That Old MiniDV Chestnut

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 05/10/2004 - 16:00

Just because you can make your film on miniDV doesn't mean you should.A statistic recently caught my attention. The 2004 Cannes Film Festival (12-23 May) received 3562 film submissions, an increase of 42.5% on the previous year.

"It was not so long ago, at the end of the Nineties, that less than a thousand films was the norm," said artistic director Thierry Frémaux at the launch of the programme.

No prizes for guessing one of the main reasons for the increase, although Fremaux spelled it out: "Filmmaking has been facilitated by the technology of digital imaging. Digital films are more and more present on the market these days."

"Digital film" can cover a range of productions that have been acquired on one or more digital video formats, and then blown up to film. The digital gamut ranges from no-budget miniDV docs shot seat-of-the-pants style to the lavish blockbuster where every frame has been lovingly honed, from shoot to print, by experienced digital filmmakers using rigorously tested, state-of-the-art kit. Fremaux was talking about shorts as well, but the message is clear. The technology for making films is so much more accessible now than it was ten years ago that there is a deluge coming onto the market.

The more films that get made, the harder it is for those miniDV filmmakers struggling at the bottom of the food chain to break out.

The arguments for and against making a film on miniDV have been thrashed out for years in the filmmaking community. At one end of the spectrum you have the tongue-in-cheek filmmaker's manifesto of Dogma, where the pursuit of production values is treated as an unnecessary hindrance to the process of telling the story, while at the other end you have the digital perfectionists who fixate on acquiring and maintaining the very best video signal that money can buy, because they have the budget to do so.

Do audiences notice when a film has been shot on miniDV and blown up to film? Undoubtedly, yes, even when the most technology savvy filmmakers have made the film. Does it matter that they notice? Yes, but how much it matters depends on what your film is about, who it is watching the film and where they are watching it.

An audience of DV film nerds, trained to recognise the "defects" of video tranposed to film are going to see all those video artefacts, crushed blacks, limited colour range and so on when it is projected on the big screen.

Lay audiences are probably going to be more accepting, more prepared to suspend their disbelief. They're used to image glitches and poor quality footage - they just need to turn on the television and watch the news.

Some in the technical crowd will disagree that it is still about the story, but some films just seem to work better than others on lower resolution formats.

Audiences will come in droves to watch a well-marketed and topical documentary, irrespective of whether it was shot on a Sony VX1000, Canon XL1 or a hi-definition Panasonic AJ-HDC20A.

Many docs are in fact a mix and match of numerous different formats which kind of blurs the issue. The image quality, and often the audio quality, may be a far cry from the digital touchstone of a George Lucas picture, but a strong story can carry the audience right along.

That said, rarely is a film improved by being shot on a miniDV cam rather than a higher format. Yes, the film got made. But perhaps it could have been made on HD or DigiBeta instead of miniDV.

MiniDv is a great way to experiment and try out ideas. The economics of miniDV filmmaking - the cameras and tape are cheaper and you can edit on your PC/Mac at home - also mean that is often the only way of serving a small, clearly defined audience.

If, however, you are a filmmaker looking to reach a much wider audience, to get past the cinematic gatekeepers, whether they be the programmers at the Cannes Film Festival or film critics who can make or break the film on its premiere, you need to find ways of lifting the project. There are simply too many films that share the flat and fuzzy DV aesthetic. Improving your technology is one such way of doing that and standing out from the crowd.