Streamlining craft in digital video

I ran across an article this morning in the New York Times about The 48 Hour Film Project. I thought it was cool and it got me thinking about how a digital workflow makes filmmaking so much more accessible — even before the new iPhone puts iMovie in our palms.

In short, the 48 Hour crew comes to your town and runs a contest that gives you two days to complete a four- to seven-minute film from script to screen. Some of the films are surprisingly watchable and engaging in a DIY-meets-media-culture kind of way.

I’m a still photographer but I occasional dabble in film and video. Before it died under the weight of the digital avalanche, I used to subscribe to a magazine for 8mm filmmakers called “Small Film” (I think the German version still exists but I can’t find the link at the moment). It regularly featured filmmaking contests like “make a super 8 film with only in-camera cuts” or “make a film with a budget of $x.” They could have never run a contest that lasted only 48 hours though. It simply wouldn’t have been possible with a film-based work flow.

This style of personal filmmaking has been around in some form or another for a long time, but digital workflow has really allowed the emphasis to move away from the technology and its time-consuming limitations.

To a make a seven-minute film, on film, would probably require 300 to 500 hundred feet of 8mm film pre-edit at something like 65 cents per foot processed. Processing would take a week or two unless you were in L.A. with access to the last labs in the country that will do same day. The cameras, if you could still find them, would be at least as expensive (probably a lot more) as a current prosumer / light pro digital video camera. The biggest difference, at least in terms of time, would show up when you started cutting. If you started the weekend with processed film in hand chances are you’d still be cutting (and sniffing the glue) the following weekend.

It’s interesting to go back and look at films by artists like Joseph Cornell, who was shooting mostly on 16mm in the ’60s and ’70s, and see how much more amateurish they look than these 48 Hour films — at least in terms of technical appearance. The process and associated craft informed the look so much more than modern systems seem to with their machine-perfect reproduction, image stabilization, consistent color, and infinite-seeming depth of field from small sensors.

With more and more video being shot on DSLR I think we’ll see the visual quality of DIY filmmaking go up dramatically. Finally the amateur can afford a camera that will shoot HD with interchangeable big=aperture lenses that are figuratively and actually ready for prime time. Digitally captured films on a budget will finally be able to isolate on a subject the way only expensive 35mm film could before.

Naturally, you still need a story to tell if you want to make a film people will sit through, but it’s a very cool time to be a visual storyteller on a budget.

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