Quick Camera Question

Could you recommend the best digital video camera for under $1,500
for shooting shorts and documentaries? I can’t afford the Canon
XL-1 and others in that price range.

In the ’80s I used to shoot with a Panasonic AG-470 (I think that
was the number), and while I loved the super VHS quality, the camera
never represented colors accurately. So I was wondering if the
newer AG-DVC7 Professional Mini-DV camcorder had improved technology
for recording colors the way they truly look to my eye. (Sony seems
to be very good at this.)

-Bob P., Augusta, GA


Rick Schmidt to answer your
DV question?

E-mail: [email protected]
Rick Schmidt has written, directed and produced 18 indie features
and is author of the classic book, Feature Filmmaking at
Used-Car Prices
. Look for his new how-to, Extreme
, from Penguin Books in 2004. You can join Rick’s
Feature Workshops mailing list
at www.lightvideo.com.

Dear Bob:

Well, there’s not a very quick answer, I’m afraid! Yes, for $1,500
you should be able to obtain a 3 CCD DV camera that will work well
for shorts and docs, delivering the true colors in a manner you
can appreciate. On Panasonic’s Website, I located their
page for the AG-DVC7 at $1,295. And by pasting the camera’s title
in Google, I got an assortment of online discount houses where
it is currently on sale. (I found it for as low as $719.)

Reading a review of the camera at Hardware Central, I discovered
that the camera had just 1 CCD. Before it was “improved” by Panasonic
and renamed AG-DVX10, it had sported 3 CCD and XLR mounts for top-quality
audio (so said the reviewer). The lowest price I found for the
AG-DVC10 was $1,895, still a bit out of your budget range.

Checking my favorite camera comparison site, Beale Corner Productions,
I then took a link to David Ruether’s site and found some
comparison information worth reading. The link, for example, made
a strong case for the Sony VX2000.

Entering “VX2000” in Google, I found prices reached as low as
$1,499 at Royal Camera, putting us right at your budget
range! But at that site I couldn’t find any street address (not
exactly a confidence builder). Broadway Photo and B&H had
the camera for $1,899, as did NexTag. The PAL version of
Sony’s VX2000, the VX2000E, costs around $2,250 and is, by the
way, the recent camera-of-choice of legendary indie moviemaker
Jon Jost. Always take a look at online posted reviews of these
discount houses to discover if a mail order firm has a decent track
record regarding timely delivery and quality of goods.

Back at Beale Corner, I came across another discussion of the
pros and cons of the VX2000. For a future documentarian like yourself,
the super low-light capability of the VX2000 will probably be a
deciding factor. Since you’ll undoubtedly sometimes be shooting
without access to lights, I’d say raise the extra $400 so your
budget can accommodate this relatively low-cost, yet capable DV

Ensure that the money you spend is for a camera that perfectly
suits your taste in true-life colors and intuitive shooting style.
(Does it feel right in your hands? Are the manual controls within
fingertip range for quick mid-shot handheld adjustments?) You’d
ideally want to rent the VX2000 for a day and actually shoot a
couple of one-hour Mini-DV cassettes. Contact the Georgia
Film, Video & Music Office
and see if they can recommend a DV
camera rental facility near you. It would be a shame to end up
purchasing a DV camera the size of the VX2000 when your true, as-yet-undefined
DV shooting style is aligned to a more compact 3 CCD camera like
the now-discontinued Sony TRV900 (bids on ebay usually hit under
$1,200) or Sony PD100A (I saw one recently as a $1,595 “Buy
It Now
” item on ebay). Since these smaller units can be mistaken
for “tourist” cameras, they are less obtrusive for documentary-style
shooting in public places. I’ve heard great reports on both these
units, so maybe keep them under consideration as possible “under
$1,500” camera options.

Playing DV with the Big Boys

Here are a couple of questions I have about my first DV production:
1. Can a movie shot in DV be accepted to film festivals like Sundance and Cannes,
or does it have to be blown up to film first? And on that note, how does
DV look when blown up to 16mm, as it is obviously much cheaper than 35mm?

2. Are there any camera moves or techniques that draw attention
to the DV origin when blown up to film?

3. I often see the PAL version of DV cameras recommended by filmmakers
like yourself. Does that affect the editing software and/or VCR
and other video-related stuff you need for viewing dailies and
post work?

-Myke K., Portland, OR


Dear Myke:

In 2004, 47 percent of the work presented at the Sundance Film
Festival was screened digitally. The films shot on film were screened
there as film while the DV works (over 100 this year) were projected
as HDCam using DLP projectors, located in all 16 festival theaters.
HDCam has a resolution of 1,080 lines of vertical resolution and
1920 lines of horizontal resolution, equaling over two million
pixels. See Sony’s CineAlta site for a great article on
HDCam. “The Cost of Getting it in the Can” by Glenn Estersohn explains
how HDCam compares to 16mm and 35mm film. At any rate, reports
from Sundance this year indicate that few attending the festival
could detect the difference between the film and video projections.

Regarding DV at the Cannes Film Festival, the entry form states
that shorts under 15 minutes and features over 60 minutes will
be screened in high-quality video for selection committee members.
They accept either a film print, videocassette or DVD (zone 2:
Europe or “dezoned”) of the works.

I couldn’t find any information with regards to final screening
format, but if you make the March 15th deadline and get your movie
accepted, please let us know in what format it screens.

For the cost comparison between a DV-to-film blow-up to 16mm and
35mm, you need to take into account the final intended use of the
film-mastered movie. At DV Film in Austin, the quotes
are $350 per minute for blow-up to 35mm and $250 per minute for
16mm. Yes, you’d save $10,000 going the 16mm route if your movie
ran 100 minutes, but you still couldn’t play commercial theaters
and drive-ins that screen the industry-standard 35mm prints. So
even if the 16mm print looked great, you’d still be right back
to square one-like all of us past 16mm moviemakers were when we
all needed a 35mm print to screen with the big boys in real theaters.

It seems the time may be right for waiting for the DV revolution
to catch up; someday very soon having a DVD copy will be high-enough
quality to screen at film festivals. In fact, that’s how my latest
Mini-DV collaborative feature, Release the Head, will be
screened in Arkansas in April, at the Ozarks Foothills Film

Regarding camera moves that might reveal a DV origin when you
go to film blow-up-my feeling is that if you shoot in support of
the story you’re telling there will never be a downside, even if
you reveal DV “grain” or light trails. In the old days of early
Sony Portapack cameras (in the 1970s), you would leave a light
trail whenever you moved the lens past a well-lit area. Nowadays,
that effect is considered a desirable option that can be dialed
up on some cameras to make your digital video more original and
creative in appearance. Personally, I’d say push the DV envelope
further instead of trying to replicate a certain film look. You’ll
notice that it’s original indie movies like Lost in Translation that
are getting all the attention. Dare to be different!

Lastly, going the PAL route is a trade-off of more initial cost
for added sharpness and the ability to shoot 25 frames per second
(which is closer to the 24fps you’ll blow up to and project if
a film print is your final destination for the work). Buying a
PAL camera usually costs more than its NTSC counterpart. PAL-formatted
works, of course, come in handy for certain European screenings,
but you can always dub a PAL version from an NTSC BetacamSP/Mini-DV
original master, usually for under $300 for a feature-length work. Victory
in Seattle offers competitive conversion/dubbing prices.

With regards to PAL editing, Final Cut Pro 3 and FCP4 include
a setting for capturing and assembling PAL works. A helpful accessory
for your PAL (or NTSC) workstation would be a deck like Sony’s
DSR-11. Priced at around $1,800, it records and plays back on Mini-DV
or DVCAM, PAL or NTSC (but doesn’t convert one to the other). The
cheapest route is to just import your PAL footage directly from
the PAL camera into the computer, using a FireWire for log and
capture. Just make sure you batch capture large chunks of your
footage (25 to 30 minutes at a time) into your NLE (nonlinear editing
system), importing while viewing the footage as “rushes,” so the
repeated usage of a camera as a fill-in deck doesn’t wear down
the heads.

Getting the “Film” Look

Iknow the only way to really get the “film” quality look is to
actually shoot with 35mm film, but I am 20 years old and can only
afford my Canon GL1 and DV tapes. I don’t expect miracles, but
am wondering if there is something, maybe some filter or program,
that provides more of a 35mm look. I am using Final Cut Pro 4 as
my editing system. Can you help me?

-Brad D., New York, NY


Dear Brad:

For some film-like plug-ins (and a lot more) you might check out
a filter pack for Final Cut Pro from Joe’s Filters. For
a mere $95, Joe Maller offers 33 plug-ins to extend the powers
of FCP, among them “Joe’s Field Blender” which he explains is a “de-interlace
and film look plug-in, which blends two video fields to help motion
look more like film.” There are a lot of exciting plug-ins offered
at his site, plus a downloadable demo, so check it out!

For the higher-end budget, Magic Bullet software from Red Giant of
San Francisco offers their powerful effects software for around
$1,000 ($495 if eligible for the “Academic” rate), which must be
supported by Adobe’s After Effects 5.5 or higher software (another
$300). With Magic Bullet you can convert your video to 24 frames
per second and change the image in a number of other fascinating

There’s a great article on video-to-film look on Kenneth Stone‘s
Website that discusses the Magic Bullet application. I’d say start
with Joe’s Filters and see how close you come to the desired film
look results.

To really test your project properly for the look, you’d really
need to see it projected on a screen. Although probably out of
your budget range (for now), look into the DLP projectors, such
as Infocus of Portland, Oregon. With their X1 model, priced
just under $1,000, you could start screening your work and have
a portable DV movie theater wherever you went. I know I’m getting
ahead of myself here, but the advances in DV making and DV screening
are mind-boggling-and are almost affordable for most indies.
Good luck! MM