March 1, 2002

D-Day in DV: 'Price for Peace' Pioneers Digital Cinema

Director of Photography Harris Done with Director/Producer James Moll

The world works in mysterious ways. At least that’s what Emmy—and Oscar®—winning filmmaker James Moll discovered when he returned to Los Angeles after a trip to New Orleans for a wedding. While visiting the Big Easy, a town known for voodoo and black magic, Moll took a side trip to the D-Day Museum.

Moved by the museum’s displays, he thought to himself that he’d love to make a film for it one day. The spirits must have been listening; when Moll got back to LA he got a call from Steven Spielberg, who had been approached by the director of the D-Day Museum, historian Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose needed a film for a new wing of the museum and specifically wanted a film about the fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Since Moll was already working on an Iwo Jima project for Spielberg, it was quickly decided to expand this into a centerpiece film for the museum.

Moll didn’t have much time to ponder the complex questions posed by the battles against Japan. Starting in February 2001, he had to deliver a 90-minute documentary film for a gala opening in September. “It was a crash course and a full immersion,” he admits. Working with Ambrose, Moll defined the most important subjects and started to map out the film. While putting the story in place he turned to the technology of shooting this project.

He prefers using video for documentaries, primarily because he doesn’t have to stop an interview every ten minutes to replace the film roll, as he did when making the Oscar®-winning, 35mm documentary The Last Days. “This breaks the continuity and interrupts the sense of intimacy that an interviewer tries to establish with someone,” Moll notes. “You want them to forget the camera is there and just start talking.” Video won on convenience, but he didn’t like the way it looked—especially when projected.

Knowing that the eventual venue for his new project, Price for Peace, would be the D-Day Museum’s theater, Moll thought about using a relatively new technology: digital cinema. He discussed this emerging technology with a number of people and decided to be a pioneer.

“Digital cinema means a lot of things to different people, but no matter what format you use, you are challenging the supremacy of film,” explains Steven Cohen of Cohen Communications, a leader in the facilitation of HDTV technology for production and post-production. Cohen was called in to help Moll navigate the digital waters.

The acquisition and playback for documentary can be a DV camera, a Mini-DV, DVC PRO, Digi-Betacam or a high-end High Definition 24-frame-per-second digital camera. All of these devices allow a documentarian to capture top-quality images for less money than most film formats.

Moll chose to try the High Definition 24-frame camera, or HD 24p. “I was thrilled to shoot on video, and I never looked back,” says Moll. HD seemed to be the answer because of image quality and cost. “An HD cam can record on an $85 dollar cassette for 50 minutes,” says Cohen. “Fifty minutes of 35mm film would be $1,000.” While 16mm film might be comparable in cost to HD as an acquisition medium, there is no film processing, no work print, no transferring of film to tape for editing on video and no release prints to be made with HD. “HD can reduce a lot of costs on production and editing,” says Cohen.

As with any new technology, there were some quirks and problems that stymied the crew. According to Moll, having to rely on the small black-and-white video eyepiece was frustrating for the director of photography, who was used to looking through the eyepiece of a film camera. The high-tech cameras have so many controls and adjustments that it was hard to remember when they were on or off, or how they should be set. Using two cameras proved to be next to impossible. “We were never able to get two cameras to match,” Moll recalls. Of course, the filmmaking team fixed the problems in post-production, and none of the system’s drawbacks soured him on HD.

“These are the birthing pains,” he says. “With any new technology, the infrastructure isn’t fully in place.” The numerous technical hurdles, like trying to find someone who had the equipment to make a dub, didn’t prevent Moll capturing the intimate, revealing and often painful moments he sought from his subjects, who ranged from American and Japanese veterans to nurses to war widows to Japanese-American internees. The technology impressed Moll when he finally saw his doc on the large screen. “It looked so much better than I’d hoped,” he recalls. Moll believes that the average viewer wouldn’t know that it wasn’t a brand new 35mm print, although he acknowledges that filmmakers will see the difference in picture quality. Even though the film is screened throughout the day at the D-Day Museum, it will never get dusty or dirty, have scratches, or wobble and shake while being projected, since it’s basically a digital file being projected off a computer hard drive.

Compression technology takes the approximately 8,000 gigabytes of information that comprises a film—enough to fill 200 typical hard drives—and packs it onto a manageable 60 gigabyte data tape. This is hooked up to a high tech projector for screening in theaters. The $125,000 cost of the projectors—along with the need for a $20,000 server—as opposed to $35,000 for a 35mm projector, helps to explain why this technology hasn’t been universally embraced by theater owners. “The exhibitors are financially strapped, but it will happen,” predicts Cohen.

Cohen believes the major motion picture studios will help push the adaptation of digital cinema because of the enormous savings they’ll gain from not having to make film prints. A big movie might require 5,000 prints at $2,000 each. “That’s $10,000,000 with one movie, enough to equip 50 theaters,” says Cohen.

How this move to HD will affect most documentary makers is not as clear. Cohen believes that documentarians may also realize the benefits of not having to pay for film prints. Struggling theater owners are looking for ways to make their venues more compelling for people, and documentaries may be one way to provide alternative programming.

Even if the choice is not HD, the average documentary maker will be working with other digital formats—Mini DV, DV Cam, DV Pro or Digi-Beta.“The important thing is that you start,” says Moll. He warns against “falling into film snobbery,” and waiting until you can afford to shoot on the format you desire. He encourages people to just tell a good story and not worry so much about the technology. “Whether you’re shooting on Super-8, Hi 8 or whatever, if your story’s good, your film is going to be good.”

 

Michael Rose is an independent documentary writer and producer who also writes about the nonfiction production world for several publications.

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