Spielberg Nation: With Digital Camcorders, PCs and Easy-to-Use Software, Anyone Can Become a Film Auteur

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Byline: Steven Levy and Pat Wingert

The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion wasn't available that night, so the premiere was held in the first-floor party room of a Bethesda, Md., condo building. Not coincidentally, the film's auteur, 34-year-old Jeff Breslow, was himself a resident. He dragged down his VCR and 27-inch TV to the room and arranged the couches and chairs in an approximation of stadium seating. Then he passed out popcorn to the 40 or so friends who came to see "L.A. Tour Guide," his satirical pseudo-documentary (a la "Spinal Tap") of Hollywood-sightseeing tours. It was co-written, produced and directed by Breslow during a grueling two-week shoot, on vacation time he'd taken from his day job as a lawyer. The final cut was edited in his apartment, on his Dell computer. As his audience viewed the work, actually laughing in the right places, the Spielberg wanna-be was sailing. "I'd always had moviemaking in the back of my mind," says Breslow, "but thought it was unrealistic unless you spent thousands of dollars." The actual cost of shooting "Tour Guide"? Five hundred dollars. And much of that was spent on dinner for the otherwise unpaid actors.

Until recently, the best a lawyer could hope for in Hollywood was sitting beside Winona Ryder at the defense table. But now attorneys (and everyone else) are thinking director's chair. To understand why, check out the latest feature playing in an electronics store near you. You can call it "My Big Fat Moviemaking Computer," the wildly popular sequel to such blockbusters as "The Spreadsheet That Ate the Business World," and "I Know What You've Been Desktop Publishing." The elements of this project include fast computers, affordable digital camcorders and powerful but easy-to-use video-editing software. Armed with their Sonys and Macs, and their iMovie or Adobe editing software, just plain people--as well as their kids--not only can capture relatively high-quality moving images, but have access to postproduction functions (high-speed editing, exotic transitions, special effects) previously accessible only to high-end pros.

"We wanted the public to enjoy the same benefits with moviemaking that they've experienced in other aspects of computing, like photography," says Apple Computer's Peter Lowe, in charge of the iMovie software that ships with every Macintosh. (Microsoft has a competing consumer product, Movie-Maker; sidebar.) The hard-to-mess-up software has spurred a whole new approach to home movies. Just plug the camera into the computer and your footage instantly loads into clips that you can quickly edit into discrete scenes. Next step is stitching together the scenes with preset, eye-catching transitions. Augment with an MP3 soundtrack, type in the titles and credits, and you're ready for your closeup.

"These videos won't win Academy Awards, but you won't believe how good they get," says Sue Eskridge, an education professor at the University of the Pacific who teaches iMovie techniques to computer virgins. "People can't believe they can so easily make projects for their kids or their parents that will last forever."

The days of storing old tapes and film rolls in the shoebox are over. "We had stacks of VHS tapes lying around the house that had long sections of the dog licking the camera or whatever," says Richard Loper, a social worker and father of six. …