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April 26, 1999

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April 26, 2000

Dr. Terry Cronin, digital filmmaker
Dr. Terry Cronin of Melbourne Beach uses a Canon XL1 in his digital filmmaking. Image copyright 2000, Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY.

Filmmakers adopt digital video

Elegant editing, portable cameras entice directors

By Chris Kridler

A digital revolution is giving filmmakers the power to travel light - and the rest of us the power to be filmmakers.

With the advent of relatively inexpensive digital video cameras and home-computer-based editing systems, indie directors with a lot of ambition and a little money can develop movies their predecessors could barely dream about.

"The Blair Witch Project" set the standard for cheap success with its digitally edited mixture of film and Hi8 (high-quality 8mm) video. Now directors as big-time as Spike Lee and Mike Figgis are getting into the act as the technology matures.

"The digital filmmaking for me kind of came as a sideline to my career as a filmmaker," Maxie Collier, 31, said from Los Angeles. His www.dvfilmmaker.com is dedicated to the art.

Now that he's producing and directing a documentary on hip-hop that will take him and his crew across the country, "I couldn't even imagine doing it in film."

Where a conventional film costs hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to shoot and process, some independent feature films are coming in for $100,000 or less. Though the look of video is different - and not as rich, some say - it offers a high-quality alternative.

Digital also is giving hobbyists the chance to edit their movies, using simple software, such as iMovie, which comes with Apple Macintosh DV computers ($1,500 for the high-end iMac DV); and programs such as Adobe Premiere (about $550) and Final Cut Pro (about $1,000). Another option is a $2,000 Canopus DVRex-M1 system, which includes hardware and software for capturing and editing video.

The computer costs extra.

"I'm using a Windows-based PC, and it actually has a very large hard drive so I can put a lot of information into the hard drive," said Dr. Terry Cronin of Melbourne Beach, a member of the Space Coast Filmmakers and a partner in 3 Boys Productions. "Video takes a lot of memory."

With an 18-gigabyte hard drive, he can store about 30 minutes of video at a time. That's usually fine, since Cronin, a dermatologist, makes short films to show in local and regional festivals. He imports the footage to his computer with Canopus and edits the film with Media Studio Pro.

He once shot a 15-minute movie, "Under the Bridge," on 16mm film. "It cost about $1,400 to make that," he said. "That's pretty prohibitive. That's outrageous. You can't expect to make a giant movie unless you really have a lot of money."

Having shot movies since he was a kid, Cronin wanted a way to do it more cheaply. "Film is very, very expensive," he said. "I started investigating more and more the DV technology."

He invested in a Canon XL1, a high-end "prosumer" (professional consumer) video camera that uses miniDV tapes and has interchangeable lenses.

"An hour tape costs about $15," he said. Once you have the equipment, "your price for a movie goes way down, and it looks really nice."

To transfer videotape to 35mm film - to enter it in a film festival, for instance - you might pay about $1,900 for a five-minute movie. But a filmmaker still saves tremendously by shooting on video in the first place.

Digital isn't likely to supplant film anytime soon, said Steve Wallen, director of the film and video department at Florida Metropolitan University in Melbourne.

"I kind of look at film, where you've got your 16 and 35 (mm)," he said, "and those cameras haven't changed since they were invented at the turn of the century."

"Not all digital is created equal," he added. Though the DV standard was conceived by a consortium of 10 companies, variations exist. Among them are Sony's DVCAM and Panasonic's DVCPRO. And Sony has created Digital 8 camcorders that can record digital video onto 8mm tapes.

Easy editing

"I think it's got a lot of potential," Wallen said. "And I like the fact that you can compose things in more of a traditional movie format, a widescreen format (with some cameras). I like the fact that you can go right from the camera into the computer."

An advantage in editing digital video is that with a high-speed connection - referred to as IEEE-1394, i.LINK or FireWire cable - the signal can be transmitted to a computer without a loss in quality, then exported back to the camera or to another device.

Another advantage is that video can be edited in a nonlinear fashion - clips can be dubbed to the computer, saved and rearranged without a lot of tedious rewinding and fast-forwarding. Transitions and titles can be added easily, and soundtracks can be manipulated.

Terry Cronin films his son
Dr. Terry Cronin films son Daniel, 2. Image copyright 2000, Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY.

With film, you slice and put the pieces back together. "Now I can just do it by moving my mouse or different keys," Wallen said.

At the college, his students use Media 100 xr, which - with its own hardware and the computers it runs on - amounts to a $50,000 system.

FMU student Robert Mutchler, 26, of Indialantic edits video more inexpensively at home. He uses a PC running Windows NT with a Perception Video Recorder - essentially two cards, one that allows input from the camera, another that allows output of the footage. He edits with Adobe Premiere and adds effects and animation with Adobe After Effects and LightWave 3D.

"I've always liked special-effects films, and I always wanted to get more involved," he said. He wants to be an editor, and his classes at FMU, along with the contacts he's made there, have allowed him to gain invaluable experience.

Though he says his system is "obsolete" now, "I can still do some good stuff, some really killer stuff with what I have."

In other words, it's not just about how new the equipment is. "If someone wants to start doing something like this, it's best to go to school," Mutchler said.

Versatile art

Collier and his crew are finding digital camcorders invaluable in making "Paper Chasers," their documentary about hip-hop entrepreneurship.

This spring, they'll take a recreational vehicle to Houston, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, New Jersey and New York. "We're driving across the country, interviewing hip-hop entrepreneurs in music, fashion, print," said Collier, who grew up in Columbia, Md.

The filmmakers will be subjects in the movie, too. They'll use a variety of digital video cameras and supplement the footage with a digital camera that can take a few seconds of video, for diary entries and Web-site content. The RV will also have wireless Internet so they can post images to the Web as they go.

Collier sees no clash between film and digital video. If he has the chance to interview big names for his project, he wants to do it on film.

"It's all about expanding our resources, rather than seeing it as some sort of conflict," he said.

Meanwhile, we can look for more digital filmmaking on the big screen. George Lucas is shooting the next "Star Wars" film digitally. Spike Lee just shot a digital movie set in the world of TV sitcoms called "Bamboozled."

Perhaps most radical is Mike Figgis' "Time Code," which uses digital video cameras to follow four characters in real time, their stories appearing simultaneously on the screen. It comes out in May.

Thanks to the accessibility of digital moviemaking, the next Lucas or Lee or Figgis might come out of your own neighborhood.

"I see the digital as a big thing out there for a lot of people," FMU's Wallen said. "Certainly more for the masses, now, it's going to be easy to take digital video and input it."

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