Entering The Videodrome

Filmdependent post on June 30th, 2007

By Andre Seewood

Almost 25 years ago some Panavision and lkegami executives stood up at a Television and Film conference and announced that in few years there will be no discernible difference between video and film images- and the world has been laughing ever since (see Note 1). It. is now, as it was then, obvious that there are a myriad of differences between the video image and the film image; differences that may not be fully resolved until both mediums are totally absorbed within the ‘digital domain.’ As a filmmaker working in video for the last three years, I have been asked to share any insights and advice I might have to other filmmakers looking at this medium as an alternative way to work. Such a request it is my pleasure to fulfill, but to do so I must give a brief history lesson, state some harsh truths matter-of-factly, and reveal quite a few personal baises that may distance me from those blind romantics who cling to the idea that to be a true filmmaker you must make a negative; even though such people have less than a thousand dollars in their pockets and visions of being the next maverick to make a feature length film for under $5,000.00 in their heads.

History
Many of the most celebrated filmmakers of our time have worked in video. The legendary French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, has produced a number of challenging projects on video (most notably 1975’s, NUMERO DEUX). Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni produced his 14th feature length film,THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD (1980),on video which was purposefully transferred to film for theatrical release. (see Note 2) The great American directors, Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Ray worked in video for television. David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME (1982) used the video image as a fantastic sociological allegory in its narrative, and as a fully intergrated component of its visual style. More recently, Oliver Stone shot the ‘I Love Mallory,’segment of NATURAL BORN KILLERS on Hi-8 video, Spike Lee shot segments of GIRL 6 on video, and HOOP DREAMS was a 3 hour documentary produced on video and transferred to film for its theatrical release. So, clearly, there is a place for video in the filmmaker’s world. Though there are a myriad of differences between film and video, the essence of the two mediums are irrefutably the same: both mediums communicate through image and sound, which are the raw materials every filmmaker must sift through to express himself. Knowing, that the previously mentioned legendary filmmakers have worked in this medium, aspiring independent filmmakers should no longer have cause to look upon video as inferior. Video is the amateur and independent filmmaker’s most revolutionary medium for artistic expression, without the financial, political, and social constraints that attend the film medium. But to understand and utilize the revolutionary aspects of video we must acknowledge and embrace the limitations of the video image.

The Harsh Truth
The greatest difference, in my eyes, between the video and film image is, most obviously, in the visual resolution between the mediums. Put simply, the film image has a greater depth-of-field and focal quality: objects can be identified deep in the background without much difficultly.

Consumer video cameras (Hi-8, VHS-C, S-VHS) have shorter focal lengths and less depth-of-field capabilities: objects in the background are difficult to identify and become worse when the video has gone through a number of generations after editing. But this limitation has an advantage: by moving the foreground and background details closer to the camera, video can increase the emotional impact of your work. By shooting closer to your actors and their surroundings, you are putting the spectator -right there- in the experience. But this emotional impact will not be felt on the television screen. You must have your video work projected to fully feel this emotional impact. Let me explain, when I completed my feature length dramatic video project,’ FLOWERS & TREES,’ it was broadcast on a local cable station in Detroit and sold on home video to warm reviews and intense audience appreciation. I felt good about this, but it wasn’t until I saw my work Projected on a large screen in an auditorium that the true emotional impact was felt by the audience and by myself. At the end of the screening, the audience erupted in great applause, my competitors and peers were speechless, and I was floored by the sense of having experienced the real emotions I, myself, had written and recorded, as if for the first time. There are some technical reasons for this overwhelming emotional impact that I cannot fully take credit for so let me share them:

The Television Screen and the Projection Screen.

On television, the viewer’s attention is easily distracted. The small screen cannot compete with the everyday distractions in the home (phone, kids, sex, etc.,). Projection of the video image in an auditorium makes the video image the same size (aspect ratio) as the film image. The confines of an auditorium secures the viewer’s attention. It is the projection of the video image that gives video its legitimacy. Contrary to popular opinion, the filmmaker working in video should not endorse the transferring of his/her work to film (at least not until such processes are fully developed), but instead aggressively promote the projection of the work in a theatre for audiences and/or investors. The quality of today’s video projection systems are powerful and, coupled with a high quality sound system, film and video exhibition systems should be allowed to exist side-by-side in current theatres.

Approaching Video as a Serious Medium for Artistic Expression.

I had shot FLOWERS & TREES with the seriousness as if I were shooting a film. I did not rely on any glitzy ‘MTV’ music video effects. Hell, I couldn’t afford that anyway. By simply adjusting the proximity of my camera closer to the actors and their backgrounds, depth-of-field was constant. The projection increased the audience’s ability to identify with the actor’s feelings and objects that surrounded them, by making it all ‘bigger’. Like the difference between a regular (academy) movie screen and Cinemascope, my audience saw more even though the content of my images was the same as it was on television. Indeed, this may be the underpinnings of the ‘Home Theater’ consumer trend: the idea of making images in our own homes bigger so that we can keep our attention focused on images that seem bigger than our everyday life.

Lighting

The filmmaker working in video must become sensitive to the cardinal rule of videography: Natural light is the supreme lighting source for the video camera. I find that a majority of consumer video cameras are very receptive to natural light. Therefore, like a painter, the filmmaker working in video must become extremely sensitive to where the sun is during his exterior production. Shooting away from the sun renders vibrant colors and sensuous images. Single CCD video cameras register the primary colors (Red, Blue, Green) in broad strokes. Fine details are lost in favor of rich color. For instance, if you were shooting a predominately green meadow in bright sunlight, the color of the meadow would register upon your recorded image in a powerful, almost tactile, way. Like Van Gogh, whose many late paintings were dominated with primary colors (the color blue in his painting, The Irises, for instance) shooting in natural light with single CCD video cameras renders very ‘impressionistic’ images you can learn to manipulate to your advantage. And here’s a real secret, Single CCD video cameras can be purchased for as little as $300.00 in your favorite cavernous electronic retail outlets. Shooting against the sun (without proper filters) creates gloomy images and darkened colors. Again, this is a limitation with dramatic advantages. In my video project, WASTELAND, I had my vicious killer character stand near a window against the bright sunlight, digging his knife into the window frame. Because the single CCD video camera darkened the image and drained the colors due to the bright sunlight, the image looked like the grim reaper biding his time with his sickle before the harvest. In effect, the shot became even more ominous and frightening to the audience because of the limitation inherent within the video camera. This is precisely what I mean about learning to turn the limitations of video into advantages. Because video is not film, you have to learn to appreciate and utilize the limitations in your approach. (see Note 3)

In artificial light, the video image must be pampered. The filmmaker cannot use heavily watted floods, spots, and key electrical light sources. These 200 watt to 1000 watt light sources are just too bright for videography. You must use lights that reproduce, or rather mimic, regular home lighting. Yes, indoors, the best lighting for video is regular home light bulbs! By using various wattages (25, 40, 60, 100, to 125 respectively) you can enhance the existing room light without creating garish shadows and unwanted glare. Remember, you’ve moved your camera closer to your actors and their backgrounds, so you only want to dash a little more light here and there. The amateur filmmaker thinking about working in video would do well to purchase and study the book by 1940’s Hollywood cinematographer, John Alton, entitled, “Painting With Light,” for further study of how minimal light sources create fascinating images. I found this book quite useful in making the transition to video, because John Alton never used that much light on his own films; not only as a cost cutting measure, but also as an aesthetic choice.

Sound.

The biggest mistake reluctant filmmakers make when they approach video is the use of on-camera microphones. These microphones, while convenient, are actually electronic obstacles. On-camera microphones pick up all sound indiscriminately, including camera operator movements, the dog next door, etc., The microphone must be placed off-camera with the use of an insulated extension cable, windscreen and boom operator. You’ll want a ‘shotgun’ mike that has a narrow pick-up field, therefore your actor’s voices are heard and ambient noise is reduced to a minimum. You can add any ambient sound later, just like they do in film post-production. When your work is projected it is extremely important that the sound is crystal clear. Amplified theatrical sound is 50% of the total movie-going experience; Filmmaker George Lucas taught us that with the introduction of Dolby sound in movie theatres during the Seventies and THX sound today. Finally, it is important to note that a major difference between the mediums of film and video is that in video the sound is not recorded independently as it is in film. This is also a limitation with an advantage. Some of the exorbitant costs of film production can be traced to the conforming and syncing of sound from its independent recording source. With video, sound is not independent, so thousands of dollars are saved in mixing, rerecording, and dubbing. The filmmaker working in video must reserve some of his concentration to make sure that the direction of his ‘shot gun’ microphone is aimed (off camera) directly at the mouths of his speaking actors. One of the most often asked questions addressed to me concerning my work is, “Where did you place the microphone?” This question is usually posed my snobbish filmmakers who cannot conceive of using an off-camera microphone for video although the practice has long been in use in Electronic News Gathering (ENG).

So, for the filmmaker who keeps these things in mind: Projection on a large screen; Reduced depth-of-field; Lighting; and Controlling ambient sound, the projected video work can be just as dramatically powerful as film, even with its lower resolution.

The Social/Political/ and Financial

Every independent and amateur filmmaker should seriously consider video as an alternative medium because, whether you are honing your skills or practicing your art, video is, in a word, cheaper. I don’t think I really need to explain the latter, but I will attempt to explain the revolutionary social and political aspects of the medium. Video frees the filmmaker from the superficial glamour and celebrity that attends the filmmaker working in film. It is the glamour and celebrity that constrains the filmmaker with rules, liabilities, unwanted publicity, and exorbitant fees.

Socio-politically, it is very widely known that everyone has (or has access to) a video camera. The devices are everywhere and inspire no more awe than a jogger wearing a walkman with the volume at full blast. Nobody cares about a home video camera; they’re small, innocuous, and prevalent. But this is the key for the filmmaker. Because the videographer is ignored, you can get your camera, cast, and crew anywhere with half the problems and headaches that overwhelm would-be Tarantino’s. Your crew consists of you and your boom mike operator. Bystanders are less likely to become nuisances. If you need to shoot at various privately-owned locations or properties you can fake being a poor film student, and with persistence, you’ll find that the authorities will take pity on you and permissions will be magically granted. Now that we are living in the post-Tarantino era, where everyone thinks they can write and direct a feature-length movie without any filmmaking experience, training, or discipline, video can be an inexpensive medium to find out for yourself whether you have any talent without mortgaging your house to do so. The legendary filmmakers have already opened the door, it is now time for the rest of us to take the first steps inside the videodrome.

NOTES

(1) “Electronic Cinematography: Round Three,” by Frank Beecham in American Cinematographer Magazine, January 1996.

(2) “To Antonioni, what differentiated television from film was the immediacy of television; but that immediacy disqualified it as ‘art:’ it was too tied to the moment, unlike film in which the image could be worked on both before filming and after. For that reason Antonioni concluded that television was not a threat to the cinema, nevertheless it seemed to have some advantages in its limitations [my emphasis]: the ablility to adapt to the unforeseen and the immediate, the possibility of responding to the moment.” (Pg. 167, ANTONIONI, by Sam Rohdie, BFI Publishing, 1990)

(3) 1 am too excited to fully comment about the new advancements into digital video, concerning Sony’s pro-sumer DVC 3000 three chip digital camcorder and the Digital Betacam 700 series camcorder. The 700 series boasts image resolution superior to Super 16mm when it is transferred to 35mm. A new era is here, why are we “independents” so scared to embrace it?

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