TCS Daily

Revolution in Movie Affairs

By John Farrell - March 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Donald Rumsfeld has long been an advocate of the RMA: Revolution in Military Affairs. You might not have known it from watching the Oscars over the weekend, but there's another RMA going on. A Revolution in Movie Affairs.

Setting aside the hype (now you, too, can be Steven Spielberg!!), digital video on the desktop and the laptop is replacing VHS and other analog home video formats. At the professional level, digital video is also (albeit more slowly) replacing film.

George Lucas' movie "Attack of the Clones" was shot entirely in digital, and screened that way in select theaters. For those of us who watched the film-transfer version-you couldn't tell it wasn't shot originally on film. It may take a while for the entire film industry to follow Lucas, but in the meantime, independent filmmakers who never had the budgets to compete with the pros are now able to shoot entirely in digital formats (the cheapest being mini-DV) and deliver on video or film if they choose. (One example being TCS contributing editor Glenn Reynolds' wife, who is shooting a documentary.

Twenty years ago, the kid down the street needed to enroll in film school (or have wealthy parents) in order to learn how to make his own movie. Today the same kid can go to CompUSA or BestBuy and buy his own camera and PC-based production studio for less than $2500. If he's really creative, he can do it for even less. What he produces with it could be shown on the networks and the average viewer wouldn't know the difference in terms of picture and sound quality.

In case you think the DV thing is just another fad where computer makers are selling dreams of Hollywood to starry-eyed film students, consider that on the professional level, it's no less revolutionary: Oscar winning editor Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now," "The English Patient") switched from the industry standard Avid to Apple G4s with Final Cut Pro (FCP) for Cold Mountain, the new feature he is editing for director Anthony Minghella. According to Murch, FCP gives him more creative flexibility and power than Avid for half the cost.

But there's another overlooked advantage DV affords for professionals who have been in television and video for the past 20 years or so: archiving older footage from formats no longer supported and rapidly disappearing.

When I started in television, the broadcast format for the field was ¾-inch Umatic. Beta SP decks didn't fully take over at Channel 5 in Boston until 1992. But by then, I had accumulated a lot of useful footage. As the next decade progressed, it wasn't easy or cheap to watch the stuff in its original format. Many outfits were throwing away their old equipment as they switched to new formats (I found a Sony VO 5600 left in a dumpster behind my office building not long ago. After cleaning the heads, it still works fine. Talk about a deal.)

With digital (or DV, meaning the format most accessible to consumers), this footage can be archived without generation loss and re-mastered for either digital tape, CD or DVD or the Web. That's great for home video, sure. But it's even better for professionals who have been working in the industry for years and have footage that may be useful to other producers.

Here's an example of the kind of video I mean: The Blizzard of '78. This storm, in February of that year, put Boston out of commission for an entire week. Outside of the local news stations that were covering it for obvious reasons, you won't find many shots like this. With all the talk about Indie digital movie makers churning out slacker dramas shot at the local bar and in their parents' basements, the real explosion that's likely in digital video over the next few years will has been overlooked: the emergence of documentary movie-makers, from among the ranks of pros who've been working in broadcast as well enthusiasts who have been archiving footage for years on VHS and 8mm and now have the inexpensive means to edit and package their footage in a professional format for wide distribution.

Sundance winner, Melissa Regan's No Dumb Questions was shot with an entry-level DV camcorder and edited entirely with iMovie. Michael Moore is going to have a lot more company soon.

What DV is going to allow is what many predicted (and didn't happen) with the community television stations back in the early 1980s: That everyone can become his own producer. (The Video Blog is an example of this). It didn't happen with community television because the learning curve for the equipment was still too high and required a minor crew (at least 2 people) to produce anything of real quality.

Saving money isn't so much the issue with DV as discovering what you can do with video on your computer: be much more creative at your own pace and deliver a project of professional-level quality. (I know, video pros will grumble "it's not REALLY broadcast quality", but no average viewer could tell the difference, and many professionals couldn't either without some technical help). The consumer is in broadcast territory with his/her Canon mini-DV.

See ya' at the movies.

John Farrell is a writer and video producer working in Boston. He is the author of "Digital Movies with QuickTime Pro," just out from Charles River Media.

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