DV Filmmaking: Carol Littleton on ‘The Anniversary Party’

Scene from The Anniversary Party. Copyright Fine Line Features

01by Stephanie Argy

In its short existence, DV has acquired a reputation as a format for fledgling filmmakers who want to take advantage of small, low-cost cameras and their run-and-gun capabilities. Recently, though, Guild Vice President Carol Littleton, whose credits include Body Heat, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Beloved and Mumford, had her first experience editing a show shot with DV. The movie was The Anniversary Party, an ensemble drama co-directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming. Littleton offered her impressions of the format, and described the advantages and pitfalls she encountered.

What were your impressions of DV before you started The Anniversary Party?

Carol Littleton: My exposure to DV before editing The Anniversary Party was mostly based upon having seen several Dogma 95 films: The Celebration, Mifune and Dancer in the Dark – which perhaps does not meet all the criteria of a Dogma film. [Dogma 95 is a list of ten “vows of chastity,” devised by four Danish directors. According to the rules, genre and period pieces are forbidden, all cameras must be handheld, no filters or artificial lighting are allowed and the director can take no credit. While the original vows called for the use of 35mm film only, DV has become a popular choice for filmmakers who consider themselves Dogma 95 adherents.]

Frankly, I did not know much about the format, but I witnessed first hand the digital revolution at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000. My husband, the cinematographer John Bailey, had a film at Sundance that year, and he had been invited to participate in a panel discussion moderated by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, joined by Roger Ebert, Ethan Hawke, Dean Goodhill among others. Most of the members of the panel and audience were partisans of DV. I am always amazed that every technological advance has it converts who become strictly partisan. In fact, I learned much to my dismay that film was dead! The guerilla video/film makers in attendance extolled the virtues of DV: low budgets, highly portable cameras, the use of available light (hence no lighting required) and the use of alternative editing software such as Final Cut Pro. I realized very quickly that if I were going to have an informed opinion about DV, it would be in my best interest to try it on for size.

“Our restricted budget and time schedule did not permit picture changes during the final stages of post-production. This lack of flexibility was very limiting.” – Carol Littleton

What were your feelings about choosing DV for this particular film?

CL: Quite by chance, I was given the script for The Anniversary Party. It was beautifully written, fresh and smart. When Alan and Jennifer said that they wanted to make a DV film, I was initially against it. But they had talked their actor friends into working for a fraction of their usual salary and the rest of the movie-making process had to be done in the same spirit – an ensemble cast with an ensemble crew. The film had to be done for a price. In fact, the deciding factor was the difference in cost between shooting on 16mm negative with a blow up to 35mm, and shooting on DV with a transfer to film. So the decision to go with DV was a budgetary rather than aesthetic choice.

Even so, Alan and Jennifer did not want the film to be subjected to the same rules as a Dogma film. They wanted it to be as beautifully crafted as possible. For me, working on it presented the best of all possible worlds: a wonderful script, talented actors and the prospect of working in DV.

Suzanne Spangler is credited as co-editor. How do you two work together?

CL: Suzanne started to work with me as an apprentice in 1989 on White Palace. She quickly moved up to first assistant, assisting me on seven films.

It has become more difficult for assistants to become editors, because the old apprenticeship model is quickly disappearing. When we edited on film, assistants were more intimately involved with our work and learned the craft by observation. But assisting on digital films often isolates the assistant from the editing process. I was keenly aware of Suzanne’s desire to cut. She had edited a documentary, a short western and two short independent television shows. I saw her work and was impressed. Our schedule was very short, initially just four months, including the three weeks of shooting. I knew I needed help to make this schedule, and Suzanne was the logical choice. I also knew she was more familiar with the technical aspects of DV. The only part of the process that would be completely new to both of us was the transfer from DV to 35mm film.

‘The Anniversary Party’ was shot largely in script sequence. Suzanne and I worked on alternate sequences, viewing each other’s work and making changes accordingly. After the entire film was edited, we started making changes on each other’s sequences for the first cut, due one week after principal photography.

“Frankly, how an editor works is not altered greatly by the format.” – Carol Littleton

How did you prepare? Did you do any tests beforehand?

CL: Once the directors had decided to use DV, we had to learn as much about the nature of the medium as possible. Luckily, Lila Yacoub, one of the producers, had done a great deal of research and she had a mountain of information available.

During our prep time, we tested both image and sound in a systematic way. We tested three, 3-chip DV cameras: the Sony DSR 150, the Canon XL-1 and the Sony DSR 500. It was evident that the PAL systems had superior image quality, and we eliminated the NTSC format very quickly. We wanted our tests to tell us which DV camera to use, which lenses and which process would be best to take us to film. My husband John, who was shooting the movie, decided to use the DSR 500, which had the largest memory and a 2/3″ 16×9 chip which was closer to the 1.85 aspect ratio in which the film would ultimately be released.

We tested each camera’s original video from 35mm blow-up to release print using the following facilities: Cinesite London, Cinesite New York, Hokus Bogus in Denmark, Swiss Effects in Switzerland and E-Film in Hollywood. Our test was blind – only Suzanne and first assistant Charise Angone knew which was which. Our timed dailies and prints off a dupe negative were printed at a single lab, and each print was timed to match in color and density as closely as possible. After comparing the tests, it was quite clear that the best results were from EFilm.

In choosing the PAL format, we threw our entire postproduction off kilter. Yes, PAL could deliver superior image quality, but the fact that our project was at 25 fps complicated the entire post process. From an editing point of view, it meant the film would ultimately run 4% slower than the video because

“More people will be able to make movies. Can we call this the democratization of film? Or should we call it the vulgarization of a medium?” – Carol Littleton

material that was photographed at 25-fps would be projected at 24. When we went DV to film, the 4% decrease in speed was not only palpable, but also devastating, until we adjusted our eyes and ears to seeing a whole different movie. The pace of the film was altered significantly. We anticipated the problems in pitch as much as we could. The composer Michael Penn and music editor Paul Rabjohns devised ways to record the music 4% faster, so that when we finally went to film, it would be reproduced at the proper speed. We used the software Pitch ’n Time to alter the pitch of our dialogue tracks and source music. The effects and backgrounds were not treated. Some of the source music was recorded faster to compensate for the change in running time.

Even the original recording of the sound was complicated by the PAL format. We had decided early on to record multiple dialog tracks. The nineteen-day shooting schedule was short by any standard. We were shooting with two and three cameras and the directors wanted to have as many actors on mike as possible.

Originally, location sound recordist David MacMillan wanted to use the Deva eight-channel hard disk recorder, but we had difficulty getting the 25-fps to track in the Avid. We ultimately decided to use the tried-and-true DA88 eight-track recorder. For generating sync timecode, the sound jammed the camera. Because we were so nervous about retaining sync, we jammed every hour while shooting.

Did you encounter pitfalls while editing?

CL: When we work on film and finish on film, we can make picture and sound changes until the negative is cut, and even then changes are possible. The only limiting factors are time and money. Here, since we had such a small budget, we decided that the picture lock would occur just before we started the sound pre-dubs and the output to 35mm negative. Like most films, we were dubbing, going out to film and answer printing simultaneously. Our restricted budget and time schedule did not permit picture changes during the final stages of post-production. This lack of flexibility was very limiting.

“I am always amazed that every technological advance has it converts who become strictly partisan.” – Carol Littleton

I am not sure if the ultra-sharp focus of DV is a pitfall, but it takes getting used to. When we looked at our DV master, conformed and colored corrected on D-1, we were shocked at how bright and sharp it was in digital projection – it looked like video. It could never be mistaken for film. I have worked on so many anamorphic films, shot with long lenses and shallow depth of field that produces selective focus. In DV, focus is more forgiving. When we went to film, some of the apparent focus was lost in the film grain. The print looked more like what we are used to viewing on film. The aesthetic differences between DV and film are not so subtle as we would like to believe.

PAL has superior image capture, and shooting DV in the NTSC format was simply not a viable choice for this film. But we had to do what all PAL films had done before us, simply play the movie back at 24-fps. I know the movie played much better at 25, and no one will ever see it that way. Until NTSC DV has better resolution, or until there’s a 24-fps DV format, I feel shooting in Super-16 would have been a better choice aesthetically.

Frankly, how an editor works is not altered greatly by the format. We had the perennial concerns of making the performances shine, the story-telling arresting and the finishing appropriate. We could have shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35. We could have shot on HD. We could have shot on Super-8. The editor’s work would have been the same. The deciding factor in choosing DV was completely financial. The choice of format changed the movie before it was even shot, in much the same way that the casting of a film alters it for better or worse. If this film had been shot on 35mm Kodak negative, it would have looked better to my trained eyes, but would it have been that much better for an amateur audience? The Anniversary Party will never be as beautiful and translucent had it been shot on film. My attitude toward DV is that of a longtime film editor. I have a certain prejudice.

The directors and actors, on the other hand, loved the freedom of DV. The directors would not agree with me about a lot of these subtle points of running time, selective focus and image quality. They felt the small DV camera crew created a more spontaneous shooting atmosphere. Focus is much more of an issue for film than for DV, and the time it takes to set marks, measure focus, load, unload and move a camera is greater with film. Both the actors and directors had more flexibility in DV.

“Don’t forget that DV is in its infancy. Everything I have talked about will probably change by the time you start your movie.” – Carol Littleton

We have heard that many filmmakers working in DV shoot more footage than they would have in film. Did you find this to be the case?

CL: Not particularly. Shooting on film has never discouraged directors from shooting as much as they feel they need. Indeed, there seems to be a trend these days to shoot indiscriminately, in a style I call “hosing down a scene.” If everything gets wet, surely there will be enough stuff to cut a sequence. This subtle change in the way directors work has more to do with other factors than with the choice of format, whether it be 35mm, HD or DV.

I have a theory about directing today. Most directors do not have long careers. In fact editors who have extended careers see more films go together than most directors do. So insecurity is one factor that increases the shooting ratio, but that is not all. The influence of music videos, digital animation, digital manipulation of the image, the availability of pro-sumer products all have had an effect. One question begs to be asked: are many indiscriminant decisions better than one well-considered decision? I’ll go for one good shot over ten badly conceived shots any day.

Were there other benefits that came from shooting DV?

CL: We would not have made the movie on film. So right away you can see the biggest benefit of working on DV: more people will be able to make movies. Can we call this the democratization of film? Or should we call it the vulgarization of a medium? Most of the directors who have made standout movies on alternative media have used their projects as stepping stones to shooting on film. I do not know if the converse applies.

How much did you participate in the tape to film process?

CL: Both Suzanne and I were present at each step of the way, in the same way an editor is needed to follow through in film.

“The aesthetic differences between DV and film are not so subtle as we would like to believe… The Anniversary Party will never be as beautiful and translucent had it been shot on film.” – Carol Littleton

I have heard that many video shows that transfer to film encounter sync problems. Did you have any?

CL: We did not have any sync problems to speak of. I attribute our good fortune to the amount of testing we did before starting the shoot. We tested so many different ways of generating timecode and resolving it back out that we drove the producers and ourselves crazy. But it paid off.

Overall, how did you feel about this experience?

CL: The experience of working on The Anniversary Party and working with the whole team was, in a word, wonderful. Any time I have an opportunity to work with talented people, on an unusual project with a well-written script, I would say yes.

What recommendations would you have for someone considering a DV project?

CL: Have fun and don’t forget that DV is in its infancy. Everything I have talked about will probably change by the time you start your movie. DV is great but remember, film is not dead. It is evolving, too. Luckily we have a choice. Consider what is right for each project, and then enjoy the ride.