Cue the Computers

Adam L. Penenberg
Fast Company, 9/2006

EVERY TIME YOU SAY “FILM” ON THE SET OF A STAR Circle Pictures project, you risk getting fined 25 cents. That’s because the Virginia Beach company doesn’t “film” movies anymore. It doesn’t even use digital video or high-definition tape. It has made the world’s first short movie with the Panasonic AG-HVX-200 high-definition camera using memory cards. The goal: to reduce the risk associated with movies, which can cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars with no guaranteed return on investment.

For Star Circle’s latest release, Samaritan, about a mysterious stranger (played by Johnny Alonso) who thwarts a violent robbery, and a police detective left with more questions than answers, director Kimball B. Carr pushed the envelope of movie-making technology. He used FrameForge 3D Studio, a storyboarding program, to previsualize every scene of the 23-minute movie — 81 setups, which he planned to shoot in only two nights. (A typical film manages perhaps six setups a day.)

Just before the shoot, Carr brought together his cast and crew to project the animated storyboards from his Apple computer. He showed exactly how each actor should move across the stage, where their marks were, what their movements would be, what kind of camera angle Carr planned, and what the set would look like. Because everyone knew exactly what each scene required, this previsualization made it possible for a crew of 10 to do the work of 40 in a fraction of the time.

On the set, Carr relied on three computers: One held the script, another the storyboards, and a third collected data from a pair of 4-gigabyte memory cards in the camera, each holding 10 minutes of high-definition footage. An added bonus: The crew could edit almost immediately. As producer Ethan Marten put it, “We didn’t just have dailies, we had instantaneous-nesses.”

Star Circle plans to push the technology further in its next production, Six Bullets, 7 Strangers, by skipping memory cards and capturing footage directly to computer, and by using chroma screen technology to augment the size of the cast, which shaves serious money from the budget.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that computers are replacing the craft in moviemaking. “Story will always be king, no matter how much we love the technology,” Marten says. “Tech is just an enabler to tell stories from the heart.” And a way to ensure a better return on your investment.

Copyright 2006 Adam L. Penenberg (