Filmmaking 'digerati'

The next generation of directors is as likely to use a computer as amovie set.

Watch out, Hollywood!

In backyard studios and basement editing suites, a new generation of directors is editing masterpieces. With nothing more complicated than a digital camera and a desktop computer, they're turning out low-budget, high-quality productions that one day could rival mainstream movies.

These desktop filmmakers are already beginning to make their mark - from the classroom to the big screen.

"Yes, it is likely we'll see an explosion of little Spielbergs," says John Kelly, associate director of the digital media center at Columbia University in New York.

"We're standing on the edge of a real revolution in the sense that filmmaking is finally becoming affordable for people to participate in as an art form," adds Kent Williamson, a producer and director of educational technologies at the University of Virginia. "For so many years, it seemed that Hollywood ... owned it." Now, perhaps, moviemaking will become democratized.

Mr. Williamson hopes so. He is hard at work on his own feature film, "When Love Walks," a story about a husband who loses his wife and begins to pick up the pieces. Typically, Williamson rises at 5 a.m. and spends two hours editing his movie on his home computer before leaving to go to his day job.

Four years ago, such a feat was impossible. Desktop computers weren't powerful enough to manipulate digital images, and the cost of computer storage was astronomical. Today, desktop filmmaking still costs a pretty penny (Williamson spent $40,000 on his equipment), but far less than it used to, and the costs keep falling.

"We're in competition with a lot of established filmmakers," says Lance Weiler, co-director of "The Last Broadcast," an 87-minute feature film about mysterious murders in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. If the film had been shot on traditional 16-mm film, it would have cost $300,000 to produce, he says. By using desktop editing equipment, Weiler and his colleagues made it for less than $1,000 (excluding the costs of equipment).

It's not clear how far such films can go. "The Last Broadcast" has already had a theatrical release in a few cities around the United States. Williamson hopes to release "When Love Walks" directly on video.

Perhaps the most successful of the new directing digerati is Bennett Miller. In 1994, he began filming an iconoclastic New York tour guide with a digital camera. Three years later, he had created a documentary, "The Cruise," that even he doubted would see the light of day. But the offbeat film became such a hit at a Los Angeles film festival that a national distributor picked it up and began showing it. Newsweek magazine called it "a sharp portrait of a true original."

Before desktop filmmaking, the movie would not have been made, says Mr. Kelly of Columbia. An independent director would never have been able to afford to make the film on his own, and selling a film distributor on an idea is notoriously difficult.

"If you can get 95 percent of the way there with a PC and a camcorder, it's much easier to go to a distributor and sell a film," he adds. "There will still be a weeding-out process. But it gives more people the chance to get up and bat."

New ideas, new voices

Observers are divided on whether the new technology will open up Hollywood to new ideas and a wider range of new voices.

Chris Gore, publisher of Film Threat Weekly, a magazine that covers independent filmmaking, expects a change in mainstream movies. "In the digital universe, you can do anything," he says. "The person with the best ideas is going to be the person who makes the best film."

Others argue that the promise of Hollywood fame and riches will be so strong that independent producers will conform to studio dictates. Independents have already become more mainstream as Hollywood has reached out for talent, says Lewis Cole, chair of the film division at Columbia University. "Film is very driven right now by the ambitions of Hollywood."

Another concern is quality. While software exists to make digital video look more like film, industry observers doubt the new technology will overtake film anytime soon. Take a 60-second national commercial, which typically costs more to produce than a minute of a feature film. While ad-makers will edit digitally, they're not ready to shoot digitally. "Quality and appearance are so critical in commercials that no national sponsor is willing to give up the appearance of first-rate production in order to save money," says Richard Posell, a partner at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, a Los Angeles-based law firm specializing in the entertainment industry.

Changing the classroom

Where the new technology is beginning to have dramatic impact is the classroom. Film students learn their craft much more quickly when they can immediately see the results of their shooting and editing, educators say. The technology is getting so easy to use that other students are also beginning to use the medium to express themselves.

For example, every year at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., English professor Zoran Kuzmanovich gives his classes the option of writing a final paper or making a film. A decade ago, only a handful of technology savvy students - all boys - attempted it. Now, thanks to the ease of use of digital technology, many more students are creating final movies.

Will these new little Spielbergs become big Spielbergs? Industry observers aren't sure.

While digital technology may not topple Hollywood, it could undermine its popularity. Just as new cable-television stations are slowly eroding the audience of the three largest networks, so perhaps the audience of movie-goers will fragment into a thousand different niches. And with digital technology making film-making so cheap, digital moviemakers won't need a blockbuster to make a living. Instead of trying to grab big audiences with sex and violence, the directing digerati could target specific audiences with movie fare more suited to their tastes.

Danny Carrales in Lynchburg, Va., for example, makes films for evangelical Christians. "My movies are more like discussion openers" - dramatic stories that pastors or youth leaders can show to their congregations.

For his most recent movie, "The Gathering," he was able to use his own Macintosh-based system to edit a sequence of clouds until he got the effect just right so they would open up to reveal the "rapture" of Jesus.

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