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
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
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
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!