Thursday, January 26, 2012

The argument for Standard Definition

Hello all and welcome back to my blog.

I was having a brief thought this morning which I believe should be shared amongst all of the film community in and out of Cape Town, as well as everywhere else. As we all know, the film industry is a difficult one to enter because of the high costs involved in film production. And right now, these costs are the barrier to a lot of aspiring filmmakers. This is a problem - effectively, those not rich enough to make their own films are being silenced.

And I think I know why.

You see, when I was in Film Production class at UCT, our generation seemed to be obsessed - and I literally do mean obsessed with production values. Production values ostensibly refer to quality, but I think they actually refer to how 'polished' a product looks. What that means is that when we see a feature film created by Hollywood, we're often seeing something that has been shot on actual film, scanned onto a computer, edited and printed back on to film. That gives their pictures a visual quality we long to match.. which is something that can't be done without shitloads of money. Everyone knows I have my issues with Hollywood, but surely I can't be bashing films that look nice?

Well, I'm not doing that either. It's wonderful that we have visual masterpieces on film. Two of my favourite films ever, Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are on my favourites list mostly because of the production design elements, which look the way they do because of expensive equipment (although I would like to point out that Sin City was shot in HD and not on film).

So here we have a new generation of young filmmakers, most of them without large cash deposits longing for their films to look like those, and in the process scorning films with so-called 'low' production values. THAT's where the problem lies. So concerned with production values were we as a class that most groups, for our final graduation project, refused to shoot with a Sony NX5 (1920x1080 at 24 Mbps, this is full HD at three megabytes per SECOND, so a 10-minute film weighs in at 1,8 GB), despite the fact that we could get hold of this camera for free. Instead, we went with the Canon 5D Mark II, which shoots at 38 Mbps. For this we paid R400 per DAY - at a 90% discounted rate (the original rate being R4000/day - all this for the camera BODY, with no lens).

The problem, again, is not that we are making films that look beautiful, but that we are continuing a trend in which visual quality is more important than content. This is likely to hurt freelancers with older equipment especially - they will not be hired because they haven't yet saved up the R100 000 necessary to buy all the latest stuff. And we are feeding a capitalist industry that just loves to tell us how bad Standard Definition is.

When I uploaded the aforementioned film, Nje Ngathi to Vimeo, their specifications for the upload were 640x360 at 2 Mbps. And rightfully so... imagine how long it would take people with South Africa's shitty internet to buffer it in full HD? The point is, here I am uploading a version that is 1/19th of the original's quality - and that's just OK. It still looks good enough.

So the point, then, is not to stop recording movies in HD - after all, we do need technology to continue to expand, become cheaper and more accessible. What I'm suggesting is that production values, which are not limited to picture quality, but in fact cover many aspects of video production, scale in diminishing return - the more you spend on making them right, the less output you get for each rand you spend. And if you have little or no money but still want to make a film, you'll be derided for not matching the production companies' standards. That is how they stay in power and keep you out of it.

What we need is a realisation that glossy finishes do not make good films. That content is more important than visuals. The next time you see an independently produced film in SD, don't shy away from it just because its visuals aren't as impressive as Avatar. Remember that over 2 billion rand was spent on that film - then the fact that it's visual quality is only 20 times better than an SD film produced for less than R1000 starts to put it in perspective for you.

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