Major League Independents: Sundance 2012
Submitted by Michael Cioni on Tue, 2012-01-24 00:00
It is no secret that independent film is the greenhouse for digital cinema trend development. Anyone arguing otherwise has not experienced the petri dish of digital development that the independent community is responsible for. And as much as filmmakers communicate with each other, it is the independent community (a common place where film-to-film in-breeding can often occur) where the story of “what is your movie?” is just as important as “how did you make your movie?”
My first Sundance Film Festival was in 2001 where I began to explore the roots of digital cinema through the stories of independent filmmakers who managed to successfully create a feature without the use of film. Even at that time, less than one year out of college, the interest of myself and my close friends was as much for the tools that storytellers use as it was for the stories themselves. It was at this time that Sundance took a very unique position on the concept of digital cinema, which was in its absolute infancy 12 years ago, by opening up what they called the “Technology Center.” Many patrons of the festival have no doubt visited the Technology Center, but in the early 2000’s, it was the most concentrated place to experience the most up-to-date developments of digital cinema. This place was so inspiring at the time that I visited it every day of the festival. Sometimes with my friends, and sometimes by myself. I caught myself talking to Sony about the F900 they showed off, Apple who showed Final Cut Pro 2, XPri, DVD printers and duplicators, Zeiss Digi Primes and Rorke Data raids capable of playing back uncompressed media were all over the room and they all had a role to play in the cultivation of a dramatic digital future. But the most profound impact it had on me was when I came to the most liberating conclusion: the tools that were being developed for digital cinema were merely upgrades of the tools that my friends were already familiar with…
Could that be true? Could the gap between the independent and studio worlds really be closed by digital technology? Could it be that simple?
In an attempt to define the word “gap” I would say that it’s not digital tools themselves that enabled independent movies to be any less independent. The word “independent” to us didn’t mean it looked better or was better, it didn’t mean it was more or less likely to be bought or that was more likely to be profitable. The term “independent” to us and many other filmmakers simply meant “freedom.” Freedom from the typical boundaries that studio projects were essentially forced to impose. For us, it was the digitally-driven technological advantages that simply made the cost of acquiring a project attainable to a degree that the money required for shooting and finishing on film was avoided and therefore put to better use. All the while narrowing the gap between independent films and studio films without the reduction any of a filmmakers aspiration for freedom.
Sundance seemed to recognize digital cinema’s sizable potential. 10 years ago, festival director Jonathan Wells said:
“Sundance’s increasing attention to digital filmmaking is really a stamp of approval. It gives recognition to this movement as viable and real. People from all of the [Hollywood] studios are in Park City, and they can suddenly see that digital filmmaking is something more than an amateur movement, something more than people running around with DV cameras.”
Wells was right. And 10 years later it took people like him, early adopting companies like SONY and Apple and festivals like Sundance that supported both independent freedom and digital tools to prove it could be done.
Even though Sundance looks a lot different in 2012 than it did in 2001, I think a decade of developing attainable tools and educating the community has paid off, but the bulk of that work was built for and in many cases by the independent community. It was this community that believed they could, in fact, improve exponentially and unearth ways to ameliorate the look and sound of their projects so they could syphon dollars away from the expense of high fidelity image acquisition and relocate it to more valuable areas of the budget. After moving to Los Angeles in 2001, myself and a group of my close friends dedicated our full-time employment to the cultivation of a company that delivered a professional independent resource to the community. Over 150 independents later, our “digital version” of Sundance truly moved from an amateur movement to center stage.
Through this objective, 2012 marks a year in which Sundance has become essentially a nearly digitally-exclusive film festival with not only the near-elimination of all exhibition prints, but the near-elimination of all acquisition celluloid. While this doesn’t change the potential for films to be all that different from decades past, it does improve the possibility to showcase works that without digital, may never have made it to center stage in the first place. This is true with 2 films that we had a hand in making that are being showcased at Sundance 2012. ”Goats,” directed by Chris Neil and photographed on the Arri Alexa by Wyatt Troll and “I Am Not A Hipster,” directed by Destin Cretton, photographed on RED MX by Brett Pawlak and produced by Ron Najor (one of my 2001 Sundance Tech Center friends) are the modern-day benefactors of a decade of digital cinema maturity.
That cinema maturity can partially be measured by how these films are made, which is where the notion of becoming a “master of the craft” is evolving. In the past, it was typical for post production infrastructures to offer a unique and often specialized “independent” pipeline that was designed to enable independent films opportunities to share access to talent and tools that were previously reserved for studio-driven projects. Only as the years went on, I find it has become the studio-driven projects that now share access to the tools and talent that were initially designed for independents. This “technological serendipity” is where I base one of my more popular theories of market development called “Evolving Creative Democratization.” In an ECD model, it is a bottom-up culmination of technological development that takes advantage of disruptive technologies and matures over 3-5 years until they are eventually adapted by studio-driven projects and ultimately become workflows, pipelines and even the standards for making any project. Nevermind the budget, the project origins or the intended destination. After this bottom-up approach reaches the apex of the motion picture community, new advancements from the top then work their way back down to the independent, further fueling the cycle.
Major league independents like Goats and Hipster are perfect examples of the ECD model in that they represent a process of filmmaking that is no longer unique (or limited) to an independent film. For example, Goats was shot on the Arri Alexa using the ProRes capture mode on SONY SxS cards. ProRes is a format that was never initially designed to be used for acquisition, rather a simpler alternative to uncompressed mastering and moving data at the same quality of an uncompressed signal at a fraction of the size. Initially controlled by Apple and for use on Final Cut Pro machines, ProRes was a massive leap for independents to move and use data with the look of uncompressed HD and the performance of DV25 video. With the release of the Arri Alexa, this model was essentially turned upside-down and ProRes became the point of capture for an estimated 90% of digitally acquired dramatic television shows in 2011. The result for a film like Goats is that the workflows pioneered by independents for nearly a decade paved the way for compressed high fidelity RGB capture and led to its use as a new capture medium. The workflow for a small independent film like Goats was cured by professional network television enabling an independent to take advantage of higher end professional development dollars and, thus, capitalizing on it. When people watch Goats on the big screen at Sundance, they are, in effect, simply watching a Quicktime movie. On paper, for people that use the most common independent creative editorial tool, Final Cut Pro, this workflow is something everyone on the production can not only get behind, but more importantly, can understand.
Similarly, Hipster is a project that represents an even more powerful ECD model in which a production with few resources is able to shoot in future-proof 4K files which almost certainly out-performs the resolution potential of the movie had it been shot on film. The workflow of Hipster used ProRes files only as offline media, then relinked back to the original 4K source and was color corrected to look like it was filtered using the iPhone application “Hipstamatic.” This process used the same color science, resolution and even toolsets that we regularly use on Hollywood’s biggest films. The workflow of Hipster basically is a mirror image of the workflow we used on 2010’s “The Social Network.” From camera to creative and technical processes, there is essentially no technical difference between TSN, Muppets or Haywire and Hipster, and Hipster spared no expense achieving the same fidelity and mobility as one of Sony’s largest films last year. For the smartest independent filmmakers, we find that mastery of the technology simply enables them to get the technology out of the way. Independents that seek or are enticed to uncover a unique or specialized workflow often leave something on the table. So I suggest to independents who understand these tools to avoid temptations of implementing an alternative pipeline when “the alternative” might not be “the ideal.”
For people attending Sundance, Goats is a fantastic film. It appears just about as professional as an independent movie can get (if there is such a thing). If it came off any more professional, I’m convinced people would assume it was studio-backed. With a leader like Chris and a film as well shot and told as it is, Goats is the ideal representation of using the technology to work for you instead of letting technology get ahold of you. In contrast, I Am Not A Hipster is literally as independent as it gets. It is clear that this film is made by a group truly creative friends that simply put together a story and photographed it with a camera on their shoulder. Examining these particular two titles is a testament to the difference of creative style and divergent stories. But under the hood, these films represent the brightest of futures for what digital cinema offers. For some films, it’s not about shooting something better, faster or cheaper. For some films, it’s about being able to do it at all.
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