Why I Miss the Gritty Amateur Beauty of Early Digital Filmmaking

By  · Published on February 11th, 2014

When grassroots production company InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) quietly shut down in 2006, it marked the end of an era that never really got going. There was a lot of talk about digital filmmaking around the turn of the last century, but this was more from the point of skepticism directed at a burgeoning new means of shooting, not an embrace of new cinematic possibilities. Inexpensive and boundary-pushing indies, then, were the only projects decisively making use of the new portable technologies out of a mix of economic necessity and aesthetic choice. As a result, for a few years at the end of the ’90s and the very beginning of the 2000s, a few movies were made that truly look like nothing we’ve seen before or since.

InDigEnt was founded in 1999 under the inspiration of the Dogme 95 and the guerrilla, no-budget pioneering of John Cassavetes. That the name of the company’s pseudo-acronym also means “poor” seems self-deprecatingly apt, and not without some frank truth knowing the company’s fate. But they produced several films (e.g., Tadpole, Pieces of April, Starting Out in the Evening) that flirted with the boundary between indie and mainstream, perhaps suggesting some potential accessibility of this nascent shooting format. Yet early digital filmmaking was conspicuously marked as something other than what our eyes were used to when entering the movie theater, and therein lied both its promise and its problems.

Early digital filmmaking gave an appearance of an unkempt interloper outcast by “legitimate” filmmaking means, an enfant terrible that refused to conform to polished standards of professionalism. DV films could appear flat, grainy, and unclear – certainly not a domineering threat to the celluloid establishment. While digital shooting technologies have changed greatly in the last few years and quickly (perhaps too quickly) morphed into the standard cameras used by indies and studio films alike, early digital films possessed a madcap, insurgent quality that perhaps held the final surviving flag of distinctly independent narrative American filmmaking before the lines became interminably blurred.

The Sony DSR PD-150, the Sony PC-7E, the Sony HDCAM, and other cameras framed movies that appeared decisively manic, intimate, and immature – films in which the possibilities for drama in a setting as modest as a single room felt urgent and endless.

DV technology seems downright Paleolithic today, and perhaps it even looked “inadequate” then on first glance at its conspicuous, home movie-invoking difference from film. But such films also posed a small anarchic rupture of cinematic convention, a challenge to snobbish technical standards of filmmaking not unlike the French New Wave’s thumb-nosing to narrative continuity.

But because the technology evolved so quickly to the point that it came to be accepted almost unproblematically as enough “like film,” this moment never really played out. When looking back at a few films that chose to experiment with this new shooting format, it becomes resoundingly clear that the power of the handheld was cut short in favor of a return to conventions of polish and professionalism via newer means.

These films mark a brief, odd, and liminal space in the history of film technology – an applied notion of “digital filmmaking” that has unfortunately become exclusive to its time and place. These were the digital films that risk-embracing filmmakers pursued while the less imaginative were waiting for digital to transform into something similar to what they already knew and understood. An era in which “digital” was all but a dirty word.

The Celebration (Festen) (1998)

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration was the first film produced under the Dogme 95 project, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier’s much-publicized movement aimed at distilling filmmaking to a strict set of rules and providing a stated alternative to commercial filmmaking.

One of Dogme’s rules was to use hand-held cameras, the limitations of which play out beautifully in the first title produced from the manifesto. Vinterberg’s camera eschews spatial continuity, preferring to be seemingly everywhere at once – from between the seats of an elaborate dinner to the corner of a decimated bathroom – thereby imbuing the film with both intimacy and disorientation, perfectly setting the stage for Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) to publicly call out his father (Henning Mortizen) for…well, go see it if you haven’t already.

The result is a film that is incredibly discomfiting as it forces the audience to come to terms with what it sees up close. It’s impossible to imagine the film having this affect if it were shot any differently.

Chuck & Buck (2000)

Miguel Arteta’s first film, Star Maps, was shot on 35mm film, and his decision to switch to digital for his second feature seems fitting for its subject matter: the story of Buck (Mike White), a grown man whose mind never left adolescence, and his continued fixation on his childhood best friend Chuck (Chris Weitz), now a successful and blandly adult record label executive, with whom he shared a phase of pubescent sexual play.

The film is not only about Buck’s belated encounter with adulthood, but Chuck’s panic when forced to acknowledge things about childhood that adults typically choose to forget. The film – rather conventionally shot and structured through consistent use of medium-close ups – also seems arrested in terms of its maturity, never quite coalescing all the limiting conventions of “developed” filmmaking. I cringe imagining how much polished indie quirk this subtly gripping film would be painted with today.

Tape (2001)

Richard Linklater released two DV-shot films in 2001, but one – the rotoscoped Waking Life – used the format as a palette, not a medium. InDigEnt’s Tape, by contrast, is pure digital psychodrama: a chamber piece between a grand total of three characters that takes place entirely in a hotel room.

As with the previous two titles, uncomfortable truths from the past are painfully and gradually dredged up, and the small camera is there to capture the emotive pendulum-swinging with palpable energy and gritty real-time realism. In transferring this narrative from stage to screen, it seems that Linklater was able to tap into something unconventionally raw with this film in a way he hadn’t since the Pixelvision moments of Slacker: permission to place the camera nearly anywhere in the scene. It’s all too appropriate that this is a film in which a small, portable piece of technology (a tape recorder) takes a commanding and consequential role.

28 Days Later (2002)

Easily the most widely-seen of the digital productions from this period, Danny Boyle’s game-changing entry into the zombie genre exhibits the signature impatience of his approach to pacing, but without the typical surface sheen. This move was not only practical (only a camera like the Canon XL-1S could have allowed the crew to shoot that haunting scene depicting a desolate London) but is also aesthetically befitting a film that takes place after an apocalypse, giving it an approximate vision for what thinking on the edges of your toes means.

The film’s final scene was shot in 35mm, giving audiences a “relief” from the miasma of rough surfaces they endured up until this point, but this move also cemented 28 Days Later as a film that exhibits the unique aesthetic possibilities of early digital while also ultimately endorsing a prevailing sense of its limitations. Yet 28 Days Later used the format to realize an uncanny midnight quality unique to early digital.

Final Thoughts

I’m tempted to compare the brief era that these films represent – alongside many more worth mentioning, including Personal Velocity, Bamboozled, and Julien Donkey Boy – to the silent era of filmmaking, in which the explorative possibilities of a form were cut short by a new profitable development. But it would be more apt to compare this crop to the equally brief and transitional era between silent and sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s, during which films like Lonesome and Blackmail presented bewildering and inventive hybrids between the two modes, using sound more as a means of experimentation and play rather than a device in a process toward standardized use.

At some point between Attack of the Clones and Soderbergh’s Che, everyone but the most celluloid-devoted of filmmakers contributed to a digital switch, convinced that digital could look enough like what we’ve come to expect of film to the point that we expect older film to look more digital. And while some filmmakers have made inventive use of ever newer technologies – it is clearly a unique format that benefits better from people who know how to use it – there is something particular to early digital’s gritty, uncanny lack of polish and odd status as a format middle-stage (these movies were projected in theaters on celluloid, after all) that we’ve lost in this standardization.

Since last year’s No and Computer Chess exhibited incredible use of older video formats, perhaps one day filmmakers will return to the standalone utilities of early digital as well.