Indecision and Digitalism

07 July 2010

Two evenings ago, thanks to an impromptu phone call from a friend, I found myself acting as an extra in a short film. We arrived on set (a small pub) and had been and gone within five hours, during which we were needed for about two hours' worth of shooting. I left none the wiser as to what the film is about, but know that it was a digital production and had been given, I was told, a £20,000 budget by some funding body. The project itself has been given a twelve-day shooting schedule (this was the seventh day), and a final running time of 20 minutes has been planned.

The scene in which I was used was a fairly simple one: as who I took to be the film's protagonist enters the frame, other extras and I feigned a game of pool, making the frame busy and, therefore, 'natural'. The shot itself will, I expect, take up no more than half a minute in the final cut, and that's being generous, allowing for appropriate cut-offs.

Before my acting duties were fulfilled and my friend and I were able to leave, three shots were filmed in total – different angles of, essentially, the same scene. This took two hours, perhaps a bit more.

Regardless of how the final product turns out – regardless, too, of the fundamental ambitions of its script and the intentions of those making it – I couldn't help but note the mild absurdity of re-shooting a scene of this kind. With no dialogue and no real difficulty involved in choreographing us extras, I imagine the scene was one of the least technically challenging of the entire shoot.

Okay: two or three rehearsals and then, for the sake of recording something – and something has to be made official at some point – the first take proper is recorded. The director watches the scene unfold, marks areas of improvement, instructs actors and extras alike – “do this quicker, slow that down” – makes amends and orders a second take. And so on. Re-channel that bit, try this out, switch things up. By the time of the twentieth take and beyond, though, which are shot without any amendments on the previous takes, a faint internal smile etches itself in one's mind.

Is this perfectionism at work? An anxiety regarding an eventual audience's indiscretion toward contrived visual set-ups? Caution in extremis?

It might be all of these things, it might be none of them; who knows? For me, though, it's more indecision than anything else. A twelve-day shoot for a 20-minute film is quite a lot, as is, relatively speaking, a £20,000 budget. Neither of those things concern me in themselves, but I couldn't help but feel the other night that it was affecting directorial confidence – too practically comfortable, too much creative allowance. Nobody seemed to be thinking on their feet; under certain financial conditions, nobody seemed able to think on their feet, because it simply wasn't necessary.

There is another element at work here: digital. In an age where digital film-making is meaning projects are more financially feasible, shooting on actual film stock is becoming a past luxury, in itself outdated as a medium because with it comes more pressure; primarily this pressure is monetary, and therefore, secondarily, it is an artistic pressure.

Indeed, relative to needing more film stock due to the amount of footage shot, shooting on digital is far cheaper and, accompanied by a generous shooting schedule, it brings very little pressure. As for the decision – almost unconscious, taken for granted, etc. – to shoot multiple takes of multiple angles of what in the grand scheme of things will be a minor moment with non-essential narrative baggage: why not? With all this time to spare and this relatively non-expensive format of film-making, why not shoot as many takes as we want?

Elaborating on a scene in his Notre Musique, in which a fictional version of himself suggestively answers with silence a question on whether or not digital has saved cinema, Godard once said, “If you give someone a pencil it doesn't mean they're going to draw like Raphael or Rembrandt.” Perhaps this point, made in June 2005 – to which I took quite keenly at the time – is now missing the broader picture (if it wasn't already), or at least in need of re-phrasing: with a theoretically endless amount of pencils as opposed to a finite amount, what in artistic terms has been significantly changed?

For starters, I think as it enters further into The Digital Age, film-making as a process is becoming more and more ruled by a 'fix-it-in-post' attitude. This doesn't necessarily shift creative responsibility from the cinematographer to the editor (though it very well might), but I do think it's somewhat diluting the role of the director, whose vision of the script should and does impact upon all the other creative roles around him, from simple props to lighting choices to inter-scene transitions and beyond. At the very least, come editing, I don't envy the guy – there were very few women around – who has to sort through more identical takes than he probably should.

I'm not of course saying good films can't be made like this; they most certainly can. Nor am I judging this project in particular. But it does get you thinking... How many takes have been shot for a single scene in the latest Christopher Nolan film, for instance? And from that, how much does the final product resemble Nolan's initial vision? How much is the film a product of on-set indecision, creative freedom, conviction, consciousness, confidence, and so on?

Voicing these concerns to my friend as he drove me home following the shoot, he reminded me of a telling contrast, the possible alternative to such a process. When shooting Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog decided to shoot the key action set-piece of his film with a single-camera set-up, placing it behind Christian Bale and following him in his desperate attempt to escape a prison camp. Regardless of weaknesses found elsewhere in that film, it's a brilliant scene of intensity and urgency. Considering the scene's importance, you might expect it would merit multiple takes. But something – romantic or not – tells me the take count would be relatively low.

But then, maybe I'm being too harsh. For starters, the film I was starring in isn't directed by Werner Herzog. Furthermore, Herzog has a long line of both short films and features to his name, has been around longer, perhaps knows more instinctively what he wants from a scene, etc., etc. Perhaps then the comparison is badly chosen.

Badly chosen or not, though, here's another question: are artistic decisiveness and confidence learnt, or are they in some way natural? It's ultimately very difficult to say, of course, but I do think both are determined by concrete factors such as budget, schedule, workforce and so on. These factors affect any work made within the film industry.

Digital is changing the way films are made as well as how they are consumed. At a time, however, when it's becoming easier and more acceptable to consume these works of art more passively, less patiently, and all those other buzz-phrases of contemporary cultural crises, one can only hope the production of such works isn't in itself becoming a less conscious, less scrutinising method.