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On screen in Austin: Your future as a filmmaker

"Edna McCoy's Festival"

Web posted on:
Wednesday, October 13, 1999 3:54:20 PM EST

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- You're an independent filmmaker with a vision. But, surprise, you're about $30,000 short of the $30,000 you'll need to see your vision come to life on celluloid.

You don't know many investors. But you do have access to a digital camera and a personal computer.

So you scrape up enough money to buy some digital tapes ($7-$15 each), you "hire" a few desperate actors and technicians, you shoot your vision in the form of a 15-minute short film, you edit it on computer, and then you transfer it to a VHS tape and send it off to Sundance.

Operating budget: approximately $100.

A few weeks later, the phone rings. It's Robert. Redford. He wants to screen your film. Can you find the investors to bump it up to 35mm film format?

Sure, you say, because you're a progressive filmmaker. You're the future of independent storytelling. You make Hollywood studios nervous.

VideoWatch a clip from the digital short film "Edna McCoy's Festival"
Windows Media 28K 80K

Which project?

This is the dream they're selling at the 1999 Austin Film Festival running through Thursday in the Texan capital. At this year's fest, several major movies are being screened along with one minor one that might prove to be of major importance.

It's called "Edna McCoy's Festival," a 14-minute short on which Tom Rhodes was executive producer. The digital film, which premiered Monday night, is the first of its kind, Rhodes says.

"I think it's safe to say it's the only time any kind of film has been made at a film festival and premiered at the same festival," says Rhodes.

That's right -- Rhodes and company, using digital technology and a budget of $250, shot the film, edited it, and then premiered it at the festival. Instant film, in the span of one hectic week.

"With film, you wouldn't be able to do it," because of the time and money it takes to process, says Rhodes, who also headed a festival panel that discussed the making of his film and what the technology means to the future of movie making.

Rhodes was a development executive for HBO before moving to Austin and forming Digital Focus DV Film Studio. Working with the Austin Film Festival, he came up with the concept to illustrate how easy it is to make a movie these days.

"The theme of the festival is don't sit around waiting to be discovered," Rhodes says. "Go out and do something. We felt like if we can demonstrate what we did in a week with $250, what could other filmmakers do if they actually planned and prepared?"

Run, Edna, run

"Edna McCoy's Festival," written by actress Karen Black ("Nashville," "The Player"), details the trip taken by a forgotten 1940s movie starlet to a modern-day festival. When Rhodes read the script, he knew it would be perfect for his project. Black signed on and her husband, film editor Stephen Eckelberry, served as director.

The crew was quickly assembled from the Austin scene. Casting took place on Saturday, October 2, a technical run-through was performed on Sunday, and shooting with a Canon XL1 digital camera started on Monday.

"We got great help throughout Austin with hotels, landmarks, the airport," says Rhodes. "Everyone sort of worked together, waived their fees."

But not everything went smoothly.

"We learned our first lesson on Monday night," Rhodes says. "Everyone sat down to watch the day's first dailies, and the first 10 minutes of the tape was black. No one checked to see if it was recording correctly."

If that had been film, it would have been a great waste of money -- 16mm stock can cost over $100 per 400 feet, and those feet run fast. With digital, it was a waste of time that was eventually made up on Thursday's shoot. It also illustrated the benefits of shooting digital tape.

"First-time filmmakers have so many mistakes, digital video will allow you to go try something and if it doesn't work, you can do it again," says Rhodes.

There were other problems -- spotty lighting and sound, for instance. And the acting may not be Academy Award caliber.

But by Saturday, Rhodes was screening a rough cut for his panel at the festival. Feedback was positive, particularly from young filmmakers who are sick of doing things the old-fashioned, and expensive, way.

Random arts

Rhodes says this foreshadows a new age of storytelling.

"It's going to bring filmmaking to people who have an original voice who could never have the exposure to film," says Rhodes, "parts of the country where you don't have film equipment and movies being shot but you have playwrights and storytellers who have grown up loving film and want to tell their story. I think you'll get a fresh new round of stories."

Mainstream filmmakers will use it too. We already know George Lucas used digital technology in "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace," but there are others.

"You've got a handful of filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Carl Franklin looking at digital video because of its artistic choices," Rhodes says. "It's a much more intimate environment where the director can be the shooter. You don't have a massive crew, so you can work really closely with your actors.

"And you can shoot so much more footage with no significant increase in cost that you can really experiment," he says. "You can leave the camera running while you're doing stuff. It allows you much more creative freedom in that way."

Best of all, theaters and festivals will soon make the transition to digital, meaning there will be no need for you, independent filmmaker, to bump up your Sundance short film to 35mm. Sure, you might have to pay fees to screen your work. But Rhodes, who doesn't believe screening movies on the Internet will capture a large audience, says he foresees a time when the next Martin Scorsese e-mails his work to a theater, and they run it that night.

"It's going to be a huge destabilizing force to the studios," says Rhodes. "Their big barrier to entry in the business is, among other things, it currently costs $2,500 a print and you've got to send it to 1,000 theaters.

"But with digital technology, it will really shift the power."

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