The Last Broadcast is A First: The Making of a Digital Feature

"It’s like we’re standing on the North Pole…"

"And the snow’s flying everywhere!"

"And we’ve got the flag …"

"And it’s spinning in circles!"

"And you can’t see a thing …"

"Like the static on a TV!"

"But you know it’s there somewhere …"

"And we’re gonna find it!"

Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos’s arms are waving wildly as they
recount their journey into the uncharted territory of digital
features. They waded through rivers of tape, fields of cameras,
upgrades, downfalls, bugs and crashes until finally they planted
their flag in the belly of The Last Broadcast, their new
feature-length video and one of the first of its kind, shot and
edited entirely on consumer-level digital equipment. So, guys,
how was the trip?

Who Are They, Anyway?

"It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a project," says
Weiler whole-heartedly. "We’re just twisting it all up!"
says Avalos excitedly, referring to their approach to videography.

Both live in the heart of Bucks County, Pennsylvania in towns
that aren’t even on the map. They met when Avalos was a lab assistant
and Weiler was a student at Bucks County Community college. Graduating
in 1989, Avalos did grip work and pyrotechnics, then began writing
his first feature, The Game. As for Weiler, curiosity took
him to Santa Cruz and the 1989 earthquake brought him back. He
graduated in 1992 and has worked his way up through the filmmaking
ranks to become an assistant cameraman, a job that has taken him
all over the world.

Keeping an Eye on Video

While working in film, they kept up with video. Finally, in 1995,
nonlinear editing hit and late in 1996, "It all broke. It
was possible for us to do it," says Avalos. He’s referring
to two important breakthroughs in the industry: the development
of low-cost video digitizers for home computers, and the introduction
of the DV consumer digital videotape format.

"We built our PCs from the ground up," says Weiler.
"There is no brand. It all depends on what operates the best
with video technology." He and Avalos each have a Pentium
166 with 48MB of RAM, a 4.3GB Micropolis AV drive and a miroVIDEO
DC30 video capture card. "There’s a normal sound card, normal
graphics card," Weiler lists off. "It’s pretty much
a normal PC that’s running under Windows 95." Adobe Premiere
4.2 is their editing software.

"Before these inexpensive video capture boards became available,
you wouldn’t have the luxury of really spending time with the
material," says Weiler, noting that time is money in the
feature-film business. But, he reasons, if money’s not an issue,
then time’s not an issue. And then, he says as he smiles, "There’s
no limit to what could be done."

"We were kind of hanging around one night and we thought,
‘Hey–let’s make a movie!’" says Avalos.

The Last Broadcast

Wisely, the videographers created a story that fits their medium
well. The Last Broadcast tells the tale of a fictional
documentary made by a man who is conducting his own investigation
of a night of murders in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. The murder
victims were the filming crew of a sensationalist news program
called Fact or Fiction. In an effort to boost drooping
ratings, Fact or Fiction decided to go live into the Pine
Barrens and search for the Jersey devil, an elusive ghost of local
fascination. During the taping of the program, three of the four
people are brutally slaughtered. The fourth, a man named Jim Suerd,
survives with no memory of the evening. He is eventually arrested
and quickly convicted of the killings.

For his documentary, David Leigh–the protagonist of the film–retrieves
footage shot from the night of the murders, interviews the coroner
and contacts a data-retrieval specialist to help with a corrupted
tape. Leigh even sets up a Web site for people who may have information
about the Pine Barrens killings. I you really want to interact
with the movie, visit the Web site at

Avalos and Weiler laugh about Fact or Fiction. "It’s
an awful cable access show!"

"But as awful as the show is, it uses all this technology,"
says Weiler, touching on his deeper, thematic interest in the
project. "[In The Last Broadcast] we play with the
idea of the information age."

"We play with the way public opinion works," adds Avalos.
"The media shows one side of an event and people are very
quick to believe." That quickness is part of what prompts
protagonist David Leigh to take another look at the murders. Have
things really been examined or is the public just reaching for
an answer?

"The whole point is aiming something at somebody and saying
‘This is truth,’" says Avalos, referring to a camera.

"Nothing’s admissible as evidence anymore," notes Weiler.
"The moment you put a cut in or distort any semblance of
time, the truth is gone."

The Making of The Last Broadcast

Very cleverly, Avalos and Weiler have given themselves many opportunities
to shoot interesting scenes–most particularly, the murders. After
all, it’s a camera crew that has been killed so the movie is constantly
playing with its own medium.

"This movie is about people recording themselves,"
says Weiler. "If we’d had a million-dollar budget, it wouldn’t
look this good." Just how did they make it look that good?
They used DV, 16mm film, 8mm and Hi8 video, VHS and Tyco. Yes,
Tyco. Those are the little video cameras for kids that you can
buy at Toys ‘R Us. "Lance is kind of intrigued with that
look," explains Avalos. "Beautiful quality to it, gorgeous,"
Weiler offers.

Their primary tool was the Sony DCR-VX1000, a 3-chip DV camera
at the highest end of the consumer spectrum. They also used a
JVC GR-DV1 miniature DV camera and then degraded the image to
look more like 8mm since they were trying to imitate a cable access

"We shot the higher quality so we could see what it looks
like exactly," explains Weiler. The higher quality would
also give them more to work with in the editing process.

Some 16mm film that Weiler developed in his bathtub was used
for the title sequence and a few times they shot directly onto
the hard drive through a Truevision Bravado 1000 board and a miroVIDEO
DC30. Finally, some of the archival footage that David Leigh sorts
through was done on an Optimum 8mm and a Canon L1 Hi8 camcorder.

They fooled the well-trained eye of one videographer who swore
he was looking at film. How did they do it? "We treated it
like film," explains Weiler. "We played with contrast
and color saturation, manipulated the fields …" He smiles
and decides not to give away all his secrets.

Lighting had a lot to do with their look. "Chinese lanterns
give off a great light," Weiler says and apparently, combined
with a couple of professional lights, you really don’t need much

In true independent-film fashion, they corralled their friends
and family to play the parts, borrowed people’s houses and traded,
traded, traded. "You know, someone’s making a post-Industrial
Joan of Arc and we go help out and then we get to use their
lights," says Weiler.

Ironically, they freed themselves from the constraints of a budget
simply by not having one. They made a doorway dolly out of skateboard
wheels, some plywood and PVC pipe. Their friend Jack Bromiley
made a jib in his Dad’s machine shop that has an arm span of 20
feet. "Since the cameras were so small, we were able to shoot
in some really neat places because no one knew what we were doing,"
says Weiler. All for free.

So how much did this industrious little feature really run them?
"$900, including shooting, post and food," they answer
proudly. They didn’t include the cost of the cameras or the editing
equipment, all of which they already owned or borrowed from others,
but they did include everything they paid for from the day that
they decided to make a movie. Eat your heart out, Hollywood.

Digital Perks

Fascinated by the virtues of digital technology, Avalos and Weiler
enthusiastically recall how much the new digital technology simplified
their process. "We can storyboard with the digital camera,"
says Avalos. "Photographic storyboards!" The night before
they shot a scene in the woods, Avalos, Weiler and friend Jenny
Nasal all went down to the site to plan.

"Jenny and I acted out the parts," explains Weiler.
"We actually used the lenses and the camera we were going
to use the next day." Knowing exactly how the equipment would
perform the night before was a bonus. They took their digital
camera home to the computer, downloaded the shots and voila.
"The flow of information was instantaneous," says a
satisfied Weiler. "If we wanted to, we could stream the video
and someone could start cutting it right there," he laughs.

Onward and Upward

"This movie is so cheap that we can afford to distribute
it ourselves," says Avalos, having gone through the distribution
wringer once.

"Of course, if Miramax comes along…" smiles Weiler.

They would like to take The Last Broadcast on the festival
circuit and Avalos points out that in order to do that, they would
probably have to transfer the final video to 35mm film. That alone
would run about $30,000 for the transfer process and all of the
prints they’d have to make, according to Avalos. Otherwise, they’d
like to hit the road with the video, find some sponsors to pay
for the use of some of the new digital LCD-based video projectors
and continue to do everything themselves.

"It’s very empowering," says Weiler, of the possibilities
of making feature movies at the level of the masses. "It’s
stripping it away from being elitist. It’s sort of like when sound
was introduced to the movies; now there’ll be people who’ve never
had voices before. Anyone can do it."

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