On Saturday I was in LA speaking at the Directors Guild of America, opening their annual "Digital Day" with a talk about the declining share of blockbusters in much of media and entertainment (Hollywood being a glaring, but perhaps not lasting, exception). Aside from showing a bunch of low-res web video to make the amazing 4k and 3D video that came later in the day look all the better, my main function was to scare the crap out of them with YouTube statistics. 100 million streams a day for flash animations, Apple ad spoofs and other three minute fare from an army of amateurs...and probably not a DGA member among them.
But the really cool thing was the panel discussion that followed me. Tony Bill (Flyboys, Untamed Heart), Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious), David Fincher (Fight Club), Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) and Brad Silberling (Lemony Snicket) spoke about "How choosing to work in digital affects the directorial process".
The answer: a lot. "I think shooting in digital changes acting as much as film changed stage acting, or as sound changed film," said Bill.
Why? Because film costs a lot and must be used sparingly, while digital tape is practically free. The difference between the scarcity economics of film and the abundance economics of digital is, as Bill put it, "the difference between pointing a loaded gun at someone and a toy gun. You point a loaded gun at them and they're going to act different. A film camera is a loaded gun. Digital is not."
He explained further what he learned shooting Flyboys with the Panavision Genesis. "The old model of acting is that the rehearsal is great and then things change when you say "rolling"--usually for the worse. Now there's no film in the camera. You can shoot everything. So there's no rehearsal. Or perhaps it's all rehearsal. Either way, it's far more natural."
Actors freeze up when they know that there's a cost to failure--a thousand-foot magazine of film costs $1,200 between film and developing. Said Bill: "That slight whirring noise of film running through the camera is the sound of money. And it gets in the way of being real."
I've had to unlearn saying "action" and "cut". I think shooting in digital makes every actor better. You're always in rehearsal and never in performance. There's no "start". It allows for serendipity. Rather than reach an emotional moment and then having to recreate it later with the film running, you capture everything.
Even better, the director doesn't have to make all the important decisions up front. They can apply "makeup" in post production. Rather than build the perfect period-piece set, they can shoot in the real world and age it afterward. For one movie set in the 1970s, one of the panelists said, "We shot on real streets and then spent a half-million dollars erasing Starbucks from every fucking shot."
But there are some downsides to digital, too. For one thing, because it costs far less to do additional takes, directors are prone to making their actors do it again and again--asking for 40 takes rather than 20. Bill described Robert Downey Jr. leaving little jars of urine around his chair because the director wasn't letting him go to the bathroom. "I'm exhausted," Downey complained. Who can blame him?
Another downside: At super high resolution, "you can now see how bad extras are," noted Fincher. Reviewing some recent rushes, he noticed that two extras, crisp and clear in the background, "are supposed to be talking to each other, but nobody's listening. They're both talking at the same time!"
Finally, a note about the photo at the top of this post. It's a shot I took of Doug Trumbull, the legendary visual effects pioneer who did 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He's narrating a slide show of shots from the 2001 set, but he isn't actually at the podium. Instead, he appeared via hologram (he was actually at Siggraph in Boston). The picture doesn't do it justice, but up close it was amazing.