By Mary Ann Skweres
It’s January, so it must be Sundance, and myriad smaller festivals – Slamdance, TromaDance and RoaDance—that have sprouted around it. Filmmaking ranged from risk-taking to subtle. Technical values ran the gamut from slick to down-n-dirty. Just about every format was used to shoot and edit. Screening formats included 35mm and HD projection. As always, there was a range of films not seen in commercial venues.
In Below the Belt (shot digitally and based on Richard Dresser’s off-Broadway play), Robert Young creates a surreal vision of a decaying multinational corporation. He originally planned to shoot in Puerto Rico at an abandoned factory: “I had this surreal, incredible location. I come from making reality films.” But when the original production fell apart, the idea of creating the sets with CGI was suggested. Young admits, “I never would have thought about doing anything like this, [but] it started us down the road of trying to do it with computer graphics.” Young insisted that some sets be built to provide the actors some reality. For the CGI sets, he decided against photorealism. The small animation crew was headed by programmer Chris Healer.
November (shot on Panasonic DVX-100) impressed the Sundance judges and won cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC the Excellence in Cinematography award. According to director/editor Greg Harrison, “Because the story is about what we choose to remember, it was ripe for visual experimentation.” Schreiber’s cinematography visually supported the complex psychological story. Despite only 15 days to shoot and $150,000, Harrison didn’t want to go the route of most DV movies —hand-held immediacy with natural, available light. He wanted to think cinematically. Cinematic control with guerrilla production proved an enormous challenge. The key was preplanning. Harrison and Schreiber talked for months and experimented with white balance to achieve different palettes in-camera.
When viewing September Tapes (shot digitally), some in the audience believed they were watching a documentary because the pseudo-doc lensing of director/cinematographer Christian Johnston blurred reality and fiction. Shot in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the film’s cultural inaccuracies fail to dampen the action of dizzying hand-held cameras and night vision as the film tracks a fictional journalist on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Of the Sundance slate, 42 films, nearly a third, were documentaries, though directors of documentaries wore several hats, often shooting and/or editing their own work. In Corporation (shot digitally), a study of the rise of corporate power and influence, codirector Mark Achbar took charge of shooting while codirector/editor Jennifer Abbott constructed the massive amounts of footage. Morgan Spurlock directed Super Size Me (shot digitally), which focuses on a month-long fast-food binge. Director/cinematographer Kirsten Johnson teamed with director/producer Katy Chevigny and producer Dallas Brennan to bring the death-penalty examiner Deadline (also shot digitally) to the screen. Director/editor Nancy Yu worked with animation producer Kara Vallow to bring to life the words and paintings of Henry Darger in In the Realms of the Unreal (Sony HD Cam).
Filmmaker David Lebrun saw technology change during the 23 years it took to complete his animated documentary Proteus (shot on 35mm), in which mesmerizing animation brings to life the intricate skeletons of tiny undersea organisms called radiolarian. Starting his work before computers entered the animation craft, Lebrun photographed original art on an Oxberry optical printer or used transparencies he had photographed in East Germany in 1986. Thousands of pictures had to go through numerous photographic processes that took up to three hours per cel, a process that can now be done by computer in under three minutes.
Growing up in the shadow of its big brother, Slamdance needed to be tough to survive. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the event showcased emerging talent. Among its films: the political satire Death and Texas, shot in 24p by DP Jon Kovel with the Panasonic AG-DVX 100 Mini DV. In MegaBowl director Kevin DiNovis used 16mm Kodak Vision 2 film stock and high-speed cameras, achieving slow motion and saturated colors that couldn’t be done using digital. Producer Stephen Israel comments, “People always ask where we stand on the ‘digital debate.’ In some cases digital makes more sense, in some cases film does.” Post was done on an Apple Power Book G-4 laptop with external Firewire drives. The scope of the film and the limited financial resources were daunting: 75 speaking roles, 40 sets and a $200,000 budget. DiNovis recognized the value of his crew in helping him make the film, “People always talk about this as a collaborative medium—the quality of this team and this film prove the point.”
Memron, a mockumentory about a fictional corporation and laid-off employees, is an unscripted comedy improvised by its ensemble cast. Nancy Hower served as writer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist and editor. She had no crew and relied on producing partners Evie Peck and Robert Hickey to fill in as needed. In order to move freely in the middle of the action, Hower rigged a Mini DV camera to her body, holding a boom in her free hand, “It’s like a dance between the actor and the camera and after a while, I became another actor in the room.”
Bill Plympton produced, directed and animated the feature-length 1950s gothic comedy, Hair High, a quirky, bawdy take on the underdog story where nerdy new kid at school, Spud, is persecuted by popular jock Rod and his girlfriend Cherry. Using traditional animation techniques combined with webcam technology, Plympton hand-drew all 30,000 cels, which were then hand-painted by a small team of artists.
By Mary Ann Skweres