What is lossy? Why filmmakers embraced digital video in 2000

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Once nostalgia enters the picture, it doesn’t matter whether or not a format sucks. Just look at the cottage industry built around fetishizing VHS: Any image shot in widescreen or-god help us-CinemaScope was either cut off at the sides or enlarged in order to fit the 4:3 VHS aspect ratio. In the case of the former, viewers missed about a third of the director’s vision until the introduction of widescreen VHS in the ’90s. The latter, meanwhile, resulted in unintentional, but still embarrassing, flubs like visible boom mics, which would have been cropped out of a theatrical presentation.

Beyond millennials’ warm and fuzzy memories of cozying up to the TV with a stack of rented videotapes, however, there are arguments for VHS as an artistic choice. And many of them are similar to the arguments presented when consumer-grade digital cameras first became widely available in the late ’90s. The Canon XL1, introduced in February 1998, is among the most iconic. But the camera cited most often when digging into the technical specifications of early digital projects has to be the Sony DCR-VX1000, introduced in 1995 to great excitement among both amateur and professional filmmakers. Priced at a relatively reasonable $3,500 ($5,950 in 2020 dollars), it was lightweight, used Mini DV tapes, which were a fraction of the size of VHS tapes, and-as primitive as it looks now-produced an unusually rich color palette for the time.

That camera was used to shoot the majority of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), a film that adopted digital video for several reasons. For one, Lee wanted to shoot the scenes where Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) presents and develops his outrageously offensive “modern minstrel show” concept from multiple angles, and the budgetary roadblocks Lee struggled with throughout his career made that technique too expensive to pull off on celluloid. Enter Sony’s “prosumer” camera and Mini DV tapes, which allowed Lee to film dialogue scenes with a multi-camera approach more commonly seen in TV sitcoms.

Significantly, Lee switched to 16mm film for scenes showing The New Millennium Minstrel Show in action, giving its retrograde racist stereotypes a startling clarity that contrasts with the grittiness of digital video. Early digital video is a format defined by degradation of the image; the adjective that best describes its coarse flatness is “lossy,” a reference to the pixels that dissipate when Mini DV footage is rendered on the relatively slow processors available in 2000 and compressed for storage on similarly limited hard drives. (Illustrating how dramatically storage capacity has changed in the past 20 years, a 30GB Samsung hard drive released in December 2000 retailed for $189-a bargain compared to IBM’s $279 20.5GB drive.)

Watch the edges of movement in the clip of Delacroix’s pitch above, and you’ll see another hallmark of early DV technology: the horizontal lines that occur when video is interlaced. Interlacing displays video by scanning every other line of pixels, another technique designed to reduce the amount of information transmitted in a single frame that’s been rendered obsolete by newer, faster processors and improved LCD technology. (Nowadays we use progressive scanning and lossless compression, which deliver images whole.) The portability of digital camcorders made them popular among low-budget documentarians, an association that lends an in-your-face realism to Lee’s satirical exposé of media racism. In Bamboozled, the crudeness of the image matches the ugliness of the source material, and persists even in the 2k restoration of the film.

That same documentary look and freedom to film as much footage as a director would like on digital video also proved enticing to cinematic rebels in Europe. Originally, the Dogme 95 movement’s ” vow of chastity” insisted on Academy 35mm as one of the restrictive-yet-freeing rules for filmmakers who wanted to make a movie in the Dogme 95 style. But that turned out to be more of a guideline than a deal breaker, as co-founders Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg used digital cameras to shoot Dogme 95 projects like The Celebration (1998) and The Idiots (1998).

Dogme is an inherently low-budget, DIY experiment, but in 2000 von Trier took DV to a big-budget level by shooting his film on Sony DSRPD-100 and PD-150 cameras. The PD-150, a sister model to the second-generation Sony DCR-VX2000, was introduced that same year, placing Dancer In The Dark on the cutting edge of video technology when it premiered at Cannes in May 2000. And it does hold up better in terms of image quality than many shot-on-digital projects of the era-partially because von Trier outfitted his consumer-grade digital cameras with custom anamorphic lenses, a bit of a cheat later seen in films famously shot on iPhones like (2015).

Like Lee, von Trier turned to digital video in order to pull off filmmaking techniques that would be cost-prohibitive on celluloid. But, as with everything von Trier does, he pushed this idea to the extreme, rolling more than 100 cameras at once while shooting the film’s musical scenes in order to give them a spontaneous live feel. Another advantage of DV was that it allowed filmmakers to shoot using available natural light, a quality that must have appealed to one of the godfathers of Dogme 95. But the most quintessentially von Trier aesthetic on display in Dancer In The Dark is afforded by lightweight, hand-held digital cameras, with the director himself being able to get up in the actors’ faces. As lensed by the famously overbearing, misogynistic von Trier, the result is a disquieting combination of intimacy and violation that reflects the abusive dynamic between the director and lead actor Björk on the set of the film.

That same year, filmmakers without the name recognition of a Spike Lee or Lars von Trier also adopted DV for reasons that had more to do with pushing boundaries and cutting costs than they did aesthetics. Take Miguel Arteta, who decided to embrace the artistic control and transformative working methods made possible by digital cameras for his “subversive mini-DV picture” Chuck & Buck. Shot on a Sony DCR-VX1000 and blown up to 35mm for its theatrical release, Chuck & Buck shares two through-lines with Bamboozled and Dancer In The Dark: its transgressive subject matter, and the fact that its digital cinematography appears flat and fuzzy in retrospect. For Arteta, however, this wasn’t a major consideration; perhaps ironically, he saw the new technology as a way to make filmmaking less dependent on it.

In a 2000 interview with IndieWire, Arteta enthused about the information sharing that digital filmmaking had prompted among indie directors and brushed off geeky questions about cameras:

Part of the drive to use DV was to have technology play less of a part in the making of the movie. I wanted the emphasis to be on the performances, character and story. And it was great to have these 5-pound plastic things on the set that no one took seriously, because it did put the emphasis on the performances.

In that same interview, Arteta cites as the film that persuaded him to shoot his next feature in DV. The confluence of the Danish movement with new video technology resonated as far away as Japan, home of the Canon and Sony corporations. Dogme 95 saw a direct parallel in that country in the form of the Love Cinema series, a project produced by the production company CineRocket that funded six micro-budget DV features released straight to video after a minuscule run at a small Tokyo cinema. The series began with the consumerist romance from director Ryuichi Hiroki in October 2000 and culminated with the best-known in the series, Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q, in March 2001.

Filmed in one week on a budget of around $70,000 USD, Visitor Q is depraved and extreme even by Miike’s standards, opening with a scene of incest-for-hire and touching on necrophilia, hard drugs, and bathtubs full of breast milk in a chaotic psychosexual riff on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema. Aesthetically, Visitor Q has all the hallmarks of early digital video: flat, soft images, blurry motion, and lots of video noise (the digital equivalent of film grain) in low-light areas. But Miike’s work was intended to go straight to video, so he wasn’t especially concerned with the fact that, when blown up for theatrical release, the distortion that lingers in the shadows of Mini DV footage becomes extremely obvious and distracting. As Miike told the film website Midnight Eye while on the set of The Happiness Of The Katakuris in 2001, “I think first-rate stuff is not my kind of thing anyway.”

As the 2000s progressed, big-name Hollywood directors began to follow the lead of their international and independent counterparts in embracing consumer-grade digital cameras, for the same basic reasons. Michael Mann, who created a quintessential work of lossy digital video in 2004’s Collateral, represents the impatience and desire to personally manage every aspect of production that prompted control freaks like von Trier to take up digital. David Lynch, meanwhile, has always incorporated off-putting and imperfect aesthetics into his work, making shooting Inland Empire (2006) on a Sony PD-150 a natural move for the Eraserhead director. “Some information is lost, and it made me feel like there was more room to dream,” he says of the lossy nature of early DV in a 2005 AFI talk.

Contemporary retrospectives of films from the early ’00s tend to ask, with no small measure of disbelief, why these movies, released in theaters from name directors, look so “bad.” But that aesthetic judgment comes from the perspective of modern HD digital technology, which produces images so sharp that editors can add film grain in post in order to give footage a more down-to-earth feel. Digital cameras have been around long enough now that the thrill of being able to control every aspect of production has faded, and has been replaced with a tech-driven obsession with pixel counts that look more real than real life.

In 2000, streaming video over the internet was a concept that was still in its infancy. Loading a video could take hours, and there was no guarantee that you’d even be able to make out what was happening, or that the audio would sync with the video once you were able to play it. But the internet also represented possibility, a new accessibility revolution that allowed ordinary people and established artists alike to seize the means of cultural production at a level unheard of even in the VHS era. Combined with the relative affordability and ease of use of digital camcorders and Mini DV tapes, it seemed as if the new millennium was bringing filmmaking to the masses. For digital filmmakers at the turn of the millennium, digital video wasn’t ugly-it was liberating.