January 23rd, 2011

The Story Beyond the Still Makes Its Debut At Sundance 2011

Posted By Neil Matsumoto

On the set of The Story Beyond the Still (photo by Keegan Uhl)

In a little more than two years, we’ve seen a revolution in independent filmmaking like never before. This revolution has has had a huge impact in not only how low budget films are made, but also how they are viewed. Two of the biggest factors responsible for this revolution are the Canon 5D Mark II and online video site Vimeo, which has provided the opportunity to make a professional looking film and distribute it to anyone in the world, at any time. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s been estimated that 20% of the overall program were shot on HD DSLR cameras. Although not part of the official Sundance program, a unique film made its debut on Sunday, 1/23, on Main Street in Park City, Utah. Presented and sponsored by Canon with the help of Vimeo and Grey NY, The Story Beyond the Still is a unique convergence between still and video images.

Launched at the beginning of 2010 by filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize winning still photographer Vincent Laforet, The Story Beyond the Still is a collaboration between a number of filmmakers who have created two to four minute films, aka “chapters”, with Canon HD DSLR cameras and then submitted, aka “uploaded”, their finished films to Vimeo. In the contest, the chapters tell a story based on a still frame from Laforet’s first chapter movie and then follow that process in each successive chapter. Laforet, who within two years has become both a DGA director and a Local 600 cinematographer, came up with the idea, along with Grey NY, as a way of giving back to the independent film community after shooting his first two projects with Canon HD DSLRs. “I had just shot Reverie and then Nocturne,” says Laforet, “and instead of just shooting a third chapter myself, why not give back and share the experience with other filmmakers. The only thing we stressed about was if anyone was going to enter.”

Luckily the people were listening because after Laforet posted the first chapter, The Cabbie, almost 120 entries were uploaded to Vimeo in the following weeks. For most of the participants, one of the biggest challenges was the time frame in which they had to create their movie. When the winner of the first chapter was announced, the filmmakers had around a month to come up with a concept, write the script, do pre-production, shoot, edit and then post to Vimeo. “The first time I saw Reverie and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can do that’ and I don’t have to spend 30 or 40 grand to do it,” says Chapter 7 winner Tony Leech. “It suddenly made the idea of commercial filmmaking for me a lot more attainable.” The movies were judged by a star panel of cinematographers, including Russell Carpenter, ASC, Rick McCallum and Rodney Charters, ASC.

With the high number of submissions for the first chapter, Canon was also surprised by the level of quality. “We started to see more working professionals start to enter, which was great,” says Canon’s Rob Altman. “It took the contest in a bit of a different direction but at the end of the day, it really showed us how pros are using the gear. At the same time, you had all these consumers who were watching it and seeing what the pros were doing and then getting inspired to go out and shoot their own.”

Director Vincent Laforet (right with glasses) check the frame (photo by Keegan Uhl)

Working With The HD DSLR

For their projects, filmmakers used 5D Mark IIs as their camera of choice but some used 7Ds as well. To help work in a more professional narrative filmmaking environment, all of the winners used an array of camera accessories and professional filmmaking tools that enabled the HD DSLRs to function more like motion picture cameras. Perhaps the most common tool for all of the filmmakers was the Zacuto Z-Finder. “I could have definitely not shot my project without the Z-Finder,” explains Leech. “I had tried shooting other stuff prior to that but it was all locked off so focus wasn’t as essential. With this project, the actor would come in and then hit a mark. Without the Z-Finder, especially in the low light I was working in, I wouldn’t have been able to get critical focus.”

“I’m a DP by trade so I’ve got a team that I always work with so I already had a jib operator lined up, as well as my gaffer,” says Chapter 4 winner Jeffrey Turick. “Gearwise, I had all Canon lenses, including the 16 – 35mm, 24 – 70mm, 70 – 200mm and the 100mm macro. I do have a blend of Redrock and Zacuto rails but for me, if I’m doing handheld with this camera, it works much better for me just to hold it bare. Without a doubt, the Zacuto Z-Finder is a must but it terms of all the other rails and counter weights, I find that they get in the way with how I like to maneuver the camera.”

Another workaround the filmmakers had to deal with was sound. Because the cameras do not have professional XLR inputs, the majority of filmmakers used double system sound. Chapter 5 winner Ryan Booth, who is a photographer and audio engineer, had two recorders on set, including a Samson Zoom H4N and a Fostex FR2LE, which is a professional audio mixer/recorder. Shooting his entire movie on a Glidecam 2000, Booth was also running both a boom and lavaliere on his main actor. Chapter winner Keegan Uhl went more lo-fi, using a small Marantz recorder with a RODE NTG2 shotgun mic.

Having never made a narrative film before, Booth was a little intimated by working with actors for the first time but was helped by the non obtrusiveness of the cameras. “A lot of the actors were people that I personally knew and so there was not a huge disconnect between us,” he reveals. “I could really talk to them while we shot. The camera goes down, we talk, and then the camera comes back up and there’s no wall between us. We were really able to connect that way.”

One thing all the filmmakers agreed upon was how well the Canon HD DSLRs performed in low light. “There were a couple of shots that I accidentally and drastically underexposed,” says Leech. “When I got it into Final Cut, I was surprised how much latitude or information was actually there. It’s H.264 encoding and you’re thinking you’re not going to have very much latitude in color correction but I was really surprised. Even though I initially thought the shot would be unusable, through the combination of the three way color corrector and some GenArt Sapphire filters, I was able to get that information out.”

Overturned car with 5D Mark II mounted to Technocrane (photo by Keegan Uhl)

For Chapter 8, the winners of each chapter were invited to Los Angeles to collaborate on the final chapter with Laforet. Grey NY was instrumental in helping organize the pre-production, production, post-production and also landed Judd Nelson to star in the film. For the shoot, the production looked like a Hollywood production with Condors, dollies, generators, picture vehicles, professional sound equipment, Balloon lights, and a Technocrane. For one scene, they even flipped a car. Post production was completed by Jake Jacobson at Crewcuts in NYC and Laforet color graded the film at Company 3 in Santa Monica.

The New Distribution Model

The Story Of the Still made its official premiere at Sundance Film Festival. The fact that an online video contest has a presence at the biggest independent film festival in the world is sort of ironic since this might be the model that can potentially do away with film festivals altogether. “My take on the future of distribution is that its constantly evolving and I think a lot of people are trying different things,” reveals Vimeo’s Blake Whitman. “There’s no right way to do it yet but my theory is that its going to be all web-based. If you want serious distribution for any low to medium budget film, it’s going to be online. That may springboard opportunities for you for larger productions and larger possibilities for distribution but any sort of immediate possiblity for you in the long run is going to be on the web. It really comes down to the funding or promotion.”

For filmmakers with shoestring budgets, the online model makes perfect sense. There is no gatekeeper, aka film festival programmer, allowing you to screen, the films are accessible 24/7, and available to a global audience. Perhaps the most attractive part about online film distribution is that with sites like Vimeo and YouTube, it’s entirely free. “The Internet for me is amazing because the viewing hits are amazing,” reveals Uhl. “I got almost 100,000 views on the film that I made for this contest. If you can picture 100,000 people–that’s like four or five towns. If you were to try to get them into theatres that would be impossible.”

The crew made use of professional studio equipment such as J.L. Fisher dollies. (photo by Keegan Uhl)

But for many producers, the issue coming up is whether or not you can make a profit online. In terms of the business model, it’s still far away. “I think people are having a lot of luck with crowd funding,” says Uhl. “Websites like Kickstarter are good models and you put something out there and tell people you have to raise this much money and then you might get some money and feedback. But it’s hard to have people pay per view and it doesn’t seem to work. I think the new model is still evolving and it’s going to be a couple of years before someone cracks it.”

In any case, it’s obvious that the HD DSLR revolution in conjunction with online video distribution has had a huge impact on filmmaking and Laforet himself is perhaps the biggest proof. “These cameras have helped me be where I am today in that I didn’t have to get access to 16mm film, ARRIs or Panavision cameras,” he admits. “I just went out there and shot with a camera and the Canon lenses that I had. There always used to be this huge obstacle in that you could be an incredibly talented filmmaker but on a ⅔” sized chip, it still looked like video. Whereas on a full size 5D or 7D sensor, your video effectively looks very filmic. Not only were you able to compete in terms of how well you directed actors or how you move your camera, but now you’re able to compete visually as well.”

But let’s get one thing straight. Just because you have a camera that can shoot cinematic looking images, doesn’t mean you’re creating great cinema. Filmmaking is still a craft and for most, it can take years to master. “Trying to make a short film with beautiful light and a narrative on your first go may not be your best go–like trying to climb Mt. Everest,” says Laforet. “Just do simple stuff to learn. Learn the basics of editing with a good editor. A good photographer doesn’t necessarily make a good editor. It’s not just the visuals–it’s the acting, the wardrobe, the art direction, audio, the foley, the music, the grading–it’s all these different layers that add up. It’s not just one discipline. One of the things working as a photographer is that you’re expected to do everything by yourself for the most part. As a filmmaker, the whole system is built around helping you. I have no idea of how to operate a Technocrane…and I don’t need to.”

Here is the finished product.

The Story Beyond the Still – All Chapters – FINAL COLLABORATIVE FILM from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.

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