Lousy film years aren't much fun, but they do get folks talking about how to make things better. As we approach 2001, more and more film types are preaching the gospel of the digital revolution.
At the high end, George Lucas shot all of "Star Wars: Episode 2," now in post-production, with high-definition digital cameras that provide a picture that's hard to distinguish from 35-millimeter film. Lucas takes every opportunity to trumpet the format's speed, efficiency and relatively low cost.
But we've recently seen a number of good films shot on low-budget digital video as well. Films such as "Chuck & Buck," "Bamboozled" and "Time Code" were digital productions that capture what Dallas Video Festival director Bart Weiss call the rough, "man with a camera" look. The Dogma 95 directors, including Lars Von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark"), have relied heavily on the grainy, hand-held digital video feel to realize their doctrine of a stripped-down cinema.
Now, more actors are recognizing digital technology as an avenue to more meaningful and democratic filmmaking. Don Cheadle is a gifted character actor featured in the upcoming films "Traffic" and "The Family Man." He also stars in "Manic" and "Things Behind the Sun," both shot on digital video and slated for the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
"The stories are gritty and raw," he said. "They're shot on the run in a shoot-from-the-hip, make-it-happen kind of way. You can shoot a digital feature in three weeks for $20,000. Most people can afford to shoot a movie on digital."
The idea isn't that cheap movies are necessarily high quality. But if more artists can afford to make films, more voices can be heard. That's an especially attractive concept at a time when the major studios, and their indie offshoots, are managed increasingly by smaller, bottom-line-oriented sets of hands.
"Everybody can have a pen and write," said Cheadle, echoing the "camera-stylo" (camera-pen) auteur ideal celebrated years ago by French auteur theorists. "Everybody can have a paintbrush and paint. It's kind of like David, waiting in the bushes with his stone and sling. He hasn't thrown it yet, but he's definitely swinging it."
Digital technology could also revolutionize the way we watch movies. More theaters are now wired for digital technology. According to Weiss, such theaters could cut costs and use digital projection to show different endings to the same movie. For example, if it upsets you to see Leonardo DiCaprio die at the end of "Titanic," you could opt for the conclusion in which he lives on.