techniques. A quick glance through my short films clearly shows this.

Get to know talented people. I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people, both actors and crew. I cannot sing their praises enough! So, look around, and see who might be interested in working with you on a film. Then, delegate to them the appropriate power, and let them do their job. Communicate clearly, convey your passion, and direct the hell out of your film, but let them do what they do best without overstepping your bounds. Remember, film is not novel writing or painting. You don’t get to do it all alone. It’s a collaborative art form. So learn early on how to work with people, or don’t bother trying to make films.

Be your own harshest critic. Stop and honestly assess your ideas. Are these original ideas? Are you presenting the world something worth watching? How are you going to stand out from the crowd? Or are you just making another Blair Witch Project, Magnolia, Garden State, Primer, El Mariachi, Clerks or whatever the latest indie film world “flavor of the month” is? Don’t get me wrong, all the above listed films have their merits, and I actually like most of them. But that doesn’t mean I feel like remaking any of them. These trends come and go. What are you doing to transcend such trends?

The point is, there are an awful lot of new filmmakers out there feeling quite empowered to take on the world of filmmaking. They’re rebels with digital cameras and big dreams. But most of them are damn near clueless. You and I don’t want to be part of that crowd. We want to stand out, to be those who pleasantly surprise audiences and people in the industry. So, yes, aspire to be a filmmaker. But aspire to be a great filmmaker. Don’t settle for making mediocre schlock that induces the gag reflex in audiences, critics, distributors, and festival judges. If you’re going the make films, then damn it, make them well! Please!

I want to close with a final word from Jedidiah Burdick to all of us aspiring filmmakers out there: “Picture yourself seven years from now . . . your sitting by your pool outside your beautiful house being interviewed about your next (already green lit) blockbuster. The reporter starts rifling through accolades you have received for the last six successful films (both financial and critical) you have had in the last six years. Then the reporter comes to the topic of your first film . . . will you cringe? Will you offer some lame-ass excuse like . . . ‘we didn't have much money’? Or will you smile because you know that the reporter knows that the world loves it. And you know that's because you did your best and learned the rest?”

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End Notes:

* Quotes taken from: Independent Film Distribution by Phil Hall, Michael Wise Productions, © 2006 Phil Hall.

Jedidiah Burdick is an independent filmmaker living in Boston, Massachusetts. Silk Trees is his first feature film. He is currently developing his second feature. For more information about Silk Trees, please visit:

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