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“There’s a Gritty Reality That is Undeniable”: DP David Timoner on Dig! XX

Two white men in sunglasses and large-brimmed hats are mugging for the camera.A still from DIG! XX, a Sundance 2024 40th Edition Celebration Screening.

Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary on The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, remains an illuminating look at the turn-of-the-century indie rock scene in the United States. The film has been newly edited and restored and will play the 2024 Sundance Film Festival as Dig! XX to celebrate the festival’s 40th anniversary.

Below, David Timoner, who shared cinematography duties with his sister Ondi and Vasco Tunes on the original Dig! walks down memory lane as he relates their ingenuity in capturing such intimate footage and how the quality of the cameras improved alongside the bands’ popularity.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Timoner: We’re the filmmakers and we made the film ourselves, so we were also the DPs. The film is a particularly unvarnished, intimate portrayal and so it made sense for us, director and producer, to also be behind the camera.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Timoner: Our goals were to document life as it occurred. We believed that if we could film everything, we could assemble the clearest, most compelling narrative of what actually occurred. Our subjects were two bands who were working, performing and travelling in low light environments and environments where we couldn’t control the lighting, so we needed lightweight cameras that could shoot continuously.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Timoner: D.A. Pennebaker, The Maysles Brothers, their fly on the wall style is an inspiration. I remember the first time I saw Don’t Look Back, I knew I wanted to make a music doc with that kind of intimacy.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Timoner: For almost all of production we were filming on the run without production lighting. We were catching what we could in an often-adverse production environment.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Timoner: Sony VX-3, Sony VX-1000, Nizo 8mm film camera, Bolex 16mm.

We shot 2500 hours for the original Dig! in every format available, almost all of it prosumer video, from regular 8mm, to Hi-8, to Mini DV, to HD, as the cameras evolved throughout our production period, which spanned from 1996-2003.

We purchased a super new state-of-the-art spy camera from a spy shop and attached that to a little regular 8mm video camera (which functioned as a record deck) to be able to shoot in low light, which was crucial to capturing verité of the bands in dark clubs and at night without disturbing them and the action with any lighting. And it also allowed us to capture super close-ups with infinite focus. So that is the black and white footage you see throughout the film.

We also shot Super 8mm film throughout to bring the film a timeless, iconic texture, a ’60s nostalgia that the band’s each possessed (as you can tell by their names.) Our third DP, the late Vasco Nunes, brought 16mm and 35mm film to the project, which served beautifully to mark the Dandy Warhols meteoric success in Europe. The result is a patchwork quilt of formats and colors which grows in quality as the bands grow.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Timoner: We were shooting on the fly and really attempting to be unobtrusive, so we didn’t employ lighting rigs. Be it a dingy motel room lit by one 60-watt incandescent lamp and a TV or out on the NYC streets after the lead singer of one band fired his manager from stage, lighting conditions were often extremely challenging. And while in one sense the image “suffers,” there’s a gritty reality that is undeniable and that lends the film a certain authenticity. So many scenes would not exist if not for the low light pinhole spy camera that we jerry-rigged with a lav mic taped to a popsicle stick. Today’s cameras are much better in low light conditions… not so much 25 years ago!

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Timoner: Almost everything was baked in. 90% of the film or more is composed of SD video from over 20 years ago. We had very little latitude, and our colorist, Mon Agranat, did a great job bringing the best out of the footage. We used Topaz AI to upscale our standard def footage from its native 640x486i to 1440x1080p. Upscaling was our most essential and difficult postproduction process. To bring our interlaced SD master to HD life we relied on Franny Lane, our digital remasterer. She primarily employed Topaz AI to upscale our source clips. It was a painstaking process with seemingly endless revisions. Some particularly low res or otherwise challenging source clips looked very weird after their first run through Topaz. Franny tried multiple approaches and combinations of de-noisers and upscaling tools, sometimes removing noise and then re adding it to a cleaned shot to achieve the best possible result.


Film Title: Dig! XX

Camera: Sony VX-3, Sony VX-1000, Nizo 8mm film camera, Bolex 16mm, Panasonic HVX200

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