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Love and Low-Budget Filmmaking: The Digital Pieces of 'Broken English'

John Pirozzi, the cinematographer on Zoe Cassavetes' soon-to-be-released bittersweet
love story Broken English, recalls an evening in Paris when he and the
crew were about to shoot an important scene. "It was a bar exterior at night," he
says. "It was a last-minute location, and I hadn't been able to see it beforehand.
They said we weren't going to be able to use any lights, but no one told us this
until we got there."

But Pirozzi was shooting with the Thomson
Grass Valley Viper camera
, which
didn't let him down on that dark Paris night. "The bar had a little bit
of light around it," Pirozzi continues. "There were some practical
lights, and I said, 'Well, we're here. Let's just try and shoot it.' We positioned
the actors so they'd be silhouetted against bright walls lit by the practicals.
The shot that we got was great."

Such are the vagaries and unpredictabilities of low-budget independent filmmaking. Broken
English
, which stirred favorable comments at the Sundance Film Festival
in January, is slated for a June 22 release. Written and directed by Zoe Cassavetes,
daughter of the late John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, who has a role in the
film, Broken English stars indie diva Parker Posey. It features Drea
de Matteo of The Sopranos fame, as well as Griffin Dunne, Peter Bogdanovich
and Melvil Poupaud, who plays Posey's French love interest.

Broken English was a labor of love for Cassevetes. She approached
Producer Andrew Fierberg (Fur, Keane) a couple of years ago. "We
had a number of conversations about the script, did some rewrites and got it
off the ground about a year after that," he says. "We had several budgets
in mind and several scenarios on how we would make the film based on how much
money we would raise. We had a full cast and crew and were all geared up and
ready to go. And we put a line in the sand. We said that regardless of how much
money we can raise, we will make the movie."

Enter HDNet Films, the high-def production company founded in late 2003 by
HDNet impresario and billionaire Mark Cuban with associates Todd Wagner, Jason
Kliot and Joana Vicente. HDFilms finances and produces narrative and documentary
features with the stipulation that they be shot digitally, distributed nationally
by Magnolia Pictures and shown on cable's high-def channel HDNet (both of which
are owned by Cuban and Wagner, as is the Landmark theater chain). HDNet Films
productions have included the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room
and the Steven Soderbergh documentary Spalding Gray.

"We took the project to HDNet about five weeks before we planned to start
shooting, and we told them that if they wanted to come on board, we'd be happy
to work with them," says Fierberg. "They said yes. We were already
in preproduction as we were signing papers, and the deal took us to a budget
level that made us feel more comfortable." Fierberg adds that the budget
for Broken English was within HDNet Films' mandate to finance movies
costing less than $2 million. "It was more than $800,000 but less than $2
million," he says.

With the HDNet deal in place, Fierberg and his crew evaluated the various
HD options for shooting Broken English. "Shooting HD was one of
the requirements," says Fierberg. "We ended up making a deal with [Thomson
Grass Valley, makers of the] Viper. They had never done a low-budget film from
beginning to end with Viper."

"HDNet was very curious about some of the new uncompressed formats, as
was I," adds Pirozzi. "Because that technology is so new, it was a
little out of the price range of what they were used to spending or what they
could afford. They approached [Thomson] and told them that they would like to
do some testing. So I tested the Viper against the Panasonic
VariCam
and the
Sony
F900
and F950 HD cameras; the results I got back were really encouraging.
When Andy and HDNet saw the tests, they said, 'Let's go for it.' That's how it
came to be. I think [Thomson] made a deal with us that was within our price range."

All in all, the Viper experience was good, though with some caveats. "I
might have wanted a bigger crew, were I to repeat that experience," says
Fierberg. "With Viper, you're tethered and you're walking with the deck,
and it's very hard to quality-control what you're doing at the time. With a smaller
film, it's hard to overachieve with a new technology. You have to be careful.
But the film looks good and we're proud of it."

Indeed, Broken English could be described as a "Viper-lite" shoot. "Part
of it was that we didn't use Viper the way people used it in the past as far
as having a lot of monitors on the set and having the Thomson
Grass Valley LUTher box
available," says Pirozzi. "We went without all of that. What we
saw was the uncompressed image, which tends to be very flat and green."

Adds Fierberg, "If you have a bigger crew, you can run an intermediary
monitor; you'd be able to play back and someone would be looking at stuff. We
didn't have enough money for a playback person. We lost a couple of shots because
of that—nothing major, but enough to be a little disconcerting. That said,
we were excited to get the Viper as an image capturing device. It's incredible."

Just one Viper camera—rented from Plus
8 Digital
in New York and shipped
to Paris and back—was used on Broken English. Rather than recording
onto drives, the producers made the decision to record on Sony HDCAM SR decks. "If
we had gone to drives, the workflow would probably have been more than we could
have dealt with," says Pirozzi, "so we went straight to the SR deck.
There's a little bit of compression that occurs because of that workflow, but
when we saw the tests compared to the other compressed formats, the [Viper-to-SR
material] was head and shoulders above them."

The biggest advantage of combining Viper and HDCAM SR, says Pirozzi, is that "it
makes the camera very small and light. We got some great stuff from inside a
car." The biggest disadvantage is that the SR deck "is a little noisy.
In some locations, the deck couldn't be in the room with us for sound reasons." When
necessary, the Broken English crew used a 50-foot cable to extend the
distance between the camera and the deck. Also, at the time of the shoot, there
was no way to control the deck from the camera, which meant that someone had
to be assigned to hit the record button on the deck at the appropriate time.

Pirozzi used Zeiss DigiPrime lenses, which are available through Band
Pro Film & Digital
, and was delighted with the results. "They really worked
well. I shot the whole film pretty much wide open in terms of aperture." He
carried five DigiPrimes, plus a zoom. "I didn't do a lot of zooming," he
says. "I used that lens a few times, and sometimes I put it on when we were
tight for time because I didn't want to have to change lenses."

The Broken English shoot lasted four weeks: three in New York and
one in Paris. In New York, the production crew ranged from 16 to 22 people. "We
took four or five people with us to Paris and hired local crew there," says
Fierberg.

Would Pirozzi use Viper again? "Yes," he emphasizes. "One thing
I really like about Viper compared to other HD cameras, like the VariCam and
the F900, is its highlights. The real benefit you have with no compression is
that the camera holds highlights in a much more impressive way. You have so much
detail. The giveaway with HD and video in general is always in the highlights.
Testing the Viper against the other compressed cameras, you can see it. It's
very clear that it really stands up to highlights."

Editing for Broken English took place on Avid systems at PostWorks in New York. Pirozzi was involved in the color-correction process. "We went
to an SR master, from which we did the film-out," he explains. "I was
really happy with the film-out. It gives a whole other luminance level and texture
to the film."

Pirozzi didn't stop using Viper after Broken English. "I just
shot a music video using Viper for the band Dinosaur Jr., which Matt Dillon directed," he
says. "We used it because it also shoots in widescreen, 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Just hitting a button reconfigures the pixels."

"Every film needs to find its own aesthetic, and that can be any format," says
Fierberg. "I've worked with many different formats, and the format needs
to serve the film, not vice versa. In this case, it all worked out fine, and
I'm happy with it."

HDNet is known for releasing films simultaneously in theaters, on the HDNet
cable service and on home video. While this film will be broadcast on HDNet's
cable network very soon after its theatrical opening, Broken English's
home release is likely to be delayed for a couple of months because "the
film has been testing so well and getting such word-of-mouth and good reviews."