Coming Out Of The Video Closet
(a case study of shooting on video, finishing on film)
Mark Stolaroff interviews Scott Saunders
While I dont really believe that the Chinese word for "problem" and "opportunity" are the same, nowhere is this linguistic contradiction better applied than in the making of a micro-budget film. Shooting a feature on video, and transferring it to film, reinforces this paradox. Transferring video to film creates a set of constraints that can either paralyze the average filmmaker, or inspire the talented filmmaker to be more creative, to turn problems into opportunities and find, by overcoming obstacles, a new form. In this interview, veteran filmmaker Scott Saunders gives a detailed account of shooting his video-to-film feature, The Headhunters Sister (HHS). He discusses the pitfalls and the advantages of originating on video, and the issues all prospective filmmakers should explore before attempting to shoot a feature on video.
Much like Kevin Smith, Scott quit graduate film school (NYU) and spent his tuition money making films, choosing to learn the art of filmmaking "on the job". He made a series of shorts on Super 8, and then formed Film Crash with cohorts Matthew Harrison and Karl Nussbaum so they could exhibit their shorts. He made an innovative 30 minute 16mm short with Karl Nussbaum (The Man Who Invented The Twinkie). He continued to experiment with 8mm and then became intrigued by the idea of shooting on video. Having some experience with video (in his day job as a video editor), he knew videos limitations, as well as its strengths. In 1991 he shot an 8 minute short on Hi 8 and transferred it to 16mm. Happy with the results, he shot his first feature on Hi 8 and transferred it to 16mm. The Lost Words was very well received, winning the Silver Medal at the International Festival of Cinema in Portugal, and Best Dramatic First Feature at the Suffolk Film Festival—all this on a budget just a hair over $20,000 (which included buying the $2,000 camera).
His next project, The Headhunters Sister, was conceived in much the same way. It was shot on Beta SP (analog video) and, after the completion of post production, was transferred to 35mm. Besides winning Jury prizes at the Seattle and Florida International Film Festivals, Scott was the recipient of the 1998 Someone To Watch Award. The film played to an enthusiastic audience at an IFP/West Buzz screening. I know they were amazed because I was in that audience, and while it may not have looked exactly like 35mm, it definitely didnt look like video, even with my trained eye. Most impressive, was how good the film was. It was shot in a completely unique way, with characters and performances that can't be found in big budget Hollywood films. Like so many in that audience, I began to see the possibilities of shooting on video.
Mark Stolaroff: Have you done a lot of interviews about shooting features on video?
Scott Saunders: Well not really, at the advice of all the business people Ive been talking to. Ive been kind of laying low about that until just recently. I finally decided to hell with that, Im just going to talk about it. Im coming out of the video closet.
MS: Youve been kind of an experimenter. The 16mm film, The Man Who Invented The Twinkie, and the Super 8 "videos" were somewhat experimental—it seems thats something you like to do.
SS: Yeah, very much. Well, its kind of like working with whats available. With The Man Who Invented The Twinkie, Karl had an idea for a 15 minute film and he said why dont you come up with a 15 minute film and well shoot it together. Then we exchanged the screenplays and realized we had written very, very similar stories. Then we modified the stories, interwove them, and then shot them together. That was kind of a response to a situation.
MS: Which may be the best way to describe what youre doing as a filmmaker originating projects on video.
MS: Why dont you talk about some of the inherent weaknesses of shooting on video when you plan to transfer to film?
SS: Well, the biggest consideration when youre working on video is that the resolution of video is far lower than that film. You have to frame accordingly. Ive heard that with some of the new high-end digital video cameras that thats not such a concern anymore, that the resolution is really quite remarkable. But regardless, with either camera, theres a different tactile quality to video and I dont think that lends itself to the wide, expansive, panoramic shot. But Im talking during this moment in 1998.
MS: Anything else to avoid?
SS: I would say that the big wide shot is the only one to avoid and even in HHS there are a couple thrown in there just to establish place. Its very difficult to get away from it completely without having an utterly claustrophobic feeling. Those are shots you just dont hold very long.
MS: What about panning and moving the camera?
SS: Ive talked to people who say youve got to keep camera movement to a minimum because you see artifacts and you see trails and things like that . Ive never really worried about that kind of thing. Theres always been plenty of camera movement in the things Ive made.
MS: I noticed an obvious video artifact maybe twice, very briefly, I think when you were panning across leaves in a tree. Arent you supposed to stay away from diagonal lines, such as chain-link fences and the like?
SS: Thats called a moiré pattern and it has to do with the fact that video simply cant resolve. You get a certain ringing. It happens when you have stripes on peoples shirts. It happens when you go by fences with vertical lines, and theres really no way around that.
MS: I saw a film shot on Digital Beta and transferred to film. They shot the Brooklyn Bridge, and it was like
Boom! Every time they hit the bridge
SS: It was like the whole thing vibrated, yeah.
MS: So is that all you can think of in terms of big no-nos?
SS: When youre shooting on Hi8 and probably with the DV cameras as well, you have to be careful about contrast. The video chips simple can not handle contrast as well as film can. If you have a scene thats too contrasty, youll have parts of the frame blown out or parts of the frame go absolutely black. Particularly when they blow out, thats often kind of an unsightly look. You can use that blowing out effect to good purpose, occasionally, if you control it properly. But most of the time it just looks kind of ragged. You dont have that problem so much when you work with high-end Beta.
MS: Were you concerned about contrast on HHS?
SS: Only in an intuitive way. Wed frame a shot and then look at it. If there was too much contrast then I would insist on re-framing it. We really didnt have any of the proper film equipment. At one point we were shooting in Bobs apartment and we had a very bright window. There was no way to reframe given what had to happen in the scene, so we collected all of the screens from around the apartment and put them in the window. Having 5 or 6 screens in the window really cut the light down a lot.
MS: So youre planning your shoot, and you say, Im going to take anything out of the script that might get me into trouble, like if its a film noir script, there might be a problem with contrast
SS: Well another thing that video doesnt do well is recreate one of the traditional genres in a kind of traditional way. I wouldnt want to recreate the mood of a classic film noir with video because thats all about the way that magnificent black and white looks. Its not that you couldnt do a kind of contemporary film noir, but you would have to find a new way of realizing it visually.
MS: So its a good idea to stay away from something we have a visual expectation of.
SS: I think thats a very good way of saying it. If youve got a conventional screenplay and you want to realize it in a conventional way, I couldnt in good conscience recommend shooting it on video. Youre inevitably going to be disappointed because its not going to have the feel that you want. You might be able to get the look pretty close, but its going to feel different. The great thing about shooting in video, is you can shoot it, you can stop and you can look at it, and you can really analyze what youve done to find out what works and what doesnt. Its a great way to train your eye and your sensibility. And you can do it for not much money at all. And that means you can really experiment and you can find what works for you given your limitations: the limitations of your equipment, the size and experience of your crew, the locations you have access to.
MS: What are some of the other advantages of shooting on video?
SS: Well, if you want to try to discover something new in a scene and push it, you have the opportunity to do that. On the other hand if the actors really have a feel for it and they get it right and they feel absolutely relaxed because they know they can always shoot it again, sometimes you get it right immediately.
MS: So in terms of the high shooting ratio video makes possible, its not so much shooting a lot of takes, its getting a lot of setups.
MS: Having done this before, how did you apply what you knew about videos strengths and weaknesses to developing the script for HHS?
SS: Well, of course we did the usual low budget technique of writing for locations owned or controlled by people we knew, so we wouldnt lose any of our locations. But the thing that stands out for me most in writing the screenplay to be shot this way is that I intentionally wrote overlapping scenes, so that we would follow one character simultaneously with another character. Its the old tried and true method of intercutting action. We used it quite a lot in HHS for two reasons. One, we wanted to show that there are different worlds operating the world of the English language and the world of the Spanish language. You see people doing very different things, but when you really break it down, its kind of the same thing theyre doing. And so the intercutting served the polemic of the film. But it also served the fact that we were shooting in a very short period of time, and I knew it was going to be difficult to get all the coverage I wanted, and to be able to get the scenes as perfect as I would like them. I knew that if I got into trouble in the middle of the scene and I couldnt bridge, say a beginning of a scene and an end of a scene, I had another scene to cut away to.
MS: Was this technique useful because you were improvising a lot, too?
SS: Well, there was only one scene where we just literally made it up on the spot. The characters were there, the situation was there, but there was nothing in the script about that scene. Lunch was late so we made up a scene and shot it while we were waiting for food. But in every other case the scenes really were scripted, so it wasnt just purely improvisational. I didnt storyboard at all. I told myself it was because I didnt want to get locked into any preconceived setup. I really wanted to work with the actors in a specific location at a specific time. On paper I made a shot list and we had a very detailed shooting schedule, but I never did any kind of visual preparation on paper.
MS: Was there any improv used in scenes that were scripted?
SS: Typically I would shoot the scene in medium shots and then wed push in for close-ups and whatever else we could do, just so I knew we had the scene. And then with as much time as we had left, if it was appropriate, I would sometimes just turn the DP loose and just let him grab shots, so the actors would try to do what they had done before and the cameraman would be the one who was improvising.
MS: How much of that improvised footage did you use?
SS: I tried to use as much of that roving footage as I could, but often it got in the way and called too much attention to itself. So where it served to enliven the look and feel I would use it, but whenever it felt like it was just sort of about the camera movement, then I would go to shots that were more about the characters. The most beautiful shot in video is the close up of an actor, because video records skin tones well and you can also control the lighting perfectly in a close-up.
MS: Did you have any special lighting equipment?
SS: We had a couple of inkies and maybe a tweenie [very small "movie" lights]. I dont think we ever had more than three movie lights. Most of the lights were practicals [lights that exist in a scene like a lamp], a few scoop lights [aluminum-hooded work lights with clamps]. We put higher watt bulbs in the existing fixtures where we were shooting. In the big party scenes we had three movie lights, but the problem was when we used all three we blew out the power to the building we were shooting in, which was Bobs [McGrath, the lead actor] apartment. And the problem was we were shooting on a Saturday and Bobs landlord was an Orthodox Jew, and he couldnt really do anything on the Sabbath. But after we pleaded, he came down to the basement and talked us through changing the fuse.
MS: Did you do any technical things to help disguise the video look?
SS: We shot with a Pro-Mist filter [a Tiffen filter that softens excess sharpness and lowers contrast]; that was the only thing we did. That really helped soften the image a little bit and take some of that video edge off it.
MS: How did you handle sound? Did you have a separate DAT recorder?
SS: No, we just ran the sound through a mixer and then directly into the Betacam.
MS: How many mics did you use?
SS: We most often used the boom. But we had a really good sound man and he would also put radio mics on people, too, or there would be a combination of radio mic and boom.
MS: How did you post your project?
SS: I cut everything on a non-linear system—I worked in the beginning on a FAST video machine, and then I cut about 2/3 of the movie on a D-Vision Pro 2.2, the old DOS one. I actually own that D-Vision and built the system myself.
MS: So you took your Beta masters and digitized them at a low resolution and cut them on the D-Vision, and then got an EDL (Edit Decision List)
SS: I got an EDL and took it into an online suite
MS: You just happened to work at a place where you could do that.
SS: Yeah, I just happened to. But that was part of the planning of the whole thing.
MS: I guess the advantage to onlining on tape as opposed to onlining on an Avid is color correcting.
SS: You can do color correcting on an Avid. Its kind of difficult, though. I cut to a component digital deck and I was able to control a lot of the way it looked. I did all my audio in the online suite as well. I re-cut it all because I wanted it to be pristine. Its a very expensive way to do audio, if youre paying for your suite; if Id been paying for it, I wouldnt have done it that way.
MS: So you do all this and you end up with a master of your film on Beta
SS: Well, the master of my film is on Digital Beta
MS: And then you just walk over to your friendly 4MC (Four Media) people and they just transfer it to 35mm? Or are there some other considerations at that point?
SS: They have a computer color correction suite and they have the ability to color correct every shot. Even though you may color correct it perfectly for video, it looks a little bit different once you transfer to film. So you color correct every shot, and the machine can change its setup literally from one cut to the next in real time and you can change setups over a dissolve.
MS: How long did it take you to do this?
SS: It takes about two days.
MS: How much did it cost?
SS: It cost about 30 grand when I did it.
MS: And they charge you by the minute, is that correct, like $395 per minute?
SS: I dont know what it is now
I dont want to think about it (laughs). Its monstrously expensive.
MS: Are you happy with the results?
SS: Oh, yeah, Im happy with the results. Including the short I did, this is my third project with 4MC.
MS: And you tested other processes?
SS: Well, the only other process I tested was using a regular kinescope. Its much cheaper, but it just doesnt look that good.
THE VIDEO MASTER
MS: It terms of a master on videotape for the purpose of distribution on video, you utilized the Filmlook process? [Filmlook is a company in Burbank that has a patented filtering process that makes video look more like film. It is designed to give something shot on video a more filmic look when it is shown on television or video - it is not recommended to use any filtering process on the master tape that is transferred to film.]
SS: Yeah, I ran my whole film through the Filmlook.
MS: Were you happy with that? Was it worth the money? [about $6,000]
SS: I think it definitely improves it. I cut a trailer recently and I used all the footage that had been Filmlooked and there were a couple of places where I needed to drop in shots from my dailies that hadnt been Filmlooked, and to my eye it looks distinctly less "filmic". But I dont think its a perfect solution.
EXHIBITING ON FILM
MS: Definitely the way to view your film is on film in a theater.
MS: Talk about aspect ratio.
SS: I assumed we were going to transfer to 16mm so I just shot full-frame. [1.33:1]. When an investor came forward with money to blow it up to 35mm, I had to make the decision of trying to recompose all the shots to fit in a 1.85 aspect ratio or just take the 1.33, and thats what I decided to do, stay in 1.33.
MS: When its shown in theaters, is there something that a projectionist has to do differently?
SS: No, the lab masks it so its actually projected 1.85; you just see a 1.33 image (applied to the 1.85 rectangle).
MS: You see black on the sides.
MS: Well, I didnt notice. I guess they could bring in the curtain. If you shot this again with Beta knowing you were going to 1.85, would you compose it that way?
SS: Well, the problem in shooting it that way (shooting 1:33 and then showing it within a 1:85 frame) is you lose a lot of resolution, and since its video you want to hold on to as much resolution as you can. If you wanted to go with that wider aspect ratio, I would do everything I could to shoot 16:9. I know there are some new digital cameras that shoot 16:9.
MS: What ended up being the total budget?
SS: It was about thirty and thirty ($30,000 to shoot and edit, $30,000 to transfer to 35mm).
MS: What was some of the first thirty spent on.
SS: Food. We rented a van. The camera package was $5000 for the month. There was money spent on the editing system that I put together. We bought insurance, which was about a couple grand. No real location expenses.
THE END RESULT
MS: So, whats happened with HHS up to this point? Where has it shown and whats on the horizon?
SS: Its played in around 30 film festivals to date and it won the Jury prize in Seattle and in Florida. It won (the Audience Award) in Long Island and it won a prize in New Haven. It screened in the (IFP/West) Buzz series in LA, and then it just screened in Atlanta, it just screened at the International Film & Television Conference in Cologne, and in Thailand.
MS: Still no takers in terms of distributors?
SS: No. I keep talking to distributors who are so positive about the film, but still no takers. I got a call recently from the London office of Palm Pictures [Island Records Chris Blackwells new distribution company]. The film had shown at Raindance and the acquisition person from Palm called very excitedly saying hed screened every film showing at Raindance and of all the films, ours was the only one that he loved.
MS: Well, you definitely have to see it on film. If you could give a word of advice, a pep talk so to speak, to filmmakers considering shooting their feature on video, what would you tell them?
SS: Take advantage of the opportunity to try to make something unusual and to try to find an individual voice, at a time when youre not going to have the money people and the professionals breathing down your neck. And very often theyre working hand-in-hand. Youll find yourself with a DP who wants to create beautiful shots for their reel, but its not contributing to your movie.
MS: Yeah, Geoff Gilmore [director of the Sundance Film Festival] said it well in Marina Zenovichs documentary Independents Day when he said this is the one time in your career to experiment, and have the freedom to express yourself, without a studio executive telling you what to do.
SS: In that kind of situation, how are you ever going to develop your own voice? Ive been in situations where theres a kind of inertia to the way things are shot, and its dictated by the fact that youve got a crew, and theyre all used to working a certain way. And so some sense of your personal style and experimentation is taken away from you, where if you are working with a smaller crew, you can try out all kinds of things.
MS: What kind of critical response have you gotten?
SS: The critical response has been great. Excellent review in Variety, great review in Boston Globe, great review in LA Times. Kevin Thomas [LA Times film critic] has actually been a big champion of the film and hes called several distributors. In the major US cities where its played, the reviews have been unanimously good.
MS: Tell me about your next project.
SS: The one thats furthest along is The Anarchists Daughter, which we had at the January 1998 Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Im working on it with Bob McGrath, who was the lead in HHS, and Julia Styles, who is the lead in a picture theyre doing at Disney right now called Ten Things I Hate About You. She was also in that film Wicked which was at the Sundance Film Festival. When I made these two features and a bunch of shorts before that, writing a script was really just creating a document that would be used as an outline for shooting the movie. We didnt have to satisfy anyone but ourselves. Now were writing this new screenplay and it has to be run through all kinds of other considerations. Its a very, very different process, because suddenly a lot of other people, who think about films differently than you do, are looking at your work from their particular perspective. Its difficult for me not to get frustrated, because I know what were going to do with it while other people ask how is this part going to work, and whats this going to do. Its a long, drawn out process - writing a screenplay that has to be judged by a lot of other people.
MS: And youre hoping to shoot that on film?
MS: Because working on video successfully means limiting your palette, and youd like to try some new things?
SS: Right. Also, Im thinking that the distributors are going to be more comfortable with it. Im also interested in doing a project where I dont have to do everything, because its exhausting.
- Past issues of Behind the Lines and Bulletins from the Front
Ultra-Low Budget Production