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The Digital Dawn

Cutting Edge, or Cutting Corners? The Digital Dawn.

Digital video and 'the DV revolution' seem to be the buzzwords of the moment. Like any buzzwords they're inspiring equal measures of panic, enthusiasm, excitement, bafflement, and fear. So what are the implications for writers?

Well, in theory, there shouldn't be that many. The start of the process is still a script and the end of the process is still a show. Anything that's going to make it look and sound better has got to be in our interests, no? And what happens inside the kit has never been any of our concern before.

But in practice there are things we'll need to be aware of, particularly in this excitable phase of the new technology when nobody quite knows what the digital future's going to be like. The implications for producers are enormous. And strangely enough, when producers struggle, writers always seem to get headaches.

There's already a growing conflict of expectations between audiences and the industry. Audiences are thinking, "Digital's great because it means everything's going to look fantastic," while the industry is thinking, "Now we can achieve something adequate for a lot less." Amelia Bullmore, writer/creator on the BBC's DV-shot BLACK CAB series, pointed out in an interview, "There is definitely a greedy interest in a gritty, Dogma-like look, in terms of budget and not to do with aesthetic or its applicability to a project."

Dogma is the Danish film-making movement that espouses DV cameras, natural lighting and a general deliberate artlessness. Along with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Dogma's output is being hailed as a radical way forward that confounds all the accepted wisdoms of film-making. Broadcasters are scrambling to buy into the handheld, faux-naif 'DV style' much as people rushed to buy into shares.

And there, I think, is the biggest problem for the writer. The problem being that in the scramble to join the DV bandwagon your material may end up getting second-rate treatment. Until audiences tell them otherwise, there's a real danger of producers deceiving themselves that they're being cutting-edge when they're merely cutting corners.

The argument "it's supposed to be poor-resolution and shoot-from-the hip, that's the entire point of the story," is a ploy that will work exactly once. And it's already been done. As far as the audience is concerned, lowered quality isn't 'edgy', it's irritating. It's doubly irritating if they just spent a small fortune on a state-of-the-art TV. They're looking to the digital revolution as an improved delivery system for high production values.

The present state of DV is that with its contrast tweaked it can approximate a 16mm look on a TV screen. Untweaked, it looks like ordinary tape. Its advantage is that you can get borderline broadcast quality from a 2,000 camera (and only then if the standards are relaxed… a producer friend of mine whose ITV show is made with DV equipment complains that he has to resubmit his edits several times before the engineers will give them a broadcastable grading).

As for feature films, forget it for the immediate future. Please. I know that George Lucas is half-sold on the idea of shooting the next STAR WARS movie with digital cameras, but they won't be the kind you can buy in Dixons. Without the special pleading that qualifies BLAIR WITCH and the Dogma films, DV lacks the resolution for an acceptable theatrical blowup. If anyone offers you the argument, "Well, let's skip the theatrical stage and take it straight to the audience by other means," be cynical. It means entering an established market where direct-to-video is a pejorative term that even Disney can't overcome. It's the place for second-string product at best, but mostly it's a dumping ground.

DV will change the future. But beware the blind rush. For the moment the lightweight DV camera is the wind-up Bolex de nos jours, empowering debutantes and avant-gardists before influencing the design and use of mainstream equipment. That's fine. It's great. But if someone tries to sell you on that "gritty, Dogma-like look", ask yourself if the grittiness is a style choice or a quality compromise.

If only for my sake. Because I just bought one of those new TVs. And already I really don't appreciate it when new drama looks like someone's home movie…

First published in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.