A Shift in Perception? High Definition, Digital Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Cinema By Oscar Hillerström

in 53rd Sydney Film Festival

by Oscar Hillerström

Pannelled by cinematographer Ian Jones (DOP on Cannes sensation Ten Canoes), cinematographer and editor Ray Argall and film critic and FIPRESCI jury member Oscar Hillerström, the discussion began on the technical aspects of shooting with the new digital technology and ended with a frank perspective on the digital dissemination of films in the near future.

The end result – the techniques of bringing film to screen may change over time, and their semiotics may vary, but ultimately, it is the story and quality of storytelling that are paramount; the communal gathering is still an integral part of the cinematic experience, a hopeful factor for independent filmmakers as the physical costs of distribution are set to fall, and cracks open up in the dominance of US filmmaking.

Ray Argill kicked off proceedings by outlining the current status of digital techniques and how they affected the process of filmmaking, such as speeding up editing times, perhaps not always to beneficial effect. Ian Jones went on to outline the differing artistic merits and the shifts in technology (and available expertise) and the changes in the relative short time between his work on Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker and Ten Canoes. The speed of innovation was so great, that leasing, rather than buying a camera, was seen as the only sensible alternative. The new ‘off the plans’ frenzy for the Red 1 camera, a ‘magic box’ with the ability to take any kind of lens, was seen as the future of digital equipment.

The author went on to describe the semiotics of digital film, linking the quality of modern digital film with the quality of World War 2 documentary, citing the Dogme movement and Australia’s recent horror success, Wolf Creek, as examples of how the language of digital film is now an integral and easily recognisable part of the film landscape: an artistic choice for film makers, rather than just a budgetary one, with certain nuances only available when the film is seen as digital in origin. More specifically, the idea of “reality” used for dramatic and artistic purposes, subtly altering the audience’s viewpoint of a film through the medium used to convey it. Docudramas and mockumentaries obvious beneficiaries of this new language of cinema.

That said, the cinematographers pointed out the digital film processes whereby the resulting filmic quality is indistinguishable from celluloid – a boon for the extremely low budget film maker attempting to replicate traditional filmic qualities.

The floor was then opened to questions and several pertinent points came out, including the phasing out of people able to say, develop black and white negatives, and the increasing expertise in new techniques and equipment requiring cinematographers like Argill and Jones to become masters of adaptation.

The need for younger filmmakers to come to grips with new technology, whilst first mastering the skills required in traditional film production was also pointed out. The analogy of Picasso’s cubist period preceded by his realist one was linked to Lars Von Trier’s Europa/Zentropa as a precursor to his Dogme films.

Questions on the technical aspects of High Definition projection then led to a discussion of the plans of studios, distributors and exhibitors to implement digital projection within the next five years, doing away with traditional celluloid reels and using digital transmission from a single source to thousands of screens. The implications for low budget independent productions are enormous. With lower fees and ease of supply, and less financial risk, exhibitors in all countries should be more open to allowing a broader range of films, giving for example, local Australian filmmakers, a chance at extended or ‘slotting’ exhibition where they have previously had theatre runs curtailed.

Concurrent to discussions as to how the cost of changing from traditional projection to digital projection would take place (as the two competing technologies of Texas Instruments and Sony had not been agreed upon by the major players), Titanic director James Cameron’s lead in championing 3D digital projection was seen as key move in the fight against the continuing rise in home theatre, the lowering of theatre attendances, and the burgeoning ‘culture of loneliness’. Seen as certainly a tool for the gigantic blockbuster, but also as a new medium for innovators, the idea that three dimensional films will be commonplace in the near future was greeted with enthusiasm.

That said, one final point from the floor was acknowledged – digital storage has not been tested beyond ten years – so what price is the ease of a computer file, when a lifetime’s work can be erased with a swish of a magnet or pressing a delete button? A pause in the onrush towards a digital future.