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Alex Ross Perry on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

L to R; Alex Ross Perry and DP Sean Price Williams on the set of Queen of Earth – shooting film.

In the continuing debate between film vs. digital, director Alex Ross Perry, and his superbly gifted DP Sean Price Williams weigh in on why shooting on film gives you an undefinable edge over the rest of the field – provided, of course, that your film has some actual content. As Perry notes in an op-ed piece in Indiewire, in part:

“It is quite simple and affordable to shoot a movie of almost any budget on actual, honest to god celluloid. Perhaps I’m not the best authority on the subject; I have never actually shot a film on a digital format. Queen of Earth is my fourth film; the first, Impolex, was made in 2008 with a $15,000 budget and shot on Fuji 16mm film. So ever since then I’ve been getting asked, and really earnestly explaining in the hopes that my words mean something: how?

Impolex was shot in seven days. I think we bought 40 rolls of film. However many it was, the total was something like $2,500 and processing was another $3,000 or so. We got the Aaton camera for free because my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, worked for the late great Albert Maysles and the company had all this older equipment just sitting around that nobody used or cared about. This is an important thing to remember when planning to shoot on film: practically nobody else wants that equipment so if you can’t get it for free, you should be able to get it for basically nothing.

The same cannot be said for whatever new Red camera is in high demand – if you won’t pay $500 a day for it, somebody else will. For a 16mm camera, I’d be surprised if anybody paid $500 for a whole week. So if you are making a small independent film with a shoot of about two weeks, the film stock, camera package and processing could be as low as five to six thousand dollars . . .

The numbers we landed on for shooting film on Queen of Earth were partially borrowed from producer Joe Swanberg’s identical production budget and model for his own Super 16mm film Happy Christmas . . . we bought $11,000 worth of Kodak Super 16mm and then paid close to $15,000 to develop and scan it.

Our camera and lighting package was about $10,000 but you’d absolutely be paying the same if renting a fancy pants HD camera and also you have to buy a bunch of hard drives and have some person on set whose sole job is to move stuff off of memory cards or whatever and deal with the footage all day.

That’s a whole extra mouth to feed, bed to rent, seat in the van, and so on. It adds up and the ultimate difference between film and digital on a production of this size isn’t 5:1. It’s probably more like 4:3 when you factor in all the nonsense you are paying for regardless.

Color correction will cost the same. Once the footage is scanned and edited, it doesn’t matter what the origin was, except now you aren’t paying some tech nerd in a post house several thousand dollars to press buttons and adjust knobs in order to retroactively add an visual aesthetic to your movie that realistically, you could have just spent the same amount of money on set and had that texture and experience be genuine instead of inauthentic.

Generally people really don’t seem to connect with that process, and it doesn’t matter if you shot on old converted 35mm lenses either.

The eye won’t connect with digital trickery the same way it will with tried and true imperfect film grain. It may look great and interesting in its own way, as many filmmakers have proven starting, for me, with Zodiac, but at these budget levels, you essentially are saving a little money on the format and then spending it later on somebody who works on your movie for like three days and probably gets paid more than most of the crew who woke up at seven am and worked for twelve hours.

My point is that shooting on film is like anything: if it is of importance you will find a way to make it happen. Nobody will know that you were able to buy an extra two days of filming by shooting on an Alexa but they will know if you are the rare independent film that was shot on actual film. You definitely will have to make a compromise or two but what you get in return is an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic that will do more in carrying the audience to whatever place you want them to be than just about anything else money can buy.”

An interesting take; you can read the entire piece by clicking here.

It Can Wait – No Post Is Worth A Life

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Here’s a really powerful commercial from AT&T on the dangers of texting and driving.

I don’t usually comment on commercials, but this one is really powerful – with a minimal voiceover from actor Forest Whitaker, “two cars collide in a horrific crash when one swerves into the other lane. The scene reverses and you see a mom posting an update while she drives. Just before she crashes, she looks back to tell her daughter everyone loves the picture she posted of her. AT&T wants you to know that looking at your phone can wait. No post is worth a life.”

Absolutely true – and a really compelling reminder not to text, or post, and drive.

Marvel vs. DC – The Social Media Battle

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Talkwalker describes the social media battle between DC and Marvel as “a friendly rivalry” – but really, it’s a battle to the death.

As Julie Hong writes, “A friendly rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics has spawned since the 1930s, originating from comic books and then flourishing onto the big screens and video games. With more than 20 movie adaptations planned in the next 4 years, superhero movies are bound to break box office numbers, and social media records. While we must reckon that comparing Marvel and DC worlds is like comparing Coca-Cola and Pepsi – it’s a matter of taste – we can however determine who is catching the attention on the social web this summer in regards to figures and stats.

Using Talkwalker’s social media analytics platform, let’s see who wins each round in terms of social media trends, share of voice, hashtag analysis, sentiment, and engagement on Facebook and Twitter.” Hong then takes the various Marvel and DC films through a variety of social barometers, with Marvel sometimes winning, and DC sometimes coming out on top, but in the end – surprise – Marvel wins, mostly because they have a much deeper bench of characters than DC, and they’re clearly more adept at playing the social media game, and have been, long before Twitter, Facebook and the like were invented, and the only fan feedback was the “letters to the editor” column.

Hong concludes, “Our 8-round battle concludes to Marvel winning over DC on social media in terms of general conversations about comic books, volume of brand and hashtag mentions online, buzz originating from its cinematic universe, and Twitter activity. Winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Superheroes fans, the floor is yours. Let us know who wins your heart @Talkwalker! This analysis was conducted using Talkwalker, a social listening and social media analytics platform that monitors and analyses online conversations on social networks, news websites, blogs, forums and more, in over 187 languages.”

So check it out – even if comic book films aren’t your main interest, this is fascinating material.

Video Games: The Romantic Apocalypse

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

There’s a new video game out that deals with the end of the world – in a very different fashion.

As Keith Stuart notes in The Guardian, “It’s been three years since The Chinese Room, a tiny studio currently working out of a modest office building in Brighton, started work on . Back then, co-founder Dan Pinchbeck had the idea of creating a game about the end of the world, but from a very different perspective than titles like Fallout and Last of Us, with their grand visions of ruined American cities. Influenced by science fiction writers John Wyndham and John Christopher, he and his team became interested in the idea of what Brian Aldiss once called the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – a resolutely British idea of the apocalypse, containing very little violence or explosive trauma, experienced by small communities rather than mass populations.

‘We talked about it, and we said, well, what is the important thing about the end of the world?’ says Pinchbeck. ‘It’s not about cities being consumed in fire. Take the movie 2012 – the whole of California vanishes and you don’t feel a thing, it’s just ridiculous. The apocalypse is about people, and the connections between them. What’s really touching is parents waiting for their kids to come home – and what they’re worried about is that the buses aren’t running, not that the world is ending. It’s the little moments that get you.’

The game presents a fictitious Shropshire village named Yaughton which is rendered in quite staggering physical detail, using Crytek’s Cryengine technology. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, then, takes place in a small valley in Shropshire in the summer of 1984. Viewed from the first-person perspective, the player is simply dropped at the outskirts of the village, with no instructions and no idea about what’s happened. From here, you are free to explore the environment, investigating empty houses, shops and barns, looking for clues. There are notes to read, radio recordings to listen to and computer screens to study. The first thing you interact with is a Commodore 64, its flickering monitor showing weird footage and repeating some sort of code, like a numbers station.

It is, in some ways, a natural evolution of the sub-genre that Chinese Room helped found with its debut game Dear Esther, a hugely atmospheric mystery set on a remote Hebridean island. The style came to prominence in 2013 with the title Gone Home, about a woman returning to her family home and finding it deserted. Often termed ‘notgames’ or ‘walking simulators’, these narrative adventures eschew familiar ludic elements like fighting and level progression, instead providing a single location and a set of environmental clues with which to uncover the story.

The genre has proved weirdly controversial, prompting angry dismissals from some gamers, who even question whether titles like Gone Home and Dear Esther are games at all. The Chinese Room team aren’t worried. ‘There’s a long tradition in games, of sections where not much happens. I think the best part of the whole Dead Space trilogy is the return to the Ishimura where you spend 45 minutes just thinking: “OK, when’s it going to happen?” That’s the scariest part.’”

You can read much more on the end of the world – and the end of people – in Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s recent book Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers and The Culture of the Apocalypse; a fascinating look at the whole concept of de-peopled spaces, and how it’s so hard for us to imagine a world without us – something that will someday surely happen. Foster’s book, and this game, both share a common concept; the visualization of a world in which human agency no longer exists.

Sounds like a refreshing change from the usual video mayhem; read the whole article here.

A Bad Day For Traditional Media

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Traditional media stocks are taking a beating today, as consumers move away from television for the web.

As Cecile Daurat reports on the Bloomberg News website, “Walt Disney Co.’s darkened outlook dragged down media stocks from Time Warner Inc. to 21st Century Fox Inc. and CBS Corp.

Disney, which through Tuesday had been the top-performing stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year with a record of stellar sales and profit, surprised investors by posting lower-than-estimated quarterly revenue and cutting its forecast for cable-television profit.

Disney’s shares slumped as much as 10 percent — the most since August 2011 — after the results, while Fox and CBS Corp., which both report earnings after the close, dropped more than 5 percent. Time Warner and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., the owner of Food Network and HGTV, also fell even though they beat second-quarter earnings predictions. Overall, the Bloomberg U.S. Media Index had its biggest intraday decline in almost four years.

‘Investors are definitely reading across the Disney earnings and extrapolating it to the broader media sector,’ said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Disney is facing two challenges of it own: fewer subscribers at cable networks such as ESPN, its biggest business, and foreign exchange losses from the strong dollar that are hurting both cable TV and international theme parks.

But the concerns over ESPN’s growth and comments on affiliate revenue from pay-TV providers, which Disney now expects to fall short of previous forecasts, may be a gauge for other media companies.

Both Time Warner and Fox are doubling down on exclusive live sports programming to demand higher fees for their channels from pay-TV distributors. And those higher fees have helped them fuel earnings growth in recent quarters. Investors will get an update on Fox and CBS, which has also pushed into sports programming, when the companies post results.

Time Warner’s decision to keep its full-year profit forecast after second-quarter earnings per share beat analysts’ predictions by a wide margin also weighed on the stock Wednesday. Maintaining the guidance suggested estimates for the second half may be too high, Sweeney said. Shares of the New York-based owner of HBO were down 7 percent to $81.49 at 12:55 p.m. in New York.

Discovery, which dropped 9.5 percent to $29.74, posted results that fell short of sales and earnings estimates Wednesday. The cable-TV company still increased its outlook for annual earnings-per-share growth, excluding foreign exchanges.

Cable-TV stocks like Scripps and Viacom Inc. suffered after Disney cut its forecast for cable profit. For fiscal 2013 to 2016, the entertainment giant had promised profit growth in the high-single-digit range. Now, with just five quarters to go, the company expects a mid-single-digit gain for the division over that time frame.”

This is sort of a late wake-up call to something that has been building for a long time; look at the frame grabbed chart at the top (click here, on the image above, to see a Bloomberg video on this whole topic, with some really sharp analysis). Netflix is going through the roof with subscribers, while traditional media – i.e. television and cable – is essentially flatlining.

This has been coming for a long time, and it’s sort of a seismic shock to the system for all involved, but Netflix is really taking over the whole viewing sphere, allowing people to see whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, and also to cut free of the “bundling” that cable systems force on customers, paying for what really want and nothing else.

This is just the first shot in a new system of distribution that has been building for quite a while; I’m really surprised it has taken traditional media this long to notice that frankly, they’re in long term trouble. There’s no way this trend is turning around, and what happens next is -as far as I can see- that Netflix gets bigger and bigger, and traditional media becomes less and less relevant to millennials.

We’ll have to see what happens next.

The AP Video Archive is Now on YouTube

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

The Associated Press puts up 17,000 hours of news film and videotape on YouTube – click here to see!

As Todd Spangler reported in Variety on July 22, 2015, “The Associated Press is uploading more than 550,000 video clips to YouTube — covering news events dating back to 1895 — which the news org said will be the largest collection of archival news content on the Google-owned platform to date.

AP, together with newsreel archive provider British Movietone, will deliver more than 1 million minutes of digitized film footage to YouTube. The goal: to provide high-profile, searchable repositories that let documentary filmmakers, historians and others find news footage, and to promote licensing deals for rights to use the video.

The archival footage includes major world events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Celeb footage includes Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modeling fashions of the 1960s, as well as segments on Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Brigitte Bardot and Elvis Presley.

The content is available on two YouTube channels: AP Archive and British Movietone, whose collection spans from 1895 to 1986. Last year, U.K. newsreel archive company British Pathé uploaded its entire 100-year library of 85,000 historic films in HD to YouTube, comprising some 3,500 hours of footage.

Much of the material AP is putting on YouTube is already searchable and available to preview on aparchive.com. Alwyn Lindsey, AP’s director of international archive, said putting the content on the world’s biggest Internet-video platform will increase the exposure of the collection. ‘We found documentary filmmakers tend to start their searches for footage on YouTube, and this gives them a route back to AP,’ Lindsey said.

‘The AP Archive footage, combined with the British Movietone collection, creates an incredible visual journey of the people and events that have shaped our history,’ Lindsey said. ‘At AP we are always astonished at the sheer breadth of footage that we have access to, and the upload to YouTube means that, for the first time, the public can enjoy some of the oldest and most remarkable moments in history.’”

An amazing event, which could only happen in the digital era!

Francesca Catalano – A Brilliant New Director of Cinematography

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Francesa Catalano is a new talent to watch – literally!

Yesterday, at the suggestion of Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, I viewed Luca Boni and Marco Ristori’s low budget horror film, Reich of the Dead (2015), shot in Italy on a minimal budget with English speaking actors – including Andrew Harwood Mills, Dan van Husen, Aaron Stielstra, Ally McClelland -  which would be just another program picture were it not for Francesca Catalano’s absolutely superb CinemaScope cinematography, using a RED Scarlet digital camera to achieve some really astonishingly subtle effects.

From what I can gather, this is her first film as a full-fledged DP, although she has worked in second unit and assistant capacities on a number of films. But on the evidence of her work here, she is clearly a major talent, and someone who is ready to step up to fulltime DP work on a major project. Someone smart will grab her soon – she’s got a style all her own, which uses a good deal of available light, and deeply saturated color, and makes this very minor film well worth watching – sort of like one of Val Lewton’s Gothic thrillers from the 1940s.

In particular, her style of cinematography embraces the principles of tenebrism, which as Wikipedia notes,  “is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The technique was developed to add drama to an image through a spotlight effect, and was popular during the Baroque period of painting.”

I wrote her to ask for her thoughts, and she responded, in part: “Thanks so much for your note. I really love [the painter] Caravaggio, and I think everyone who wants to be a DP should know or have seen once in their life some of his great work. You’re right, the movie is done with a very low budget and just a few lights, which is the reason that I tried to use natural light as much as possible, to bring out the colors of the location itself, and enhance the costumes.”

Catalano’s work is really one of a kind – as I told her, it is reminiscent of Caravaggio, but also recalls the work of the great Italian DP Mario Bava in its atmospheric and restrained sense of mood and atmosphere – in short, the vision of a true original, who has obviously studied painting seriously, and instinctively understands how to use light and shadow to create a really remarkable series of images on a very limited budget.

American DPs often approach their work as if it’s just another assignment, and expect most of the color grading to be done in post-production, but here, working with minimal resources, Catalano shows how much can be done on the set, using the qualities of the scene itself, and taking real risks with her compositions, to achieve something really extraordinary.

All in all, Catalano has the sensibility of a true artist.

Behind The Scenes – San Andreas Without Special Effects

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Click here, or above, to see some great “raw” footage from the disaster film San Andreas, courtesy of Sploid.

The tagline on this video is how “ridiculous” San Andreas looks without the finished special effects work, but I think that’s completely off the mark. Just a casual look at this video – with intensive under water work, harnesses pulling stunt performers into the air, gigantic crowd scenes, helicopter stunts and the like, demonstrates once again that movie making is brutally hard work – something that most people simply don’t understand.

You want to experience a really tough work environment? Then crew on a feature film. Every day, day after day, you have to get up, create complex set pieces, haul tons of equipment from place to place, deal with meal penalties, overtime, safety regulations which are more than necessary, all in the service of creating a series of images that will pass by fleetingly on the screen, and then be forgotten. With the typical crew for a film such as this in the hundreds simply during physical production, and a great deal of genuine risk involved, this is nothing to fool around with.

The movie “is what it is,” in one of my least favorite phrases – it’s a big budget disaster movie directed by Brad Peyton, whose other credits include the “aggressively unambitious” Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), which I actually suffered through on Pay Per View in a hotel in California, appropriately enough – and the whole enterprise is designed to do precisely one thing: make money.

But despite that, there’s a considerable amount of craftsmanship that went into the final film, and this video will give you a glimpse of that. Really, it’s a remake of Mark Robson’s 1974 film Earthquake, and in every way an improvement on the original. The special effects are better, and while The Rock is certainly no Sir Laurence Olivier, he doesn’t pretend to be – he’s an action star, and proud of it.

It really isn’t so easy to shoot such an ambitious spectacle – try it sometime, and see for yourself.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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