Images moving freely • 25 February 2008 • The SnowBlog
Images moving freely
So, in my head at least, it's officially the Era of Digital Video. You may think that arrived a while back, but I'm talking about quality good enough to show in a cinema. That movie, Collateral, the one with Tom Cruise riding round in a cab shooting people, was shot largely on HD video, not film. And lately I've been chomping down books on cinematography and editing and, best of all so far, cheap ways to make cool-looking movies. I'm sure it's a sad indictment either on the state of my brain or of the world of fiction, but the funniest thing I've read for ages has been a book about super-low-budget film-making. The book comes with a DVD which includes a little short about a struggling artist who pays his way by working as a hit man. At one point, he upsets the wrong people and outside his window a military-style helicopter descends into view, opens up with its cannons and destroys his apartment. We see the whole thing, despite the fact that there never was a helicopter and nothing got destroyed - except for some fake-glass bottles, which were the most expensive aspect of the scene since they cost over a hundred dollars.
You need a decent video camera and some lenses, so we're still talking several thousand dollars. You could do with a few lights, and you'll need a decent computer and the right software to go with it. So I'm sure you could spend ten thousand dollars getting your kit together. But you could make short movies that look darn good, and they could contain Hollywood-quality CG effects if you're prepared to acquire the skills and put the hours in. Less noticeably, all the other things that Hollywood does to film - like deepening the shadows and adding in a hint of blue, and tweaking the highlights and adding in a little orange, can be done on a fast home computer. Once the shots are in the camera, everything after that point can take place on computer, right up to creating a final master copy of your movie - or just turning it straight into a fully-featured DVD ready for mass production.
It's interesting to think about what this will mean for those of us whose relationship to movies is as consumers and fans, not auteurs. Because if it's a theoretically possibility to make a good looking short for ten thousand dollars, then it's a definite probability that you could make a good-looking movie for half a million pounds of grant money. It would require some creative re-engineering of the film-making process to take advantage of the cost-savings on offer, but it's just the sort of development that could re-vivify the British film industry. Or perhaps the British TV industry. And at the bottom end, it will let all sorts of people experiment with visual storytelling - and while crazy people with cameras are unlikely to produce anything commercially popular, they're bound to generate amazing ideas and inspiration for more mainstream outfits (which is ever the way).
While it's important to put storytelling first, we are at a moment in history where it's worth momentarily putting the technology in the driving seat and thinking about how cheaply one could achieve unimpeachable production values. I'd love to see some public-minded organisation fund a couple of million-pound movies which took a hundred million each worldwide - with the profits plowed back into movie-making. And I'm sure I can't be the only writer who'd enjoy the challenge of writing a dramatically powerful script that just-so-happened to achieve its gorgeously shot thrills-and-spills on a shoestring.