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Film Technique for the Digital Age

Film Technique for the Digital Age

Articles - Directing

Marcus van Bavel

If you’re like most moviemakers,
you don’t often stop to consider how fortunate you are to be living
at the dawn of this new age, with the option to utilize an entirely
new technological medium that empowers you to create the issues/52/images
that tell the stories of our time. But with all this fresh technology
at your fingertips, you probably also sometimes believe that
you’re a half-step behind in your ongoing education; that you
should be spending more time (if you had any) mastering this
new technical “language.” While
that may be true to some extent, you should think of it more as
the mastering of a cool new accent than an entire language, because
a great many of the techniques moviemakers have developed over
the past century are just as applicable in today’s electronic world. MM recently
spoke with several cinematographers and camera experts to get their
perspectives on “film technique for the digital age.”

The Players With partner Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey
has directed and/or produced a number of documentary projects,
including The
Eyes of Tammy Faye
and Monica in Black & White. His
latest film, Party Monster, co-written, produced and directed
with Barbato and adapted from their earlier documentary of the
same name, premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and
was released theatrically this summer. ■ Garett
Chipman, co-founder of Frazier Chipman Entertainment, has worked
in all facets of film and TV production. Most recently, he directed
the short One Door Down, which he shot on the Canon XL1
and edited on Final Cut Pro. For more info on Chipman and his projects,
visit ■ After
performing cinematography duties on The Blair Witch Project, Neal
Fredericks has become one of the indie world’s most sought-after
DPs, with more than 25 films to his credit. Some of his recent
projects include Robert Napton’s The Legend of Diablo, Daniel
Zirilli’s Vengeance and Zachary Hansen’s Killer Me. For
more info, visit ■ One
of the elder statesmen of the modern indie film movement, Rick
Schmidt has written, directed and produced 18 features and is the
author of the classic book, Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices (Penguin
Books). His latest book, “Extreme DV,” is due out in 2004. For
more info on Schmidt and his Feature Workshops, visit ■ Marcus
van Bavel is owner of DVFilm Digital Transfers, a digital transfer
facility in Austin. He is also the author of Shooting Digital,
a guide to independent moviemaking which is available online at ■ With
more than 30 years and 50 projects to his credit, cinematogrpaher
Howard Wexler has worked in virtually every film and video format,
including 16 and 35mm film, as well as Mini DV, DVCAM, Digi Beta
and High Definition. For more information on his work, visit

Randy Barato & Fenton Bailey (standing)

MovieMaker (MM): From
an “equipment” standpoint,
what’s the best way to improve the production value of a digital

Marcus van Bavel (MVB): The “yawn” answer would
be that it depends on the budget. The highest resolution camera,
the classiest dollies, cranes, lights, reflectors, etc. all add
to the production. Every dollar you put into the camera/grip
package goes on screen, unless your camera crew eats turkey for
lunch and wanders in a Tryptophan daze.

I would say the most useful things are the
ones that keep the camera steady, like the tripod, jib arm, dolly
and crane. Many of the projects we transfer to film are shot
handheld, however. With the incredible lightness and lack of
mass of the typical digital camera, the results have a jerky, “inertia-less” feeling
that does not translate well to film. Aliasing (the jagged edges
on curves and diagonal lines in a bitmap image) and low
resolution are the results of shaky camera movement, and despite
how way cool it looks on television, it does not perform well on
the big screen.

Rick Schmidt (RS): To improve a DV movie, go the extra step of
trying to achieve the best sound quality by purchasing or renting
high-quality mics (Sennheiser, etc.). Add a professional boom pole
and a mixer, plus a sound person who knows his craft. And have
a radio mic/lavaliers on hand to free up the actors for more 360-degree
action (the transmitter/receiver of many radio mics slip right
onto the top accessory mic slot of most DV camcorders). With better
sound, your issues/52/images will actually look crisper.

Fenton Bailey (FB): Lighting. It’s still all
about lighting, or “unlighting” (lighting
in reverse), since a little light goes a long, way—digitally speaking.

Garett Chipman (GC): Using the proper lighting is key. Having
the right bulbs, wattage and wavelength is essential for the type
of look you want in DV.

Howard Wexler (HW): Use warm cards for color balance control,
a good tripod and head, flags, scrims, diffusion material and have
a well-equipped sound department.

Neal Fredericks (NF): I try to employ a wealth of different soft-source
lighting units, specifically Kino-Flos. These give off virtually
no heat and are easy to set up and control. I can also attach gels
to them and switch between tungsten and daylight globes. With Kino-Flos
I can make the picture look aesthetically pleasing, but also allow
the director more time with the actors. Set-up time can be very
efficient and allow the director a creative freedom in the camera
angles. By the way, I have applied the same technique to shooting
16mm and 35mm and can shoot just as fast.

What specific grip/gear usage tips can you give to a moviemaker
who wants to achieve high production value on a DV movie?

Garett Chipman

MVB: Pretend your camera weighs 50 pounds;
that’s how to get a “cinematic” look.
Get the biggest and heaviest of everything.

4K HMI’s did not become obsolete with the digital camera. They’re
still the best way to punch out a city street or the side of a
building, and don’t count on a full moon to do that for you. They’re
also the only way to shoot daytime interiors on a soundstage. Shooting
a set in a studio is still the best way to get the outstanding
performances and art direction that make a movie stand out, and
you need decent lights to do that.

RS: If you’re going for a “commercial” look, one small light can
make a great deal of difference. If you shoot with your own DV
camera and are recording sound yourself at the same time, always
wear earphones so you can monitor sound. You’ll find that you compose
your visuals using the sound quality as a navigational tool. When
sound is good, you keep your framing. As soon as it drops off,
call “cut” and reframe, making sure that dialogue is overlapped
or that action continues through the edit-point. Carefully monitoring
sound helps you create a series of shots that cut together into
a sequence.

GC: Lighting is key. Again, using a monitor
is essential. With DV cameras being so light, you need a rock
solid tripod—nothing

HW: Good coverage is usually more important than lighting.

MVB: Even though it’s a post-production process
and must be done in a professional lab or post house, timing
your final picture in a “tape-to-tape” session through a da Vinci
color correction computer will give you the options to achieve
high production values on a DV movie. I advise every director
I work with in the DV format to seriously consider this process.

What about general aesthetic advice?

MVB: Avoid unmotivated pans, tilts and zooms.
By “unmotivated,” I
mean camera movement that is not following action. Nothing is more
distracting and irrelevant than pointless camera movement. Tell
the story in the most straightforward way.

RS: Don’t try to copy any existing style or structure of filmmaking.
If you are shooting DV, you are at the beginning of an entirely
new medium, with freedoms to explore, transitions to invent and
new artistic truths awaiting. Cinema artists can forge ahead without
censoring themselves for some vague notion of what Miramax, Hollywood
and Sundance want. Always dig for the truth of what you are telling,
whether recording fiction or non-fiction. As with The Celebration,
the truth will set you free.

FB: Close-ups, close-ups, close-ups.

Neal Fredericks

GC: Know what you want the look to be before shooting. Know what
you can do in post. Do not have the mentality of ‘We can
fix it in post.’ Get it done right while shooting.

HW: Be true to the director’s vision. Always do things to enhance
the story.

What is your favorite DV camera on the market right now, and why?

MVB: For under $5,000, the hands-slap-down winner is
the Panasonic PAL AG-DVX100, in 25P mode, with the Panasonic anamorphic adapter.
It looks so much like film, both transferred to film or converted to NTSC,
that it’s scary. I’ve seen several projects come in on PAL Mini DV that were
virtually indistinguishable from film transferred to tape, and they were
all shot with the DVX100.

For above $5,000, I’d give serious consideration
to the Panasonic AJ-SDX900  AJ-HDC27 VariCam and the Sony HDW-F900 CineAlta…
although with CineAlta kind of money you could shoot 35mm
and post on HD, for about the same results.

RS: The JVC GR-HD1, because it promises the Hi-Def issues/52/images that
are replacing film at a price many can afford.

GC: The Canon XL1S. I just shot two commercials with it. It’s
flexible, has interchangeable lenses and is broadcast quality.

FB: The Sony PD-150.

HW: I like the PD-150, although I’ve heard good things about the
DVX100. The Sony DSR-500 is great, as it allows full manual control.

MVB: I’ve been very happy with the Sony DSR-250 DVCAM, especially
with the small color monitor that flips off the side of the camera

What film techniques translate best to a DV shoot? For example,
do you think dollies and Steadicams are just as useful?

Rick Schmidt

MVB: Absolutely—even more so than film. Film
doesn’t care if the camera is moving slightly, but the digital
camera sure does, since the grid-like array of sensors on the
chip may interfere with, or fail to accurately reproduce vertical
or horizontal detail in the scene. It’s best to keep the camera
steady, limit your depth of field so that background detail and
aliasing do not distract the viewer. Also, use careful art direction
that avoids patterns in clothing that do not shoot well on video.

RS: If you’re shooting DV, just leave old film
techniques behind. You can do “Steadicam” moves handheld if you’re careful. A dolly
can be made from an airport luggage cart, a skateboard—anything
with wheels. Go portable and lightweight, get creative and invent
shots out of the box.

FB: Handheld is the way to go.

GC: I think dollies and Steadicams are very useful in filmmaking.
The problem with dollies is that the DV camera is so light that
any bumps are huge. So put weights on it and make sure it’s solid.

The two most important items are the visuals and the sound. Put
all your money into that. You light the same but differently for
DV. A lot of times you need more light for DV to get the right
color. Just because the camera controls allows you to manipulate
the shot, make sure you know what you’re doing. Try it first. Opening
the iris or playing with shutter speed is cool, just make sure
it’s the right look.

28 Days Later was shot on the Canon XL1 PAL version (which
I would recommend using because of resolution). That film shows
you just how good a look you can achieve with shooting in DV. It’s
DV and not film, but the line is coming closer and closer.

HW: Moving the camera is a way to enhance the story, if called
for. Move the camera just as you would in a bigger production.

MVB: I try to limit handheld work when working in video, or use
it sparingly or for a specific story effect. The best technique
I use is to apply all my film shooting techniques, like classical
framing, using foreground and background elements. I avoid on-camera
zooms; they look very cheap on video cameras as opposed to film

HW: Ultimately, it all comes down to  where
you put the camera and why.  MM

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