Digital technology

Better, or simply different?
 Sandy George
Source: Dominic Case.

Editor Rochelle Oshlack, cinematographer Kim Batterham and composer Christopher Gordon, are all at the top of their game, have all been around long enough to remember what things used to be like, and are willing to share some of their thoughts.

The move from film to digital has completely altered the way an image is captured and the path a film travels to get to the screen. It would make telling stories easier and quicker, filmmakers were promised in the 1980s. It has. And it hasn’t.

‘It has definitely not made it faster because directors shoot more so you have more material to sift through,’ says Rochelle Oshlack, who edited the musical Bran Nue Dae, a 2010 box office hit. Oshlack was an assistant editor on films by Paul Cox in the early 1990s. Now work practices are very different — and not just because she used to have to regularly extinguish fires in bins full of film because of the director’s smoking habits.

‘I miss how tactile 35mm film was,’ she says. ‘You hold it in your hand and when you make a splice you really feel it. Now when you cut there is an undo button. It is so easy and you don’t have to have the same level of consideration as if it may be your first and last cut. But, in saying that, there is fun in the randomness (of digital). You can fly through and do things really really fast and the results can be surprising.’

Assistant editors are expected to do much more than just syncing rushes now, she adds, although she believes the arrival of more systematic methods — checking, logging, reporting — owes more to big budget films changing work processes on all films, not digital. But the fundamentals remain: editors and their assistants still have to have a close, trusting relationship — and their work is still about storytelling.

Kim Batterham, head of cinematography at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), also mentions assistant editors. If you walked onto the set of any major film production, he says, what people do, the structures under which they work, and their relationships with each other, are the same as 20 years ago. ‘You might find a few different job descriptions but that’s all,’ he says. ‘There are data wranglers now, for example. Here in the camera department we teach these skills but, really, part of the assistant editor’s job has just been brought onto the set.’

Clapper loaders are no longer loading raw stock into camera magazines but they are still servicing the focus puller, keeping meticulous records, looking after equipment and operating a clapper board at the beginning of each take.

‘Just because we have moved to digital doesn’t mean we have stopped writing on two bits of wood and banging them together!’ says Batterham, who was responsible for the haunting imagery in [legacy-smartlink:One Night the Moon] (2001). He views digital imagery as an extension of how he thinks about film, but instead of choosing a film stock for its practical or aesthetic qualities, he chooses the digital camera that will give him the results he wants. Where things have really changed, he adds, is in the guerilla arena where multi-skilled filmmakers are shooting their own material, editing it in their garage, writing their own music, then distributing it across digital platforms. ‘But when the budget, ambition and ideas are bigger it goes back to being a version of the traditional model. You can’t do it all yourself.’

As Batterham says, the captured image can now be manipulated beyond recognition in post. ‘Film grading was primitive compared to today’s digital grade: it relied on a DOP getting the negative to look very close to the end result. Today image can be changed in ways that were unimaginable previously: the colour of an actor’s eyes, the brightness or colour of the background and so on. The possibilities are very exciting.’

Christopher Gordon, composer on the 2009 hit Mao’s Last Dancer, doesn’t doubt that the arrival of digital has made the process of working easier. Copying music and getting it couriered could once take days; now he can create an MP3 file and email it — including to overseas clients. There are a multitude of other benefits.

‘I can compose in a way that looks like I’m doing it on paper, but it’s on the screen, and then the computer can break it down for each instrument, which used to be laboriously done by hand,’ he says. ‘I have the ability to play my composition to the director directly from my computer, which enables me to get comments back much earlier. In the past I used to sit at the piano, which I play badly, and try to explain in words what the orchestra was doing. I can make a demo tape and take it into the editing room and lay it against the pictures, which are sometimes changed to go with the music — now that makes me feel like I’m much more involved in the filmmaking process.

But there are downsides: ‘You can do everything at speed, and everyone is asking you to, but you can’t think faster. You can spend a lot of time chasing changes, which are now easy to request, rather than concentrating on the score. And the technology allows people to be lazy and cut creative corners. Amateurs can almost sound like professionals but they are not using good ideas or expressing them well. But it’s mainly upside’.

So does all this mean the films are better or worse? ‘Neither, just very different because everything is faster, louder, bigger, more complex,’ says Oshlack. ‘I love what digital technology has done to storytelling,’ she says. ‘Audiences have to work a little harder for their buzz. And each year they are demanding a bigger and bigger buzz. In the edit room, we are always trying to be aware of where that contemporary savvy audience is sitting with the story — and to stay ahead of them. Editing digitally makes it so quick and cheap to exhaust all your possibilities.’