Film Fund-amentals: The Digital Universe on a Budget

Film making is a very expensive hobby. Even in the days of Super-8 (which existed between the Jurassic period and the Great Flood), the cost of film and lab work depleted the budget of many teenage directors. And that was minus any fancy thought of editing.

Digital filmmaking has changed all of that. Well, it’s supposed to have changed that. OK, the truth is that it hasn’t, and the cost of most available software can choke a horse. The price of the Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 Master Collection video editing package can range from $549 (upgrade version) to $2,599. Or maybe you would prefer Avid Xpress Pro,  with a current download cost of $2,600 and up. For Mac users, there is always Final Cut Pro, with a list price of $999 (gee, doesn’t that sound better than $1,000?). And we haven’t gotten to either the expensive stuff or all of the needed add-ons.

There are some who will tell you that you’ve got to pay if you want to play, and that the cost of these systems is worth it for the high quality, professional results that can be achieved. This is half true. The last time I heard this theory, it was being expounded by a guy I knew who had just spent over $3,000 for a CGI body-capture software system. He was convinced this would help him improve his digital still photographs (which seems a tad misapplied). Last I heard, he was still trying to figure out how to install the dang thing. The delay was keeping him from doing any more photography. Maybe that was the “improvement,” I don’t know. But there are other options available to the young indie filmmaker.

The Open Source movement has made available a variety of free film editing systems. JayCut is highly regarded by many people, while others prefer Adobe Premiere Express. These are both designed as free online systems for basic editing. Free download systems include Avidemux (a favorite of the CNET staff)  as well as VirtualDub (which is heavily favored by reviewers at SourceForge). Many more are available, and two places to start are the PDF fact sheet from New Mornings and the listing page from Mohawke’s Best of the Best. Also, you can Google the day away with variations on “Free Editing Software.” It is also strongly recommended that you always cross-check with available consumer reviews (also online), and be sure to stick to free systems instead of shareware deals (shareware not only involves a cost, but the terms can sometimes be disadvantageous).

Most of the free editing systems will be limited in their abilities (one way or another). Since most of these systems are designed with the home market in mind, they will not necessarily deliver at the desired professional mark. They will often be most usable for projects that do not require extensive editing chores, so you would be advised to keep the project simple. You are not going to produce a Michael Bay production with this stuff, but you can easily do a John Cassavetes.

Independent animators have some very strong freebie choices out there. A good place to start your search is at the Animation Programs list of both free and commercial systems. One free system that comes highly recommended is Pencil, which is currently the approach used in an increasing amount of line drawn works appearing on YouTube (for example Nightmare Before Gothmas). If you prefer clay animation (or any other form of stop motion work), then you will want to go to the Stop Motion Animator site. Obviously, this software system can also be used for creating various special effects within a live action production. OK, you would be doing real old school stop motion special effects, but if it was good enough for Ray Harryhausen then it ought to be good enough for you.

However, if you really want to take a free ride uptown, you will go with Blender. The reviews from most sources are ecstatic. It is considered to be one of the most demanding of the free systems, but also one of the most rewarding. You do actually have to take the time to read the instructions and study the tutorials, but it is an extremely good software program. Take a few minutes (15 to be exact) and watch Sintel, the Blender Foundation’s most recent production. They are seeking to challenge the big boys and do it at a faction of the cost.

At his commercial web site, the indie writer/director Douglas Horn has an essay on the future of open source entertainment. His view is extremely idealistic regarding the impending new world of low cost, high quality visual possibilities that can be achieved through open source software. It is also extremely realistic. This is one of the very potent new forces that is beginning to poke through the fabric of the traditional Hollywood film industry, and represents a great leveler in the production process. It is also another reason why the film industry is destined to evolve into a very decentralized production process, increasingly removed from any form of major Hollywood control. I am not exactly predicting the death of Hollywood, but it is pretty much inevitable.

And yes, this is another moment when we can all quote Winston Churchill, for this is only the end of the beginning. The movement is about to kick into high gear, and it is simply a matter of time before the first open source feature film is created. OK, it might not go anywhere. Nor will the second one. But eventually one of them will, and that will be the start of the middle phase of development as open source distribution kicks into full play.