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Filmmakers on the cutting edge

Advances in cameras and software are creating new opportunities for indie filmmakers, but it's still the story that matters most, say Sundance panelists.

PARK CITY, Utah--A documentary on steroid culture is shot with a state-of-the-art camera that saves footage straight onto memory cards, freeing the filmmaker from the burden of tape-shlepping.

The maker of a science fiction film makes budget by taking advantage of software that lets him do some of his own special effects.

And the director of a documentary about a high school adolescent's life is able to employ photo animators from around the globe using convenient Web communication tools.

Alex Rivera
Filmmaker Alex Rivera tells how he used technology to make his science fiction film, Sleep Dealer, which premieres at Sundance. Michelle Meyers/CNET

These are just a few real-life examples of how cutting-edge technology is opening up new opportunities for independent filmmakers.

Such was the topic of a Sundance Film Festival panel here Friday, "New Filmmaking Technology: What's Now and What's Next."

The panel, featuring some of the festival's most innovative filmmakers, was meant to give audience members insight on the latest in HD cinematography, workflow options, and post-production software. But beyond touting some of the specific technologies they used, panelists offered a larger reminder: technology isn't going to make or break your film.

In the end, "it's all about the story," said Mark Randall, Adobe System's chief strategist for dynamic media. Randall is also a self-described "frustrated filmmaker," because he's always put his obsession with creating better filmmaking tools before his own film projects.

"I'm the biggest geek for a good picture," he said, in reference to some of the best HD technologies. But, he conceded, at some point, audience members can't tell the difference.

And with the likes of YouTube, "for the common person, that (threshold) is going down--it's not going up," he said.

Randall, whose former company and related filmmaking tech were acquired by Adobe, praised a product called On Location, bundled as part of Adobe Premier, which helps creators immediately view footage on their laptops. That way, they can confirm that they got the shot they wanted without having to mess with the tape. No longer do they have to rely on a flip-out screen, which he said is perfectly named because you often get back from a shoot and "flip out" because you didn't get what wanted.

Film director Alex Rivera, who, like Randall, is a technologist, used such software as Adobe After Effects, Apple's Final Cut Pro, and Photoshop on his futuristic drama Sleep Dealer, which ended up requiring a very long and labor-intensive edit process.

"If I had to send every shot to an effects department," he said, the film wouldn't have happened. Rivera added that the Web was also a valuable tool in culling images for the film.

Panelist Nanette Burstein, who produced the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, has a documentary competing here at the festival called American Teen in which the teenager's fantasies, and in one case, a nightmare, are illustrated through different types of animation.

Adina Sales, who heads up an animation company called Blacklist and coordinated the animation in American Teen, said she expects to see more and more such collaboration. "Mixed where things are going," she said, adding, "We're definitely employing every kind of new tech."

Nanatte Burstein
Nanette Burstein hired directors from around the globe to animate the fantasies of the subjects in her documentary American Teen. Michelle Meyers/CNET

With advances in technology, however, come new hurdles. For Burstein, one such challenge is how best to convert high-definition into print for movie houses.

"I can't wait for the day that you can project digitally in movie theaters," she said.

Filmmaker Alex Buono brought up another challenge he faced in converting archival shots in 20 different formats, "dusty old tapes off grandma's shelf," into his documentary shot in high definition, Bigger, Stronger, Faster.

This is where he said he needed to rely on the expertise of those in post-production, he said. "The key is collaboration," he said, later adding, "You don't have to master it yourself, when clearly there are people who can and are mastering it."

Buono's film was shot using a HVX200 camera, which, as mentioned above, saves footage right onto memory cards. With two cards, it allows you to shoot constantly, even when one card is being downloaded onto a hard drive. And it's relatively indiscreet, which is important in documentary work.

"For us, it really streamlined the process...A smaller camera is really a big advantage. The subject is more honest," he said.

But again, he echoed a point made by others: the filmmaking tools available now are incredible, "but using these tools effectively is what it's all about."