Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's a good time for filmmakers. You can go to any mainstream electronics store, pick up an HD video camera, pretty fast computer and writing, editing, graphics and audio software for affordable prices, then go online and find hours of tutorials, inspirational short films, and forums to learn to make a film.

Now this isn't anything new. Filmmakers have had affordable gear available for at least a decade. The tools were good, the quality decent to pretty good, but required a lot of work to get exceptional results.

The caveats of course were what you were willing to compromise on. The paradigm was good - cheap - fast... pick two.

As time passed, Moore's Law made things more interesting. For the amount of money we spent 10 to 15 years ago, today we've gotten exponentially more powerful and affordable tools. Our paradigm is still good cheap and fast, though now we can have all three in various price ranges.

These days we're seeing movie budgets from 0 to $300 million. The interesting thing is that 4k Red, HD capable DSLRs, prosumer HD cameras are used on both low and high budget productions.

Previously our choice was shoot DV, run it though some film look recipe, transfer to film, looking gritty, blown out with obvious video artifacts. It was a compromise that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't.

The current crop of cameras are much closer to a cinematic aesthetic, so most viewers won't notice the difference. Even a consumer camera has some flavor of HD with a 24p mode. Transfer to film is optional, since digital projection is steadily being added to theaters. Even if a theatrical release isn't planned, HD quality can be maintained with both streaming/downloads and Blu Ray. Scaling the image down to something more manageable on YouTube and Vimeo actually enhances the look if done correctly.

On the post side, software like Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects quickly matured and put to use on major feature films and TV series. In response, some of the traditional heavy hitters have been restructuring their pricing. Software only products like Avid Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve and Autodesk Smoke For Mac are affordable for boutiques and individuals, without compromising on functionality.

Enthusiasm has been high amongst professionals, especially those who opened boutique shops using powerful yet affordable hardware and software.

There has been some curious backlash though in forums, blogs and panels. Look around and you'll read about how film is still the gold standard for image acquisition, and how Media Composer is the editing system of choice for most professional feature film editors.

The HD DSLRs are the latest tools to get the backlash. Highly compressed codecs, poor image processing and less than ideal form factors, are some of the complaints. Yet both on YouTube and Vimeo, there are many examples of stunning imagery. That seems to be what baffles the pros who don't want to compromise on image fidelity. The supporters of these cameras find they get a beautiful image for a very affordable price, so they are more than willing to deal with the shortcomings.

The uneasiness is to be expected. There are many examples of industries that used expensive unwieldy equipment with experienced operators, replaced by user friendly, inexpensive tools. Adding to the uneasiness has been closures of some established post houses in recent times.

Lost will be the apprentice/mentor model where someone spends years honing their skills under the tutelage of a seasoned pro. Learning now is a mixed variety of school, online tutorials, videos, books, and hands on experience.

This DIY learn as you go method isn't perfect either, as some will just copy tutorials instead of learning the core fundamentals. There will be new methods of figuring out who's skilled and who isn't.

One of biggest benefits is an openness about teaching anyone, and not keep it a secret art only to be passed onto insiders. Software developers have noticed too, and been developing their own tutorials and special learning edition versions of their products. They also have heavily discounted student editions, to help grow the future user base.

Now that anyone can make a movie, there is a flood of content online, good and bad. This is no different with art, music, photography or literature. Not everyone will attempt to make a living at it, and not all of those who try will succeed. It'll definitely be exciting to see what creatively will come from users of these new tools.

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