Table of Contents

Note: This article was first published in 2000

The full weight of the digital revolution has arrived in the film industry. As occurred in other industries, notably music and publishing, the impact of digital technologies is rapidly being felt on what has been a somewhat outdated film production environment. While post- production has gone through the revolution of non-linear editing and digital effects, the whole process of pre-production, production and theatrical distribution has, for the most part, remained very much as it has since the early part of this century.

This is rapidly changing.

The primary drivers of the change are digital video cameras and projection systems, wireless technologies, and web-based resources. The camera, as the central production motif for cinema for over 100 years, is shifting from celluloid to digital video. This shift will be no less than radical for the film production environment. Roles and responsibilities can and must be shifted. New methods will arise. New aesthetic choices will become available. The key challenge of film professionals is to embrace the technology and understand the inevitability that DV will, in the very least, represent a large fraction of future film production, even if it does not totally replace celluloid film production in the near term. To be sure, for aesthetic or other reasons, filmmakers will continue to choose to shoot in 35mm and 16mm celluloid. And even digital filmmakers, if they need to move into a theatrical release, will need to transfer digital video to celluloid in order to project their films in most theaters for years to come.

What does all this mean? What choices does it bring to the table?

First, the cost of "below the line" filmmaking will come down. This trend will have more impact on the independent producer than the Hollywood producer, because so much of Hollywood production is involved in above the line costs for named talent.

However, once digital projection technology arrives, the cost of delivery itself will approach zero. This impacts both traditional Hollywood and Independent Filmmakers dramatically. Barriers to entry - that is, what made it difficult for the low budget filmmaker to compete with Hollywood - will be mitigated. What will evolve is a situation where what will primarily distinguish Hollywood from the world of Independents is mainstream advertising, name actors, expensive digital effects, and brand recognition.

What will also arise is a hypothetical situation where a digital filmmaker could produce a low or micro-budget film and push that film out to 3500 theaters at nearly no cost (not including advertising) and market it to an Internet audience at a fraction of what it costs for traditional mainstream advertising. Even the costs of digital effects will be greatly reduced in the future.

So, given that many levels of Hollywood's competitive edge will be mitigated, what would differentiate an independent filmmaker from Hollywood in a positive sense?

What has often differentiated the independent filmmaker in the past and will continue to do so in the future will be avant garde techniques (aka "alternative"), both in terms of story and technique. To be avant garde means to bring new ideas and aesthetic choices to films, but in a way that is not cost prohibitive. The trend can take some filmmakers to the future and toward alternative experimentation - to continue to express their unique voice —and some filmmakers to revisit the avant garde techniques of master filmmakers of the past.

Some of the ideas explored here (and in future White Papers) will involve an intelligent use of avant garde techniques. While Hollywood executives have used technology to enhance their differences with the competition (70mm, Dolby, IMAX to compete with television, for example), the independent digital filmmakers will turn to avant garde methods to distinguish themselves from traditional independent, genre and big-budget studio films. In addition, both independent and studio films will co-opt aspects of the independent digital cinema movement in order to appeal to changing audience tastes.

Why new production and distribution models?
But why new production techniques and models? Why try to innovate? Why not just continue doing business as usual, and transfer traditional production techniques to the new world of digital video?

First, the migration from celluloid to DV in the professional feature film and television production means an opportunity to rethink and re-engineer what needs to be rethought and reengineered regardless. The question becomes, if the technology brings change, why not look at the entire process and see how to leverage technology in new ways? Why not try to streamline productions to cut costs and save time? In other words, technology is driving the change.

Second, there is a growing sense that the current situation in film is not as democratic as it could be. While the independent film movement has offered some variety of choice, there is an underlying sense that one elite has arisen to compete with another. Many of the so-called independents are owned by Hollywood studios. This situation means that to this day a handful of individuals, often arbitrarily selected, make the aesthetic choices for millions of people. In this sense, the desire for a new entertainment economy that offers a wider choice and freedom to consumers and artists is driving the change.

The role of the Internet
The Internet offers a way to streamline the production process, and make the kinds of systems and services currently only available to sophisticated production houses available en masse to a wide audience of independent filmmakers. It also offers the opportunity to distribute films much more cheaply and democratically, providing a "pull" mechanism to consumers (via browsers) rather than a "push" mechanism of broadcast or theatrical release. "Push" mechanisms imply somebody has to decide what to push in advance, and that someone is the studio executive, whether "independent" or studio.

The bottom line is that in the new digital world, a much wider audience of filmmakers can create more sophisticated content cheaply, and distribute to an audience that is pull-based rather than push-based. Pull-based audiences tend to be more niche oriented rather than mass market oriented. The market will therefore continue to fragment, and filmmakers will look for ways to make their stories compelling to a more diverse, empowered, democratized distribution environment.

What arises are essentially several new tiers of distribution opportunities for filmmakers within the Internet. Among those tiers there will certainly arise a distinction between free, pay-per-view content, and subscription content. Another tier, while not here in the near term, is theatrical release to digitally-enabled movie chains that have direct satellite links at a much lowered cost.

Traditional and new production techniques compared

All phases of production will be impacted by the digital revolution (several have already seen dramatic change in the last 15 years). Collaboration will be enhanced by the Internet, which will provide new tools and methods for artists to communicate ideas and create content - and will allow the evolution of cyber communities that embrace specific content themes and interests. Moreover, the traditional and independent filmmaker will be able to leverage the power of the new digital tools and infrastructure to bring more product to market quicker.

The following table illustrates a comparison between traditional and new production techniques enabled by DV. In each case, time is compressed and budgets reduced.

Table 1: Traditional and New Production Compared

Production Phase


New (DV)



Old world collaboration via mail and fax

New world collaboration via teleconferencing, file sharing, e-mail

Development collaboration streamlined


Must find expert to budget and package project

Intelligent assistants use templates to budget and package film

Many more projects developed quickly


Single Camera

Multiple Camera

Saves time/money through shortened schedule


Serial editing strategy

Parallel Editing Strategy

Saves time/money, gets product to market quicker


Short takes

Real Time takes

Saves time/money, allows for no editing if desired


Single location shoots - multiple location serial or done through 2nd unit

Multiple location shoots in real time

Saves time


Paper intensive logging and production scheduling

Automated logging and online scheduling

Saves time, leverages automation into post production


Expensive film processing

No film processing except if prints are distributed to theaters (will change with digital theaters)

Saves money, lab processing time


Expensive editing suites and hard drive storage

Inexpensive editing software and web-based archiving

Saves money


Expensive effects

Economical effects

Saves money


Expensive prints

With digital delivery, no prints necessary

Saves money

The above is just a sampling of the impact that digital has on the production process. Some aspects have been used in feature film production (parallel editing, for example), but usually in expensive productions and not in low budget or independent films.

As we can see, all phases of production are potentially impacted by the digital revolution. Some are further along than others; pieces of the infrastructure exist to make certain elements happen today (automated logging, high end digital video cameras, digital timecodes, etc.) and others are years off (digital projection systems in theaters).

What are the obstacles?

The obstacles to realizing truly front-to-back digital film production at a large scale are daunting. For one, the entrenched film industry (both technical and executive) will not easily be convinced or changed. To be sure, the digital revolution portends an economic shift in terms of the balance of power within Hollywood. New players will inevitably arise that will threaten the old base, both technically, financially and aesthetically.

Several mainstays of the Hollywood model are currently being assaulted by the independent film movement - including the star system itself, but in a sense, new power structures have simply arisen to replace the old. In many ways, the independent film movement has been co-opted by Hollywood so that it becomes simply a mechanism for nurturing new talent that is eventually assimilated into mainstream filmmaking. There remains today a real gap that makes it difficult for the independent filmmaker and producer who is interested in making a unique statement to a specific audience to do so - to do so and make a decent living, that is.

DV allows for a different film economy that is not reliant upon star power or big budgets to fuel interest, but can instead depend on much lower cost production and delivery mechanisms that can finally and truly allow for independence in the film market. Just as a writer in the past could always pick up a pen and paper, a digital filmmaker can pick up a low cost digital camera and make a statement and find the mechanism to make that statement available to an audience.

This is a healthy evolution that is more democratic and will not necessarily destroy Hollywood. It may in fact make Hollywood stronger. Historically, technical shifts and revolutions in media have meant that the old media co-exists with the new quite well. Publishing is alive and well despite of film; film is alive and well despite of television; television is alive and well despite of cable, and so on. In all of these revolutions the old guard has survived if not flourished.

What are the new production models?
There are several potential new production models that we feel arise as a result of digital technology combined with wireless technologies and Web-based software. Among these are:

  • Location independence
  • Real Time Cinema
  • Live Cinema
  • Hybrid/Production Fusion Techniques
  • Collaborative Cubes
  • Parallel Production

Let's look at each briefly.

Location independence
Location independence is the ability to collaborate on film production over the Internet in such as way that the various craft persons and departments can be geographically dispersed.

For example, a director could hypothetically direct an entire production from a different location than the crew via a remote, real time DV conference link over the Internet. The director could see multiple DV camera views within a single computer workspace and make editing choices on the fly or after all the source material is compiled.

Location independence also means that it is easier for collaborating artists to communicate over the Internet. Scripts can be collaboratively discussed via chat rooms. Edits can be sent for review and acceptance over the Net. DV "dailies" can be uploaded and downloaded from the Internet.

Real Time Cinema

Real Time Cinema is possible because with DV cameras there is a longer period of time for a take - hypothetically a take can last for the entire length of the film. This allows for films that either have minimal or no edits. Real Time Cinema is a cinema that can be shot quickly and rely heavily on improvisation. Real Time Cinema is potentially a renegade form that will allow for the compression of production schedules from weeks to days or even hours.

Live Cinema
Live Cinema is a narrative fiction film that is broadcast live to theaters. Live Cinema might be a kind of "pay per view" for theatrical productions, or a one-time event that is then transferred to celluloid (or re-broadcast via digital projection) for more conventional theater viewing after the initial "event." The initial event might also include a live WebCast that allows millions to tap into the Live Cinema event. Like Real Time Cinema, Live Cinema can greatly compress a production schedule (outside of rehearsal).

Live Cinema taps into a hybrid mentality and possibilities that arise from DV. Live Cinema is the film equivalent of live television or the sports closed-circuit broadcast.

Hybrid/Production Fusion Techniques
Hybrid/Production Fusion Techniques involve combining elements of television and film production. For example, the multiple camera techniques commonly found in television can be used more extensively in a DV narrative feature film production.

For a variety of reasons, film is often still a single camera operation. The lowered cost of DV allows for multiple cameras on location. For example, a shot/reverse-shot can be done in one take, as is done in television. Also, multiple cameras allow for more latitude in terms of aesthetic choices. An editor has more material to work with, increasing options in the final quality of the film.

The Collaborative Cube™
A Collaborative Cube is a virtual space for collaboration. A cube implies an extension of a two-dimensional space to a third dimension. A Collaborative Cube extends the Internet outside of the Net - to the physical environment.

For example, a Collaborative Cube could become the "control center" for a digital production. With hybrid production techniques, the "control center" methods with multiple camera setups found in television could be taken on location. The director could communicate via wireless technology to the crew or multiple crews from a Collaborative Cube from which he or she oversees the production.

The Collaborative Cube can also extend from one location to another in pre-production. In scriptwriting, an Internet-based script conference could be done through a Collaborative Cube that includes the producer, scriptwriters, and others. Further, actors could rehearse over the Internet in a Collaborative Cube similar to the way that businesspeople teleconference. Musicians in various locales could compose music in a Collaborative Cube that would be mixed and used exactly as if they had recorded in the same physical location.

Parallel Production
A parallel production is one where several sequences, scenes or even entire films are shot simultaneously. This is accomplished by using multiple digital video camera technology, often linked through wireless communications, that pipe the image back to a central workspace. This workspace can consists of remote monitors or a computer screen or screens that display the visual information from the remote cameras.

A parallel production is distinct from traditional television "three camera" set ups in the following ways:

  • The multiple DV camera set ups can occur on location, not just on a television soundstage
  • The cameras do not necessarily focus on the same action
  • The cameras do not necessarily focus on the same story or narrative

New narrative forms can potentially arise within a parallel production. Characters can interweave from one plot point in one film to another. There are elements of conjunction, interaction and improvisation that can arise within a parallel production that haven't been seen in traditional multiple camera techniques.

Digital camera and editing technology, when combined with Internet-based collaborative software and wireless technologies, can revolutionize the way that films are produced. The technologies offer new aesthetic choices as well as the opportunity to save time and money when producing digital content. While traditional production techniques and technologies, including celluloid film, will be with us for a long time to come, digital video allows for a rethinking of production techniques and a widening of aesthetic choices. It will also allow for an empowered and more democratic distribution environment that provide consumers and artists with a greater variety of choices and freedom.

All of these trends bode well for independent digital filmmakers.

They indicate that an environment will arise that can allow for alternative and niche-oriented films that reflect highly individual tastes can be produced and distributed to a wide audience, and that the economics of doing so will promote, not stifle, the need to experiment and discover new alternatives creatively, technically, and aesthetically. Thus, traditional Hollywood business models are turned on their head, and what is required is not only an emphasis on the least common denominator of mass appeal, but as well a return to the primacy of the individual artistic voice that seeks to speak intimately to an audience - except now that audience is potentially the world.