By Greg Pak
All the talk about digital video has many people excited about the prospect of cheap filmmaking but fuzzy on the process. I hope the following will make things a little clearer, both regarding MiniDV and 16mm film projects.
Until very recently, most low-budget filmmakers swore by 16mm film, the standard for students, documentarians, and guerilla independents like Robert Rodriguez and Ed Burns (and Wayne Wang, for that matter). Hollywood films are shot on 35 or 70mm, which means the image size of each frame of film is four to sixteen times larger than 16mm. When projected, 16mm thus tends to look grainier than 35mm. But 16mm is still beautiful — it’s film, after all, and despite the hubbub over digital video, film still provides the best range of shadows, light, and color, the best texture, the most satisfying experience.
However, film is extremely expensive. A 400 foot, 12 minute roll of 16mm film costs about $120. To develop a roll and make either a workprint or video transfer for editing costs at least $120 more. So an hour of 16mm film (five 400 foot rolls) would cost about $1,200, not including the costs of the camera and sound equipment.
Which is where MiniDV comes in.
MiniDV is the digital video format revolutionizing low budget filmmaking. MiniDV cameras are typically small camcorders costing $1000 to $4000. The image they produce is comparable to what $60,000 professional video cameras provided ten years ago. The MiniDV tape is a tiny cassette, usually 60 minutes long, which costs ten to twelve bucks.
If you can borrow a MiniDV camera and microphone, you can shoot an hour of broadcast-quality footage for twelve bucks — about one percent of the cost of shooting and processing the same amount of 16mm film.
Since other costs of production remain the same for 16mm and MiniDV projects (and a MiniDV project may eventually incur a huge tab to make a film print for festival screenings), the final budgets for 16mm and MiniDV projects may not be as radically different as the numbers above indicate. But the message is clear — MiniDV makes filmmaking much cheaper.
MiniDV may not work for every project — some productions, particularly those involving period stories or the natural world, seem to require the texture of film. But other projects, particularly those with urban settings, seem perfect for the intimacy and vibe of digital video.
Now. Onward to how these films and videos are made…
Regardless of its budget or technological format, every film and video project requires good old fashioned preproduction.
Preproduction includes writing and rewriting (and rewriting) the screenplay (or documentary proposal), casting and rehearsing actors (or finding and preinterviewing documentary subjects), assembling a crew, developing storyboards and a shotlist, nailing down locations, making and assembling props and costumes, arranging for transportation and food, dealing with release forms and insurance, arranging for stock purchase and equipment rentals, and (of course) raising money.
On a large-scale film, a dozen department heads oversee a hundred crew members. On a small production like a MiniDV short, a handful of people may do everything. But for any production, it’s essential to make sure someone’s responsible for a given job and it gets done. Ideally, the producer of the film takes responsibility for all of the logistics and delegation, leaving the director free to concentrate on the creative tasks of writing and rewriting, casting and rehearsing actors, and discussing the look of the film with the cinematographer, costume designer, and art director.
When it comes to raising money, responsibility may fall with the producer or director, depending on who initiated the project. Often an executive producer will be recruited to invest, contribute, or raise money. Sometimes executive producers have great influence on the creative content of the film — the rumor is that Steven Spielberg essentially took over “Poltergeist” from director Tobe Hooper. But other executive producers have no creative input at all. The same can be said for producers — the nature of their involvement in the creative content of the film depends upon the arrangements made with the director.
Pre-production Article Index
Article on Casting Techniques
Production refers to the actual shooting of the film. For a feature film, production can involve a crew of hundreds. For a MiniDV short, the essential players are a producer, a director, a cinematographer, and a sound person.
The producer, as in preproduction, deals with logistics and makes sure everything runs smoothly. An assistant director may assume the role of clock-watcher and schedule-keeper on set.
The director works with actors (or documentary subjects), the cinematographer, and other creative crew members to get what he or she wants.
The cinematographer sets the lights and operates the camera. With a larger crew, gaffers set the lights under the cinematographer’s direction and grips tote things around (for example, laying the tracks which support the camera for moving shots). The cinematographer may also work with a separate camera operator. On a MiniDV short, the cinematographer usually operates the camera him or herself.
The sound person is responsible for sound recording (no surprise there). On a film shoot, the sound recordist operates a tape recorder while a boom operator follows the performers with a microphone at the end of a long boom pole. On a typical MiniDV short, sound is recorded by the video camera — no separate tape recorder is necessary. A single sound person may be all that’s required — he or she operates the boom.
Depending on the project, other crew members may be needed. A few production assistants always come in handy to hold the stray reflector card, ask passersby to stop for a moment during takes, and make the food & coffee runs. A props or costumes heavy shoot may require a prop or costume master; an on-the-fly documentary may need an additional assistant producer to get subjects to sign release forms.
Production Article Index
Article on the Bare Bones Production Kit
Post production involves editing, which always takes longer than the actual shooting time; it’s when all of the pieces of the film really come together.
For years, it was easy to shoot cheaply on video but extremely expensive to edit on a professional digital editing system. But now MiniDV shorts can edited on home computers using software like Adobe Premiere or Apple’s Final Cut Pro. It’s still expensive, but to own a system now costs $6000 rather than $60,000.
Post production involves several stages — first, viewing and logging the raw footage or dailies and making selects of good takes. Second, putting together a roughcut which contains all of the selected takes in the right order. Third, refining that rough cut bit by bit to create a fine cut, complete with music, sound effects, titles, and any fades and dissolves.
On a larger film production, a sound mix would be conducted at a profession facility to combine all of the tracks of sound which have been edited. For a low budget MiniDV short, it’s usually adequate to mix the tracks using the software built into the home editing system.
For a film production destined to finish as a film print (rather than just a video master), the original negative must ultimately be cut and prints struck.
A director may edit him or herself, or may hire an editor. It’s usually smart for directors to screen cuts of their films often during the editing process — the more they get reactions from live audiences, the better they can determine what’s working and what’s not.
Post Production Article Index
So the test screenings are over; the picture is locked; the titles and music are perfect — the project is done! Now the work of getting it out to the world begins.
Different short filmmakers have different objectives for their films. Many, if not most, hope to use their shorts as calling cards to get an agent, a producer, a three picture deal. The typical route is to submit the production to film festivals — Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes are among the huge ones, although there are literally hundreds of great festivals and screening venues around the world.
The costs of distribution are considerable. Screening tapes cost $5 apiece. Each festival entry is $20 to $40. The costs of stills, press kits, and postage add up. It’s easy to spend $1000 to properly promote a MiniDV film which cost only $500 to make.
Many festivals will screen video. For these fests, the digital filmmaker need never actually make a film — the project remains on video, dubbed from MiniDV to a format such as BetaSP for screening. But many festivals require film prints, which means a digital filmmaker must pony up the big bucks for a video to film transfer. This can cost thousands of dollars — often more than the cost of production.
Other excellent venues of distribution exist — many filmmakers are putting their projects online using streaming video technology such as QuickTime or Real Video. It’s a great way to immediately get the project out there, but it can be hard to get traffic to a new site without advertising or publicity. Established sites like AtomFilms acquire shorts for online distribution, which ensures a larger audience. But for all the hype, few filmmakers get paid anything for putting their work online.
To make a little income, filmmakers with appropriate projects may contract with an educational distributor (like NAATA, for Asian American films, or Filmakers Library) to sell their films to schools and libraries. Filmmakers may also license their films for television broadcast — a number of PBS stations and cable channels acquire shorts. Perhaps the most lucrative venue is the world television market — distributors sell primarily to European television, which programs a large number of shorts each year.
In the end, it’s a miracle if a short film ever makes its money back. But many excellent venues exist for filmmakers and audiences to come together. With enough effort, filmmakers with good films eventually find appreciative audiences — which, of course, is the whole point of making films in the first place.
Distribution Article Index