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Big changes for small films

Digital revolution comes to independents

"Urbania" was the first indie to be shot entirely on inexpensive 'super 16' film then transferred to digital for post production before being re-constituted on 35 millimeter film for release  

In this story:

Greater control


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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- George Lucas has wrapped principal photography on "Star Wars: Episode II" and now is in the elaborate post-production phase. The movie, slated for release in the summer of 2002, has been filmed entirely without film -- recorded digitally to help ease the computer-generated special effects into practically every frame of the finished product.

Even with digital help, the latest "Star Wars" installment will require the best of mainframes at Sprocket Systems and Industrial Light and Magic. They'll whirring for months to complete the effects.

This is the common image of the future of digital film: starships and dinosaurs and budgets of galactic size, special-effects blockbusters that have been changed forever by this latest wave of technology. But the changes don't stop there.

The little movie, the independent film, may be even more profoundly affected by digital techniques than the big-budget flicks.

Greater control

"Urbania," a very-low-budget film from first-time director Jon Shear, may better illustrate the long-term effects of the digital revolution than Lucas' starry epic. Shear's independent effort was the first to be shot entirely on inexpensive Super 16 film, then transferred in its entirety to the digital domain for post-production. After that, it was reconstituted on 35-millimeter film for release.

The Coen Brothers shot principal photography on film for
The Coen Brothers shot principal photography on film for "O Brother Where Art Thou" but are going entirely digital in the post production process  

Even his post-production house told him he was crazy to do it that way, says Shear -- until he explained his goals: He wanted to construct a film in which images danced in and out of reality. He also wanted total control of his film's light, color saturation and color.

"We were able to sit here and basically go through every frame and decide what we want to do with color," says Shear. "That's an opportunity that most people don't get, and as a filmmaker or someone who wants to communicate something, that's a wonderful opportunity."

It's also a heavy task. Directing is an art form that carries immense responsibilities, often with little control to carry out those duties.

"You don't control the weather, you don't control whether your actors know their lines -- although all our actors did," says Shear. "You don't control the labs. Everything gets out of your control."

Yet Shear was able to manage more control when he went digital.

"In a technical world where you have so little control, we had as much as you possibly can," he says.


The price for controlling every shade and shadow, every color and tinge in every frame of film? According to reports, "Urbania" was shot in four months for less than $300,000, a sum that also paid for the participation of one of the leading special-effects houses, Cinesite.

Because of the low cost of digital filmmaking, director Lars Von Trier was able to use 100 cameras on a single shot in
Because of the low cost of digital filmmaking, director Lars Von Trier was able to use 100 cameras on a single shot in "Dancer in the Dark"  

"If we can do it ... with our constraints, then anybody can," he says. Many are. The Coen brothers used a similar technique with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- shooting with film, but going entirely digital in post-production. That technique created an almost hand-tinted look like postcards from the 1930s, Roger Deakins, the film's director of photography, tells this month's American Cinematographer magazine.

Digital techniques achieve other looks, too.

Alfred Hitchcock, for example, tried to make a film that looked like one continual take, the 1948 thriller "Rope." It took Mike Figgis and four synchronized digital cameras to accomplish the feat this year with "Timecode."

"Dancer in the Dark," a low-budget independent released recently, contains a scene that gave filmmaker Lars von Trier more technical power than Cecil B. DeMille possessed when he filmed the "Ten Commandments" (1925). Using inexpensive digital cameras, von Trier shot a fantasy dance sequence on a moving train from 100 points of view, using 100 cameras.

So give the little guys their due. When "Star Wars: Episode II" arrives in the summer of 2002, it will no doubt be filled with eye-popping effects. When "Jurassic Park III" presents another stampede of dinosaurs, it will unquestionably be awe-inspiring cinema.

But the digital revolution also has reached the hinterlands of independent, low-budget production. It, too, will never be the same.

Review: Dancer in the Dark' deserves an audience
September 21, 2000
Computer technology: That's entertainment, 2000
December 31, 1999
On screen in Austin: Your future as a filmmaker
October 13, 1999

Star Wars
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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