LET'S GET DIGITAL
AND IF YOU CAN'T DO IT WELL, JUST DO IT BADLY, 'CAUSE IT WILL BE BETTER NEXT TIME
by Jude Rawlins

Derek Jarman considered his Super 8 work as central to his filmmaking. Were he alive today I think he would find the creative freedom and other possibilities of digital filmmaking irresistible.


No disrespect to Quentin Tarantino, but his purist attachment to celluloid is tiring. Donít get me wrong, I love 35mm, I love 70mm, I love 16mm, and I really really love 8mm. But we donít have to work with them. They are no longer the only choice. If I can save huge amounts of time and money, and make my life and the lives of everyone who works with me and cares about me easier, then it is my civic duty to try.

We had this debate in the music world already. When I started out in the 80s, you needed big studios, budgets, and reels and reels of tape. And Ampex 456 tape was so expensive that youíd have to re-use it once a project was mixed, thus losing your multitrack forever. Or you could stash it away in a tin or a box somewhere, if you could afford to, where it would gradually degrade to the point of needing to be baked in an oven just so it could be played. The machines were expensive, and you needed a degree in engineering just to calibrate them. But we did it, we did it all, because we wanted to make the art, we wanted to create the work.

Digital recording technology went through about a decade of evolution before I was ready to take it seriously. The truth is that 16bit recording didnít sound great, CDs manufactured in the 80s were terrible by modern standards, and there was a certain magic and mystery to vinyl, which indeed there still is. But just as I believe Caravaggio and William Blake would have embraced acrylic paint if it had existed in their times, and probably Photoshop too, so the advent of 24bit recording changed the game. No longer did we have to work for hours in the studio just so that things didnít sound terrible. Indeed, finally I could use vintage and even cheap nasty microphones I had collected over the years, because in the digital domain they all have a character and thus they all have a use. The sheer reliability of knowing that as soon as I hit ďrecordĒ on the multitrack the sound I can hear in my headphones is the sound that Iím going to be capturing means that all I need to worry about is whether or not that sound is close enough to the one in my imagination. If it is, Iím flying. 

I hear endless comments from musicians who think that the ďwarmthĒ of analogue tape is essential to the recording process. This is, quite frankly, nuts. That ďwarmthĒ is actually distortion, because everything else in the studio, from the old AKG mics to the valve compressors to the spring reverbs and the tape delays are the same as they ever were, if thatís what you like. Only now you can record them in a way that actually shows what they can do, and at a fraction of the cost and effort of analogue recording. And the truth is that whether you work in digital or analogue or a happy medium of both, you still canít polish a turd.

In my move into filmmaking I have discovered the same is true. I have some spectacular old lenses, Zeiss primes from the 1940s, an original 1960 Schacht Travenar macro zoom, a 1970s Hanimex 28mm. And on Ebay, for two dollars I was able to buy an adapter so that I could mount them all on a Canon DSLR. And with the Magic Lantern firmware, which is free, I am able to frame the shot for the cinematic aspect ratio, 2.35:1. Everything I ever learned about photography on my old Praktica SLR still applies, and every neat little trick I learned with those lenses from the age of nine still applies. The only difference is now I donít have to find money and wait three days for my 24 or 36 exposures to come back until I know if I actually got the picture I wanted. Now I know instantly if I need to try again or if I can move on to the next shot. 

You know those PCs that the gamer kids build for themselves for a couple of hundred pounds? Those things are so high spec that they can do almost anything. For another couple of hundred you can buy a Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera (it doesn't have to be a Canon, but those seem to be the filmmakers DSLR of choice, and with firmware like Magic Lantern and Technicolor Cinestyle its easy to understand why). And for $2 you can open that camera up to the possibilities of every M42 lens ever made. You can download Lightworks for free and learn how to edit, you can download Davinci Resolve for free and learn how to grade. You can even download Open DCP or DCP builder for free. You can burn DVDs, you can make BluRay discs, you can upload to YouTube or Vimeo, you can save your MP4 on to a data stick and watch it on a huge HDTV with the cat on your lap. You can join FilmFreeway and submit your work to festivals. You can even get Final Draft or Celtx or Microsoft Word and learn how to write a screenplay. You can buy a handheld WAV recorder for £75 for your location sound, or for £200 you can buy a Zoom R16 with eight channels of live recording, including two superb studio quality ambient mics built in. AudioTechnica lavalier mics cost about £20 each. You can chain two R16s together via a USB cable, giving you 16 tracks of live 24bit solid state lossless latency-free recording (more than the set of Star Wars) and 16 of overdubs without even the need for a computer, and even JJ Abrams hasn't figured that out yet. You can learn about sound on the job. All you need is the desire to do it and the willingness to put it to good use. And if you have a really good idea stuck in your head, its easier to do it than not to do it.

Years ago, when it was my very great privilege to do a couple of small jobs for Derek Jarman, I learned that despite being one of the great British filmmakers of his generation, he never stopped shooting Super 8 movies. And the 8mm films that he made werenít just home movies, he considered them central to his art, in some ways more personally significant than the feature films he had to fight tooth and nail to make. It makes me sad that when he died in 1994 the real digital filmmaking revolution had not yet arrived. I am sure he would have loved it and embraced it completely.

So, is digital better? Well, its faster, cheaper and more reliable. And while I donít think that Citizen Kane would or could look any better in 4K than it does in 35mm, I am sure that if Orson Welles had had the choice in 1940 he would have seriously considered it. And as for the delivery of the goods to the audience, I remember when we all thought VHS was the coolest thing in the world, because now we could finally see stuff that weíd only read about because the only cinema within twenty miles only showed mainstream movies. On television, occasionally BBC2 and later Channel 4 would strive to show something interesting or slightly risky, thank heavens they did because it was a cultural desert out there in the suburbs. Now I only have to think of something and I can probably find it on YouTube, or at a stretch order the DVD from Amazon, meaning the most work Iíll have to do is open the door when the mail comes. So I would have to say that yes, on balance, all things being equal, digital has improved our lives considerably, both as artists and audiences. John Cassavetes would have loved this.

For me the downside of the digital revolution is the prevalence of utterly banal crap that seems to get produced. But I am not talking about no-budget filmmaking, I am talking about mainstream Hollywood movies. How many damned superhero movies do we need? Frankly, the only thing Iíve seen of them that I even found entertaining was that kid who made a YouTube video of what AntMan would have been like if Werner Herzog had made it.

In fact, in the case of Hollywood, I would make the argument that digital has caused a serious decline in production values. In their golden years, from 1940 to 1960, Hollywood knew everything there was to know about spectacle. But when European cinema introduced a new level of intellectual realism into the artform, that game was over pretty quickly. The best of Hollywood that followed in the late 60s and 70s came from the younger generation of filmmakers who had taken on the influence of European cinema. The result was some of the best and most daring movies the big studios would ever produce, wherein the storytelling chops of Hitchcock met the edginess of Godard. Now we live in a post-Star Wars blockbuster age, where Hollywood depends on creative accounting and the rest of the industry on opening weekend returns. So movies only have to be candy now, they only have to make you feel good for a minute, long enough to pay the price of admission. They no longer have to be art, and art they most certainly are not.

Clement Greenburg once said, and I agree with him, that art is not cultural journalism, we ask nothing of it except that it be good. Even the mere craft itself is suffering; CGI may mean that the creation of eye-popping special effects is limited only by the imaginations of those creating them, but the use of them has become like the syntax of a badly written story. The whole point of special effects is to make the unreal seem real. To make the implausible plausible. As such it is a mere extension of the unwritten contract between audience and filmmaker; the audience wants to be able to suspend their disbelief, in fact this is what they are paying their money for. The filmmaker needs them to suspend disbelief so that he or she can then lead them on the journey unencumbered by the limitations of reality. We know that people canít really beam up and down from spaceships, but when we watch an episode of Star Trek we accept wholeheartedly that in the internal logic of Star Trek, they can. We donít question it. It becomes a fact. A reality. And thatís all it needs to be. The spectacular glow around the actors on the transporter pad of the Starship Enterprise is not a factor in the suspension of disbelief, its just a piece of candy with which the audience is rewarded for accepting the internal reality of the show. A good special effect puts you in a mental state where you have no choice but to accept the reality of what you are witnessing. Thatís why the best special effect in history was the floating pen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. All Kubrick did was stick a pen to a sheet of glass and move it around in front of the camera, but it really looked like it was floating weightlessly in space, and the result was that you had to accept that the action was taking place in space. He does this early on in the film, and from that moment forward you donít even bother to question the reality of the movie, he has you just where he wants you, and you go willingly. With that simple effect, in our imaginations we are in space. Spielberg commented that no 3D Imax experience filmed in space from the Space Shuttle ever took his imagination into space as completely as seeing 2001. And with that I close my case, that high productions values in low brow productions are completely meaningless, whereas true creativity has every right to find expression, and if that expression can be found satisfyingly well with the kind of kit that we can all lay our hands on these days, then why not?

Iíll never understand purists. Why make art if you can spoil it for everyone else? Thatís not a world that interests me. Yes, I love 35mm. Yes, I love Ampex 456. But if you told me that I had to use those and nothing else to make my work I would consider that nothing short of a complete pain in the ass. I made my first movie on Mini DV with a slow computer. I made my second movie in HD with a fast computer. I like the first one fine, but I wish Iíd had the fast computer and the HD when I made it. It would have been better. But to have made either of them on film with the budgets I had would have been impossible, and even if Iíd had the money, the processing, the time, the razors, the glueÖ I think Iíd actually take the Mini DV and the slow computer over that any day.

PS...

There's nothing wrong with the standard digital 16:9 aspect ratio, in fact I rather like it. I remastered my first film into 16:9 and my new film is entirely presented in 16:9. And these cameras can shoot up to sixty frames per second easily. However, I have noticed that shooting 24 frames per second, although technically lower quality than that which is available, and presenting films in 2.35:1 does make a significant difference in how the audience engages with the film. I can only surmise that this has something to do with how we are used to experiencing movies. 24fps gives a certain motion blur which has become synonymous with cinema, and 2.35:1 takes our minds out of television and sits us down in the proverbial theatre. I would argue therefore that the "film look" that we so covet has nothing to do with "grain" and "noise" and other such analogue irritants, but in fact is a cultural phenomena to do with the mechanics of film reproduction. And as for projection, or whatever format in which the audience will experience the final movie, at least digital formats are consistent. And there are probably more people watching DVDs and MPEGs on their laptops with cheap headphones than there are butts on seats in cinemas today. But as long as they are still enjoying movies, well, isn't that really the whole point?