Festival Daily

By Neil Karassik  

Over the past several years, there have been rapid developments in camera technology. Yet with all this progress, digital cameras have not been able to fully match the richness of analog film. This year, two incredibly ambitious, equally impressive Festival films – one a four-hour-plus biopic by a prolific indie auteur and the other a 14-minute short film by a budding Canadian filmmaker – have used the newly released, highly anticipated RED ONE camera to achieve a look that can finally give celluloid a run for its money. And speaking of price, these new cameras are astonishingly inexpensive by comparison, selling at under $20,000.

Academy Award®-winning director Steven Soderbergh – who also frequently serves as cinematographer and camera operator under the alias of Peter Andrews – used two prototype RED cameras (and one backup) to shoot his audacious two-part epic, Che. The film will have its North American premiere on September 12 at the Festival. As Soderbergh can be heard saying on YouTube, the RED ONE was the digital camera “that hit the wish list that I had in my head…. For people that are into creating digital film, this is a really exciting thing. This is going to be a memorable period, where the bar got lifted.”

Soderbergh’s assistant camera operator Steven Meizler, who has collaborated with the director since the making of Ocean’s Twelve in 2004, further validates the RED ONE’s potential to change the way movies are created. “The RED is definitely not film, but also not High-Definition. It’s a look of its own,” says the Los Angeles-based artist, who has worked with many other high-profile filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Cameron Crowe, and Ridley and Tony Scott.

Still, Meizler claims that shooting the first part of the film with an anamorphic lens gave it a grainier, more filmic look (note: Part 1 of Che uses a wider aspect ratio than Part 2). Anyone wanting to see the difference between the RED and celluloid can do so by carefully observing the film’s opening scenes in Mexico and the grainy black and white interview sequences that take place in New York City, which were all shot on 16mm.

“Working with compact flash cards instead of tape creates an easy workflow. You can take the camera with a couple of batteries, enabling you to hike around with just a bunch of cards and shoot,” says Meizler. “With the RED you can do it a lot more guerilla-style, which made it the perfect camera for Che. Even being a prototype, it worked like a champion.”     
Shooting in the dense jungle put the cameras to the ultimate test. But there are always minor setbacks, and like all High-Definition cameras, the RED had a slight tendency to overheat. Meizler talks about the first day of shooting at the bottom of a ravine. “There were 800 Bolivian soldiers coming down in the first shot, and it was kind of overwhelming having the cameras overheat. But Steven was very patient and developed a strategy to keep the cameras cool by occasionally icing them.  

“Shooting Che was one of the most difficult things Soderbergh has ever done,” Meizler continues, “but I know he’s really proud of the finished product.”      
A testament to how fond Soderbergh and his team were of the RED ONE, they shot The Informant with the RED’s latest build last spring, which Meizler says was yet another terrific experience. He also confirms that he and Soderbergh will once again be working with the RED this October on an upcoming project to be released in 2009.      Another Festival film that uses the RED ONE to great effect is Jamie M. Dagg’s short film Sunday, which will be shown as part of the Short Cuts Canada programme on September 9 and 10. The director admits that his initial interest in the camera was purely economic. Because they only had a tight budget to shoot an extremely ambitious project – which involved building an entire apartment as a set and repeatedly lighting the main character on fire – the crew were uneasy about constraining the film’s performances to a low shooting ratio.  “My friends at Magnet Film and Digital had been rambling on about the RED for quite some time, even dropping money down as a deposit without having seen a single frame shot by it,” says Dagg.  “I was highly skeptical. Who could blame me?”    

Needless to say, the picture was amazing, looking comparable to 35mm. “95 per cent of the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Dagg.  Another advantage the RED has over traditional digital cameras is in the use of depth of field. For Dagg, the camera played a large part in emulating something shot on 35mm. “The RED really helps in achieving that narrow depth of field, and I always had the intention of using this aesthetic to isolate the characters,” he says. Dagg shared some final insights about whether the RED is indeed the bright future for digital cinema. “All in all, working with the RED has been a positive experience,” he says. “Considering the camera has only been out for a year, it’s pretty impressive what they’ve managed to accomplish. As a self-professed film purist, it’s hard to admit, but the digital revolution is in full gear – and for the first time in history, we’re able to produce mind-blowing images without shooting a single frame of film. Cameras such as the RED ONE are the new wave. There will always be naysayers, but the future is already written.”

Sept. 12, 9:00am, Ryerson
Part 1
Sept. 9, 9:00pm, Visa Screening Room (Elgin)
Sept. 11, 2:30pm, Visa Screening Room (Elgin)
Part 2
Sept 10, 9:00pm, Visa Screening Room (Elgin)
Sept 12, 2:30pm, Visa Screening Room (Elgin)

Sept 9, 9:30pm, AMC 3
Sept 10, 3:30pm, AMC 3