THE NEW MEDIA REVOLUTION - by William Joseph Hill





Like it or not, New Media is here. Back when I began making movies over 25 years ago, filmmaking was a difficult racket to break into. If you wanted to make a film, you had to have a lot of money. Considering that even a low budget, non union narrative short would cost you upwards of $40,000 back in the 1980s (with the price of film stock), there weren’t many options for us zero budget filmmakers.

Many of us now making a living in the movie business remember Super 8 film. If you wanted to shoot on film, that was the cheapest option. But Super 8 cartridges cost close to $6 a roll, and they only held 3 minutes worth of film. Not only that, but Super 8 has a near-square aspect ratio close to 3:4, or old-school TV. In 1985, when I was in pre-production on Law of the Ninja, my original budget estimates for the movie showed the cost of film to run into a few thousand dollars. Considering that I was financing the project by saving half of my lunch money for school, film was not going to be a viable option.

Enter VHS video. This was the format that won the VCR wars of the early 80s. Though a vastly inferior product compared to Sony’s Betamax format, JVC’s willingness to license the technology, and the fact that consumers could record 6 hours at SLP setting, made it the winner. Instead of $6 per roll of film, I only had to pay $2 for a high quality VHS tape. 2 blank tapes were all I needed to shoot with, and this gave me a near limitless shooting ratio. (To contrast, my very first film, 1984’s Quest For A Thunderstick was shot on Super 8 film with a 1:1 shooting ratio, which meant only one take for each setup.)

It also turned out that my high school had a video camera that they were willing to lend me. This was an old school JVC model that needed to be plugged into a video deck. So I had to get an adapter to be able to attach it to my family’s expensive stereo VCR, and had countless extension cords in order to connect it to a power outlet.

I immediately realized that shooting on video gave me tremendous flexibility and cost savings. The only problem was, it looked like video. And back in those days, VHS meant 640X480 interleaved low definition with a 30 fps frame rate. It sure as hell wasn’t Academy Standard big screen fare.

Let’s not forget editing! Without a set of expensive video editing decks and a switcher, I was forced to connect 2 VCRs, much like a dual cassette boom box used to make mixed tapes. My source VCR would feed the raw footage to the recording VCR, where I would start and stop each shot at the edit point I wanted. By the time I had my picture lock, that Video Tape was a second generation copy.

If you know anything about video tapes, you realize that as you make copies off of copies, the quality of picture would drop almost exponentially. My picture edit needed the sound mix to be added, so this was accomplished by putting that tape into the source VCR, and hooking up the audio mixer, microphones, music, sound effects, etc. into the audio input on the recording VCR. My “master tape” was now a 3rd generation dub off of the raw footage.

Needless to say, the finished product was less than ideal. I only entered it into one film festival where it didn’t even get a mention for anything. Dismayed, I put it on the shelf to collect dust and only bring out periodically to amuse my friends. My dreams of having it screened worldwide were dashed--this wasn’t going to be a classic.

Flash forward to the end of the 20th Century -- 1999. Now a professional actor and writer in Hollywood, I was cast in my first film that was shot on this new thing called digital video. I remember the project well. The producer and director had a Canon XL-1 that shot on those mini DV tapes. They had a video tap hooked up. The picture looked amazing--it actually looked like film! I realized that there was a new revolution brewing--video was going to be digital. Editing was being done on computers now--once you had a video capture card, you could put the video on your computer, and then there wouldn’t be any generation loss--you were editing on the computer, and could output to a video file, or even a VHS tape. I started cutting acting reels to learn the techniques.

I’ve seen this industry change---back in the 90s, if you needed headshots as an actor, they were shot with film, and would always be black & white. I’ve done my headshots with the same photographer for over 14 years now, Lesley Bohm. My very first digital color headshots were in 2004. And since then, all my photos have been digital and in color.

Casting used to consist of mailing pictures & resumes to various projects that you would find out about in the actor trade papers like Drama-Logue and BackStage West. Now, everything is done online. Hesdshots, resumes, demo reels, you name it--Casting Directors are finding their actors on the computer.

Auditions are being scheduled through e-mail and text messages. Whereas the actors in the olden days of the 70s and 80s had to have answering services, and the 90s saw the rise of pagers and cell phones, actors today have their iPhone and Droid smart phones, able to not only get the message from their agent, but look the address up on Google Maps, get a street view, and then have their GPS show them how to get there. Even the Apollo Astronauts didn’t have this kind of power to get them to the moon!

So, yes…it is a New Media revolution. Filmmakers can now take their digital features and upload them to YouTube, where a worldwide audience can enjoy them. And if they’re lucky enough to become popular, they might be able to participate in advertising revenue sharing.

My intention with this series of filmmaking articles is to explore this brand new emerging marketplace and discuss ways which filmmakers may be able to monetize their work and break into the Hollywood establishment. The great news is, you don’t even have to reside in Southern California to be the next Scorcese or Coppola. If you have a vision, and access to a Best Buy, you can make your movie a reality!

Happy Filmmaking!