A critic steps behind the camera, and gets hooked on a cottage industry
BRIAN D. JOHNSONSeptember62004
CONFESSIONS FROM THE SHOOTING GALLERY
A critic steps behind the camera, and gets hooked on a cottage industry
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
LIKE MOST ADDICTIONS, it began as a lark. Last summer, on the dock of a cottage we rent in an obscure nook of the Laurentians, I discovered the video function on my pointand-shoot digital camera—a dinky 2.0 megapixel toy. Until then, I’d never shot anything other than stills. But by switching the camera’s dial to a tiny icon of a film strip ... voila, I was making motion pictures. Very small ones. No clip could run longer than 19 seconds, and the camera’s memory card held about a dozen clips. With a camcorder, you can let the tape roll on and on. But this was like burning film. Every second was precious; every
shot had a deadline tension. And when the memory card filled up, the shoot was over.
I had a widescreen iMac in the corner of the old log cabin where we slept. Ferrying the footage straight from the dock, I’d dump it onto the computer, edit with iMovie and slap on a soundtrack with iTunes. A lot of the footage was accidental. In among the shots of kids and a dog on a windsurfer were abstract smears of lake, dock and feet— captured when I didn’t realize the camera was still running. They looked as compelling as anything else. By the end of the day I had a roughly edited two-minute “film” with titles, dissolves and music by Daniel Lanois.
But here’s what astonished me: just moments after the footage had been shot, it looked really, really old, like a home movie from the ’50s. This primitive MPEG video had a flickering, fragile quality, reminiscent of old super-8. There was something haunting about it, as if the camera had left behind those lives on the dock, but caught a ghostly animus invisible to the naked eye, a shimmery thread of light and shadow. The images conveyed an instant nostalgia—for a vanishing summer, a present digitally decayed into a half-remembered past.
After a week or so I’d developed a literal cottage industry—sugaring off the sap of summer days into a kind of ultra-light personal cinema, using the iDon’t-know-whatI’m-doing program. I gave myself a kindergarten course in cutting. Apple’s iMovie program may be the Fisher-Price toy of digital editing, but it’s more sophisticated
than anything professional filmmakers were working with a decade ago. It’s also dead simple, and so intuitively designed that you can teach yourself how to use it with few detours to the Help menu. Digital editing is not unlike word processing, with cut-and-paste tools and the ability to sculpt narrative structure with the click of a mouse. Having spent countless hours watching movies for a living, I also felt I had some sense of how one image should cut to another.
Of course, I was flirting with a cliché—/ love my job, but what I really want to do is direct. Yet, unlike Jean-Luc Godard (who started out as a film critic), I have no ambitions to be-
WITH just a mini-DV camera and a personal computer, you too can stumble into a serious filmmaking habit
come a professional filmmaker. I’m just thrilled to have a hobby. Unlike writing, it comes with no baggage; it’s pure play. But if I was foolish enough to get serious about this, the technology is now ridiculously accessible. With a mini-DV camera and a robust personal computer, anyone can stumble into filmmaking. Consumer camcorders can be had for $1,000. And for roughly $5,000 you can choose from a variety of professional cameras on a par with what Lars von Trier used to shoot Dancer in the Dark. For
another $1,300, an amateur can buy Apple’s Final Cut Pro, an editing program that puts you in an extremely sophisticated cockpit— it’s the same software now used by Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning editor of The English Patient and Cold Mountain.
As a Sunday painter I’ve fallen into a trend that’s changing the movies. Traditionally, cinema has been our most mechanized art form. Taking over city streets like an occupying army, a Hollywood production uses a mountain of metal to capture just a few minutes of 35-mm footage. But inexpensive digital video has led to an explosion of personal filmmaking. Mini-DV has revolutionized the documentary. The Sundance Film Festival now has a program devoted to work made for the Web. And one of the breakout hits at Sundance this year was Tarnation, a family memoir that novice American director Jonathan Caouette says he edited entirely on iMovie for just US$218.32.
By comparison, my latest cottage trilogy is a blockbuster, at least in budgetary terms. Last year, the point-and-shoot camera and iMovie turned out to be my harmless gateway drugs. By the fall, I’d become a serial borrower of camcorders, offering to review them for the Maclean’s website. Last spring I acquired Final Cut Express, the consumer version of Apple’s pro editing program. Since then, at $70 a day, I’ve rented out the Sony PD DSR-150, which has been the industry standard digital camera used by documentary filmmakers.
What do I shoot? Whatever catches my eye: landscapes, bridges, culverts, fences, birds, insects, water, traffic ... stock footage. I’ve spent hours fiddling with a tripod on a bridge trying to shoot a full moon rising over the Don Valley Parkway. I once got permission to set up a camera at the edge of the YMCA pool at closing time—then shot the bright, corrugated lane markers as they were being
rolled up. I had no purpose in mind, but they looked mysterious. I like to collect strange images and set them to ominous music. I seem to use a lot of Philip Glass.
I’ve also embarked on a more ambitous project called Manual Labour, collating close-up shots of hands at work—massage therapists, bread bakers, pastry makers, cigar rollers, sushi chefs—and choregraphing the images to music. It began as an exercise. But after a few months I feel as if I’d flung myself headlong into writing a novel
and got stuck a third the way through. Digital editing is a pit of infinite possibilities. Living up to its title, Manual Labour could take years to complete, or abandon.
The quick, casual projects are more satisfying—whittling a two-minute saga from an afternoon of shooting hummingbirds at a red feeder in a steady rain; using a click of the mouse to slow the blur of their wing-beats down to a flicker; adding an aria by Maria Callas, then sliding sound and picture back and forth, until something crystallizes out
of random convergence. If that sounds pretentious, so be it. At this point, like a 13year-old putting his hand to poetry for the first time, I’m happy to invent the wheel.
Has it changed the way I watch movies? Not really, but my respect for filmmakers has increased-at least for those who manage to forge personal art from what’s still a largely industrial medium. And as someone who could never paint or draw, with this digital fingerpainting I can apply a vocabulary gleaned from years of professional watching. Finally, I can move the frame.
I’ve yet to buy my own camera, partly because I fear that will be the beginning of the end, a marriage that could drain the magic from a perfect romance. This summer, when I returned to the cottage, I’d persuaded a PR woman at Panasonic to lend me a demo model of the DVX100A, a professional miniDV camera that’s now all the rage. Most video cameras shoot at 30 frames per second, but this one has the option of shooting at 24 frames per second, like a movie camera. The images are warmer and softermore filmic—without the crisp shine of conventional video. Sticker price: about $5,000. The actual camera loaned to me had been to Mt. Everest, on an expedition with the Discovery Channel. Now it was at the cottage.
My wife was concerned. She thought the neighbours might think we were running a wilderness porn site. She didn’t like turning an evening paddle into a “shoot.” And as I leafed through the thick manual, and worried about “white balance” settings, she was nostalgic for the previous summer, when I was playing with a gadget the size of a bar of soap. Although the DVX100A (weird name—if Ikea made cameras, they’d be called Jörg or Ingmar) is very compact for a pro camera, it’s more imposing than a camcorder. When you stick it in someone’s face, suddenly they feel they’re on the news. Also, it weighs about two kilos, which doesn’t sound like much. But after a couple of weeks I developed a hamstring injury, and wondered if it came from swimming, or from the intensity of trying to hold a steady frame with stupid posture—i.e. don’t try this at home.
In just one year, I’ve upped my habit from a point-and-shoot toy to a hunk of serious hardware. If only I could upgrade my talent as easily. But now there’s no going back. I’ve found another way to watch movies. Iffl
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