How Digital Killed Film Making

“That’s a wrap!” Don’t be fooled by this classic phrase even if your actors and crew have already popped open the champagne and lit their cigars. You might well have shot all of your scenes, but if, like most people, you’re shooting on digital, it’s highly likely you’ll be back on set before you’ve even started an offline edit.

Setting up the mic

Processing Digital

In this era of digital film making, we are no longer bound by the linear process of pre-production – shoot – post production. All three elements swap around, mix up and constantly aid each other as a film is being made, at least in my experience.

Here’s a detailed outline of my workflow for Coffee in Winter:

  1. Write story
  2. Sort out logistical stuff
  3. Shoot, shoot and shoot some more

That should be longer, but after a change of heart I decided to change the story half way through production. This meant going back to step 1 and reshooting to accommodate the changes.

Now I did have to take into account the availability of my crew, actors and locations (and understand that everyone will now realise they’re working for a royal pain in the a**). But because the equipment is cheap enough to own outright, in theory I could have kept on shooting to my hearts content.

And even when I’d shot something exactly as planned, if I got back to the edit suite and thought ‘that shot is a little shaky’ or ‘the focus is slightly soft’ it would have been easy enough to organise and shoot the scene again. In fact, I know some productions that have been stuck in the 1, 2, 3 loop for over two years.

When is enough, enough?

The easiness of shooting digital becomes a challenge in itself. In a previous guest post, Roy Rezaäli talked about the benefits of shooting on super 8mm. He emphasised the beauty in the uncertainty of not knowing what you’ve shot until the film is processed. The limit of 2:30 per role of film plus the cost means you need to be conservative in how you shoot on celluloid and accept that life isn’t perfect.

super 8mm

When I shoot though, there is very little uncertainty in the image and sound I am recording. And even if there was, I can play back both on set without a problem. All this allows me to make the judgement of whether we shoot one more take or stick with what we have. Very rarely am I surprised by what I watch back in the edit suite once all the footage is captured.

Bare in mind that my edit suite is a small laptop, and capturing footage is actually just me copying files from a small CF card to my hard drive. If I wanted to, it’s wholly possible to edit on the fly whilst on set. In comparison, there was a time when you couldn’t even digitise your footage, and the process of cutting actually needed a pair of scissors.

The advent of the ‘undo’ button has also allowed us to tinker endlessly without any repercussions. The thing is, while the advances in technology have created a playground for film makers to go crazy, it can become detrimental to a production if a director doesn’t know when to call it a day (or week or month for that matter). We’re essentially allowed to continually mess with things until they’re perfect – but what is perfect?

The Day Digital Killed Film Making?

Let me just say, if it wasn’t for digital, Black Country Cinema’s films would look very, very different. The ability to continually record without worrying about running out of stock is the reason our films can be observational. So what’s the problem?

When it comes to performances in front of the camera, I’m a 100% believer in spontaneity and ‘being in the moment’. When it comes to the composition and technical quality; lighting, framing, microphone placement etc, I’m way less free spirited. It’s quite possibly unhealthy.

For instance, the original final scene of Coffee in Winter just wasn’t doing it for me. It didn’t have the emotional impact I wanted. Easy! I reorganised a shoot and changed it to a different location, with different compositions, dialogue etc. One thing I do know from reviews and audience responses; the end definitely has an emotional impact. But I can’t help but feel as if I was cheating the ‘artist’ in me.

Conclusion

If I had to pay for film stock and processing, would I have reshot? Probably not as my budget was incredibly low. I would have had to make do and find a solution in the edit. Even down to little things like deciding to add a few static location shots 3 months into the edit, would I have bothered if I was shooting on celluloid? Luckily I had my trusty 5D handy to shoot more than 20 shots which I later narrowed down to 4. That’s a terrible shooting ratio by film standards.

To a certain extent it’s about adapting to the technology we’re have available, and yes, I reshoot because I can and not because I necessarily need to. But the question I am finding myself asking is How much of the cinematic process is lost in producing a film in this manner?

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Manjeet S. Gill

About 

Film maker and writer for the Black Country Cinema collective. My work often revolves around Asians living in contemporary Britain. Main influences include Ozu, Koreeda and Hou.

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