Once upon a time, Variety reviews would conclude by judging whether or not a film's “tech specs” were up to snuff. This was long before the dawn of digital, desktop, and D.I.Y., when moving images meant Kodak, dailies meant viewing takes a day later, and color-correction meant dialing in fixed increments of red, green, and blue — no boosting of shadows, dropping highlights, lowering saturation, adjusting gamma, adding contrast, applying power windows, stabilization, noise reduction, or sharpening.

The technical polish of a film in those days was a direct consequence of budget. Then, as now, money equals time, and the bigger the budget, the more generous the schedules for production and post. Money also bought extra film raw stock and lab processing for additional takes, not to mention the best crews and equipment. 

Nowhere was the impact of budget on “tech specs” more apparent that at Sundance, at least when I began covering the festival in the early 1990s. Independent films were then, as now, independent of adequate financing, and it showed. Particularly raggedy-looking were films shot and projected as 16mm — including my own. 

Six or seven years ago, as digital motion picture cameras (as distinct from video) entered the picture, I began to tally in my Sundance blogs which digital cameras were used for which premieres at the festival (I was first to do this, by the way) plus which films were still shot on Kodak film. 

Sundance Coffee Table

32-inch aluminum Goldberg projector reel that once contained 35mm Sundance films, now a coffee table at Sundance HQ in the Park City Marriott. (Photo by David Leitner)

I no longer keep track of these things. Digital won out. Sundance projection now wholly relies on DCP. Cameras are mainly ARRI, Red, Sony, and Canon — the usual S35 suspects or their Panavised equivalents — with the notable exception this year of a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K used to shoot director Kitty Green’s hybrid documentary, Casting JonBenet (snapped up by Netflix two weeks before the festival began).

While nine Oscar contenders this year were shot on Kodak — including La La Land, Fences, Hidden Figures, Nocturnal Animals, Loving, and Scorsese’s best in years, Silence — I know of but one American indie drama at this year’s Sundance shot on film, in Super 16 no less: Person to Person, a low-key New York City ensemble comedy written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa. The film’s PR touts its S16 origination as a badge of analog authenticity, although it, too, was finished and projected digitally..

All of this is a long way of explaining that 1) Variety no longer cites “tech specs” because 2) it is no longer possible to guess a film’s budget by its onscreen look, particularly when it comes to shoestring budgets like those invited to Sundance. (No longer does casting indicate budget either. Use of Hollywood name actors instead of talented unknowns in Sundance films has been trending upwards for years; even the biggest Hollywood names these days often agree to work at SAG scale when it comes to indie filmmaking.)

A chief reason for this leveling of the playing field with Hollywood is the democratization of technology exemplified by affordable large-sensor cameras and D.I.Y. desktop apps. Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, for one, enjoys wide use as a free download. 44 films at this year’s Sundance graded with DaVinci Resolve, per Blackmagic.

With money no longer an obstacle to technical sophistication, what appears on Sundance screens is untrammeled vision and talent — as it should be. However, when “tech specs” of all Sundance films are equally top-notch, does it any longer make a critical difference which camera or NLE system is used?

Perhaps that’s why the gear side of the industry has abandoned Sundance. For years major players like Apple, HP, Sony, and Kodak were big sponsors, showcasing their latest products and throwing packed parties. This year only Canon, a Sustaining Sponsor and the festival’s official “exclusive digital camera sponsor,” hosted workshops and a party at its three-story showcase on Main Street. On the top floor, filmmakers kicked the tires of Canon’s impressive new C700 cinema camera and looked through Canon’s new compact 18-80mm T4.4 servo zoom. 

Adobe, returning as a festival Leadership Sponsor, maintained a modest presence, sponsoring an editing panel and putting out a press release citing Premiere Pro CC as the NLE used in 42% of 2017 Sundance films. (Sounds about right.) Meanwhile ARRI, off the beaten track, showed its popular Alexa Mini in a private townhouse.

There is one tech spec I still amuse myself keeping track of, and it’s aspect ratio. It’s interesting to note which projects choose vanilla 16:9 (aka 1.77), or DCI/SMPTE digital cinema 17:9 (2K, 4K), or Cinemascope 2.39.

My festival notes are not comprehensive, but it’s my impression that the use of wider aspect ratios at Sundance is climbing, in dramas and documentaries alike. An example of the latter was on display at a packed screening of Abstract: The Art of Design featuring illustrator Christoph Niemann, from a new documentary series that debuts next month on Netflix. I presume its 2.39 "scope" will be letterboxed on my home TV.

I also noticed a trend towards mixing aspect ratios within the same film. 


Psycho shower scene recreated for Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52.​

In writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s two-minute Psycho shower scene — 78 camera setups, 52 cuts, storyboarded by legendary designer Saul Bass — more than 40 industry insiders appear on camera to engage in a thorough exegesis. These interviews, along with recreated black-and-white scenes of Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) anxious night drive through pounding rain, steering her car into the parking lot of the creepy Bates Motel, are recreated in "full container" 17:9 (2048×1080 in 2K projection), in obvious contrast to clips of the original in 1.33 and 1.85.

Casting JonBenet

Stage set scene framed as 16:9 in Kitty Green’s hybrid documentary, Casting Jon Benet.

In the hybrid documentary, Casting JonBenet, mentioned above, cinematographer Michael Latham tosses a mixed salad of 4:3, 16:9, and 2.39 to signify shifting narrative frames of reference. 4:3, for instance, is used for what appear to be straight-ahead, sit-down casting interviews of local Colorado actors trying out for a dramatic film about the JonBenet Ramsey case. 2.39 is used for what appear to be occasional shots from that apocryphal film, mostly exteriors of Colorado locations. 16:9 is used to depict production activity on the stage set of that film. 

Picture shape and orientation, and cropping needed to achieve them, are basic to the graphic arts. Why should digital film be any different? Just as intercutting black-and-white with color became just another creative choice in film editing, expect to see more of this sort of experimental mixing of aspect ratios at future editions of Sundance.