Film, News & Commentary

Film: You say Dogme, I say Digital

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The world is unleashing an entirely new cinema – or if this Irish filmmaker may coin a term, an entirely Nuascannán.

While not exclusive to any one nationality it certainly owes a debt to Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, Danish Dogme and other diverse movements from the past century that shared an approach to filmmaking which is crystallising on the internet in our time.

Neorealism was borne of the Italian mid-1940s and illuminated a changing mentality in the post-war working class through movies shot on location with non-professional actors. The French New Wave were a group of filmmakers in the late ’50s and ’60s who despised grand literary period pieces of the day and made experimental films about social-cum-political issues, using portable equipment and sometimes bordering on documentary in terms of style.

Perhaps most recently  — and explicitly – the Dogme manifesto was heralded in the mid-1990s by a few Danish directors who actually went to the extreme of enumerating rules about filmmaking with a view to grounding balloon-budget cinema in the traditional values of story, acting and theme.

Every time a breath of fresh air occurred, a kind of backlash followed. This was not least because even the cheapest filmmaking remained expensive —  until very late in the last century one still had to buy film stock, rent a movie camera, procure lights and generally source vehicles and crew.

However, in the early years of this century a deep tectonic shift in the landscape of cinema truly began to occur  — a shift that might have commenced a few years prior in the form of the ‘Dogme’ movement but didn’t quite manage to do so, because that category was corralled on primitive standard definition videotape.

When the shift truly got underway a few years later it started to fundamentally alter not merely the fledgling filmmaker’s approach to shooting but also cutting, sound mixing and perhaps most significantly distribution.

I’m talking, of course, about the wholesale evolution from celluloid to digital and a spectacle that in some respects everyone has witnessed with perfect lucidity – like roughly 100 years earlier when people observed The arrival of a train at La Ciotat Station.

On a deeper level, however, it feels like some have not grasped the ramifications of what is happening.

I directed my first feature in the mid-1990s on Super 16mm film with heavy lights, generators and a fleet of vehicles carrying equipment, cast and crew. When the film went on general release around my native Ireland, it was blown up to 35mm reels like many an indie movie before it such as The Evil Dead, Leaving Las Vegas or The Snapper.

Yet having recently finished shooting my seventh feature, I can also state for the record that all my movies nowadays are shot and released 100% digitally. They can play on big screens which are predominantly digital screens anyway, yet be sent to any digital screen whatsoever and are created by switching on equipment that is equally digital to begin with.

Digital and increasingly small. Indeed  — when cine cameras get this small it also becomes possible for us to shrink dollies, cranes and even the aircraft that allow them rise above the grounded human perspective and contribute to a story feeling ‘cinematic’.

A movie production used to look like an invading army, but now more closely resembles Andy Warhol taking his famous Polaroids at cocktail parties. How many cinemagoers know that when Natalie Portman accepted her Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan she was receiving it for a film partly shot on a Canon DSLR?

When filmmakers become this inconspicuous, it’s easier for us to ‘steal’ our scenes rather than go through a bureaucratic process for permits, engage hundreds of extras or build entire sets. It changes who filmmakers are and what filmmaking is. A beautiful example is Escape from Tomorrow which told the story of an unemployed man’s surreal journey during a family vacation at the Walt Disney World Resort and was championed by Roger Ebert.

Mainstream cinema has certainly been suffering an identity crisis of late and had to ask itself difficult questions. Has everything been done? Will the future merely be truckloads of remakes or reboots or revisionism? Is there a stylistic difference, anymore, between the small screen and big screen? Not to mention the scariest question of all  — are people still willing to fork out money for movies when they are not physically sitting in a public cinema?

Indeed, this century’s technology doesn’t merely encourage us filmmakers to snaffle our movies in the creative sense, it also tempts viewers to steal them in a literal sense. DVD is declining a lot faster than VOD is growing  — that’s legal video streaming to the uninitiated. Does this mean people are watching less movies? On the contrary, it means that many people who watch films online don’t grace the VOD party at all, but head straight for the Bittorrent one.

In other words, share movies amongst themselves without paying a cent to the filmmaker. In Sweden, the crowd who run sharing site ‘The Pirate Bay’ have successfully registered the act of sharing as a religion and fight the law at every turn.

There is a terrible, creeping feeling within the world of movies that people just don’t pay to watch our work anymore. Which is precisely why cineplexes now seem to be orientated around young families – and why investment for films that don’t fall into that category is becoming even more difficult than it previously was. Ultimately, who can blame audiences and investors for staying away from their front doors when movies can be made and shared with such technical ease? What if those Scandinavian anarchists are right and it’s just not about money?

A backlash is gearing up, as I mentioned it did in the case of those previous waves, but this time it completely lacks force. We can’t stop the revolution. From the perspective of many old school producers, the last ten years have felt like their declining ones and increasingly the best case scenario for the future seems to be entities like Netflix which succeed in squeezing a relatively small  — and utterly flat  — subscription fee from audiences.

The price we used to pay for a couple of new releases in the video store now buys an entire month of movies without having to leave the couch. These kinds of flat-fee streaming services and traditional cable movie channels will soon become completely indistinguishable from one another and simply be competing for who can offer the lowest subscription fee.

HBO and Netflix have been generating very similar figures in terms of subscription revenue  — both easing towards $US5 billion annually  — and that’s why a lot of the movie world has appeared to bolt desperately under their tents. Recently, even Amazon have gotten in on the act and started producing their own drama.

Many believe this is fast becoming the only game in town  — digital companies that can still theoretically get millions of dollars out of people every month, spending millions on filmmaking  —  because Lord knows one can’t raise the necessary finance by distributing ‘feature presentations’ through cinemas or upon discs anymore.

Different on the surface, this isn’t very different underneath, just a diminished version of what once was: a room of executives still believe they control what goes into production and what does not. That is a falsehood. Filmmakers require no such approval anymore, can make the movies they want and distribute them on the internet just like any other title.

Indeed, movies not produced by those mainstream companies may have a distinct advantage, because while viewers seem increasingly tired of remunerating big productions there is no reason to assume this fatigue extends to Nuascannán.

If the media wants to support drama in the 21st century, it needs to report more from this new dimension.

[box]Main image: Graham Jones on the set of his first film How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate. [/box]

13 responses to “Film: You say Dogme, I say Digital

  1. It’s definitely too late to stop this, it’s the way it is. I don’t even know if netflix is going to succeed in the long run.

  2. And you know what’s gonna happen to the star system? Nothing. I totally agree the old movie system is pretty much dead and really the only thing making it work is that people still remember it and kinda try and emulate it, but of course the star system is not dead and that will allow them to make money, by creating the sense of desire. People are always gonna want those stars to look up to. True they can come from anywhere now and maybe that is what will drive it.

  3. Graham, it was very interesting to read your article. I teach screenwriting and I would like to ask you a question in relation to that. Do you think that the screenwriting industry is changing at the same pace? Will that be nuascannan too, or is it more or less the same, just indirectly affected by it? I find my students are very influenced by recent films and filmmakers, but always seem to end up approaching story in the same way. You really seem to feel the style of films will change too. To what extent do you think this will affect actually screenplays? Because no matter what era or genre, we seem wedded to certain basic fundamentals. Do you agree…

  4. That was a great read. I get excited just knowing that people are thinking this way. As much as I love the past it’s the future that gets me excited.

    I live near a local college with a TV & Film department. I’ve wondered about the term film when most students will never touch a canister, let alone film, in their careers, but to be that pedantic anyone producing digitally can’t use the term video either. Yet many students like to optimistically call themselves filmmakers, and in their insistence I see an aspiration for craft.

    The modes of production and distribution have changed but the desire to reflect the world back to the viewer as the Lumière brothers did is just as strong. The production side of the equation is getting easier all the time having spent most of the last 120 years getting harder and more complex. That should lighten the demand on the distribution side, especially as physical barriers disappear, but it’s actually getting harder. I think that’s because the concept of box office isn’t as confortable with progress.

    I don’t know how that element will catch up with everything else that’s changed in movie making but I’m sure it will. If I was to guess I’d say public appetite for quality will help it along eventually. Yes, anyone can pick up a camera now and produce content (including myself), but not everyone should (possibly including myself). A great many of them are content to work for free just to be seen.

    I think we may be closer to the conditions of the early industry than we realise. Before the advent of the studio system there was a similar proliferation of producers working independently, and it was the studios that began to coalesce this free-for-all and provide the public with standards they were willing to seek out and pay extra for. In creating their reputations the studios created their industry. Who knows what the modern equivalent will be, but Nuastiúideo is probably what Nuascannán is waiting for.

  5. yeah, digital looks good now – I used to hate it, but now it’s as good as film, i have been fooled many times and people who say they can’t be fooled are lying. it will surpass film and of course the delivery method being digital is practically free, at least compared to the price of film print

  6. If you edit your images, and take time in that, there are days where film or digital win or lose.

  7. I recommend to my students and clients to only ever considering making their film if they can sell it first. The notion of making a film and hoping to sell it at some film festival is nuts. It’s like anything – you must know who your audience is!

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