Up close and personal

Forget splashy special effects and CGI. The real high-tech advance transforming film is a tiny camera.

Little tiny digital cameras. They have transformed the way news crews collect footage in dangerous situations; they've brought us the dubious achievements of reality TV programming. They've even changed the way people record their kids at dance recitals.

Now, on the rarefied fringes of the independent-movie world, these tiny workhorses, capable of capturing pictures lit by nothing more than a candlestick, are expanding the possibilities for the fictional, feature movie.

In a world where movies are made on MasterCard budgets in no more than a week or two, veteran moviemaker Rob Nilsson has dedicated himself to revolutionizing movies as we know them. The San Francisco-based moviemaker uses a variety of small digital cameras to record improvised actions of professional actors and local residents. The movie has a "scripted" narrative, or scenario, but the actual words and specific flow are created by the group's improvisation, or "playacting," as Mr. Nilsson calls it.

Nilsson, whose 1988 "Heat and Sunlight" won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize, may be among the more radical moviemakers pushing the creative envelope. But he is certainly not alone in using digital technology.

The entire movie industry is in the throes of a transition from celluloid to digital, even on big, mainstream movies such as "Star Wars" - George Lucas being one of the biggest advocates of the digital movie process.

More experimental directors like Mike Figgis ("Time Code") have even managed to get mainstream distribution for narrative movies made with hand-held digital cameras.

Digital is taking over, says Jack Campbell, director of acquisitions for the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, particularly with the independent filmmaker. For example, nearly three quarters of the 2,000-plus films the festival received in 2002 were shot on digital video. The reasons are simple: Digital is so much cheaper than film that there's simply no comparison. When a single roll of film that will yield roughly 10 minutes of filming costs $500 (throw in another $500 for processing and transfer to tape for editing), shifting away from celluloid means entire movies can be made for fractions of the huge film budgets Hollywood is used to dishing out.

"You can take as many takes as you want, so you don't have to force anything," says Mr. Campbell. The ability to try new things without going broke is changing the movies he sees coming in. "We are seeing more and more of this 'in-the-moment' kind of thing," he adds. "This technology offers a much more intimate kind of movie."

Catching the digital spirit

Nilsson calls his style of filmmaking Direct Action Cinema, a method of creating drama from character and circumstance. He describes how the process worked on a recent mission to Amman, Jordan, where he had been invited to help jump-start the local movie industry. The movie, finished in 2001, is called "Samt."

He arrived in Amman "with no camera, no actors, no shots. We were just invited, so we went."

They wanted to create a movie about women's issues in Jordan, so first they recruited a local girl for their heroine. Then they needed someone to play her father. Nilsson says he had recruited a cobbler, but on the first day of shooting, the man showed up with a phalanx of family members, ready to negotiate residuals.

With a laugh, he says, "they clearly hadn't caught the spirit of our work." Within the hour, he'd scrounged up an elderly tailor who said he would give the film an hour of his valuable shop time. "He performed the most magnificent improvisational father in two scenes," says Nilsson. This transparent technology allows "for a new kind of intimacy," says Nilsson, "an authenticity that is lacking from mainstream Hollywood films."

Performers don't have to wait for lights to be set, film canisters to be changed, blue-sky shots to be engineered - all the labor-intensive logistics of putting action on celluloid.

Now, says Nilsson, who uses some of the smallest digital cameras on the market, "because of this little digital pencil [camera], we are able to do this work right in the midst of life. Most people," he says, referring to the traditional way of making movies, "want to bring in all this technology and push life out of the picture. That's the opposite of what we do. We are in the midst of life, playing with fiction."

History is full of examples of new technologies creating new film styles that in turn spread like wildfire through the creative community, especially if they make money.

Bruce Eisen, executive vice president of CinemaNow, an online movie service, says, "look at MTV's quick cutting and fast changes that affected everybody. You can't watch a film from before 1980 without feeling like it's a Merchant Ivory costume drama. It's so slow."

When the hand-held film camera came in some 15 years ago, everybody had to use it. "It became shorthand for 'real,' " says John Cooper, director of programming for the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah. "I've heard of directors who've been told to 'go back and make it more jiggly so it looks more real," he says with a laugh.

Now, with the handheld digital cameras that catch raw emotions and spontaneous moments, says Mr. Cooper, that's what's turning up everywhere. "Even in the big Hollywood movies, like 'Seven' [which launched at Sundance], you see this value being placed on raw, lifelike emotions."

Actress, uninterrupted

Even if their actions are being captured on the big industrial-style digital cameras that are being trotted out on soundstages around Hollywood, actors say digital cameras offer new possibilities for their craft, as well.

Frances Fisher says when she worked on "Titus," a TV series shot in digital video, "it just never stopped," she says. "There was no waiting around, no time to set up lights, no 'wait, we ran out of film.' " Ms. Fisher says her acting became much more emotional and dramatic because it was so uninterrupted.

Not everyone is a complete convert. "Digital will be the savior of the independent cinema," says Lloyd Kaufman, CEO of Troma Studios in New York, one of the oldest independent film studios in the country. But it hasn't happened yet.

"Too many people are using digital as an excuse to be lazy with lighting and sound," says the author of a recent how-to book on filmmaking. But he has high hopes for its democratizing potential. "When people can figure out how to make this stuff look good and present it to the public," says Mr. Kaufman, "hopefully it will liberate the entire independent-movie world." Nilsson, whose movie "Attitude" opens in New York May 14, would like that, he says.

But Cooper, who admits he's never heard of the filmmaker whose work dates back to the 1970s, says Nilsson will probably suffer the typical anonymity of those who spend their lives pushing the creative envelope rather than pitching Hollywood studios. "They explore and experiment and come up with new ways of doing things that make their way into the mainstream," he says, "but they rarely get credit, because the ideas are picked up by so many people it just feels like the air we breathe."

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