Film: Are you camera ready?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We think they're overpriced and fiddly to use, apparently. The camcorder may be OK for Dad's glorified holiday snaps, but it seems to have signally failed in its promise to populate the sitting-rooms of the world with armchair auteurs. For backyard pranksters with You've Been Framed ambitions, it's a lucrative eye-witness, while in contemporary art the camcorder has merited its own genre, the video installation. Between Jeremy Beadle and Bill Viola, however, it seems that the rest of us, though we'd like to make a camcorder epic, barely know how to turn one on.

Despite BBC2's excellent Video Nation, the camcorder has been seen as a niche format, deployed dramatically for the grainy realism of its images. Recently, however, a burgeoning camcorder culture has begun to exploit the affordable, widely available technology, and a do-it-yourself ethic that drove the dance music revolution. pounds 5,000 will get an aspirant film- maker a broadcast-quality digital camcorder and a PC with the software to edit footage, but screenings at innumerable film clubs and festivals show that a second-hand pounds 250 Hi 8 camcorder is all the next Tarantino needs. That and a place, thanks to a competition run by The Independent, on the Sony Film-makers' Project. Over three days, a trio of top directors will teach the production principles behind TV commercials, documentaries and music videos.

Turn on your TV, and it's a fair bet that what you're watching owes its existence to a digital camcorder. When the Hi 8 camcorder - the sub-pounds 1,000 model you're most likely to buy in the high street - emerged in 1990, Colin Luke, a producer of documentaries for both the BBC and Channel 4, immediately recognised the ability of this compact format to get "in close and personal": "Hi 8 gave us a better quality of access to a subject, and a better quality of relationship with that subject." Few doubted the Hi 8 camcorder's worth as a portable lightweight camera in "fly-on-the- wall" situations, but only with the development two years ago of its big brother, the digital video camera (DVC), did film-makers begin to believe that the humble camcorder was able to produce images and sound of broadcast quality.

From arts programmes to current affairs pieces, the entire output of Luke's company, Mosaic Pictures, is produced on a pounds 3,000 digital camcorder. "Our last transmitted documentary was Ivanov Goes to Moscow, an arts film of the Almeida production in Moscow with Ralph Fiennes," he says. "We gave it the full production crew, but it was shot on a camera you could have bought in Dixons."

With its built-in sound-recording capacity, the DVC is operable by one person alone. "If you go back 20 or 30 years ago," says Luke, "the only people who were allowed to make TV programmes were the professionals with access to expensive equipment. Now=, thanks to this fantastic technology, anybody can produce broadcast quality - provided they shoot it well enough."

And it's with this caveat that Jonathan Glazer, Sony workshop tutor and TV commercials director, is concerning himself. "I think its great merit is the fact that a camcorder film-maker doesn't necessarily need the whole circus of the film crew to record ideas," he enthuses. The award- winning director of Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" video and Nike's "Parklife" commercial has faith in the educational virtues of the simple camcorder: "It emphasises that film-making is not about production values - it's about what's in your head and how you can convey that best."

To that end, each Workshop will close with students showing their completed films - no matter how rough around the edges - to the class. Pedro Romhanyi will take the music video workshop (Pulp, Blur and the Manic Street Preachers are among his clients), Sarah Lewis the documentary workshop, but Jonathan Glazer's plans for his TV commercial workshop give an idea of what students should expect. Glazer will show and discuss some of his work before assigning the class their digital camcorders, a 30-second script, two actors and a few simple props, along with the advice that the flashiest camera angles may not make the best commercial. "They may think, `I've got to impress, and the way to impress is to set up the biggest shot.' But there's no point in using a top-shot if it doesn't say anything. I'll be getting people to see the different ways to communicate an advertising script."

Both Colin Luke and Jonathan Glazer conclude that the camcorder has come of age in the digital era. Luke is already making his living from the DVC and Glazer is prepared to stake his reputation on their value: "If I turned round and said to the Rolling Stones, `I want to shoot a video on a camcorder and these are the reasons', there would be no question they would go for it."

Your chance to join the Independent/Sony Filmmaker's workshop

The workshops are aimed at people with little or no experience in film making. The first three have been confirmed with the following directors:

4 April: Pedro Romhanyi on music videos (apply by 2 March).

18 April: Jonathan Glazer on commercials (apply by 16 March).

16 May: Sarah Lewis on documentaries (apply by 13 April).

How to enter:

Tell us about your favourite scene from a film or music video - saying why you chose it - in not more than 25 words. Send applications to Sony Filmmakers, 1st Floor, 97-99 Dean St, London W1V 5RA. Places are limited. Students will be asked to pay pounds 40 (waged) and pounds 20 (unwaged) to cover expenses.