We are often told how digital technology is levelling the playing field between big-budget studios and those filmmakers working on a shoestring. This view usually conveniently overlooks many other advantages the studios have, in particular their dominance in the distribution and marketing fields (internet distribution has yet to turn this on its head), but it's true that low-budget filmmakers are thriving more than ever.
Almost every week a DV feature film is quietly released in select theatres. Low-budget DV films and documentaries are everywhere, at film festivals, on television, or straight-to-DVD.
What's perhaps more of a sign that the playing field is levelling is that big-budget productions are starting to use the same post-production editing systems that have been pioneered in the low-budget arena over the last few years.
Apple's Final Cut Pro has become the de facto video editor among Mac users and the $999 (Â£700) program was good enough for multi-Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch too when he recently cut Anthony Minghella's multi-million dollar civil war epic Cold Mountain in Romania.
Murch, who has become something of a guru on the art of film and sound editing (see reviews of his books The Conversations in previous Making It columns), of course, brought a wealth of experience and knowledge that not even the best technology on the planet can make up for.
Murch's decision was both practical and economic - where on his previous movie K-19: The Widowmaker he had used two Avid machines he could afford to separate the various editing tasks among four networked Mac dual gigahertz G4s with Final Cut Pro - one computer was used for picture editing, one for file management, one for digitising footage and another for burning DVD dailies.
He also had editing assistants cutting scenes on laptops which Murch himself then re-edited where necessary once they had been added back into the edit flow. Murch says an equivalent Avid system would cost in the region of three times as much.
It's different for low-budget filmmakers when they work with Final Cut Pro - they usually have to make do with one Mac. As Angela Heck, who co-edited and produced 51-minute documentary In The Shadow of the Chief, can testify, that puts quite a burden on that one computer. But it can be done.
The documentary, about the 1961 inaugural climb by two extreme climbers to the top of the "unclimbable" mountain known as the Stawamus Chief in British Columbia, Canada was shot over the course of around a year on two Sony 3-chip DV cameras - a PD100 and a PD150 - by a crew consisting of herself, director Ivan Hughes and camera people.
They bought a Mac G4 system with 1Ghz processor running Mac OSX 10.2.8 and Final Cut Pro and started editing in June 2003. First they had to augment the existing 60 gigabyte drive with two more 80 gigabyte hard discs, one external and one internal and beef up the RAM to 768MB.
Heck, who works as a publicist for the National Film Board of Canada by day, still would have preferred more disc space. "Basically that's barely enough to do a TV hour," she says. They also borrowed a DV deck off the director's brother, and ran edited footage back to DV without any generational loss of quality. A camera (with DV-in, if you are in Europe) would have also done the job. The editing system cost, in March 2003, less than C$5,000 (Â£2100).
"The luxury of having our editing system was that we could sit in the living room whenever we wanted. We didn't have to book studio space and that's where a lot of the expense is," says Heck. "We completed our editing in three months, but we really worked hard on it though. Every waking minute. We probably did at least ten hours a day. The director and I would do shifts: he would do some of it, and then I would go in and clean it up, then he would do the rest of it."
Heck says using the software was "fabulous... the software is really easy and intuitive". Being able to preview edits and effects along the way in real time was a real bonus.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. They made the mistake of starting to edit on Final Cut Pro 3.0 and then trying to switch to version 4.0 after it was released. They had to re-edit a lot of material. "Everyone says you should always finish with the version you started with, but we didn't listen properly," says Heck.
There were also "issues with transfer rates", effects running oddly, and drop-outs when exporting a final DV edit for bumping up to higher resolution Digi-beta in a professional suite.
"It's a very simple edit. There's not a lot of (audio and video) layers to it. So I think the system we had is the bare minimum that you can get away with to do this kind of film."
Heck says they would have welcomed a third set of eyes. "It would have benefited from someone with a little bit more expertise sitting there and saying, 'Yeah this works, but here's how you can make it better...' especially in a technical way, because we are both self-taught. We're lucky, we're not shy of asking questions and we'll ask a lot of questions, but the actual process of editing is just so simple now and really with a minimum of investment you can get some really good quality footage."
In spite of the problems involved in its making, the risk seems to have paid off. The film sold out on its premiere at the Whistler Film Festival in December and subsequently was voted by appreciative local audiences as the winner of the People's Choice for the Best Film of the Festival. It won two more awards, including Best Film Overall, at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival and they sold the film to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Heck and Hughes can now savour arriving at the top of their first filmmaking peak.
Final Cut Pro 4 System Requirements
Macintosh computer with 350MHz PowerPC G4 processor and AGP graphics card
RT Extreme requires a single 500MHz or faster PowerPC G4 (550MHz for PowerBook G4) or any dual PowerPC G4.
Soundtrack requires a single 500MHz or dual 450MHz or faster PowerPC G4.
Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later
384 MB of RAM (512MB required for RT Extreme and recommended for Soundtrack)
1GB of disk space required for application installation
5GB of disk space required for Soundtrack content
9GB of disk space required for LiveType content
DVD drive required for installation