Barriers to Entry

I admit, something magnificent can happen when a big-budget movie goes entirely off the rails into total bizarreness (e.g. Playtime, Dune, Lola Montès).

But as a general rule of thumb, when you borrow lots of money to make your picture it means extra pressure to keep things crowd-pleasing and “safe”. If you prefer to see risky and unexpected new ideas, you’re much more likely to find them in low-budget indie films (or certain genre filcks).

Even if everyone on a film production works for free,  just the costs of 35mm filmstock alone inevitably add up to tens of thousands of dollars—even in 2-perf! And while video slashes those costs, for  years that meant accepting visuals which looked pretty harsh and cheap.

But wow, is the world ever changing fast.

Monte Hellman shot Road to Nowhere in 2010: an odd little film-within-a-film which becomes intriguingly meta on several levels (it’s worth a watch). At one point its fictional director played by Tygh Runyan observes,

Tygh Runyan in Road to Nowhere

“I just can’t believe that for the cost of renting a Viper for a week, we bought three of these 5D Mark II’s and a set of Nikon primes.”

…in other words, the  prosumer DSLR used to shoot Road to Nowhere itself. It’s the same camera a good friend uses for her wedding-photography business.

The era of truly “cinematic” affordable digital is upon us. I expect this to change filmmaking in unforeseen ways—just as new, lightweight 16mm cameras were part of what enabled the French Nouvelle Vague.

Shane Carruth famously made his debut Primer on a budget of just $7,000. But this could only cover enough 16mm filmstock to shoot a couple of takes of each scene.

Carruth got a bit miffed that reviewers made more of Primer’s budget than its actual content. So when promoting his 2013 release Upstream Color he kept several production details secret. But internet sleuths have concluded that the film was shot digitally, using a prosumer-grade Panasonic GH2 stills-and-video camera.

But the GH2 is discontinued now, replaced by the even better-performing GH3. The other day I noticed a sale where you could buy one on Amazon for 800 bucks. But actually there’s a new Panasonic, the GM1, which some believe performs even better. The GM1 is better known as a stills camera about the size of a deck of cards.

When Stanley Kubrick wanted to shoot parts of Barry Lyndon under actual candlelight, he had to scrounge up some highly exotic lenses that Carl Zeiss developed for NASA; then have them expensively adapted for cine use.

Well, digital sensors are already pretty amazing in poor light—much better than push-processed 35mm stock ever could be. But this week’s news flash was that now you can take an inexpensive Blackmagic digital cinema camera, and add a special adapter which turns ordinary still-camera lenses into super-speed moviemaking lenses. And the result will probably look crisper than Barry Lyndon‘s interior shots ever did. Will anyone ever need to set up “movie lights” again?

It’s fun to speculate on what comes next—when all this accessible equipment gets into the hands of crazy wackos who could never afford filmmaking before. But it’s certain we’re in an era when a film made for the price of a used car no longer automatically looks like junk.


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