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Robert Miller on Shooting Digital Video

Digital cameras offer new creative, economic and aesthetic avenues for independent filmmakers to consider. It is important, however, to know this new medium's capabilities and limitations if you are to get what you want and avoid what you don't. What I wanted for the making of my short film Mail Bonding, some 18 months ago, was the affordability of video, the clarity and malleability of digital imagery, and, ultimately, to have the finished piece look like a film production. Fortunately, Sony has a long-standing interest in cinematography and was willing to loan our independent crew their (then) prototype digital camera. Here's what we all learned.

Meet the Camera

We shot Mail Bonding with Sony's DVW-700-WS, a Digital Betacam camera with a wide-screen aspect ratio of 16x9, or 1.77:1. What drew me to the camera was the unprecedented fact that it captures and records D1 quality images. In videospeak, the 700 camera shoots CCIR-601 at 4:2:2 sampling in ten-bit color - the highest acquisition standard the digital video world has to offer short of High Definition, which can be as expensive to shoot as 35mm film. Having digital image quality such as this at the point of acquisition means that the images will not deteriorate in post-production nor in a transfer to film.

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The Shoot

Our production called for a wide range of setups over a tight, four-day schedule: interiors and exteriors, special shots for elapsed time, matting and chromakeying effects, and lighting for noirish black-and- white scenes.

The camera saved a lot of time in set-ups, particularly with lighting. It picked-up details in low-light situations extremely well and, in addition, maintained good contrast and definition between hotly lit areas and dark areas in the same frame. To the surprise of many on the crew, we dollied the camera past a burning candle for an important effect and saw no streaking effects nor changes to the surrounding image.

Conversely, there are things to avoid while shooting with a digital camera, mainly due to interlacing (scanning every other line of a frame, overlapping 60 fields to create 30 frames per second). Interlacing is not a problem unless the camera is moving, but who doesn't move a camera? In my opinion, there are two cardinal rules: never move a camera over a well-lit bar or straight edge diagonal to the camera, and, two, never move a camera very quickly over high detail diagonal images such as a floor strewn with newspaper and junk mail (as we did). The result is often a subtle aliasing or moire effect. It usually occurs for only a fraction of a second and most people, who don't know what it is or what to look for, miss it. A professionally trained eye, however, will see it. Also, be wary of screens, fences and clothing with tight parallel lines or diagonal patterns. Connect a monitor to the camera and watch it while you shoot. Any problems should show up.

With an exposure latitude of 11 f-stops, the 700 can emulate a broad range of film stocks, from very slow to an ASA of 500, without grain noise. This saved us a lot of time and concern as we did not have to keep various film stocks on hand for different lighting conditions nor change loads frequently. Because the 700 shoots 20, 30 and 40 minute Digital Betacam tapes, we could put takes for entire scenes on one cassette comfortably.

An exciting feature of the camera is its programmable settings card. Essentially, one can tweak the camera settings to create a certain "look," then record those settings to a small card, much as one would with a floppy disk. When the card is slipped back into its slot, the camera is instantly reset to those settings. Multiple cards, multiple looks. Since our production, Sony has researched and developed setup cards that are tailored for getting the best possible "film look" with the camera.

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The Final Look

Staying in the digital component medium, we rendered our special effects, transitions, and the final cut of the movie on Digital Betacam, leaving the digital images as sharp and detailed as the camera had shot them. We only changed selected images to black and white or left them as color. The Digital Betacam master was then taken to Sony Pictures High Definition Center and upconverted from 525 lines to 1,125 (HDTV) standard, then line-doubled to 2,250 before finally scanning the images onto 35mm film. What is important to note is that we let 35mm film introduce the look of film through its own natural grain, and to my pleasant surprise, the 700's original images contained more information in its 525 lines than could be displayed on studio monitors. I had not seen the wet trail of my actor's tear until I saw the first 35mm print. The process brought out that much detail and, simply put, blew all of us on the project away. Nobody thought we could get this level of detail.

Officials behind Sony's recent Digital Electronic Cinematography initiative suggest the image quality of their DVW-700 Digital Betacam camera is on a par with Super- 16mm film, minus grain texture. Having seen 35mm prints of Mail Bonding projected over 50 times at film festivals and screenings this past year, and discussed its imagery at length with fellow directors and d.p.'s, I am confident the 700 holds its own with the Super-16 film benchmark. It's not hard to believe reports of documentary crews such as National Geographic and Jonathan Demme (for a doc on Haiti) choosing the 700 camera for their productions. It is important to clarify, however, that these productions are primarily going to be broadcast on television or distributed on video, rather than exhibited on film in a theater.

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The Costs

For Mail Bonding we shot five-and-a-half hours of footage to make our 12-minute short. It was an enjoyable (if not downright spoiling) 30:1 shooting ratio that allowed me to push the actors through a broad range of emotion, and zero in on what was working best, as well as acquire footage for special effects. The total cost of tape stock - from backup masters on Digital Betacam to work stock for editing and edited masters with and without a "film look" applied - was $1,200. Our scan to 35mm film at the Sony Pictures High Definition Center cost approximately $9,600, figured at eight dollars per finished foot of film. If we had shot our five-and-a-half hours on 35mm and worked with it traditionally, making dailies, workprints, answer prints, etc., the cost would have been $29,000.

In short, the digital cameras of today may not start a watershed shift away from film-based production for theatrical releases, but they appear to give film productions for broadcast and video a run for their money.


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