Sunday, May 22, 2011

Digitisation [DRAFT]

There's another thing these three new films have in common, beyond heroism, though: their DIYish use of new technology, including the easy-editing facilities and bedroom-DJ accessibility that allowed TT3D to be distilled from over 500 hours of initial footage. Christian says: "For us, it was all about using the technology. Digitalising the screens in recent years means we can make a film like this very cheaply. For the first time in my career we've not used film at all." Riley agrees: "With the technology now you can shoot high-end footage in HD that looks great. It's a lot more accessible. You can edit it at home on a Mac. It's easier and cheaper than it would have been before."
Our exam board consider digitisation, and the development of new media, as absolutely central to understanding how the media operate today ... and I fully agree! It is a topic that we look at closely with the Media Regulation exam topic for A2, as well as within the A2 music video coursework.
The impact on the film industry is already pronounced and looks likely to increase in impact and influence. In summarising in what manner and means digitisation is influencing the film industry I'll note some particular examples of films to demonstrate the points made, but you can always use your own examples, perhaps films that you read up on when undertaking coursework research.
This transformative impact spreads right across the three elements of the film business: production, distribution and exhibition. It also impacts on what the exam board refer to as 'exchange', the idea that the relationship between industry/film text and audience is not a passive, one-way affair but involves some mutual influence.
Lets consider then how this potentially revolutionary force of digitisation is impacting the film biz; in doing so, one fundamental question arises: do the potential changes being wrought open up the industry to Indies at all three stages of the business OR simply reinforce big 6 dominance ... or does the scope for piracy and the rise of home cinema undermine Indies and conglomerates alike?

The potential impact on production budgets is the key point here: digital film-making is seen as substantially cheaper than traditional celluloid-based film-making. Why is this?
digital cameras are smaller and more portable
traditional cameras, with canisters of film (35mm or 70mm usually) inside are often used in conjunction with tracks laid down on location or in the studio (thus 'tracking' shot) for their smooth movement
the time taken to set up shots is radically reduced with digital cameras
indeed, films such as the $800k Indie Monsters and even the big 6 release Cloverfield (Paramount's $25m found-footage flick tried to apply a veneer of Blair Witch-style credibility) featured just ONE cinematographer. Monsters' entire crew amounted to just 4 people...
Viewing daily rushes is traditionally a major production cost, involving processing of expensive film and requiring projection rooms. Digital shots are instantly avaiulable for review, and Monsters 4-man crew included an editor who travelled with the shoot to check each day's footage on his computer
Its not so long ago that digital film-making was seen as remarkable and unusual; WT's Atonement received much publicity as a digitally-shot high-profile release. At $40m it wasn't cheap, but would have cost much more if shot in the traditional manner
Now, digital film-making is rapidly becoming normalised and unremarkable. The Coens' latest, True Grit, was shot and edited using equipment and processes fundamentally similar to that used by Media students here at IGS: HD digital cameras (we use these at A2), Apple computers and the software Final Cut for editing (again, we use this at A2), and the use of the web to share rushes, rough cuts etc and gain/give feedback on these while the shoot is ongoing
The UK Film Council reacted to the slowness of our bigger production companies to develop a digital production base by funding the Indie Warp Films to set up a subsidiary, Warp X, to shoot 6 low-budget films over 3 years, with a total package (including National Lottery money) of just £4.5m, using digital equipment. They were concerned that the UK wasn't developing a workforce experienced and skilled in digital production swiftly enough. Their intervention was successful, and the UK is now something of a world leader - one wonders what would have happened if the previous government had had the approach the current ConDem coalition have to the creative industries (they've scrapped all funding to the UKFC)
Donkey Punch was the first Warp X production, and the fact that its budget, less than £1m, was mostly taken up by the £600k cost of hiring a boat (the main setting) is symbolic of the impact on costs of digital film-making. This slasher-at-sea was a modest success, but one that likely wouldn't have been made by traditional means - just look at the bloated fiasco that was Kevin Costner's Waterworld (or even some of the legendary waterfront scenes from Apocalypse Now) to see how problematgic this would have been with traditional camera kits and crews.
Even more so, the parent company Warp Films green-lit an experimental mockumentary production by Shane Meadows, Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee, which he shot in just 5 days. The budget was a mere £48k (with the added boost of synergistically featuring Warp act the Arctic Monkeys!), at which level film companies can afford to take greater risks. Warp have since announced plans to develop a strand of films with 5-day shoots, potentially opening up the industry to newcomers who otherwise would never get the chance to shoot given the usual multi-million cost involved. Even WT have gotten in on the act with their own production funds including a WT Australia subsidiary for low-budget digital shoots (eg Ned Kelly)
So, production costs are potentially slashed, and the Indies have been swift to take advantage of the potential. Smaller, more portable cameras mean much faster setups and vastly reduced crews, while the editing process and checking of rushes also becomes a much cheaper, swifter process.
CGI and SFX are also now coming into reach of the Indies; both Duncan Jones' Moon and Monster made use of superbly impactive and convincing SFX (or VFX as Gareth Edwards prefers to term these) on budgets more traditionally associated with CGI-free social realist productions. Jones, in the behind-the-scenes feature on the Monsters DVD, shows how he was able to improvise scenes based solely on coming across a stimulating location not in the call sheet in the knowledge that SFX could be added later.
BUT ...
Does this really mean that the days of the big 6 dominance is over? Does digitisation mean that we don't now need to think about the consequences of such few companies controlling the 'dream factory', shaping at least some part of our collective unconscious and belief systems? (Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model argues that our mass media do not work on behalf of the mass audience but rather to reflect and reinforce the narrow interests of the rich, big business elite who control the major media, citing concentration of ownership as one of the five filters that effectively washes out any radical, especially left-wing [think social realist for example], counter-hegemonic material. Flak is another filter, which the horizontally integrated conglomerates such as News Corporation are able to deploy against films such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley [a WT production], Hunger and, a film that some of WT's key personnel cut their teeth on before launching the company, Hidden Agenda)
Well, no, not necessarily! It does provide an opportunity, though if any Indie makes a success out of this its almost inevitable they'll be swallowed up by a conglomerate, as WT was 20 years ago now.
Certain fundamentals are not changed by digitisation, foremost amongst which is what Richard Dyer describes as the star system. Our consumption of films, and thus their marketing, is very heavily centred on stars and their identities, not just in a particular film but also through their previous work and wider media appearances, including the gossip magazines and tabloid press. We pay for access to a star persona as much as any desire to follow a 90-minute fictive narrative!
This is of course an unstable process: the screen king of nearly 3 decades, Tom Cruise, jumps rather dementedly up and down on Oprah Winfrey's couch to express his love for his new bride (and combat public hostility to his adherence to Scientology), and becomes toxic, no longer a $20m+ a film must-have but someone with a tainted star persona who could sink your blockbuster's prospects. Kiera Knightly has hoovered up many such A-lister fees, but failed to show that her presence alone can sell a film, her successes coming within ensemble pieces.
Star-free films such as TisEng will continue to struggle initially, but the strength of word-of-mouth can lead to huge DVD sales after brief cinema runs.
To sum up, the basic fee (before additional % of profits which some also negotiate, most famously Jack Nicholson) for just one A-lister in just one film would cover the entire annual output of most if not all of the UK Indie releases in a single year! The star system is not yet threatened by digitisation, though there is scope to digitally reproduce dead stars and so slash this particular production cost!
If we think again about Atonement, WT's first large-scale digital production (its low-budget subsidiary WT2 uses digital production), after the cast the major cost was rights to the internationbal best-seller book it was based upon (ditto BJD!).
Indies then still cannot compete when it comes to stars or rights to hit books/comics.

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