High-Def Digest takes a look at high-def production and the way it's helped independent companies like Waterfall Films launch professional productions with limited budgets.
by Michael S. Palmer
Popcorn pops. Lights dim. A screen illuminates. And the sound soars. No, friends, you aren’t at the multiplex. You’re at home, sinking into your favorite chair with family and friends. Perhaps there’s a projector, or maybe a shiny new LCD you just snagged at Best Buy.
Home theater in high definition, a modern wonder that nearly rivals the cinema experience, allowing you to devour high-def content from satellite, cable, downloads, and the current king of resolution kings: Blu-ray.
But have you ever wondered how all this high definition goodness ends up on your screens? Ever watched a terrible flick and said to yourself, I don’t know how to do it, but I could sure as blazes do better than THAT!
Many do. And thanks to emerging technology, the ability to tell a visual story is readily accessible. Yet, for some, a short film on YouTube isn’t enough. These ambitious folks
want need to make a *film* destined for the big screen and home theater.
And so begins our tale of two friends, Adam Selkowitz and Hector Hill. Actors by trade, living in Los Angeles, they wanted the same thing everyone in tinsel town wants: more control. Not for ego’s sake, but in order to create the kind of movies they passionately wanted to make. Their dreams lead to the creation of Waterfall Films in 2002, with Hill penning the company’s first script. Two full years of backbreaking work followed as they gathered just over $1 Million dollars to make 'Greener Mountains,' a charming family film about a young man who learns age old lessons about the importance of home and remaining true to one’s self.
An interesting side note: the two actors didn’t perform in their own movie. By this time, they were Producers. And for those who don’t understand all those mysterious “Produced By” credits up on the screen, don’t fret. Produceris a difficult job to categorize, because it’s all encompassing. Directors often get an author-like “Film by” credit for their work, and while that’s a topic worthy of debate, many times it’s simply not true. Producers are energetic, hardworking individuals who build movies from the ground up. One-part storyteller, in helping writers make their scripts work better. One-part salesman, in finding financing through Hollywood studios or independent means. And one-part general, as they're the ones who hire directors and along with that director, the cast and crew.
So Selkowitz and Hill have a million dollars. Gosh, that sounds great. Time to make your epic. Only in the feature film world, a million dollars, sadly, doesn’t go that far. For perspective, an hour-long (which is really only 44 minutes) prime time television drama can cost over $2 Million per episode, or direct-to-video sequels/remakes can cost anywhere from $3-5 Million each.
That leaves our first-time producers in a situation where they can make their dreams come true, but they need to be smart and economical with their funds. Which obviously leads to the question: shoot Greener Mountains in high definition video, or on traditional 16 or 35mm film?
Many think HD vs. Film is an easy choice. That HD is a vastly cheaper medium than film stock, which is misleading, says Selkowitz. It’s nothing grand like half-off, but the producers figured they eventually saved about 10% by choosing HD. This may not seem like a whole lot, but imagine being able to buy 10% more groceries every week for the same price. Further, the old independent film standby, 16mm, looks terrible on Blu-ray, thanks to grain that's twice the size of 35mm film, though newer film stocks are trying to fix this issue.
What was the deciding factor that landed Waterfall in the HD camp? Selkowitz did do a cost comparison, which showed potential for savings, but it wasn’t money. Well, not exactly. It was his experienced crew.
Not all DPs, or Directors of Photography, are created equal. And those less capable might more easily succumb to high definition’s limitations, such as “blown out” (overexposed) whites. Hill and Selkowitz found HD pros by attracting the talent of four time Emmy® Nominee Lee Shallat Chemel, who at the time was directing Fox’s 'Arrested Development,' which was already being made in HD. Chemel brought in her ace DP, Greg Harrington. Together, Chemel and Harrington convinced Waterfall that HD was the best choice.
The odd fact of course regarding the savings is that it’s not what you’re shooting on, or even literally what you are filming that is the most expensive commodity in filmmaking. It’s time. Every minute or day wasted in low budget movies comes right off the finished, final product. But with HD, recorded to tape, Waterfall Films was able to shoot an entire feature film in only 23 days. Compare that to the months typical Hollywood studio pictures take to complete. HD, Selkowitz says, allows you to be versatile (catch up, change directions) and even integrate different levels of HD with greater ease (such as a consumer HD camcorder).
'Greener Mountains' was shot with Sony’s F900 camera (now part of the CineAlta series) utilizing Panavision film lenses, which George Lucas used for 'Star Wars Episode II' (the first major motion picture to be shot 100% digitally), Robert Rodriguez used for 'Sin City,' and most recently, Michael Mann used for his period crime epic, 'Public Enemies.' Although the film is currently available only on standard definition DVD*, the results are impressive, with much of the credit going to DP Harrington who, with a loyal camera assistant in their own free time, captured various “insert shots” and material for the opening title sequence. There’s some marvelous early morning nature photography on display.
Much of the movie actually looks like film, rather than HD, which brought up an interesting conversation with Selkowitz. Since the rise of digital video/editing a decade ago, is it surprising that digital cinema, or high definition in general, is embraced not for its own intrinsic qualities, but rather its ability to emulate film? Think about it. Every “widescreen” YouTube short wants to be the next 'Pulp Fiction,' or 'Star Wars.' Add to this many televisions that can display 24P (which matches the 24 frames-per-second rate at which film runs through a projector).
The zenith of story telling aesthetics, at this time, remains that film look, which makes the work of directors like Michael Mann, who has shot HD for 'Collateral,' 'Miami Vice,' and 'Public Enemies,' stand alone. Mann’s movies are clearly video, which aesthetically may not work for some viewers because it doesn’t have that film feeling. With classics like 'The Wizard of Oz' approaching their 70th anniversaries, it’s no wonder the feeling of watching film is so ingrained in our culture and subconscious. The question remains, how much longer will this last?
As for 'Greener Mountains,' Selkowitz spoke of the need in the Indie world, when trying to obtain that elusive, coveted “theatrical distribution” (plays in movie theatres), to help any potential distributor feel like they have a film in their hands, regardless of the original medium. Otherwise, your movie is destined for the small screen.
Selkowitz is fully in the HD camp now (he’s open to film, but will most likely lean towards HD productions). In addition to on set bonuses, the postproduction process is streamlined in the always-digital pipeline, not to mention through color correction, the ability to achieve just about any desired aesthetic. Yet, despite its wonders, Selkowitz cautions first-timers of HD’s limitations. The key to taking advantage of this impressive technology is finding and listening to experts in the medium, as HD can be much less forgiving than film. For example, in trying to tweak one night scene, Selkowitz spoke of the challenge trying to bring out areas of the screen where the video camera had not recorded enough information (definition). In film, with its millions of grains versus the thousands of pixels in HD, it would have been easier to improve upon an image that appeared too light or dark.
Regardless of its challenges, the all-digital High Definition motion picture has been evolving over the last decade and is here to stay. Thanks to its inherent flexibility both in production, postproduction, and distribution, high-def is a key factor in allowing independent filmmakers to bring their cinematic dreams to both the large and small silver screens.
*(editor's Note - 'Greener Mountains' is currently only available to own on DVD, but be on the lookout for future HD broadcasts on StarzHD. A Blu-ray or HD digital download may eventually be in the works, depending on the domestic and foreign distributors wants/needs.)