Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dreaming in Digital

(Part 3 of my "Horror 101" series, "Werewolves and Vampires and Zombies, Oh My!," has been reposted. Go, Speed, Go!)

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The future of filmmaking is digital. Anyone who says otherwise has A LOT of money sunk into film gear.

For the indy filmmaker, this is nothing but good news. Digital equipment is more readily available, less expensive, and requires less resources and personnel to use. The home video arena, the most likely avenue for independent film distribution, has already embraced films shot on digital video rather than film.

Yet even movie theaters are slowly but surely moving towards digital projection as more studio films are being shot on high-definition video rather than film. Both Episode II and III of the Star Wars prequel trilogy were shot on HD video, as was Sin City. Most recently, for 2006's Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer elected to shoot not on a traditional 35mm film camera, but Panavision's Genesis digital camera system (co-designed by Sony.)

I'm not a techno-geek. A lot of filmmakers get their rocks off talking about the gear, specifically the camera. They'll go on about aspect ratios, codecs, imaging chips, and a morass of jargon that honestly makes my head spin. To me, the camera is a creative tool, same as the lights, make-up, and sound gear. As director, I won't be directly working with these tools, but instead working with skilled technicians who will employ these tools to help me tell a story. And from my experience, most cinematographers, sound engineers, and editors like working with a non-technical director like me because I just tell them what I want, not how they should go about giving it to me.

Still, choosing the right tool is an important part of any job. An inferior tool can create an inferior final product. Though both Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley and I felt a cinematic 16mm or 35mm film "look" would benefit Women's Studies most, our budget dictated we shoot digitally. Per my directing style, I told him what I needed from a camera and left it to Aaron to decide which camera would best suit those needs. Fortunately, he knew there were a great deal of tools at our disposal.

And my needs were ridiculously simple. I asked for a camera whose footage would have film characteristics such as running at 24 frames-per-second (FPS), a 16x9 aspect ratio, and the ability to create a shallow depth-of-field. (In layman's terms, "shallow depth-of-field" allows a camera to focus crisply on one item in the frame while leaving other items out of focus.) I also wanted it to have the ability to adjust the exposure levels for different visual effects, and variable frame rates in case we wanted to shoot slow or fast motion.

Any bells and whistles were Aaron's call. After a long period of research and debate, much of it with himself, Aaron decided on the Panasonic HVX200 with a Redrock M2 35mm Adapter.

Panasonic HVX200

Like I said before, I'm not much of a techno-geek. However, I realize a lot of folks are interested in the tech specifics. So without further ado, I give you the high priest of the HD, Women's Studies DP Aaron Shirley:

"Even though I went to a video based film school, and I make a living in video production, I've always had an aversion to story telling in video. There are several aspects of film that just draws one into the story. Even though the average viewer can't quantify what it is about film, the brain sees the rhythmic 24 frames per second with no jaggy lines (24P), the accurate detail that can only be achieved by an imaging surface with higher resolution than what is being seen (1080), and the gradual rounding of shadows into black as well as the gradual rounding of highlights into white (Cinema Matrix), and the brain starts expecting a story.

"I did what I could with video on other people's projects, but when it came to my own, I've relied on film. But the price of using film is high, and not just monetarily. In the past ten years I've completed one music video, one short and two-thirds of a movie on film. Film is difficult to use, and very difficult to use inexpensively. And you can take how hard and expensive film is in production and multiply that by ten for post-production.

"When Panasonic came out with their 24P miniDV camera (DVX100) several years ago, I dismissed it without really giving it a chance. It was video, and so what if it's 24P, that's only a third of what makes film look like film. It wasn't until I went to a seminar on high-end post production that I finally saw some professionally shot footage from it. It was footage for a Christian Children's Fund commercial where they used a million dollar color correction machine (that was really made for digitally enhancing 35mm film), to make the village look drab and scary. Everyone in the audience (including myself) thought it was film footage even before any correction had been done to it. Almost at the end, someone asked what the footage had been shot with, and when the shooter said, 'the DVX100,' everyone gasped. It's Cinema Matrix was that good.

"Since then, I've shot a short with the DVX100, taught a class on how to use it, directed a short with the HVX200, and shot a full length concert with the HVX200. The High Definition (1080) is the icing on the cake that the HVX200 adds to what the DVX100 could do (as well as better rendering of colors and tones). I spent a lot of time trying out the other High Definition cameras in the indie film price range, and they were all very close, but none of them were perfect, and the HVX200's imperfections, I decided were the least problematic of them all.

"As for the 35mm adapter, 'selective focus' is a commonly used technique in film to guide the viewer's eyes to the important areas of the picture. Your eye tends to look at what is in focus and ignore what is not. It is seldom used in video because of optic constraints of the cameras (shooting from a long distance with several settings at their maximums is the only way even some video cameras can achieve it). I looked at a lot of footage shot with different adapters and I chose the Redrock M2 because it had the best clarity and engineering of all the adapters available in it's price range."


Anonymous said...

I hope you like the results the Redrock product. For the rental cost of the HVX200, P2, and 35mm lenses. You could have rented a Varicam and had less DoF than with the HVX200, no P2 offloading, and a far sharper image than the HVX200s 1080 mode.

Also, if you then decided to transfer to film, your final product would look MUCH, MUCH better. Your DP should have tested before you commited to the Redrock product.

Aaron Shirley said...

Although I was not able to get a personal trial with the Redrock M2 before I ordered it, it's full resolution footage from an HVX200 I've studied looked very good compared to the other adapters in it's price range. I have shot with a Varicam, and while I think it's a great camera, except for zooming all of the way in on a subject, I would not consider it's level of SDoF to be usable (I'd rather go deep focus than have the back ground be mearly soft like it was an accident). A 2/3" (10x6mm) chip's DoF doesn't compare to a 35mm (21x11mm) DoF. Here's a handy calculator to see the difference:

I haven't seen either the Varicam or the HVX200's footage blown up to 35mm, but I have seen both cameras hooked up to HD monitors side by side, and yes the Varicam looked a little sharper, but no where near what I would consider "MUCH, MUCH better". I defy any lay person off the street to tell the difference.

As for Varicam vs. HVX200+ rental prices, sure they're about the same, but after about 7 days of shooting, the rental cost becomes more than the purchace price of the HVX200+ kit, and we're planning on spending a LOT more than 7 days on production (more in the area of 30+). After 25 days of renting a Varicam, we'd be better off buying the Varicam for that matter, and by the time we've spent that much money, a slim 35mm package rental starts looking good.

In short, we're buying HVX200+ equipment to save a lot of money, while looking as much like film as we can.