Ain’t No Such Thing

MoviesGeorge Lucas is, in addition to being the world’s most successful independent filmmaker, an unparalleled technical innovator. Regardless of your opinion of Episode II (don’t get me started), the decision to shoot it entirely in high-resolution digital format is a groundbreaking step in the world of moviemaking. The pioneering work his team has done in bringing this capability just that much closer to mainstream feasibility is worthy of commendation, the first step in the opening of true feature production to the masses.

But, no matter what Lucas says, it ain’t filmmaking.

The distinction is worthy of note. If the perceived artistic divide between the worlds of film and television is vast, it pales in comparison with that between film and video. In the popular eye, video is the hallmark of cheap, low-production-value drivel, the staple of daytime television, the nadir of artistic endeavor. And it’s easy to see why — because the format itself is so much less expensive than film, it’s far easier to produce so-called entertainment on the cheap. The advent of home video capability has done even more to widen that divide. (Uncle Elwyn, you may love pointing your camera at the cat, but don’t ever start thinking that what you do is art.)

The problem comes about when respected filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, and now George Lucas start using video as the image-capturing tool of choice. The former two are very up-front about it, Tarantino using a Hi-8 camera for a (later cut) scene in Pulp Fiction and Soderbergh using an analog camera in sex, lies, and videotape and a Canon XL1s digital video camera (my personal camera of choice) for Full Frontal. In each of those cases, the video camera was always meant to represent just that.

Rodriguez and Lucas, however, are using the digital video camera to replace the film camera altogether. There are valid arguments both for and against this decision — the lower resolution of even high-definition video as compared with 35mm film versus the added ease of transferring the image into the digital realm for manipulation. In any case, Lucas is trying to distance himself from the stigma associated with videotape: He has decided to dub his process “digital film.”

The problem is that “film” is — by definition — shot on actual, physical film.

Whatever the assessment of his writing or directing abilities, no one would lump Lucas into the same category as daytime television producers; his motives in trying to keep that distance are understandable. But when he actually distorts the truth to make his point, it seems a little hard to swallow. The issue will become even more pronounced if, as Lucas plans, Episode III is not only shot on digital video, but distributed digitally as well (rather than transferred to film for projection, as with Episode II); at that point, even the argument that at least film was involved somewhere in the process will no longer hold.

Lest you think I’m making an issue out of nothing at all, allow me to point out a recent L.A. Times story, which mentions this year’s Oscar race. The Academy's board of governors actually had to vote to decide if Episode II would be eligible for Oscar consideration. In the end, they voted yes — arguing that their charter covers all motion pictures with theatrical distribution, without real regard to the production technology — but I’m curious to see what happens three years down the road.

As a digital videographer, I’m absolutely in favor of the new technology. I’ll never be as much a film expert as independent filmmaker Vincent Pereira (the phenomenally talented and largely undiscovered director of A Better Place), but I’d like to think I can produce a quality product if given the right tools. So anything that works to allow me that opportunity is certainly welcome. But it strikes me that the better alternative would be to try and narrow that all-consuming rift, to cease to associate artistic merit exclusively with the method of production.

Stop trying to call it digital film, George, and start working to have digital video recognized as the viable creative medium that it can be.


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