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An Interview with Ray Carney about the Digital Revolution

Doing It

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 canít 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 ďactĒ 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 werenít acting, when they didnít 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 donít 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 itís always good for the work.

Having a smaller crew and more portable equipment can also make things less intimidating. The mood is different Ė not so scary and formal and unnatural. The camera and crew arenít 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.

Technology Does Nothing

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, butÖ no matter how cheap filmmaking becomes, there wonít 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 donít 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 Ė when Beta SP and Hi-band 8 became cheap. What is its legacy? Porno flicks. There wonít 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 donít. Pen and paper are the ultimate low-budget technology, but how many great novels and plays and poems are written every year? I donít see a stream of Shakespeares being produced just because writing is inexpensive. Emotional clichťs still lurk like land mines waiting to destroy you.

As a violinist friend used to say, itís 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. Theyíre 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.

Itís 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 Ė the internet doesnít count; the internet is a joke Ė 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 ďentertainingĒ 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 Ė another name for forcing them to think.

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 Ė suggesting cuts, trying to speed up the pacing, pandering to some imaginary demographic Ė and if you let them convince you to make a single change, itís the death of personal expression. If anyone ever tells you to do something because someone else wonít understand what youíve done, you know they are talking nonsense. Generic truth Ė what ďtheyĒ want, need, or feel Ė 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. Whatís the Emerson quote? ďSpeak your most private, secret, personal thought, and you speak to all.Ē When you try to speak for everyone, you speak for no one.

The distribution problem wonít go away and I donít have a solution for it. If I did, I could go on TV and sell ďhow to get rich quickĒ 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 canít 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 Ė 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 Ė blacks or feminists or whomever. If you donít 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, itís not a vote for art; itís a business calculation of how many talk shows the distributor thinks the director can get onto because of the hot button issue. Thatís why most of the people who claim to want to help the indie movement are actually part of the problem.

What do you mean?

Iíll 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 couldnít get it screened anywhere. Nobody was interested. Itís not that uncommon a story. I hear it all the time. Almost exactly the same thing happened with Caveh Zahediís Little Stiff, which I got it in the mail with the same kind of note attached to it: ďPlease look at my movie. I canít get it screened anywhere. Nobody is interested in it. Can you help me?Ē

Well, I looked at Funny Ha Ha and thought it was wonderful. Itís 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 Harmonyís, but less exaggerated, in other words: closer to life, truer than Harmonyís. And to make it even more interesting, the main character is a young woman and Bujalski really understood and appreciated her point of view. Thatís almost unprecedented for a male filmmaker Ė and totally beyond Harmonyís capability.

Anyway, just as I had done after I viewed Cavehís 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, Bujalskiís film six months earlier, before I wrote or called them and told them how great it was. And now they love it. Isnít 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. Isnít 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 doesnít 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.

Do 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 didnít put up a penny for. This goes on all the time Ė 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.

So 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? Iím sure he didnít dare take my advice.

Bujalskiís situation also illustrates the futility of paying an entrance fee and sending a video as a cold submission to a film festival. Itís like sending an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. Almost no one gets published or screened that way. Itís 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 ainít 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 Iíve been on the jury for. I donít know whether to laugh or cry about how they are run.

his is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.