Indie Chronicles: Seeing Red
a blogumn by R.B. Ripley
“So, what format are you shooting on?” was the question casually posed to me.
Format? I froze, then panicked, then had to work really hard to keep from crying in public.
Yeah, that’s me, the writer. In a meeting at a boutique post-production house talking with people who KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT when it comes to making a film, who do this for a living and not in whatever time is left over after the day job, like some of us…
This was three days ago and I was at Hollwood DI, talking with Neil Smith and Ben Epps, two of the most down to earth and nice people I’ve met in my time in this business. The meeting had been set up by James Peterson, a friend of mine and a talented film composer who works in the building next to HDI and occasionally with them. When James heard about my short film project, he had just finished composing a score for a film that had been shot on RED. I assumed he meant the color of the film and was lost in the litany of virtues he extolled about RED. I had no idea what he was talking about but I was thrilled to talk with someone who did and might be interested in helping me make “Imbalance.” I needed help. Even I understood that much.
It had been Neil who asked me about the format. I shrugged non-committally and answered in my best Hollywood Ambiguous, “I haven’t really decided yet.”
They could see right through me.
I knew they could see right through me.
They knew I knew they could see right through me.
It was like being in a clever, 1940′s Cary Grant comedy. If someone had burst through the door, it could have been a Moliere farce.
Neil and Ben are delightfully and passionately geeky about using technology to make films. And they’re like a cocoon for independent filmmakers – patient, informative and, at the risk of sounding a little granola, very empowering. They’re also professional. When I sheepishly told them that my projected budget was $15,000 they didn’t laugh and have security escort me away as I’d expected, but instead, rolled up there sleeves, booted up their computers and said, “Let’s see what we can do to make the most of your budget.”
For a writer trying on the director’s hat and now way out of his element as a producer, this was the conversation I’d wished for but never thought I’d have. At that moment, I made the simple decision to just be honest with and trust them. If I didn’t know something, I’d actually say, “I don’t know about that, can you explain it to me?” Those of you who know me understand just how remarkable that is – I’d rather have my toenails ripped out than admit “weakness.”
Best decision I’ve made in years.
Neil suggested I consider shooting my short film on RED. I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about and could they explain? They did. Happily. Format, in contemporary movie terms is, at its core, your choice of medium to capture images: film (35mm, 16mm, 8mm) or digital (DV, HD, RED, etc,). Ah ha! Now I understood. They told me the quality of RED was amazing and then showed me projects shot on RED. They didn’t exaggerate. It was amazing. Some of HDI’s customers are the films Zodiac, Children of Men and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. I’d seen all three and damned if I could tell the difference. And I watch a fair number movies.
Neil and Ben explained HDI’s basic philosophy: To help independent filmmakers get the most out of their time and money. I liked that. But how do they save filmmakers money? First, by skipping all of the transfer process required when you shoot on film. Then, by designing a workflow (the process geek in me fell a little in love on hearing that word) that guides the digital images I shoot all the way through the post-production process that ends with a copy of my movie on DVD.
Here’s what I’ve since learned about shooting on any digital format: Even though you don’t wind up with canisters of film, you do end up with an external hard drive full of data (the footage you shoot). And data, since it’s not something you can hold in your hands, has to be managed and managed well. All the data has to go to the right place at the right time, it needs to be properly “labeled,” properly “checked out” and “returned.” Everyone who needs to work with the data (editor, sound designer, foley artist, etc.) needs to be working with the “current draft.” The margin for error is virtually incalculable.
Have you ever had to circulate a document to three people for their edits? How about dealing with the “simple” task of making revisions to a script from multiple sources? Both of these scenarios spiral out of control very quickly if everyone doesn’t follow the same process (i.e. workflow).
Nate and Ben were suggesting that I could do all of my post work – editing, color correction, sound, visual effects, titles – at one place. With a workflow they design, I approve and that everyone at HDI understands. And they’d manage it. All of this for my measly $15,000 budget. I nearly wept with relief. There was a lot of conversation after that, but it wasn’t really necessary. Ben and Neil had me at “one stop shop.”
THE UPSIDE: While I am still learning all of the technical jargon that’s involved in production and post production, I know a fair lot about process development and the general studio system. This, what Neil and Ben have developed at HDI and a few other companies around the world have done, will revolutionize filmmaking. Now that the quality of digital formats grows ever closer to traditional film, whoever has spent time developing workflow to deal with digital footage will rule the filmmaking world. Studio heads are in the terrible position of salivating at the savings that not only companies like HDI represent, but the massive reduction in overhead using such a system must make them desperate for the wider profit margins they’d bring. Meanwhile, other companies will grow into mini-studios, making a much higher return on investment than the old-fashioned studios, who will surely be seeing RED.
The bonus: By the time I’m done with this project, I’ll know how to develop, budget, shoot and post a film shot on RED, the latest technology that’s reshaping movie making. Talk about a valuable skill set.
UP NEXT: Um, no, we won’t be reading for this role next Wednesday after your pilates class.