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Digital vs. Film: NYFF 51 Filmmakers Continue the Conversation


At almost every film festival or film-related event I attend, I still hear the same question: digital or film? In this regard, New York Film Festival 2013 wasn’t different, and a number of the filmmakers at the NYFF 51 talked about their films, which medium they preferred and why.

Now with the upcoming PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo 2013 — North America’s largest photography and imaging show introducing new products (October 23-26, 2013 at the Jacob Javits Center) — right around the corner, here are several opinions addressing this issue:

Director James Gray ("The Immigrant")

james gray

Director James Gray’s film The Immigrant takes audiences to 1920s New York as people are making the voyage to the United States in hopes of starting a new life. Among the immigrants landing at Ellis Island is a young Polish woman, Ewa (Marion Cotillard), joined by her ailing sister. Things turn unexpectedly bleak when their aunt and uncle don’t show up to meet them. Ewa's sister is quarantined because she is infected with tuberculosis. Then Ewa herself is blocked from entry and is threatened with deportation as a “wayward woman.” Into this Gray zone steps Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who, through his connections, gets her released under his protection. Whether this turns out to be good or bad is revealed during the film.

At the press conference held a few days before The Immigrant's premiere, Gray responded to the issue of shooting with digital or film cameras.

As excerpted below, Gray described his point of view:

The decision about [using] digital or film is going to be made for us. Film is going to be gone. Although I think it may make a comeback, it will be like vinyl record, or something.

This movie was shot on 35 mm film, but what cinematographer Darius Khandji, (Se7en, Midnight in Paris, Amour) and I did was test [shooting it] on Alexa, Red, Kodak, and Fuji. Fuji doesn’t make any film any more, by the way. To my mind Kodak looked incredible. But I think [the success of digital] is in the power of what is new. That is in some ways damaging.

Let’s say everybody shot in digital; the whole world used only digital. All of a sudden I came out with a new product and said, “Well, this thing, it doesn’t see in pixels; it sees in grain, which is more like your eyes see. It has better contrast ratio than digital. It has better representation of color than digital and the blacks are better.

Everyone would be like, “Wow, this new thing, film, I am going to change to it.” I don’t understand why everyone wants to migrate to a new medium. That is, in my mind, objectively worst. And it is not even cheaper.

Now, there are some advantages. I think it comes from cinematographers being fearful. What happens is that on digital you can see everything you are getting from the monitor. So, there is no night of terror [waiting to see the rushes the next morning].

I remember when we shot in the sewer system where Joaquin and Marion have been chased by the police, and Darius said, “I did all that but I don’t know what you are going to see.” You can tell [he had a] sleepless night worrying about the lab, the image on the negative and all that. But when the audience sees the movie it doesn’t care about the sleepless night you had."

Two other NYFF directors who discussed the digital vs. film issue were the co-directors of Manakamana -- Stephanie Spray and Pacho Veles. This film details the travels of pilgrims and tourists who go to see the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. Shot in a cable car that carries them back and forth from the Temple, the film was done on film.

Explained co-director Veles:

The film was shot on 16 mm. We both felt the film is beautiful and we had the budget to afford it.  There are advantages that film has over video. Film has a very wide latitude, a bigger range. We were dealing with dark skin in shadows and bright backgrounds. So film let us expose both the characters and these backgrounds. Also 16 mm film has a very rich depth of field to it. We were able to have the characters in focus as well as the backgrounds.

Added co-director Spray:

I’ll talk about the conceptual interest. The length of the trip and the roll of the film were the same. There was a correspondence between the media and the duration of the trip. They were all 11-minute takes.

Another noted director was Jim Jarmusch, whose vampire genre film Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story between the undead Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his Eve (Tilda Swinton); it was shot digitally.

jim jarmushDirector Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive):

Jarmusch, who has made all of his previous movies on film, explained his decision: This was the first time I worked with digital photography. We used this camera, the Alexa, which was eeeehhh…

I don’t like digital for several reasons, the depth of field, which is very deep; I don’t like [how it handles] the exterior daylight and it’s effect on skin tones. How it looks was not appealing to me.

But [these issues] weren’t problems [for us].  We didn’t have any exterior daylight shots since we were shooting interiors with very low light. We were lighting the scenes with light bulbs and these little LED square lights, and it was very, very minimal.  

We didn’t have any depth of field problem.  So, the photography here, I found it very beautiful -- lit very delicately because of the small lamps.

NYFF51 showcased work shot in both film and digital. No doubt the format debate voiced at the Festival will continue both for filmmakers and still photographers alike.

Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" Corrals Spirited Saga

Of the many questions Alexander Payne's Nebraska raises about American individualism, the most urgent is, How to rein in Bruce Dern's unruly grey hair? On deeper reflection, the answer has to be: you don't. That wiry growth is his mane.

Dern plays Woody Grant, a grizzled Midwesterner whose driving privileges and lucidity have gone the way of the mustang. Woody has been bucking for the cause of freedom as far back as the Korean War. Now freedom's frontier cuts through Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Montana resident believes a million-dollar sweepstakes prize -- and the independence it'd buy him -- are his for the taking. First and foremost, it'd bankroll the truck he has long coveted.

Try as he might, Woody's son David (Will Forte) can't convince the boozy old crank that the whole prize thing's a sham. As much to establish a connection with his dad as to settle his own lonely heart, "Davy" takes time out from selling electronics to drive Woody to his manifest destiny. Along the way, they make a stop in their native Nebraskan hamlet, where the shadow of the Grant clan looms thickly across the heartland. We're in solid Payne territory here, a soybean's throw from the birthplace of the TV dinner.

As Payne recalled at the New York Film Festival press screening, veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler likened Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white work on Nebraska to a moving Ansel Adam photograph. But just imagine the garishness that would have registered in color.

It's often grumbled about Payne's prairie portraits such as About Schmidt and Omaha that he condescends to hisNEB-02267BW folksy subjects. Working off a screenplay by South Dakota-reared Bob Nelson, Omaha-reared Payne claims his birthright to ferment the tone. If Payne were less deft at extracting comedy, his commentary might be too stacked to avoid sinking into a lament.

There is pointed social criticism in Nebraska's parody of what has become of the pioneer family ethos. Take for example the scene in which Woody and Davy reunite with the extended family. Davy's cousins can't get over what a pokey driver their wussy visitor is. For them, the true measure of a man is his car's odometer -- who rides the fastest horse -- though judging by their beefy girths lord knows when they last hulked from the den couch to the garage.

As the film clouds over, kin and kith alike lay claim to Woody's prospective fortune like so many vultures swarming the rural skies. Individual greed will plow through these hallowed bonds and leave the myth of small-town cohesion in tatters.

Yet if the film is prone to smirking, it also revels in small kindnesses. An especially tender one comes from Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) at the local newspaper. As Woody's former sweetheart, she has stories for Davy that enable him nebraska-will-forte-bruce-dern-600x451to better understand and accept his dad: that he was shot down in Korea; that he was "always a little confused"; and that he swooned over Davy's spirited mother Kate (a show-stealing June Squibb). Like Davy, we can't help but take heart in Peg's considerably more romantic version of his parents' relationship than Woody had earlier imparted. (On why he wanted kids with Kate he'd explained, "I liked to screw and she was Catholic, so you do the math.”)

Peg's generosity helps set off the climax's redemptive act and gives us the nod for associating "Davy" with "Crockett." Spoiler alert: With his filial gift of a truck, our junior pioneer hero chalks one up for selflessness. Yet, this being a Payne film, irony gallops apace. As the elder Grant drives triumphantly down Main Street, he makes his son hide from sight. This may be Woody's last chance to run wild across the Great Plains. However much longer the old stallion has, this is no time for the family to trump the individual.

Director Noujam Opens 'The Square' at NYFF

noujamDirected by Award-winning Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim, The Square is an exhilarating cinéma vérité portrait of the chaotic and inspiring events as they unfolded in Tahrir Square beginning in 2011 to overthrown Hosni Mubarak and moving beyond that to the ongoing, current political situation.

Noujaim is best know for her critically acclaimed documentaries Control Room (2004) and Egypt: We Are Watching You (2007). The feature is included in the impressive slate of documentaries presented by this 2013 New York Film Festival. During a recent press conference at Walter Reade Theater, the filmmaker and producer Karim Amer, who she met in Tahrir Square in January 2011 while shooting this film, discussed the challenges of covering the revolution in Egypt, which is constantly changing and evolving.

“The revolution continues,” the director said. “All the characters that we followed are still fighting” but “but we’ve gotten to a place where it can be show 10 years,50 years from now, and still stand as an emotional and historical document of the revolutionary events in Tahrir Square.”

Noujaim said she was at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, where she had gone in hopes of getting access to Hosni Mubarak, when the protests in the Square began. “None of them showed up in Switzerland because Egypt did explode.” Noujaim got the first plane back to find that the army was already in the streets. “I was stopped by military intelligence. I had brought back a number of DVDs of my last film in 2007, they saw that and immediately thought there’s something wrong with this person because what she is doing bringing in 10 films that say ‘Egypt: We Are Watching You’ as the country’s exploding.”

A particular challenge in making a film about a struggle that is ongoing is staying current. “I’m checking Facebook and I’m continually updating as things are changing as we’re editing it and it was an exciting but kind of crazy process and I think we’re going to try to figure out some way of releasing it where we can give updates for little pieces that we’ll upload continually,” said the director.  

Amer, who is described in the movie’s production notes as an Egyptian-American entrepreneur, was protesting in the Square and posting updates on his blog when he met Noujaim, who asked him to join the filmmaking team. The activist filmmaker said, “The main battle cry of this revolution was that the people demand the downfall of the regime.”

The first part of documentary is about the bringing down of a dictator and the election of a president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. But two weeks before they took the film to Sundance, the filmmakers said all of characters in the film were back on the streets protesting because Morsi claimed dictatorial powers and tried to rewrite the constitution.

the-squareThe power of Noujaim’s film is that she tells the story of these events through the first-hand experiences of a charismatic group of young activists, both secular and Muslim brotherhood, who risked their lives in the protests, where they were often attacked and brutalized by the military. These protagonists are an articulate and appealing group and you can’t help rooting for them. Often they also had their own video cameras and blogs and posted startling images and stories of the military brutality online.

“Putting this together when everyone in the square had cameras was both a huge blessing because we had people that wanted to give us footage that we were working with and we were providing footage for other people,” Noujaim said.

“But a lot of times it felt like we were not only making a film but there were so many times when our characters were long gone, but I had to stay for several more hours because I was the only person with a camera in the Square and everybody said ‘You’re the only witness, you have to stay here’ and this happened with all the filmmakers on the project.”

Noujaim’s team edited their film in an office that was five minutes away from the Square where the revolutionaries in the film often crashed. The activists also often offered their advice to the filmmakers on what scenes were essential and should not be cut.

For Noujaim, the editing was tough. “It was a very intense process and I guess in terms of crafting the story we really had to take ourselves, we had to move away from Egypt and we had to look at what we had and decide, this is what has to be a film that is going to last for many, many years and it has to be the characters’ journey.”

Noujaim focused the film on this charismatic group of revolutionaries thanks to advice given to her by legendary documentarian D. E. Pennebaker, who was present at the press conference.

After the Q&A, I asked the director in the lobby if she ever feared for her safety when she was often one of very few women in the Square. “You’re around people that if they got arrested they would spend their lives in prison,” she said. “They would be beaten badly and you know that you would be, as somebody who has an American passport, as well as an Egyptian passport, you know that you have options of getting out and yet these people are fighting for your country alongside you. It gives you an incredible strength.” She added, “There were a number of times when everybody on this team who made the film has been either shot at, arrested, injured, tortured, in some way.”

She had some close calls. She was arrested three times and one time spent three days in custody, driven around for about eight hours in one of the big huge police cars. “I was arrested with Magdy (Ashour), the Muslim Brotherhood character, and through the whole thing he was talking to me through the barrier that divided me from 40 men, and he was saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, it will be fine,’ singing songs, getting me through.”

The Square will screen as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 at 8:30 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater.

12 Years a Slave Wins TIFF 2013 People’s Choice Award

Winning at the highly watched, well-hyped Toronto International Film Festival can do wonderful things for a career, and speaks plenty about future Oscar nominations. At TIFF, the festival’s films are voted on by an audience instead of a Jury. Recent films given the People’s Choice Award  include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and Argo. That bodes well for 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and his actors and crew, a well put together ensemble that numbers Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, the protagonist and author of the memoir that 12 Years a Slave is based on. Co-starring in the film, Michael Fassbender is the cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps who oversees Northrup after purchasing him off 
William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher and slave owner. Brad Pitt, Quvenzhané Wallis, Paul Giamatti and other stars also lend their talents to this coherent ensemble. With the stake so high in talent, it's no wonder the film has received acclaim from all of its viewers.

Couple great source material and superb with striking cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, wonderful writing by John Ridley, and superb direction by Steve McQueen, and it’s little wonder that 12 Years a Slave did take the cake at TIFF this year. In an exploration of slavery that damns nearly every white character on screen while consistently reaffirming Northrup’s existent humanity, even under duress,, McQueen has set himself and his cast up well for Oscar season. Many Oscar tipsters have even mentioned that McQueen, the London-born Holland resident, could end up being the first a black director to win Best Director at the Academy Awards.

Before TIFF, 12 Years a Slave premiered as a sneak peak in the Telluride Film Festival, and has since been confirmed for the 2013 BFI London Film Festival as well. It’ll get commercial release by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Regency Enterprises on October 18, 2013. Given the film’s popularity with critics, we can be sure to expect more film festival showings and even more acclaim for 12 Years a Slave and its cast in the coming months. To see a trailer for this wonderful drama, click here.

12 Years a Slave is directed by Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Scoot McNairy, Garrett Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Dwight Henry, and Michael K. Williams. It hits theaters on October 18.

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