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20 September 2014
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Vincent Monton, on making low-budget digital features


Vincent Monton has worked in the film industry for over 30 years in Australia and internationally as a cinematographer, director and writer.

He has won the Kodak/AFI Award for Best Cinematography (and been a nominee on five other occasions), a Penguin Best Cinematography Award and a Sammy Award for Cinematography in television.

His extensive cinematography credits on over 35 feature films include some of Australia's best known and most successful productions collaborating with outstanding Australian directors including John Duigan, Richard Franklin, George Miller, Simon Wincer, Bruce Beresford and Phillip Noyce.

In recent years, Vincent has also turned to directing and writing. One of his short films, The Heroes, won a silver medallion at the Milan Film Festival. His directing credits include the feature films Windrider with Nicole Kidman and Fatal Bond with Linda Blair.

Here he talks with Director, Film Development, Carole Sklan about the possibilities of digital filmmaking for low-budget feature filmmakers.

CS: Why are you excited by the possibility of digital filmmaking both at the high end and the low end of production?

VM: My eyes were opened when we did a test program earlier in the year comparing film to the best high-definition cameras. I was stunned by how close high-definition digital came to 35mm film when a release print was made.

At the other end of the spectrum the success of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which was shot with mini DV digital cameras, shook up our ideas of what is technically acceptable to an audience in a mainstream genre movie - if the story is told compellingly from a bullet proof screenplay. And hold your breath for Open Water, a low-budget thriller which is making waves in the US. Hyped to be the next Blair Witch Project, it's based on an incident in Queensland where two American divers were left behind on a dive expedition.

But let's not forget that digital movie making is a trinity of shooting, post-production and distribution. The technology has been around for some time but suddenly the costs are plummeting.

And this is only the beginning. Millions in R&D have been pumped into a new generation of digital gear and software coming on stream now.

For an industry on 'pause' such as ours, the possibilities of digital production are a wake up call we can't ignore.

CS: Can you talk about the kind of films for which shooting on digital is a real strength?

VM: Shooting digital isn't for every movie.It's still hard to beat a well-shot 35mm film and at the high-definition end, digital doesn't mean 'cheap'. However, if your story needs lots of digital work in post-production, such as a sci-fi, bypassing the digital scanning of the film is a terrific saver of money and time. The digital boffins can start working their magic as the images pour out of the digital camera instead of waiting almost a day in turnaround, and messing up the place with pizza cartons.

At the other end, the obvious advantage of shooting digital is economics.

Mini DV is just ridiculously cheap.

Buying a complete broadcast-quality camera outfit for well under 10,000 bucks and recording an hour of crisp image and sound for the cost of a six pack was only a wet dream for independent movie makers a few years ago. So, stories that aren't obviously commercial or could have limited appeal or even just too controversial to attract start up finance can be kick-started with very little cash.

There are great movies out there like 28 Days Later, Italian for Beginners and The Finished People which could only be produced and reach an audience thanks to low-cost digital mini DV.

Although the over-hyped Dogme School (which included the work of Lars Von Trier) didn't push digital, without making apologies to the audience it created a buzz and validated the bargain basement minimalist style low-end digital does so well.

CS: What are the advantages and disadvantages of low-end digital filmmaking?

VM: The upside of low-end digital is accessibility.

The downside of low-end digital is accessibility.

Anyone can grab a digital camera and make a movie - but this democratisation is a two-edged sword.

Hey, who wants to be chained to a keyboard sweating to strengthen a character arc or imposing a three-act structure on a screenplay when you could be out there waving a camera in the streets with cool people and actors that amazingly ... make up their own dialogue.

Too much digital stuff looks more like an acting workshop from a first-draft screenplay, shot by whoever could borrow a camera - and it is giving digital production a bad rep.

Though when it is done right, with discipline and thought, shooting digital is like a breath of fresh air.

Digital cameras can be small and unobtrusive, needing minimal light, so performances can be captured with intimacy and authenticity, encouraging improvisation and experimentation.

And it is possible to make a digital movie with little more than the creative input.

Cheap powerful computers such as Mac G5, are now a one-stop shop. Digital material can be poured in, edited, colour graded, sound mixed, special effected, titled then burnt onto DVD disks or plugged into a digital projector for cinema screenings.

For documentary makers and those telling dramatic stories the real freedom is in these technology barriers melting away.

Perhaps that is the future of low-end digital. With technical costs negligible maybe shooting will become like so many drafts of a screenplay, until it all comes together for an audience.

CS: Can you give examples of the stylistic innovation possible with digital cameras?

VM: At a time when studio productions are putting film through 'grunge' special effects programs to take off the gloss and audiences embrace a down and dirty style for many genres of movies, if you're shooting with a two-kilo camera the same way as a 20-kilo camera you're missing the plot - and chaining it to a tripod will only make it grumpy.

The French New Wave was propelled by portable filming gear that released directors from the studio into the real world - and their style and subject matter reflected this. Digital cameras are impacting the same way.

Stories that benefit from the suggestion of documentary and immediacy are boosted by the spontaneity and fluidity that comes so easily from digital shooting. Even the limitations in image resolution and colour saturation can become a virtue. Imagine Touching the Void or Open Water without the gritty realism.

Shooting digital also reduces risk - you know the shot is in the can almost instantly without a nail-biting wait for film to be processed. Video assist on film cameras is great but doesn't show you what is on the negative. Paradoxically, I find shooting digital encourages risk with lighting and coverage. The best stuff is always on the edge of being unusable and it's good to know when you've pushed the envelope too far without coming back for reshoots.

With the cameras outputting an immediate digital image the material is ready for digital manipulation, so the temptation is to tweak every shot and experiment with the cluster of computer programs packed into most editing systems. Altering the colour palette and slipping time is now routine.

However, I feel the greatest stylist impact of digital production is on editing. Rather than the traditional reductive approach, digital editors seem to cut more audaciously, perhaps because no-one has to crawl around on the editing room floor searching for a missing frame of film any more.

CS: What about the limits of digital distribution and the cost of kine to 35mm print?

VM: The digital to film step is not cheap and quality control is tricky. Best results come from colour grading the movie with the laser printer setup in mind, so planning ahead and choosing a post-production company is important.

Annoyingly, the cost and frustration of transferring a digital movie to film for theatrical release is only a temporary stage.

The economics are overwhelming for digital cinema release but for now there aren't enough cinemas in the world with digital projection to show a general release movie.

Val Morgan is committing to equipping their screens with digital projection for cinema ads and more cinemas are considering introducing high-end projection

For a restricted release the screen numbers may be enough but if your distributor insists on 35mm prints, this is a major spend for a struggling independent - up to a thousand bucks a minute.

But the glow on the horizon is the huge profit flowing from reaching a swelling audience through DVD discs.

Vincent Monton has just delivered the first draft of a political thriller, The Fourth, to director Richard Franklin. He is also in the development stages on a sci-fi project, Dark Side, which he aims to shoot on both high-definition digital and low-end mini DV.