| This page contains
a short section from an interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Shelley Friedman.
In the selection below, Ray Carney discusses the limitations of Hollywood
filmmaking and the
fallacy of thinking of art in financial terms. The complete interview covers
many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent
film, including information about obtaining three different interview packets
in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a
writer, and the path of the artist, click
Interview with Ray Carney about the Digital Revolution
here for best printing of text
What does the future hold for indie
filmmakers with the rise of desktop filmmaking? Do you see any interesting
filmmakers out there working in digital video?
All of the young filmmakers I know are
working in digital, since they can’t afford film! Well, maybe not all,
but most of them. I think Andrew Bujalski is a hold-out. The obvious advantage
of digital is that you can massively over-shoot. I just got off the phone
with a friend who told me he had thirty hours of footage to work with
to build his new movie out of. It would have been out of the question
to buy and process that much 16mm film.
The downfall of most low-budget indie work is the acting. By
necessity, young filmmakers usually have to use students, relatives, and
other non-actors in their work. If they are limited to one or two takes
because of the cost of film and processing, the results can be embarrassing.
Massive over-shooting allows them to compensate. They can shoot until
their actors are too tired to “act” or put down their actorly mannerisms,
and start being real. My friend said he even shot some stuff like a documentarian,
filming his actors when they weren’t acting, when they didn’t realize
they were being filmed. Cassavetes did the same thing. It can make a real
difference. As Renoir said, the whole scene is saved when the girl playing
the servant thinks the shot is over and lets out a sigh.
When you don’t have to worry about an eleven minute mag, you
can do a scene over and over again. You can take chances. You can improvise.
You can have fun, play around, experiment. Chaplin shot this way and it’s
always good for the work.
Having a smaller crew and more portable equipment can also
make things less intimidating. The mood is different – not so scary and
formal and unnatural. The camera and crew aren’t as obtrusive. And, of
course, the PC has revolutionized editing, to take away a little of the
time pressure and cost from that part of the process as well.
The new Sony and JVC HDV cameras are amazing. (A mid-2005 postscript from Ray Carney: The Canon XL2 HDV Camera is the one I would now recommend. It has exceptional video quality, great audio input capability, a 24-fps mode for transfer to film--be sure any camera you buy to make a feature has this, comes with a 20X zoom standard, and can be used with a wide range of other Canon lenses, prime and non-prime. It sells for less than $5000 as of the date I am writing this.) Near 35mm quality in a $5000 camera. Commercial high-definition TV-station quality. And Avid has a
new editing program that you can work on it with in post. So anyone can
really make a feature film now. A high-quality feature film at used car
prices as Rick Schmidt puts it.
A mid-2006 note from Ray Carney:
Good news! The technology keeps being improved. Here is the updated information from Canon and Sony. I print excerpts from the press releases:
Canon debuts two HD camcorders
Cannon today unveiled its XH A1 and XH G1 three-CCD HD camcorders, designed for broadcasters, cinematographers, an dproduction facilities. Building on the image quality of the XL H1 model, the XH A1 and XH G1 HD camcorders offer a Genuine Canon 20x HD zoom lens, Super Range Optical Image Stabilization, as well as 60i, 24F, and 30F frame rates. Both camcorders feature three 1/3-inch native 16:9 1440 x 1080 CCDs that capture images at 1080i resolution, and can utilize the 24 Frame rate to create the feel of movie film. Users can also send their cameras in to Canon's Factory Service Center for an optional 50i/60i upgrade to conform to PAL standards. The XH A1 model is slated for shipment in late October for an estimated price of $4,000, while the XH G1 model adds HD-SDI output with embedded audio and timecode; Genlock synchronization and Timecode In/Out is expected to ship in mid-November 2006 for $7,000.
Sony Handycam HDR-FX7 1080i 3X-16:9-CCD HDV 1080i is equipped with three-chip ClearVID CMOS Sensor technology to deliver exceptional high-def video and the ut ...most in creative control.For videographers on the move, the HDR-FX7 sports a compact body design, weighing in at about three pounds. It is approximately 40 percent smaller and 25 percent lighter than Sony's first prosumer HDV model. Like previous HDV models, the HDR-FX7 can record and playback both 1080i HDV and standard definition DV video on standard miniDV tapes. Recorded HDV video can be conveniently edited with a choice of available HDV, non-linear editing software. Its HDMI interface offers simple, one-cord connection to compatible display devices so you can just plug and play into instead of struggling with multiple cables. Price: $3500.
But, but, but… no matter how cheap filmmaking
becomes, there won’t ever be a glut of masterpieces. Technology does nothing
by itself. Did composers write better music or music criticism suddenly
improve when cheap recording and playback methods became available? Did
film criticism suddenly improve because of the invention of the VCR and
DVD? Did architectural design programs result in better buildings being
built? If technology made people smarter and more sensitive, the second
half of the twentieth century should have seen the greatest flowering
of creativity in the history of art. Instead we know most music, painting,
architecture, and film got worse.
Better, smaller, cheaper cameras don’t make better films; better
filmmakers do. The digital revolution will probably quadruple the number
of feature films shot and edited in a given year, but most of them will
still be garbage, just like most of them are now. Look at the first video
revolution ten or fifteen years ago – when Beta SP and Hi-band 8 became
cheap. What is its legacy? Porno flicks. There won’t be any more artists
born in a given year just because movies become cheaper to make. That
particular form of insanity is in your DNA, and you either have it or
you don’t. Pen and paper are the ultimate low-budget technology, but how
many great novels and plays and poems are written every year? I don’t
see a stream of Shakespeares being produced just because writing is inexpensive.
Emotional clichés still lurk like land mines waiting to destroy you.
As a violinist friend used to say, it’s a poor musician who
blames his instrument. A real artist can use whatever is available. Picasso
could have created masterpieces with a burnt stick and a piece of chalk.
In fact he did. They’re called charcoals. Cassavetes could have used a
cheap, old-fashioned VHS camera and created scenes that were worth watching.
In fact he did. In the last ten years of his life he filmed scenes that
way at home just for the fun of doing it. Michael Almereyda made three
amazing movies with a Pixel-cam, a sixty-nine dollar toy video camera
for kids: Another Girl, Another Planet, The Rocking Horse Winner,
and a documentary about the Sundance film festival.
It’s a faulty analysis that locates the problem in the cost
of the production. The harder nut to crack is distribution. How does a
young, unknown filmmaker get a movie into a theater or onto mainstream
TV – the internet doesn’t count; the internet is a joke – no matter how
it is made? The rub, of course, is that the more original the work, the
harder it will be to sell it to the corporations that run those enterprises.
It might not be “entertaining” enough. It might require you to think a
little. It might be different. Or the worst sin of all in our culture
of complaint: It might offend someone – another name for forcing them
The life-or-death struggle every artist fights is not with
technology but with our commercial culture. The businessmen, the accountants,
the advertising guys always want to get their fingers in the pie – suggesting
cuts, trying to speed up the pacing, pandering to some imaginary demographic
– and if you let them convince you to make a single change, it’s the death
of personal expression. If anyone ever tells you to do something because
someone else won’t understand what you’ve done, you know they are talking
nonsense. Generic truth – what “they” want, need, or feel – is not truth
anymore. Truth can only be what you feel. The more personal your
work, the more idiosyncratic and eccentric, the more truth there is in
it. What’s the Emerson quote? “Speak your most private, secret, personal
thought, and you speak to all.” When you try to speak for everyone, you
speak for no one.
The distribution problem won’t go away and I don’t have a solution
for it. If I did, I could go on TV and sell “how to get rich quick” kits.
[Laughs] All I can tell you is that every week I get videos in the mail
that are better than anything on HBO or PBS, accompanied with painful,
personal letters describing how the filmmakers can’t get them screened
or distributed. The indie films that get lucky, the ones you hear about,
are almost always picked up for the wrong reasons – not because of their
intrinsic merit, but because they deal with some flash-in-the-pan topical
theme, have sexual content, or appeal to a special-interest demographic
– blacks or feminists or whomever. If you don’t play to a special interest,
forget it. When an edgy indie film about the Ku Klux Klan or middle school
sex or high school violence gets picked up, it’s not a vote for art; it’s
a business calculation of how many talk shows the distributor thinks the
director can get onto because of the hot button issue. That’s why most
of the people who claim to want to help the indie movement are actually
part of the problem.
What do you mean?
I’ll give you an example
of how screwed up the support system for indie film is. I already mentioned
Andrew Bujalski as an artist whose work I admire. Well let me tell you
the story of how I first came across his work and what happened after
that. I got a tape of his first film, Funny Ha Ha, in the mail
a few years ago, along with a note saying that he couldn’t get it screened
anywhere. Nobody was interested. It’s not that uncommon a story. I hear
it all the time. Almost exactly the same thing happened with Caveh Zahedi’s
Little Stiff, which I got it in the mail with the same kind of
note attached to it: “Please look at my movie. I can’t get it screened
anywhere. Nobody is interested in it. Can you help me?”
Well, I looked at Funny Ha Ha and thought it was wonderful.
It’s a study of emotional clumsiness and imaginative confusion among the
young and aimless, but better than Harmony Korine, because it was not
about Diane Arbus gargoyles but recognizable people. The
characters were just as twitchy and odd as Harmony’s, but less exaggerated,
in other words: closer to life, truer than Harmony’s. And to make it even
more interesting, the main character is a young woman and Bujalski really
understood and appreciated her point of view. That’s almost unprecedented
for a male filmmaker – and totally beyond Harmony’s capability.
Anyway, just as I had done after I viewed Caveh’s tape, I went
into action to try to help Andrew out. I sent him a quote to use on his
web site; I made a few phone calls; I sent a few letters and emails to
theater and festival programmers. Now this is where the story gets interesting.
Remember nobody but nobody wanted the film to start with, but a few weeks
later the buzz has gotten going and everything has changed. Now everybody
wants the movie. The funny thing is that many of these people are
the exact same ones who turned down, or refused to look at, Bujalski’s
film six months earlier, before I wrote or called them and told
them how great it was. And now they love it. Isn’t that funny? Critics
and programmers are such sheep. They just need to be told what
to like. You just have to tell them, and then everything is OK. Isn’t
that sick? Anyway, back to the main story: Now that everyone has changed
their minds about his movie, Bujalski calls me and tells me he suddenly
has three offers to screen it in Boston and one in another city. But guess
what? Each programmer wants him to turn down the others. Each one says
he doesn’t want the movie unless he can be the first to screen it. The
argument is the usual one about the smallness of the audience for indie
film and how hard it is to sell tickets and how this particular programmer
needs exclusivity to cash in on any reviews that appear.
you see how sick that is? The programmers claim to want to help the indie,
but the only person they really want to help is themselves. They act like
the filmmaker owes them something for showing the movie he poured his
blood into and they didn’t put up a penny for. This goes on all the time
– at Sundance, the New York Film Festival, Cannes. They all want you to
give them your movie first so they can get the glory and the reviews.
And most indies end up agreeing to their terms. The theaters and festivals
have the filmmakers, who are absolutely desperate for a screening, over
a barrel and take advantage of it.
what is a filmmaker to do?
Every indie has to
resist this kind of squeeze play for the good of all of the others in
the future. I told Bujalski to tell the bookers that none of them could
have his movie unless they agreed to his terms, which would include
playing it everywhere he wants to, whenever he wants to. If all of the
independent filmmakers did that in a given year, the indie theater and
festival bookers would have to cave in. What are they going to do? Not
show any films that year? I’m sure he didn’t dare take my advice.
Bujalski’s situation also illustrates the futility of paying
an entrance fee and sending a video as a cold submission to a film festival.
It’s like sending an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. Almost no
one gets published or screened that way. It’s practically all done by
word-of-mouth recommendation. Only chumps play by the rules and pay the
fees. But of course the festivals will be the last ones to tell you this.
Right up to Cannes and Sundance, they maintain the pious
fiction that anybody can get in. It just ain’t so. You have to be known
to them or your film has to come with a powerful recommendation. Ask me
sometime about the student Academy Awards screenings I’ve been on the
jury for. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about how they are run.
page contains a short section from an interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker
Shelley Friedman. In the selection above, Ray Carney discusses the limitations
of Hollywood filmmaking and the fallacy of thinking
of art in financial terms. The complete interview covers many other topics.
For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent film, including
information about obtaining three different interview packets in which
he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer,
and the path of the artist, click