Filmmaking

Digital Damnocracy: Part 1

Getting paid. That’s what it’s all about. You want to get paid for the work you do and in this business you can only make as much as you work. Then you hear those dreaded words, “…but we’re working on a really low budget.” And so it begins. Another gig where the producers want the world for peanuts. Wait. Let me start at the beginning.

I received a call from a producer saying she was looking for someone to shoot some host stand ups for a show she was producing. Then she backtracked and said they weren’t actually for broadcast. It was just a test. The Executive Producer didn’t think they were necessary and didn’t want to do them, but the producer wanted to prove him wrong. Huh? I’ve never heard of that before. If the EP doesn’t want something, that usually means you don’t do it. She describes the set up for me: two hosts, seven pages of dialogue on a teleprompter, in front of a white backdrop and oh by the way, “Do you have a boom?”. Uh oh. As she’s explaining all this to me I keep waiting for the hammer to drop. I’m doing the math in my head as she talks. I own enough gear to light and shoot the talent, but will probably have to rent a couple lights for the backdrop. I’ll also need to rent the teleprompter. She asked if I have a boom which, wait, oh christ, they don’t have enough to pay for an audio mixer. I see where this is going. Then she says, “…but we’re working on a really low budget.” Boom.

Panasonic_AG-DVX100

This is a trend that has become cliche. First, let me give you a little history. When the Panasonic DVX100 debuted in 2002 it changed everything. Although still standard definition, this easy to use, small Prosumer Camcorder shot 24p (24 frames per second to mimic the “film look”). And it was cheap. This gave rise to higher quality “looking” productions for much less than before. It was a small, powerful camera that, used properly, could render very pleasing images. Gone was the live TV video look. Even though it still used a small sensor and lens that had the typical video camera deep depth of focus, there was something more cinematic about it. The price point also meant that everyone had one. Good for the indie filmmaker. Yet, for the technical professionals it was both good and bad. Not immediately, but it was a harbinger of doom. Owning one of these cameras plus support gear wasn’t cost prohibitive which meant you could charge a smaller rental price and day rate. This resulted in more work. More work is good. Right? At first. Let me explain.

DigibetaSP

Before this camera came out we were in this weird video Twilight Zone. Low budget filmmaking meant you actually had to shoot on film. Video cameras were mainly used for non-narrative television productions (save for certain TV sitcoms.) During this time I worked as a Producer for E! Entertainment TV and a Writer/Producer for G4 TV. When we needed to shoot something we hired a 2 man crew that showed up with a van full of gear that usually cost anywhere from $1,800 to $2,200 for a 10 hour day (plus meal penalties and overtime.) This got you a DP and an audio mixer plus their equipment. The camera was usually a Sony Digibeta tape camera. The reason for the cost was because the camera plus lens plus battery power alone put the price of ownership north of $30,000. Not so consumer friendly. The audio equipment also came in above $10,000. You also needed skilled operators to use the gear properly.

Me and Joesh

When the DVX100 arrived, it gave rise to a secondary market of shallow depth of field lens systems. P+S Technik was one of the first companies to create a spinning ground glass 35mm adapter system that mounted to the lens of the camera.

ps_technik_mini35hvx

You could then mount 35mm photo and film lenses to this system and voila! Instant shallow depth of field. 24p combined with shallow depth of field meant you had a very film-like image. Now everybody and their mother could go out and make music videos, TV pilots, short and feature length films on a much lower budget than ever before. The democratization of technology was a boon to filmmakers and equipment manufacturers.

In 2008, Vincent LaForet made a musical tone poem called Reverie which was the first widely available short film shot in HD on the Canon 5D Mark II. This is the turning point in the story. Now, for the same price as the DVX100 just 6 years prior, one could shoot high quality 1080p High Definition images. Granted at first it only recorded in 30p, but in 2010 Canon released an update to the firmware that allowed 24p. Sayonara standard def. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

With this the secondary market of 35mm adapters disappeared and a whole new secondary market emerged. The Canon 5D is a still camera. Telling stories with still images is much, much different than telling stories with moving images. Moving images require much more support equipment in the field to get the job done. Necessity is the mother of all capitalism in this business. Once again, the democratization of technology is a boon to filmmakers and equipment manufacturers.

Yet, what happens when the technology becomes very affordable and readily available? What’s the old saying? Let the market decide. Back to my example.

“…But we’re working on a really low budget.” In my head I’ve figured I would have to rent a small teleprompter from Samy’s Camera or Calumet Photo. The audio gear plus extra lights were things I could probably rent cheaply from colleagues. I don’t like to borrow gear from friends. It just doesn’t seem right to borrow something for free so I can make money. So I’m thinking I’m in for another $200 in rental costs on top of whatever this producer says is what they have in their budget. So then she hits me with it. “We only have $750 for this including anything you would need to rent.” Excuse me? The usual reaction inside my head is, “Well then you can’t afford to do this period.” So let me see. $750 minus $200 is $550. What about all of my equipment? Let’s just say that $550 for what is likely going to require half a day of pre-production (phone calls and equipment pick ups) and a 12 hour shoot day (travel time, load in, set up, shoot, break down, load out) plus ALL of my gear means I’m going out of pocket for this shoot. So it’s the same conundrum many in this field face. Sit at home and do nothing or take the job and hope it leads to more work down the road. Here’s the rub: do you really want more work from people that are going to low ball you? At some point things like this reach critical mass and you have to make a decision. I know some shooters that will pass on jobs and sit at home collecting unemployment rather than take such low paying gigs.

Back to the producer. I tell her I have to make a few calls and can I get back to her in a few hours. So as I check with my contacts tracking down the required extra gear I’ll need I can’t help but go back and forth on whether I should even take this gig or not. Will this job be a learning experience? Most likely not. I’ve done these plenty of times before. I also don’t get the feeling this is the kind of situation that would actually lead to future work and if it did, it would probably be the same scenario over and over.

So I call the producer back a couple of hours later and before I can even give her my answer she tells me thanks, but they’ve already found somebody to do the job. Maybe next time. Um, not likely. So what happened? Did something change in those two hours? Did the shoot actually get cancelled or did they really find somebody else who had all of that equipment and had no problem doing it for $750? Let’s put this in perspective. To do this job you will be the only crew member. You alone will load and unload your gear. You will set up and light the shoot. You will act as camera operator. You will act as audio mixer. You will act as teleprompter operator (while camera operating). You will then break down and load out. Alone. The one man band. You will also rent and pick up all of the extra equipment. You will rent your own gear to the shoot and you will pay yourself. Three jobs usually done by three people now done by one. All of this for $750.

Digital Damnocracy. What on the surface looks like a win win actually puts downward pressure on cost and value of services rendered. So what was my answer to the producer going to be? Would I say yes and contribute to declining valuation put on skill, experience and the expense of equipment ownership? Or would I stand for something and kindly pass on the job? I guess we’ll never know.

Color Me Brand

A lot of my friends have heard me rant about the use of orange and teal in so many movies these days. There’s even a great breakdown of this trend by filmmaker Todd Miro here. Hell, I’m guilty of it. Quite often I’ve been in a situation where I have about 5 minutes to light a scene or an interview and I fall back on warming up the skin tones, use teal for a back light and splash some blue onto the background. I’m not working on feature films though, where they have the time to establish a unique look suited to the mood, atmosphere and style of the movie. Yeah, teal and orange are complimentary colors on the color wheel and it is pleasing to the eye…until you notice it everywhere!

Teal and Orange

A look at some movie posters gives you an idea of how unoriginal this concept is.

Orange and teal movie posters

Why is this being done? Is it a lack of originality? Is it laziness? Is it that in Hollywood is terrified of risk? Francis Ford Coppola once said, “What the studios want now is “risk-free” films but with any sort of art you have to take risks. Not taking risks in art is like not having sex and then expecting there to be children.” The business model of Hollywood feature films has changed. Gone are the days of screenwriters pitching projects to studios and making three picture deals with their own vanity production offices on the lot. Today, BRANDING is king. That’s why there seems to be an endless supply of “properties” to rebootremake or re-imagine. Swap out the screenwriters with the Marketing Department. With this you get “product” instead of storytelling. Since all products need to be sold to the public why not dig into the old bag of tricks? We have this property and want to make a movie out of it. Cut to: Battleship. Great! What does the poster look like?

battleship

Awesome.

So what is the future of studio filmmaking if Brand Marketing continues to be the driving force behind the stories that are told? Making movies based on existing works is nothing new, but at what point will they make movies based on existing properties only? This is the conflict between Filmmakers and Studio Marketing departments. Both want to make movies, but from different directions. Artists look for the conflict and struggle to create drama that leads to an organic story well told, enjoyed and appreciated (and rewarded) by audiences. Studio marketing departments just want to sell you the latest trend in storytelling. It’s Joseph Campbell in reverse. What’s in store for filmgoers in the near future? More of the same. Here’s a list of the top 50 Most Popular films planned for release in 2015. Notice anything familiar? I hope you like sequels. And reboots. And more crap you’ve seen over and over. And over.

No matter what critics say, mainstream moviegoers continue to hand over their cash to see big spectacle painted orange and teal packed full of the same old story lines, on the nose dialogue and 10 minute destruction porn action scenes that are so CGI fake that by the end of the movie you’re so numb you need a drink to bring yourself off the ledge.

Do I have an answer? Not yet, but the search continues…

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