Ever wondered about the impact of digital cinema? We caught up digital film lecturer and Exeter filmmaker Ben Sherriff who is wading into a hands-on PhD in the subject of digital film and technology
To accompany his doctorate, Ben’s writing his Cinema Digital blog, which ‘will offer knowledge about digital technology for other filmmakers, digital cinematographers, editors and producers’.
What do you mean by Cinema Digital?
Well it’s a bit of a loaded inversion of the term Digital Cinema -in the context of my blog it is really there to frame the posts with a term that speaks of ‘the technology and the use of that technology for creating’. I have inverted the term putting cinema first because I believe that today digital technology is more a part of cinema rather than a type of it. There have also been shifts in the way in which we as audiences engage with film and the term is also used to provoke thought about the meaning of the very word cinema today. Do we refer to the experience of sitting collectively in a darkened theatre or are we meaning the endless other ways as well in which people experience film?
Digital Cinema emphasises the word digital too much, filmmakers have been using digital technologies now for many years and importantly doing so alongside those purely mechanical photographic elements. Many things that are now done through digital technologies have been done before in other ways. I attended a presentation by Tom Sayers a sound editor on Slumdog Millionaire who won a Bafta and was nominated for an Academy Award for Sound Design on the film. The film is a good example of my argument -it was low budget (for Hollywood) at around £10 million, it was shot on an S1 2K Digital Cinema Camera, edited in a digital NLE and the audio was produced in 5.1 stereo surround using a Pro Tools suite. It was released in the cinema as a 35mm print. Audiences (the market forces in cinema) do not watch the film thinking that is a great piece of digital cinema -they watch it thinking ‘what an excellent piece of cinema’. The same can be said for those who watch the film at home on DVD with their own 5.1 surround sound systems, they can also appreciate that it is a well-crafted piece of cinema.
The question for filmmakers is how to attract people into the cinema. Cinema is a commodity -an industry, but how do filmmakers ensure that audiences will go and watch their work in the cinema and avoid the ‘straight to DVD’ label.
How has ‘the digital revolution’ affected filmmaking?
Twenty years ago to have an edit suite, a camera, sound and lighting kit would have required tens of thousands of pounds of capitol to invest. That is simply no longer the case -you could buy an off-the-shelf setup for around £5,000 if you bought wisely. Then we also have to consider that the possibilities for distribution and gaining exposure are far more widespread because of the increase in broadband speeds and the arrival of social networking and HD video hosting sites such as Vimeo.
The arrival of HD has really changed everything -it sort of poses questions for terms like ‘professional image quality’ and ‘broadcast quality’ since many broadcasters are using technology that is available off-the-shelf for less than £10,000. For example, shoot with an EX1 and edit on a Macbook Pro and you could essentially deliver high-definition ‘broadcastable’ colour-safe footage to any major broadcaster. Now things are changing constantly -the arrival of DSLR ‘cinemaphotography’ style cameras means that we can shoot images that are closer to the aesthetic of 35mm.
What are the downsides for filmmakers?
There is a danger that one can be obsessed with the elusive ‘film look’. I mean there is a reason why we like the shallow Depth of Field look -it is part of the language of the cinema. I guess the challenge is to make that shallow blurry background look like a part of the overall language system rather than the chief communicator of meaning. Technology and aesthetics are intertwined and in many ways always have been -but the most creative filmmakers in the past have always worked past the limitations of the technology. When FW Murnau made Sunrise in 1927 nobody else had ever thought of tracking a dolly along a ceiling -but he had a goal, a vision, he worked through the limitations. So the danger is to rely on look alone.
Explain Digitial Fluidity?
That’s a difficult question! It’s a term that I’ve put forward as part of my PhD thesis and to be honest it could mean a number of things -I’ll be spending the next three years deciding for sure! I think the term is incredibly valuable as it speaks to different contexts. In the broadest sense it seeks to suggest that the relationship between technology and the moving image production sector (so cinema, television, new media, web content etc), is a fluid one.
The term I hope can help us to understand where cinema fits today. Preproduction, production, post production, distribution and exhibition all utilise digital technologies and this enables a fluid exchange between all the stages of production -it sort of vertically integrates the process meaning that a filmmaker or moving image content producer can control all aspects of the production end to end. Digital technology is at the centre of that.
We can also think of the term as relating to the interface between the cinema and new media -whereby a fluid exchange helps each art move forward. This happens on various levels -the relationship is fuelling an exponential increase in the quality of technology (especially cameras), new media draws from the cinema in both technology, aesthetic, content and style -since audiences already understand the language system. To make this point clearer -think about the fact that we can now storyboard a film on the move on the iphone! This is a further point of contention but highlights exactly the shift between different media platforms. A film could be viewed in the cinema -but it could also be viewed on a phone, the artist now achieves multiple points of contact with the spectator.
What do you see as the challenge for filmmakers now and how will that change in the future?
To explore and push the creative possibilities of cinema, the challenge is to make something new, something that really hasn’t been done before -and to make technology invisible. It’s impossible to say how it will change in the future, but in my opinion the arrival of DSLR shooting and full frame 35mm at an indie price point will change the face of cinema forever.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Well just to say that if you are interested in the DSLR technology and shooting with it effectively then please keep in touch with my Cinema Digital blog, where I will be sharing my experiences and research over the coming few years. And also big up to the Devon and Cornwall Film gang for a superb site!
Ben Sherriff, many thanks.
What’s your take on cinema in the digital age? Comments below, please
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