Top 5 Directors Doing Digital Cinema Filmmaking the Right Way

Top 5 Directors Doing Digital Cinema Filmmaking the Right Way

I want to highlight five directors who have taken the digital format and utilized it for their films, often optimizing the ability of the digital format and taking advantage of it's pros to deliver a polished product. Each of the five directors listed below shot one or more films using digital cinema cameras and in the process, was breaking new technical ground in the film industry.

About a month ago, I wrote about the top 5 directors that I believed should’ve stayed away from digital cinema filmmaking. The reasons ranged from misuse of the cameras to overuse of cgi to a laziness in the filmmaking. This time around, I want to highlight five directors who have taken the digital format and utilized it for their films, often optimizing the ability of the digital format and taking advantage of it’s pros to deliver a polished product. Each of the five directors listed below shot one or more films using digital cinema cameras and in the process, was breaking new technical ground in the film industry.

5. Neill Blomkamp (District 9)

Neill Blomkamp is a young filmmaker from South Africa who was groomed by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) to tackle a film version of the popular video game Halo. The studios were skeptical of Blomkamp since he had never directed a feature before and was relatively unknown. It didn’t help that he was making his short films outside the network of the US indie scene. With the eventual trashing of Halo, and Blomkamp’s supposed directorial debut, Jackson kept his faith in the director by offering him millions of dollars, 6 RED One cameras (personally owned by Jackson) and the opportunity to make whatever he wanted. Literally. The result was 2009′s science fiction action piece District 9.

So what’s the big deal?

The reason Blomkamp is firmly planted at number 5 on this list has a lot to do with the number 6: that’s the number of RED One cameras Peter Jackson owns personally and that he loaned out to Blomkamp for making District 9. The RED One camera is one of the leading cameras doing legwork in digital cinema these days and certainly the one with the most hype and publicity. Although popular with independent film, the RED One is relatively shunned upon by major studios. And though District 9 wasn’t a major studio film, it was more independent, the fact that a high profile action movie with a major theatrical release was shot on the RED is a big deal. It’s a sign that indeed digital cinema, and the RED, can break through the niche of indie films and have the potential to supply a major release.

The other side of this is that not only was the film shot on RED but it was a great film. And, in the end, it was because of Blomkamp’s directing and storytelling. He created a world that was unique, instantly realistic, and yet entirely fantastical. I believe a major part of this reason was Blomkamp’s ability to treat his shooting on digital like a film shoot but still use the format to it’s advantages. It’s well documented in interviews and on the behind the scenes DVD featurettes that many of the scenes were ad-libbed. In a film shoot, this is a costly production decision where each second of improvisation equates to a very real and tangible amount of film churning through the camera. With digital, however, if you have the storage space, the most you give up is time (which, admittedly, is far more valuable than film).

Apart from simply shooting digital, Blomkamp used a crack team of CGI animators to create the story’s alien species, Prawns. The Prawns were exceptionally crafted and meticulously animated and it shows. I was blown away by the CG in the film because I had never seen anything animated as well as the Prawns; they moved with real weight properties, emoted with genuine sincerity and existed as a piece of the setting that was so believable. Not only was Blomkamp shooting digital, but here he was able to provide digital characters that were convincing as well. Overall, Neill Blomkamp has a bright future ahead of him, but whether he will continue to work in digital is unsure: for District 9, I have a feeling much of that decision was due to budget.

4. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)/Danny Boyle (28 Days Later)

I gave a tie to this next category cause both directors used the same philosophy for their respective films when it came to digital. Matt Reeves was given Cloverfield to direct from mega producer J.J. Abrams, breaking the January release slump mold and garnering mostly positive reviews for the film if not negative reviews claiming motion sickness because of it’s Blair Witch Style hand-held. Danny Boyle a few years earlier took a stale zombie movie genre and shattered it to the ground, rebuilding it as a modern horror genre with 28 Days Later shot on Mini DV in a desolated London ravaged by the undead.

So what’s the big deal?

What Reeves and Boyle have in common, and the reason their mentioned together, is they both utilized the digital format as a medium in which to further the story of their films (movies might be more appropriate in this case). As I wrote in my review of Cloverfield, “the camera manifests itself as a character at times. Unlike most movies, this camera is not visually limited by the director choosing what to show, but by a character. In this way, it plays a role in the movie, with the use of its night vision or the light on the front of it. The camera becomes an integral aspect of the film.” Reeves embraced digital as a chance to enhance the story of the film by immersing the audience with the characters instead of objectively attaching them through a voyeuristic approach to the movie.

Likewise, Danny Boyle used the Mini DV format for 28 Days Later to give the experience of a ravaged London a visceral realism that is often associated with watching home movies, found footage, or news footage. Whether viewers realize it or not, there is a “film-like” quality that most people notice subconsciously. Michael Mann was trying to exploit this in Public Enemies but Boyle did it correctly in 28 Days Later in which the cameras that produce this effect are prolific and available.

While Reeves and Boyle’s films are stylistically worlds apart, both managed to use digital as a medium to push the story, and the audiences participation in this story, much further. Reeves exploited it as a means to keep the audience in the dark with a conventional plot and instead put them in the thick of the action. Boyle used it as a way to give an overdone genre a fresh new realism that would keep the film grounded in a reality that the film seeked to portray like no other zombie film before. Both directors used digital cinema as a choice and it worked.

3. Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids 3D, Sin City)

Robert Rodriguez emerged in the 1990′s as one of the voices of the independent film explosion. More recently, he has become a major proponent of digital cinema production. Robert Rodriguez is kind of a one man band, he usually writes, directs, edits and scores his own films. It’s no wonder then that he loves the digital workflow that allows a simple flow of the footage and data through his Troublemaker studios ranch near his home; no film processing labs, no hassle. It can all be done in house. Rodriguez’ most popular digital film is undoubtedly Sin City, shot entirely on green screen with a Sony digital HD camera.

So what’s the big deal?

Rodriguez’ films can be debated for their storytelling, cinematic qualities and overall experience, but there is no doubting that they are technically sound. Rodriguez has helped pushed digital filmmaking, especially in an independent forum, more than many other filmmakers. He even convinced a film-loving Quentin Tarantino to shoot a scene in Sin City to test out the HD cameras. Tarantino, while not completely convinced, did find the experience enlightening and useful. The point is, Robert Rodriguez has been making films that can reach mainstream audiences uses a digital medium.

The key to Rodriguez’ success is that he uses digital’s advantages while not falling into any of it’s traps. He uses it as a way to streamline his work-flow and give him even greater access to his footage and open it up to manipulation that wouldn’t be as easy (or as cheap) were he to shoot on 35mm film. He also is constantly trying to improve his familiarity with the technology. Rodriguez admitted that he was using the Spy Kids movies as a training ground for himself to eventually shoot Sin City.

The point is, Rodriguez has made many successful films (if not critically or financially, they do at least have a strong cult following) and he’s made them using a digital format. However, he isn’t using digital cinema as a replacement for film without good reason. He uses it to quicken his pace, quicken his post-production and overall, because he can make films for cheaper. When you are wearing many hats on a film, those three aspects are very important.

2. Steven Soderbergh (Che, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!)

Steven Soderbergh has the unique distinction of often being classified as a true auteur in his work as well as being highly prolific. Soderbergh is also an important director to note in the choice to shoot digital because of his dual role on his films as cinematographer and “A” camera operator. While I don’t doubt any director’s technical edge, Soderbergh just would naturally have a greater feel for the nuances of different camera systems whether they be digital or film. For the past couple of films Soderbergh has made, including those listed above, he has shot them exclusively on the RED one camera and even proclaimed that it was the camera he’s been waiting for his entire career.

So what’s the big deal?

Much like Blomkamp mentioned earlier, Steven Soderbergh is giving a big push to the RED digital cinema platform by way of making quality films with the technology. I never saw Che, saw moments of The Girlfriend Experience, but I did see The Informant! I’ve always enjoyed Soderbergh films, but what I like about his approach to digital is that he is treating it like he is shooting on film but utilizing the advantages of digital such as workflow and storage ability. The Informant! was a great film, saw large theatrical distribution and had a major star for it’s main character.

In essence, Soderbergh is doing digital cinema filmmaking the right way because he is still making films like he used to, just with a different technology. If there was any complaint I brought up in the last article I wrote, it was about how those directors are using digital as if it has to be done differently than film or is better than the processes that film has implanted in a century year old industry. Soderbergh, as a director and director of photography, has used the RED one to make films faster, cheaper and independent of studios, rather than exploiting the technology to make silly fluff.

1. James Cameron (Avatar)

Speaking of fluff, many of you might notice that I have trumpeted good filmmaking in this column and put Avatar and Cameron on top. Despite what you may think of the story of Avatar, it has changed the landscape of Hollywood. But more on that in a sec, first some background: James Camera hasn’t made a feature fiction film since 1999′s colossal Titantic. Instead, he took many trips to the deep sea, to space, exploring both worlds that he found intriguing and fine-tuning a camera system he helped develop to shoot live action 3D without a post-conversion process. Once the camera was sufficiently developed, Cameron immediately went to work on a script he wrote back in the 90′s. The result after 4 years was Avatar.

So what’s the big deal?

The biggest deal in Avatar is the massive amount of money it has made, quickly becoming the top grossing film of all time surpassing the previous record holder of Cameron’s own Titanic. It is a big deal that the highest grossest film of all time was actually shot using multiple digital platforms and then printed on film (in some cases, depending on the projection system). Cameron used two digital cameras that were constructed to have a correct interocular distance between the lenses (that means the lenses were about the same distance apart as the eyes to create accurate depth). He also used a pioneering new technology that allowed him to shoot with a virtual camera while seeing a crude rendition of the CGI world.

I mentioned in the last article that Robert Zemeckis’ performance capture was horrendous, awkward and that Zemeckis should stay away from it. Cameron was doing almost the exact same concept, but executed it much much better. The Na’vi in Avatar were anything but residing in the uncanny valley, but in fact leaping across it, flying over it and running through and around it. The technology that Cameron used was impressive beyond belief and almost all of the Pandora sequences were shot with no live action footage used at all unless you count the actors movements.

Cameron’s use of digital also provided a groundbreaking and much-needed boost to 3D film. Something that Hollywood has been pushing for years to get audiences back in theaters (or to enhance storytelling, as they would say), 3D has existed as a gimmick largely at theme parks and still in theaters until Cameron came about with his proprietary system that gave us depth. The largest mistake that everyone was making in 3D before this was that they wanted the images to come alive into the audience, but Avatar turned this on it’s head. The 3D in Avatar didn’t jump things out at the audience, but instead inverted the screen like some kind of virtual window that provided an unbelievable amount of depth into the world of Pandora. And again, all of this was done using digital cinema technology.

Digital cinema is a growing field in the world of filmmaking that shouldn’t be ignored. Similarly, there will always be people utilizing it well and utilizing it poorly. I’ve listed above some of the pioneers and practitioners of this format that have garnered success and popularity using the format and have only helped to propel the use of it forward. Those hoping to work with digital cinema as a replacement or substitute for film should pay close attention to the work of the five listed above.

What do you think about digital cinema? Are there any other directors you think should be mentioned up here? Is there anybody I mentioned that you disagree with? How can directors help steer us in the digital cinema revolution?