High Definition, Digital Betacam, DV Cam, Mini
DV, NTSC, PAL–for an independent moviemaker considering the digital
video route on his or her next feature, short or music video, there
is a dizzying number of choices and considerations to sort through.
What look am I after and which camera can best bring me there?
How much do I gain if I jump from one format to another,
and what will it cost? Do I want to go Hi Def (fortune’s child,
in many eyes) or can I still do justice to the story I’m telling
More often than not, it’s the person behind the camera
who makes all the difference. To sort through some of this, MM talked
to several moviemakers and suppliers to see what’s working out in
The Hi Def Road
World Wide Broadcast Services in Los Angeles started renting the Sony
HDW-F900 (24p) last year. Says veteran cameraman Don Shapiro, who
owns the shop, "They’ve been busy since the day we got them.
We end up shipping these cameras all over the world. People are
using them for everything from shorts to features to TV pilots."
Cinematographer Osvaldo Silvera shot the feature Sparkling
Sea, directed by Rummel Mor, on one of World Wide’s Sony HDW-F900
cameras. The picture was shot on a remote island in the Philippines.
Several plane trips were required just to get close to the island
itself; the film crew’s sea plane touched just off the coast and
they waded ashore with their gear. Though heavier than a DV Cam
or Mini DV, the relative portability of HD–no film cans, and no
off-site processing–was an asset.
Silvera was also impressed by how the equipment responded
to the rugged conditions. "The camera held up incredibly well
under extreme humidity," Silvera points out, "something
I was very concerned about. It could be one in the morning and still
be 94 to 96 degrees–with 100 percent humidity–but we never had
The image quality produced by HD is well known, but
the system’s built-in tool kit has a litany of other tricks. "One
thing I like about the HDW-F900," says Silvera, "is that
you can basically color correct and light on the set. If something
is not red enough and you don’t have a filter to enhance the reds,
you can go into the menu and change them to your specifications.
You can also save your settings on the Sony Memory Stick. You can
then name what you saved. For instance, ‘Outdoor Market, Scene 24.’
If you go back to that scene or do a re-shoot, you just put your
card in, push a button and all your settings are back to where they
Adds Ryan Sheridan of Birns and Sawyer in Los Angeles,
"You can create an old movie look or desaturate the colors
to get a dark, bleached bypass, Saving Private Ryan
quality, and save your choices on the Memory Stick. Later, you can
walk up to any camera of that kind, drop that Memory Stick in and
automatically reproduce the exact look you recorded." However,
Sheridan warns about locking yourself into an extremely stylized
"look," because it’s very hard if not impossible to undo
later, in post.
Panasonic’s HD 24p system, the AJ-HDC27 720p Varicam,
also comes with the memory cards and color correction system. Sheridan
adds, "The Sony and the Panasonic both have the same kind of
color correction, with the multi matrix, that allows filmmakers
to go into the camera and create a certain look without spending
costly time in a telecine bay. You can accurately pinpoint certain
colors and enhance them, or change certain colors as required."
Jim Jacks, Rental Manager at Birns and Sawyer, points
out that interest in the Panasonic HD is growing. "The Sony
HD cameras have tended to be more popular than the Panasonic HD
camera. But people who at first were shooting with the Panasonic
because it’s cost-effective have now realized that, not only is
it neck and neck with the Sony, it has some advantages: it has 24
percent more luminance and more color information and a variable
frame rate. People are using the camera more and more for independent
"While the Sony is sharper," Jacks adds,
"the debate is whether or not you want that crispness, or are
you going to try and lose that anyway by diffusing the image."
Sheridan has shot three projects with the Panasonic
AJ-HDC27, and liked the results. "I lensed a Project Greenlight
piece for Marco Gueraro with the Panasonic HD; it was a Samuel Adams
commercial. The idea of the contest was to prove that we could shoot
an extremely good-looking commercial, with a good concept, in three
days. We went to Sundance with it and won, which enabled us to shoot
another project on 35mm. But we would not have won if we didn’t
use that camera, because it looked like film."
But even with the built-in tools, lighting is lighting.
"I rate the Sony HD at 320 ASA," says Silvera, "and
light exactly as if I was shooting 320 ASA film. I light the set
with my meter, and only later go back to the camera and monitor
and see what they are seeing."
Though choosing to work at the higher end of the digital
food chain, Silvera’s budget only allowed for one lens. "We
used the Fujinon 7.5 – 150mm HD lens. It has a 2X doubler which,
when you flip down, will add a two time extender at the rear of
the lens. There is some light loss, maybe a whole stop, but if you
zoom in at 150mm, and the subject isn’t big enough in the frame,
you can–provided you have enough light–flip down the extender
and essentially have a 15 – 300mm lens." Also handy, of course,
if you want to reduce the depth of field.
Panavision has made lenses for the ‘Panavised’ CineAlta–their
tricked out version of the Sony HDW-F900–to a higher standard than
their film lenses because the target is smaller. Their intention
is to optimize the quality getting onto those 2/3" CCD sensors,
so they’ve made lenses that resolve more lines to make up for the
The Middle Way
The debate over what to sacrifice for budgetary considerations
will never yield a pat set of answers, but you want to be aware
of how your choice of shooting format will affect your costs in
post. Editing on a system like Final Cut Pro is inexpensive, but
requires Fire Wire. If you are not shooting with a Sony PD-150,
Canon XL-1 or one of the DV Cams, you will incur another layer of
costs getting your data into the Mac. You’d have to convert, or
downgrade to Mini DV or DV Cam to do your edit. (There is a Final
Cut version that handles HD, but it’s not cheap.)
World Wide Broadcast Services, Inc.
Some moviemakers see Panasonic’s AJ-PD900WA 480p Progressive
camera as a high-quality compromise between HD and standard DV.
"I really think that this camera is the big secret in independent
filmmaking," says moviemaker Ramin Niami, whose digital feature
Paris was shot on a Panasonic AJ-PD900WA from Birns and Sawyer.
"It’s not really High Definition, but the quality is a lot
better than other DVs," says Niami. "I didn’t want to
shoot Hi Def because it’s a lot more expensive: the camera is more
expensive and the tape is more expensive. Post is also going to
cost more. The Panasonic HD camera is also lighter than an HD camera,
though it takes HD lenses. My film is a road movie–all shot handheld–so
that mobility was great.
"Also with this camera, I was able to shoot 60
frames so that, even though on a one-hour tape you only get 30 minutes
at that frame rate, the quality of the image is enhanced."
Though originally concerned about using DV in exterior daylight,
the camera performed well. "The tests I saw for the Progressive
at Film Out Express in Los Angeles satisfied me that it works well
under very low light and under bright sunlight. We shot exterior
night on this picture–in Las Vegas and Los Angeles–and it looks
Cinematographer Mark Benjamin, who lensed director
Marc Levin’s 1998 film Slam, recently shot a segment of Martin
Scorsese’s The Blues project for Levin. "On The
Blues series we shot Digi Beta PAL, 16×9 native," says
Benjamin. The reason being that the producers knew they were going
to transfer the project to film. "They are thinking that at
least this will give us something very close to the top of the capture
food chain. Film is at the top of the food chain, then HD, Digi
Beta PAL, etc."
Benjamin generally likes to work with several cameras
on hand. He is currently DP on the documentary Prison Ball,
featuring basketball great Allen Iverson, now shooting in prisons
around the country. "I always shoot four cameras: a PD-150
PAL; Digi Beta PAL (with a couple of lenses), a Super16 and an 8mm,"
Benjamin says. "I use a PD-150 PAL almost as a note-taker,
to move around and get things quickly as a B camera. It captures
a great image. When you are doing montage, you are not going to
dwell on the reticulation issue: seeing more grain than you see
on the previous shot. I also bring film cameras in case I want slow
motion. I generally use an Anton Prod or an Arriflex High Speed.
I will also bring a Super 8mm camera if I want a lot of grain. But
my A-camera is Digi Beta PAL if it’s going to be a film out project."
Cameras for The Blues came from Broadcast
Video Rentals, Bob Zahn’s rental facility in New York. While Digi
Beta is a great format to use if you intend to go to film, the Sony
DSR-500–a DV Cam–continues to be a trusted workhorse in the midrange
between HD and Mini DV. The work of cinematographer John Bailey,
who used the PAL Sony DSR-500WS on The Anniversary Party,
is one example. Zahn is currently providing DSR-500WSP (PAL) gear
to Michael Apted on his digital project Married In America;
and Barbara Kopple used his DSR-500WS (NTSC) gear for her multi-part
TV special The Hamptons. Not only is the DSR cheaper to rent,
but it consumes less juice than a Digi Beta.
"It runs for hours on batteries," says Mark
Benjamin. "Not only are you getting the 40-minute tape runs,
but you don’t have to be concerned with changing the battery every
time you turn around. The smaller size of the camera is also an
advantage, particularly if it’s an all-handheld situation; you don’t
get as fatigued." The camera also has a B-4 mount–the same
mount as the Digi Beta and Hi Def–which allows moviemakers to use
the entire range of High Definition lenses. "They are all tape
lenses," Benjamin points out, "but at this point the distance
between them and film lenses is blurring because tape lenses are
now being made for Hi Def at standards higher than film lenses."
DP Mark Woods has brought his own brand of know-how
to his work with the DSR-500. "I’ve worked out techniques over
the years with white balancing to get a look that is more suitable
to what I want to portray at any given time. I do the white balance
with a colored filter on the lens. You put the complementary color
in front of the lens in order to white balance the camera–to shift
it–in the direction that you want it to go. If you want a cool
look, you use a warm filter; if you want a warm look, you use a
cool filter. You do your white balance that way then pull the filter
off and shoot normally."
Woods, a technical writer for the National Camera
Guild, also put the Canon XL-1 Mini DV camera to good use on Elvis
Restaino’s short See Dick Die. "The key to working with
the Canon XL-1," he shares, "is to deal with the contrast
ratios and to have enough light, believe it or not, so that the
chips will record at high-quality levels. You want to use more light;
it’s the exact opposite of what they tell you. The lights I used
were large soft sources with not very much fill; I positioned the
lights in such a way that it would light and wrap the actors. I
then cut it on the walls and put negative fill in. You can get a
good picture; you just have to give it care."
Sweet & Lowdown
The Canon XL -1 continues to win admirers. "It’s
a great little camera in that it’s modular and you can change any
piece out that you don’t want; even the old models." offers
Jim Jacks. "At Birns and Sawyer, we even manufacture our own
parts for the camera." It can’t compete with the Digital Betacam
or Betacam for image quality, but it’s popular with moviemakers
shooting on low budgets or looking to experiment. And the new P
+ S Technik Mini 35 Digital Adapter, made especially for the XL-1,
allows the camera to take 35mm film lenses. Adds Craig Chartier,
rental manager at Gear, a full-service camera and lighting house
in Austin: "The P + S adapter is incredibly hot right now."
"There are now portable jibs for these cameras,"
adds Richard Wurman of Boston Camera. "Glidecam makes
a wonderful product called the Glidecam V-8 which is a ‘Steadicam’
for Mini DV Cameras." Panasonic is also hitting the trade shows
with a prototype DV Cam that records in NTSC at 24 frames progressive
that they hope to retail for under $4,000. The gap between the rich
and the poor seems to be narrowing.
Steve Weiss of Zacuto Films in Chicago advises it
is preferable, when shooting for 16×9 format using the Sony PD150
or the Cannon XL1, that you stay in the camera’s native 4×3 format
and mask off the 16×9 area on the monitor and in post. This is preferred
because if these cameras are used in their 16×9 modes, the image
is digitally manipulated and degraded in quality. Sony’s DSR-500
however, has a native 16×9 imaging chip and therefore doesn’t suffer
from that kind of degradation.
Content is King
Whichever format you choose, the perennial wisdom
remains the same: content is king. "I stress that saving money
should not be the main reason people choose to work in a digital
medium," says BVR’s Bob Zahn. "To date, savings has been
emphasized by many as a reason to film digitally, and while I am
not denying that may be true, the real reason why people should
choose to film digitally is that it works best for their project.
Digital is just a new brush in the filmmaker’s palette."
Steve Weiss, thinking in particular of first-time
moviemakers, stresses story over technology. "For people who
are shooting on digital video, my opinion is that if you are a young
filmmaker with limited experience you are better off shooting with
the lesser grade cameras and putting all the money into hiring a
script doctor. They’re better off making their script better, getting
better actors and more rehearsal time and having more shooting days.
If they have $200,000 they could work with the DSR-500; if they
have $80,000 then I would say then go with the PD-100 or an XL-1."
Weiss concludes, "The bottom line is, no executive
is going to look at your movie and say, ‘Wow, that movie was great.
If the picture quality was just a bit better, I’d buy it.’ If you
look at a movie like The Celebration, they had a $1 million
budget and they put all of it into the actors and script development.
It looks like shit, but it doesn’t matter. Good is good." MM