The introduction of the DVD format in 1997 was both a revelation and a revolution. The digital video disc knocked the LaserDisc out of the box, opened up new multimedia possibilities for PC users, and introduced us to the wonderful world of bonus features. It also whetted our appetites far beyond 16" x 9" aspect ratios, directors' commentaries, and deleted scenes, building up a hunger for more adventurous indie fare.
The second digital cinema uprising was launched by user-friendly editing software and affordable digital videocameras. These innovations made it possible for almost anyone to shoot a documentary or a feature without having to first secure financing, a phenomenon that reached critical mass with the mockumentary The Blair Witch Project, which proved that a handheld camera can be the scariest special effect of them all.
The third digital wave is under way now. It bypasses the previous submit-it-at Sundance-and-hope-for-a-distribution-deal paradigm for a direct-to-retail or direct-to-the-consumer approach.
"You're looking at a new paradigm" in filmmaking, says Dave Krzysik, one of the masterminds behind the Brainwash Film Fest, which has been presenting off-the-wall independent cinema for eleven years. He's referring to the fact that mini-DV -- which basically uses the same hi-res format as HDTV -- has become the industry standard for indie filmmakers. A few years ago, the introduction of the high-end Canon XL1 dropped the price of a quality filmmaking tool from approximately $10,000 to around $3,000; nowadays, Krzysik says, it's possible to obtain a quality mini-DV camera in the sub-$1,000 range. As a result, "hardly anyone uses film anymore."
One of the upshots of these developments, Krzysik says, is that "people are starting to accept different production values." The onslaught of cable TV, which presented viewers with as many as five hundred viewing options, as opposed to a handful of basic broadcast networks, had something to do with that. When you have that many on-air programming slots to fill, content becomes key. There's less homogeneity and more room for creativity. Or, as Krzysik puts it, "the technical quality means almost nothing." One obvious example might be the Comedy Central show South Park, which has mixed simplistic 2-D animation with irreverent pop-culture references to become one of the longest-running programs on TV. In this day and age, says Krzysik, what really matters is "the story and the inventiveness."
As an example, Krzysik points to Golden Gate, "a mockumentary based on a newsreel" directed by Eric Landmark (his real name), which offers a reassuringly low-tech, high-concept aesthetic. The four-minute short evokes the classic Capra-esque mini-documentary of the 1940s and 1950s, saluting the expanse and wonder of SF's iconic bridge via interviews with architects and engineers played by actors. Amidst all the retro nostalgia, Landmark makes a sly, subtly ironic commentary by not synching the audio track to the visuals -- the only clue that the mockumentary is, in fact, a mockumentary.
The short is one of eight selected by Brainwash for its debut DVD offering, Brainwash TV (which will be sold online at Brainwashm.com just in time for the holiday season). All of the films are by local directors, who follow what Krzysik calls "the auteur theory," eschewing the mass production values of major motion pictures for a more personalized approach, which he likes to call "one person, one movie," although a small crew of just a few people is just as common.
The other films on Brainwash TV vary widely in terms of theme. Political activist Kevin Keating examines the post-traumatic aftermath of the Vietnam War era in Ballad of a Green Beret; Ryan Chin muses on flocks of sheep in New Zealand in Herded; Michael Wardner presents a parable about a court jester who tries to control the weather in The Fool's Errand; Leah Meyerhoff documents what it's like to have a disabled parent in Twitch; and Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer contribute Leonard and the Mountain, about a guitar-strumming, Bible-worshipping eccentric who builds a mountain dedicated to God as an expression of his faith on a barren stretch of highway, next to the Salton Sea. Krzysik himself had a hand in two of the films, Dust Bowl and Find Your Place, both of which are abstract, artsy music videos featuring his own music on the soundtrack.
Ultimately, Krzysik says, he's hoping Brainwash's films will be picked up by a cable network. He also is looking into making them available for online download, but there are still significant technological and financial barriers to overcome. "We have a catalogue. We need sponsors," he laments, adding that it's one thing to stream video from a Web site, but downloading a movie requires not only a high-speed connection, but considerable bandwidth at the other end.
Brainwash may be one of the more interesting outlets for indie cinema in the area, but it's far from the only one. Other local filmmakers have managed to toe out a foothold in the lucrative urban market, placing their works on consignment at retail outlets or wrangling national distribution deals for straight-to-DVD releases that fill a burgeoning need for the underground 'hood film, appealing to a core audience less interested in Hollywood production values and high-tech special effects than movies that resonate strongly with their sensibilities -- like Joslyn Rose Lyons' look at the "conscious" hip-hop movement, Soundz of Spirit; Kevin Epps' gritty, poignant Straight Outta Hunters Point; and Yakpasua Zazaboi's thrill-a-minute sideshow doc Sidewayz (all of which are available on DVD at local retail outlets).
Joining the ranks of the urban auteurs are siblings Jose and Ed Quiroz, the Bay Area's answer to the Hughes brothers and the Coen brothers. With two DVD releases this year, I Got Five on It and 'Hood of the Living Dead, they surged to the forefront of a genre many didn't even know existed. With an aesthetic somewhere in-between a UPN comedy and early George Romero horror, the Quirozes landed a distribution deal with one of the largest distributors of indie DVDs, Image Entertainment, carving out a niche alongside you-are-there street-racing documentaries, behind-the-scenes homages to rap stars, inner-city basketball tournaments, and foul-mouthed ghetto comedians. It's safe to say that neither 'Hood of the Living Dead nor I Got Five on It (perhaps most notable for the return to the big screen of onetime Gary Coleman sidekick Todd Bridges) will win any Oscars, but they do provide a viable alternative for people who might otherwise be resigned to renting Barbershop, Friday, or Scream 2 for the umpteenth time.
Even more bugged out than Night of the Living 'Hood is Professor Pitt's Hip Hop Dynasty pt. 2, which blends mic checkin' and chopsocky, like a Wu-Tang Clan music video directed by Tsui Hark. The film features cameos from members of local hip-hop legends Hieroglyphics and DJ Q-Bert (playing a wizened, crotchety Yoda-esque martial-arts master) and stars Pitt as "the Chosen One," who battles evil music-industry demons for the soul of the culture. While the production values tend toward extreme low-budget, you've gotta love a director who not only stars in his own film, but does his own stunts to boot; let's see Woody Allen face off against a bunch of breakdancing ninjas or master the intricacies of the "crab scratch" DJ technique.
As the digital film field continues to evolve, the sensibilities of audiences where production values are concerned have begun to shift as well. The more indie fare becomes familiar to folks, the more "you get used to that quality," Krzysik says. Indeed, in the indie cinema world, boffo box office is not necessarily always the bottom line; the emphasis for many DIY filmmakers is on the creative and artistic process, representing a return to the experimental pre-Hollywood era, when just about every film was an art film -- one main difference being that nowadays, editing can be done on a home computer. As Krzysik notes, "People don't have all that much money, so it's a different paradigm. They start out with their imaginations." He feels that in some ways, the lack of resources has been a major plus, as far as the artistic side of things is concerned. "People have this need to create, and they just keep going."
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