By J.D. Alfone
With America rolling towards its Presidential election, it came as no surprise that this year’s South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Film/Music/Interactive Conference festival in the Texas State Capital included several narratives and documentaries political in nature.
The mid-March festival opened to a packed house in Austin’s Neo-Classical Paramount Theater with the U.S. premiere of Code 46, a love story directed Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) and starring Tim Burton and Samantha Morton. The movie is set in an eerily possible near-future where cities are heavily controlled and only accessible through checkpoints. Winterbottom, whose In This World documented a pair of Afghan refugees stowing their way across Asia and Europe, is no stranger to political messages.
Across town, at Austin’s legendary arthouse Dobie Theater, writer/director Yasuaki Nakajima’s After The Apocalypse made its film festival premiere to an enthusiastic audience. Cinematographer Carolyn MacCartney, who teaches film production at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, used an Aaton LTR 54 16mm camera with a Cooke 9-50mm zoom to lens this futuristic drama about five survivors trying to make sense of a New World.
“To achieve the 16mm film’s decayed, burnt-out look,” says MacCartney, “the film stocks of choice were Eastman Kodak Plus-X black-and-white reversal (7276), and Tri-X black-and-white reversal (7278) when there wasn’t enough light. For some of the close-up and hand-held shots, I used my Bolex with Switar lenses.”
Paul Stekler’s Last Man Standing offered a glimpse into documentary filmmaking in the Lone Star State. Lensed by Deborah Lewis using a Sony PD-150 with an anamorphic adapter, the doc is an engaging behind-the-scenes look at Texas politics as seen through two 2002 state elections. A professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Stekler described Austin as having “a large working documentary community.” Austin was recently voted the number-one city in America in which to live and make films by MovieMaker magazine.
Continuing the film festival trend, several of this year’s entries were shot digitally. In Cosmopolitan, a New York/New Jersey modern love story directed by Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn) that pays homage to classic Bollywood, cinematographer Matthew Clark used the Panasonic Varicam. Producer Jason Orans explains: “We looked at various formats and cameras and did side-by-side projections with Super 16. We ended up with the Varicam because it produced results in the test that were, to my eyes, indistinguishable from Super16.” He added that “24p HD may actually cost a little more money than Super16 when you factor in the down conversion and the cost of the camera and monitor package rental. It does offer much in return, though.”
Several panels featured a variety of perspectives on the entertainment industry. In “A Conversation with Gary Ross,” the Oscar-nominated writer/director along with cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC and editor Billy Goldenberg, A.C.E. discussed their collaboration on Seabiscuit. Ross observed that he and his production team had incredible obstacles to overcome to get the film in the can because no one was sure the movie would be profitable. When asked about his most difficult scene to set up, Schwartzman noted that because they were shooting during the winter he used most of the daylight shooting the horses on the track. So routinely the grandstand’s audience members would be shot at night using tremendous “night for day” lighting schemes. For Goldenberg, his greatest challenge was making smooth transitions between the real-time shots and the horse race taking place on the track. He said he used “hinge” pieces to distract the eye and make the editing appear seamless.
During “A Conversation with 2929 Entertainment,” CEO Todd Wagner discussed his company’s plans to produce HD features and distribute and exhibit via HDNet, Magnolia Pictures, and the recently-acquired Landmark Theaters. After Wagner commented on some of the inefficiencies of big-budget filmmaking, one audience member observed, “Perhaps the story of 2929 Entertainment will mirror that of Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue”—which have turned from laughing-stock startups to profitable success stories.
In all, over 150 films including 90 feature-length works, with more than 40 screening as U.S. or world premieres, were shown in what the directors of SXSW have said has been their most successful year ever.
By J.D. Alfone