By way of introduction…
This is my first blog on PVC and it’s only reasonable to expect that most of you don’t know me or very much about my background. Before I share my observations and start pontificating, it may help you to have some sort of framework referencing what I have to say, so this first piece is really just an introduction. There’s an old saying that you may be familiar with that opinions are like a certain part of the anatomy we all sit on—everybody’s got one. As I agreed to write this column, that burgeoning thought weighed heavily on my mind, if not my chair.
I began my professional career as a commercial photographer in 1975 and moved into film production in 1983. I studied photography at the Newhouse Communications School of Journalism at Syracuse University and I have a Masters degree in Fine Art (painting and printmaking) from the University of Illinois. In the early days of my photographic career, before computers and Photoshop, I made a name for myself by creating impossible in-camera illusions accomplished by making props, building sets and miniatures, painting backgrounds, creating physical effects and using darkroom tricks. At the time very few photographers were doing this sort of work and so I christened it “fantasy Illustration.” It was unusual then as a still shooter to have the large staff that I had– a studio manager, a producer, a stylist, a production designer, an engineer and a darkroom staff of three. We ran every photographic process in-house and had ten pin-registered enlargers (both 4×5 and 8×10) that we used to create composites. My images were so specialized that they eventually attracted the attention of several reps and it was not long before I was represented in Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, New York and London. I was encouraged by them to apply the same resources I had gathered for commercial photography to commercial filmmaking and I headed in a new direction.
To keep the machine fueled I advertised in the Creative Blackbook, The Art Director’s Index and I ran weekly full-page ads in Backstage but by 1987 demand for this style of imaging had peaked and was on the way down. The desktop computer had taken hold. In those days, agencies and design studios farmed out their typesetting work daily to companies with half million dollar typesetting machines. Invoices of five to ten thousand dollars a day were routine. Photo-retouchers worked on 8×10 transparencies with inks and dyes and bleaches or by airbrush on color prints. Photography was a nasty process with nasty chemicals. Editing was offlined on ¾ inch machines A/B roll and conformed at $400 an hour in standard definition on 1inch machines. The choices then were component or composite. Digital had just begun and HD wasn’t even an option. Formats abounded—Betamax, VHS, Hi8, ¾”. 1”, D1, D2, Betacam, Betacam SP, DigiBeta, then Mini DV, DV cam, DVCPro, DVCPro 50, and finally all the varied flavors of HD with a myriad of CODECs, framerates, resolutions, and standards.
In a few short years, desktop publishing killed the typsetting business and it simply vanished. Photoshop eliminated the photo-retouching trade as it existed and made it possible for anyone with basic hand/eye coordination to perform retouching or create fantasy illustrations on the computer. Random access editing (a term no longer used because all editing is now random access) replaced conventional offline/online methods and HD was soon to follow, sweeping both standard definition and eventually even film production, aside.
But in 1989 I found myself looking for a way to diversify and wrongly thought the answer was in post-production. That year Avid introduced editing on a Mac platform at NAB and I convinced them to add me to the Beta team of 6 CMX editors to develop the product. A few months later I was able to buy a Beta version of Avid for about $55,000 (before it was officially offered for sale) and I began my participation in the Beta program. It ran on a Mac II and the software came on two floppy discs. The images on the record and playback monitor screens were so pixelated that color blocks were about ¼ inch square and it was literally impossible to detect correct lip synch. The whole picture looked worse than something CNN created to obfuscate identity. I partnered with some really smart people and we opened the first all digital post facility in the Midwest, called “Finis.” At the high end we had a complete Quantel Harry suite recording to D1. This gave us a full 90 seconds of random access standard def capability. D1 tapes cost a small fortune and were about as big as a rack unit component.
Back in my production company, image acquisition was made on my Arri 35BL IV or on my 16 SRII. At 24fps a 1000 ft. load of 35mm yielded about 11 minutes and cost about $1000 for film, processing and dailies. Transfer to videotape would add about another $400 to that cost. I bought my BL IV used for $135,000 and the lenses, magazines and accessories and sound gear added about another $100,000. All told with two ten ton grip trucks, a tulip crane, a full complement of lighting that included three 12K HMIs (bulbs cost 8 grand each), dollies and track and every kind of grip and lighting rig, the electric package and on and on ad nauseum, I had over a million dollars in equipment. In those days, it cost me about $70,000 a month just to open my doors. Everyone was a competitor—the other qualified filmmakers, the agencies’ in-house production units, in-house corporate departments and the client’s sons or daughters in college or film school with a new camera. Post-production companies added production units and even sound companies jumped into the fray offering film and video production.
I survived the nineties by downsizing Darwinian style, not by choice. I ran my business as a one-man band with no employees and reduced overhead. It was the most profitable period and the most miserable time of my career.
As the page turned on a new century, having already sold all my Hasselblad, Nikon and Sinar cameras and lenses, I relented and sold my beloved 35mm Arri package for $15,000 on ebay to a grad student in a third world country. That’s all it would bring. Traumatic.
A year later, I was a proud owner of the first VariCam and two weeks after its arrival I shot the first feature film to be shot on VariCam, “Tattered Angel.” The film was produced and directed by a friend of mine as a SAG ultra low budget indie. The VariCam was the only camera at that time that had a true “out-of-the-box” film look boasting the most dynamic range and excellent color rendition. Resolution was 720 not 1080, but the overall picture still looked to be the best on the market. In subsequent years in a shootout for the Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand, that opinion was confirmed by both guild members and the rental house who sponsored the event.
Twelve years later, after lost financing and crashed drives, and hampered by unresolved creative differences, the film, now dated both technically and artistically, may finally see the light of day, although realistically in discount bins and third world countries. There can be no underestimating the value of timely production and delivery. Since the date of our production, September 2001, the availability of indie product has soared and the value of low budget films has declined in what is now a buyers market. As companies like RED have moved the high-end market to the Epic 6K, interest in seeing the first VariCam movie has completely dissipated.
After “Tattered Angel” I spent the next nine years shooting other people’s films and working as a consultant for Panasonic Broadcast. I was also a columnist for Film Festival Reporter and I taught VariCamp for HD Expo. As a consultant I conducted seminars and worked trade-shows and created marketing films for Panasonic. I also created all the “looks” for their HD cameras. I trained the shooters at National Geographic, Versus (at the Iditarod), The Speed Channel, The Mayo Clinic, Lockheed Martin and the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee among others.
Finally in October of 2010 my dreams came true and I produced and directed my first feature film from a screenplay I had written in 1996. That film, “The Black Dove,” was shot on a 4K RED One and starred John Savage, Sean Young, Abby Wathen, David Della Rocco, Red West and Lou Beatty, Jr. The film had its world premiere at Worldfest Houston where it won best dramatic narrative feature film and John Savage won Best Actor. After making the festival circuit for a year, I have since recut the film and am currently negotiating distribution.
I currently shoot with a RED Epic, A VariCam 2700, an HVX170, a Canon 5D Mark II and a couple Go-Pros according to need. I find that this current stable of cameras provides me the range of options to tackle any type production with the best results for my clients and their budgets. I liken having different cameras to using different hammers for different applications. There is no one tool that does everything best.
In 1993 I began writing screenplays and my first screenplay, “Follow The River” took the Gold Award at Worldfest Charleston in 1994. Since then I have written 12 more screenplays, including “The Black Dove.”
If I have anything to offer the production community who may read this column, it is the perspective of my experience, in its range over time. I have seen many changes in the technology that most thought would never happen. Today, an aspiring novice can buy a camera from $600-1200 and a laptop of the same value and create a feature film of a quality that can surpass what I was capable of doing in 1990 with my million dollars of gear and a high end edit facility and post it on YouTube or Vimeo to a Worldwide audience. But technology is not the answer. It’s the vehicle we learn to drive in a self-taught field requiring no license.
My favorite movie quote is from Frances Ford Coppolla’s “Apocalypse Now.” As chef is chased back into the boat by a tiger, he keeps hypnotically repeating “never get out of the boat, never get out of the boat.” I never want to get out of the boat, and if I get my way, I plan on dying in the boat. Nothing brings me more joy than making films. In 2010 I almost got my wish while making “The Black Dove.” I learned a month later that I had made the film on a collapsed lung and pneumonia in the other lung. Pretty foolish, I suppose, but I made my film and I had the time of my life doing it. I plan on taking more of my screenplays to the screen and sharing what I have learned over the years. Above all, this is a business of people, not of things. I have been blessed to work with some very fine people and the bonds that have been formed are deep and lasting. Everything else will be gone or changed in five years or less.