Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (4/7)

4. Festival Programming

Jonathan Wells and
David Latimer
Director, RESFEST Digital Film Festival and publisher, RES Magazine

Documentary Box (DB): RESFEST Digital Film Festival is a tempting name because it doesn’t necessarily imply celluloid. Why a digital “film” festival?

David Latimer (DL): The name comes from “resolution” and the festival was originally called the Low Res Film Festival. A film is “digital” if it uses computer technology like a digital camera, computer editing, or After Effects.

DB: What do you notice about the works and their contributors?

DL: First of all, as the tools are becoming more affordable, more people are using the tools. Four years ago, we received 75 entries, the next year 150 entries, the next year 300 entries and this year 650 entries. This year, we probably had 100 submissions from students.

We receive submissions from all types of people, from Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, 1999) and Chris Cunningham on down to animators and people who are working in other jobs but also have their own projects. But the inspiration started with filmmakers first and foremost.

DB: Some people say the democratization of the medium is cruel, and that no matter if you have 100 or 1,000 entries, only three or four will be good. What do you think?

DL: Out of 650 submissions this year, we felt that about 100 were good enough to show, but only used 50. The more people who have access to tools, the greater possibility exists that greater creativity will be expressed. But then pianos have been around for hundreds of years and only a few people are virtuoso pianists. If you’re good, that will be noticed and if you’re not good, that will be noticed as well.

DB: Has your working environment changed because of digital equipment?

Jonathan Wells (JW): The internet has been integral to what we do. We get most submissions in the mail, but we’ve only ever really promoted the call for entries through the internet. We also show film clips on our web site for people who can’t attend the festival in person.

DB: Earlier, you mentioned the two streams of documentary and the surreal, fantastic world made possible by CGI. How do these two streams relate?

JW: Digital tools have allowed even graphic designers to start making films. When documentary and CGI meet, a graphic designer can start to shoot live action footage or a documentary filmmaker decide to introduce computer graphics.

Snack and Drink (Bob Sabiston), an animated documentary in our shorts program, is a good example of this convergence. The filmmakers shoot very banal subjects, then take the footage back into their computer, animate over it and discard the live action while retaining the live audio. So the cartoon characters speaking to you are “real.”

DL: There is even a newer trend to create animated narratives using video game characters and architectures from games like Quake. Kids are taking the avatars that appear in the game to kill people, and using them in animated narratives. This is so new that it may be a few more years before we get to see examples of it.

DB: Is it easier to find sponsors when you work with digital??

DL: One of our main sponsors this year was an apparel company. Not only camera companies and software companies benefit from association with digital filmmakers, but other consumer goods like clothing and alcohol as well.

JW: In each festival, we have technology demos in the lobby, so technology sponsors bring the tools here. We hope that filmmakers can come to the festival excited to make their own film and be able to learn how to do this in the lobby.

This year, filmmakers Brian McNelis and Stuart Swezey (Better Living Through Circuitry) discussed their camera at the screening in Los Angeles. It was a mass-market camera that anyone in the audience could purchase, so there’s a strong feeling that any audience member could be making a film themselves and submitting it to the festival next year.

DB: Does digital still run into problems with formats?

JW: Right now, we still need submissions on VHS tape because everyone is using different computer programs, and trying to screen and compile 650 submissions [all in different formats] would be a nightmare. But it’s hard for filmmakers to put their film on tape and have sound sync and everything else work smoothly, so hopefully there will be a digital standard down the line.

DB: Do you think cinema will die out and be taken over by video and other formats, just as vinyl has been crowded out by CDs?

JW: Just as painters or artists have many different tools with which to express themselves, DV cameras just add to the choices and the types of films that you can make. Wim Wenders, Steve Soderbergh and Lars von Trier have shot in 35mm and can certainly afford to continue shooting in 35mm, but have also chosen to express themselves with DV cameras. That doesn’t mean they’ll never shoot in film again.

Ultimately, it’s not all about image quality. It’s about what you can do creatively with the tools. Hoop Dreams (YIDFF ’95) was one of the early films shot in video to get wide distribution, and yet no one said “Oh, this looks horrible,” because the story was so good. In the future, some films may be projected digitally but originate in film. Right now, people shoot in digital but distribution is still 35mm. But some people shoot on film and transfer to HD to retain the image they captured on 35mm.

Prior to RESFEST, many of our filmmakers may have never seen their film outside of their 15 inch computer screen. We all believe in DVDs and the internet as new distribution methods, but the collective feeling of experiencing a film in a theater with many people can’t be duplicated by watching the film by yourself on a screen. So I don’t think at all that we’re seeing the end of cinema. We’re seeing a new rebirth.