Thursday, August 24, 2006


If you believe the hype, the digital age is changing everything we know about filmmaking. Suddenly, with semi-pro level technology available for home computers, editing, scoring, hell, even distributing your own movies is something everyone can do. And with high-def video cameras, it will all look as good as Hollywood product.

Just one problem here: Most of that isn't true, and the stuff that isn't a lie is wildly exagerated or blindly optimistic.

High-def video, for instance, looks like shit. It looks bad in amateur videos posted on YouTube, it looks bad in earnest, navel-gazing indie crap, and it looks bad in big-budget Hollywood movies like Miami Vice and all three Star Wars prequels. George Lucas repeatedly claimed, in his endless justifications for those Star Wars pictures, that digital was the only way to go, visually, since high def can capture a range of color and detail film just can't.

Right. Here's a simple comparison: Take a look at the "range of color and detail" in, say, The Phantom Menace. Then take a look at what Vincente Minnelli did with three-strip Technicolor in The Pirate, or Michael Powell's Black Narcissus, and tell me which looks better.

Computer-based editing and scoring tools guarantee that the average person's home movies can move and sound in a semi-professional but generic manner. Swell, but is this a filmmaking revolution?

No. It may be easier than ever for any schlub to make their own movie, but any schmuck could buy a canvas and paint, any yutz could write a novel. That doesn't mean they have talent. That doesn't mean they should be forcing their amateurism on the rest of us.

The fact of the matter is, people with talent, with the will to make films, have always been able to do so. Kenneth Anger and John Waters shot their first films while still teenagers, using home movie equipment, and were able to get their works distributed. John Carpenter's early work is a model of invention over funding. And even though he's chosen to work in the digital realm now, Robert Rodriguez shot El Mariachi on film for less money than it would cost to buy pro-level digital equipment.

All this talk about the brave new digital world wouldn't bother me so much if the people doing the talking had a shred of knowledge about film history. Yeah, technology is cheaper and faster now, but not better. And maybe there's some genius kid out there ready to utilize the technology in a manner that will blow us all away. But that doesn't mean that this work, if it ever happens, will be better than anything that has come before. Beethoven didn't use digital sampling in his music, either, but you know what? It's still pretty good.