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Digital Cameras: Top DPs Speak

Digital Cameras: Top DPs Speak

Articles - Directing

HD specialist Kevin O’Connor likes the
Sony HDW-F900

When it’s planning time for a new motion picture,
moviemakers are always faced with a semingly endless series of questions.
These days, a decision to use digital technology creates its own
vast subset of questions. With new digital cameras entering the
marketplace at a staggering pace, for instance, and a growing collection
of myths adding to the digital mystique, sorting through what’s
fact or fiction can be challenging. But it’s a necessary first step.

One of the most common DV misconceptions is equating
“digital” with “low-budget.” This is not the case, Mr. Lucas. As
some digital formats can cost at least as much as film (particularly
if you plan to transfer later on), budget should be your first concern.
According to Steve Weiss, President of Zacuto Films, a simple rule
to follow is “Do not put more than 25 percent of your budget into
renting your camera package. Many first-time filmmakers make the
mistake of thinking that if picture quality is at theatrical level,
they will be taken more seriously by distributors or festivals.
Not true. Only one variable will sell your film: if it’s good.”

Though for many the term “digital video” implies
a universal format for all digital video cameras, this is yet another
myth. As with film, there is a host of digital options, at a range
of prices. Kevin O’Connor, an HD specialist at Fletcher Chicago,
states that “just like film, where you can go from 8mm to 16mm to
35mm, etc., the digital format also has a hierarchy, from mini-DV
to DVCAM to IMX to digital Betacam to High Definition. As you go
up the ladder, you benefit from improvements. Not only with the
types of cameras, but more importantly, with the overall performance
and results the camera can give you.”

To date, feature films have been made and released
theatrically at all levels of the digital scale, from Spike Lee’s
mini-DV lensed Bamboozled to George Lucas’ HD extravaganza, Attack of the Clones. If you’ve already said “yes” to digital,
how can you determine which camera choice is right for you? Why
not solicit the advice of the experts—some of the film industry’s
top DPs and camera specialists—who’ve led countless others
down the digital path.

Here, cinematographers Ellen Kuras (Personal
Velocity
), John Bailey (The Anniversary Party), Don Lenzer
(Dance Cuba), Dan Gillham (Final), Luke Geissbuhler
(Season of Youth), Russell Lee Fine (Women in Film)
and digital specialists Steve Weiss, Kevin O’Connor and Charles
McConathy dispel the rumors and share with us their experiences
with five of today’s most popular digital camera choices.

L + M: On the HD feature Dark,
a complete DV package: prime lenses, Cine zoom, slo-mo conversion,
etc.; R: Tweaking the paintbox on Season of Youth.

Sony PD150

List Price: $4,475 Select Features: High-quality digital
component video and audio recording using DVCAM format.• High-quality
digital component video and audio recording using DV format (SP
mode) • Newly developed three 380K pixels 1/3″ CCDs n 12X optical
zoom, 20/48X digital zoom • 530 TV lines of horizontal resolution
• 480p VGA quality 640×480 progressive scan still image capturing
• 4 MB MemoryStick included allows up to 60 JPEG issues/49/images • Digital
video effects: Fader, Flash Motion, Trail, Old Movie (Sepia and
shutter effects)

DP Ellen Kuras broke new ground in 2000 when she
partnered with Spike Lee to shoot Bamboozled, a satiric look
at race and the media, on the Sony VX1000. But it’s the Sony PD150
that has become her camera of choice.

Signing on to shoot Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, part of the InDigEnt slate of movies which requires all cinematography
be completed with a mini-DV camera, Kuras was given the choice of
shooting with the Sony PD100 or the PD150. She opted for the latter
because “as a consumer camera, it has functioned well for my particular
inclination of keeping the image full of texture and shallow depth
of field. It’s also very versatile, as it’s small and lightweight.”

For his first digital feature, Bruce Wagner’s Women
in Film,
DP Russell Lee Fine used the PD100 and called “the
leading small camera of the era.” But he has since used the “far
superior PD150. I own the NTSC version of the camera that I use
primarily for television projects.” For Fine, the digital medium
allows him room to experiment and bend the rules that were clearly
defined by film. “I love pushing the image to the extremes of the
machine—overexposing so colors become translucent and pastel, shooting
with old school heavy double fog filters, or creating selective
blur with split diopters or pieces of glass. The advantage of DV
over film is definitely in the ability to spend time experimenting
with the image and see immediate results. I’m looking forward to
doing a feature project on which I can use these techniques.”

For cinematographer John Bailey, who has just completed
a documentary on the life of Michael Cimino, portability is a key
appeal of the PD150. “The flip screen aspect makes it very convenient
for shooting away from the eyepiece, for very casual shooting, and
for putting the camera into places where you can’t get your body
and your eye,” he comments.

Though it has plenty of support from the cinematography
community, as a consumer camera some say the PD150 is not without
its faults when used under professional conditions. Continues Bailey,
“The PD150 really has no ability to easily follow focus in terms
of manual operation. You can’t replace the lenses the way you can
with a Canon XL1. It’s got so many functions on it and so many buttons
that if you’re moving it around you can hit one button and change
your settings, putting it into settings you might not want.”

Canon XL1

List Price: $4,700 Select Features: Mini-DV Format
• IEEE 1394 n S-Video/RCA video out • Interchangeable Lenses (16x,
3x) n 3 CCD System v Optical Image Stabilizer • Digital Audio •
Frame Mode • System Isolator

Employed by such artists as Harmony Korine (Julien
Donkey Boy
) and Doug Liman (Swingers) since its introduction
in 1997, the Canon XL1 is one of the digital medium’s more popular
camera choices. DP Dan Gilham shot his first movie, Campbell Scott’s Final, with the XL1. He approached the new medium with trepidation,
but grew to like the format. “It was a small project in terms of
few cast members and limited, mostly interior locations, but it
was extremely easy to move and set up the XL1.”

New York-based cinema­tographer Luke
Geissbuhler has used the XL1 on countless commercials, as well as
for the documentary feature Last Party 2000. While he agrees
that the “interchangeable lenses and ergonomics of the camera are
great,” he also feels that the camera’s resolution is better suited
to television. “It doesn’t do as well in a blow-up environment;
the resolution is about as little as you’d want for most television
stuff.”

Geissbuhler goes on to suggest that “what they have
to do is make a 35mm size CCD or sensor and put it into a XL1 type
package. That way you’d get a great-looking shallow depth of field
and have plenty of space on the chip to pack a ton of resolution.
Light but not too lightweight, with lens choices, audio capabilities
and most importantly, a nice organic look. Not that electronic image
that looks better on the spec sheet than it does on screen.”

Transfer to film proved a tricky task for Gilham:
“The first challenge with any digital to 35mm project is the increase
in contrast one picks up in the transfer. For me, I err on the side
of much flatter lighting, knowing that the transfer will be inherently
more ‘contrasty.'”

Gilham pinpoints motion artifact issues as something
to be wary of with the XL1. “Specifically, in high contrast exterior
shots with dark objects moving quickly across the frame with light
backgrounds, there appeared to be a slight ‘stuttering’ effect of
the moving image.”

Still, Gilham would not hesitate to use the XL1 again,
and recommends it for digital novices. “As for the novice, the XL1
is a great camera to learn quickly with. Although I haven’t yet
used the XL1S, the improvements look quite promising.” (So promising,
in fact, that Steven Soderbergh chose the XL1S for his return to
his guerilla roots, Full Frontal.)

Panasonic AG-DVX100

List Price: $3,795 Select Features: 1/3″ 3-CCD Mini-DV
camcorder with exclusive CineSwitch™ technology • Outstanding
sensitivity: F11 @2000 lux, min illumination: 3 lux (at +18dB) •
Supports 480i/60 (NTSC), Cinema-style 480p/24fps, and 480p/30fps
image capture • Precision wide-angle Lens with Servo/Manual Zoom
(with stops & barrel markings) • Auto/Manual Focus f1.6

with 72mm filter size. Advanced optical image stabilization • Conventional
4:3 aspect ratio and 16:9 letterbox image capture modes • Interval
(Time Lapse) recording with adjustable record duration and interval
time • Well balanced and highly portable: 4.4 pounds in full operating
condition.

One of the newest mini-dvcameras to hit the market,
the Panasonic AG-DVX100 is creating quite a stir among the film
community. Priced at under $3,800 and said to incorporate the best
of all previous cameras, many DPs are eager to get their hands on
the latest technology, including Don Lenzer, who is “seriously considering
buying one. I think it’s an improvement over the PD150, which is
still an incredible tool, but you can do a lot more with it in terms
of color and contrast adjustments.

For Charles McConathy, President of ProMax
Systems in Irvine, CA, the AG-DVX100 is his camera of choice because
“it offers 24p, 30p and 60i, has a great Leica lens and dual XLR-balanced
audio connections.”

Luke Geissbuhler, who shot a recent MAC Cosmetics
commercial with the AG-DX1000, comments that the camera is “really
interesting. The lens housing is a little cheesy, but the controls
give you all sorts of looks and the true 24p is a huge leap. You
can flip through your TV channels at lighting speed and in an instant
you can tell whether something is an infomercial, Lifetime movie,
news, theatrical feature or commercial. Why is this? It’s not the
sound, acting or writing—it’s the image and how it looks, or rather,
the conventions of that format… The 24 progressive mode or
the 24fps standard of film is much more like the electronic and
chemical process in our eyes. This subtle difference is, of course,
what sells a product or draws us deep into a character. For cinematographers,
this has always been our greatest challenge.”

Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam

List Price: $63,000 Selected Features: New Digital
Signal Processing (DSP)— Offers a higher standard of precision color,
detail and gamma processing to ensure optimum picture quality. •
Assignable Scene Files— An externally accessible switch allows for
easy access to any of three user-designed set-ups, each with programmable
color, detail, gain and gamma. • Simple Cinematic Settings— Provides
for superior versatility in a single camera system when the Film
User Menu is chosen. • User 1 / User 2— Two externally accessible,
user-assignable switches provide direct access (on or off) any one
of six operational functions, including Super Gain, Super Black,
Black Stretch, Super Iris, and Audio 1 & 2 (for viewfinder display).
• White Balance Selection— Select between two programmable automatic
white balance conditions and one preset that can be set for either
3200° or 4300° Kelvin. • Wide Range Gain— When shooting
in wide-ranging light-level conditions, a programmable gain switch
can be set to optimize signal levels.

Panasonic is making cinematographers happy at the
higher end of the budget scale as well, with the AJ-HDC27 VariCam.
The first HD camera that puts a variable frame rate just a button’s
push away, the camera has become a favorite of film professionals.
Luke Geissbuhler has shot two features, Justice and Season
of Youth
, with the VariCam, and Steve Weiss praises

its ease of use.

“The Panasonic VariCam is easy,” says Weiss.
“If you can use a Betacam, you can shoot with this camera. This
is the most film-looking HD format out there, and most DPs agree.
Not just the 24p, but the way it does color is what makes it look
more like film.”

Weiss says that, for superb rendering of action sequences,
the VariCam is a great choice:

“It can shoot at 60fps in progressive mode
and either played back at 60fps or it can be played back at 24p
fps for in-camera, film-style slow motion. Sony’s HDW-F900 can only
do this interlace, and it leaves all kinds of aliasing on the motion.
You need progressive. Both the NBA and ESPN are customers of ours
for this reason.”

Fresh off a two-week shoot in Cuba for Dance Cuba, Lenzer found the VariCam to be “an incredibly versatile piece
of equipment. I think I can do just about anything I’d want to do
on a 16mm film camera.” But rather than compare the two mediums,
he looks to this digital technology as a way to further his craft.
“I really feel, as a documentary filmmaker and cameraman, this new
technology expands rather than limits my options. You do have to
be especially careful with focus, particularly if you’re transferring
to film, and you’re more limited in working with narrower depth
of fields than you are in film.”

Lenzer opted for the VariCam after comparing it with
Sony’s own HDCAM and says that “On all counts except resolution,
it came off better in my estimation. Its size, ability to handle
contrast and manipulation of the grayscale and its variable speed
feature were all selling points. It is, of course, while cheaper
than the Sony HDW-F900, an expensive camera and only possible to
use on swell-funded projects.”

Geissbuhler says “the Panasonic HD cameras are fantastic.
With the paintbox controls you can really play with the image and
contrast, which you cannot do so readily in filmed features. It’s
also more affordable than the Sony cameras and DPs are always balancing
cost and quality on all levels—especially the capture format.

Sony HDW-F900

List Price: $102,360 Selected Features: Camera image
capture complies with the ITU-R, BT 709-3 Recommendation for High
Definition Production and International Program Exchange • Equipped
with the newly developed 2/3″ type 2,200,00 sensor FIT imager, providing
high resolution 16:9 issues/49/images • Compact, lightweight and robust body
design with cinematography accessories attached • Continuous recording
time of up to 50 minutes (24P mode) • Newly developed LSI for ADSP
(advanced digital signal processor) • Electronic shutter functions
such as ECS and Super EVS provide blur free issues/49/images • Dual filter
wheels for neutral density and color temperature control

In april of 2000, George Lucas made the groundbreaking
announcement that he would shoot the second of his Star Wars prequels (Episode II: Attack of the Clones) using Sony’s
HDW-F900. At the time, he issued a statement explaining his choice,
saying that “The tests have convinced me that the familiar look
and feel of motion picture film are fully present in this digital
24p system, and that the picture quality between the two is indistinguishable
on the large screen.” It was such a large step in the democratization
of the digital medium that Lucas was able to work with both Sony
and Panavision to create the perfect camera that would help to,
in his words, “advance this system over the coming years.”

Though most independent moviemakers do not have the
financial luxury of modifying their camera choice, the film-like
look of Attack of the Clones made converts out of many. Kevin
O’Connor reports that the majority of clients he works with are
requesting the Sony HDW-F900, noting that “High Definition is the
fastest growing segment of our business.” Though more expensive
than the mini-DV and DVCAM options, O’Connor recommends the camera
over all others because “there really is no comparison in terms
of quality and resolution—something everyone should be concerned
about if they plan on showing their film on the big screen. If someone
is looking to get close to the look of 35mm film, but without some
of the ancillary costs associated with film, the HDW-F900 is the
way to go.”

Looking for Digital Advice?

Abel Cine Tech • N.Y. Office: 66 Willow Ave., Staten
Island, NY 10305 • 888/223-1599

Los Angeles Office: 4110 West Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505,
888/700-4416

info@abelcine.comwww.abelcine.com

Boston Camera • 1686 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA
02135 • 617/277-2200

bcrc@bostoncamera.comwww.bostoncamera.com

Fletcher Chicago • 1000 N. Northbranch Street, Chicago,
Illinois 60622 • 800/6-FLETCH

Rental@fletch.com or Sales@fletch.comwww.fletch.com

PowerDV • 6077A SW Lakeview Blvd., Lake Oswego, OR
97035 • 877/928-5200

sales@powerdv.comwww.powerdv.com

ProMax Hollywood • 931 Cole Ave 2nd Floor, Los Angeles,
CA 90038 • Toll Free:1-866-266-6629

Sales@promax.comwww.promax.com

SMS Productions • 676 N. LaSalle, Suite 100, Chicago,
IL 60610 • 312/440-8963

info@smsprod.comwww.smsprod.com

Zacuto Films • 401 west Ontario, Suite 250, Chicago,
IL 60610 • 312/863-FILM

steve@zacutofilms.comwww.zacutofilms.com

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