Sunny Holiday comes to movie screens on Friday courtesy of George Lucas' much ballyhooed digital-video technology. But don't expect a mythic action hero. Sunny, a sleazy karaoke singer at the center of the Polish brothers' new movie "Jackpot," is several galaxies removed from the special-effects-laden world Lucas envisioned six years ago when he coaxed Sony to develop a high-definition, digital-video format that would challenge the supremacy of 35-millimeter film.
Michael and Mark Polish shot "Jackpot" on the same model cameras Lucas used to make "Star Wars: Episode II." A year before the Lucas opus opens, "Jackpot" will give moviegoers their first chance to see just how close digital video can come to looking like film.
Shot in the San Fernando Valley last summer for $400,000, "Jackpot" is the downbeat tale of Sunny (Jon Gries), a soap salesman-turned-fake-country singer who travels the country with his manager Lester (Garrett Morris) hoping to hit the big time by belting out George Jones ballads at seedy karaoke clubs.
Director Michael Polish and his twin brother, Mark, who wrote the script, initially planned to shoot "Jackpot" with low-end digital video to lend their story a home-movie feel. But when they saw tests demonstrating Sony's then brand-new 24P camera, the parallel between medium and message proved irresistible. Says Michael, "We wanted to do 'Jackpot' on 24P because digital right now is a wannabe medium--it's a great format to comment on the subject of the karaoke singer. 'Hey, these guys are imitation singers. This is imitation film."' Adds Mark, "24P is striving so hard to be film. But yet ... " he muses, "it's like watching a karaoke singer: You wait and see when he exposes himself as not being that [singer], as he imitates that voice. When people come to see 24P they're gonna wait for that moment where they can say 'OK, that's video."'
Those moments will be harder to spot in "Jackpot" than in previous movies shot on digital video. That's because the new 24P format's 24 progressive frames-per-second rate exactly mimics the 24-frame rate of 35-millimeter film. Standard "30I" digital video, on the other hand, produces 30 "interlaced" images per second. When converted to film, 30 frames worth of information are jammed into 24 frames. In the process, some image information is lopped off, resulting in "stuttering" and unnatural blurs of color called artifacts.
How convincing is the new high-definition (hi-def) format? Michael Polish says audience members at a Seattle Film Festival screening earlier this summer were taken aback when informed the movie they had just seen was shot on video. "I'd say 99.7% won't figure that out. Very few people have that eye."
The Polish twins are holding forth over glasses of iced tea in a Leon's Steak House in North Hollywood. At this booth, several "Jackpot" scenes were shot using only natural light streaming through the window.
In most cases, full lighting was required, the brothers point out. Still, capturing any film-worthy images using available light was an unexpected perk. There were other key differences. Working with two prototype Sony CineAlta HD video cameras outfitted with Panavision lenses, Michael says he worried that the smaller crew and less imposing video cameras might demoralize his actors with the notion that they weren't making a "real" movie. A peek at the full-color, what-you-see-now-is-what-you'll-get-later playback monitors made converts of his performers. "When I'd show the actors what they'd just done in the monitor, they'd go, 'All right!' This was something they wanted to be a part of."
Being able to instantly assess how a scene unfolded, without waiting 24 hours for "dailies" to be printed and screened, enabled the Polish brothers to make snap decisions, strike sets and move quickly to the next scene. They shot "Jackpot" in 15 days.
In the brothers' first movie, "Twin Falls Idaho," they also played Siamese twins. Michael's account of that movie points up some of the distinctions between film and digital formats. "As the twins, we couldn't move too easily. We needed this kind of rich, painterly, tableau look. Film also romanticized the images, and made things softer. If we could go back in time and use the 24P camera to shoot 'Twin Falls,' I wouldn't have been fully comfortable, because the digital video is almost too perfect. I would have started using [effects] to blend things out or make things softer, to take that edge off of it. Film has a warm quality and video is very hyper-realistic; it has a crispness to it that probably turns most [cinematographers] off to a certain point."
From an economic standpoint, digital video allowed the Polish brothers to shoot "Jackpot" fast with small crews. The real eye-opener, though, is how much cheaper tape is than film stock. A 52-minute digital-video cartridge costs about $75, versus about $4,000 for 50 minutes of 35-millimeter film stock, including processing and transfer costs.