Part 1 - An Overview Part 2 Camera Comparisan Test

Part 1 - An overview
by R.A. Stringer csc
APRIL 1996

An amazing number of picture qualities
As you sit flicking your TV remote control through the large number of channels available to us nowadays, you can instantly review an amazing collection of differing picture qualities. There are old movies, new movies, game shows, talk shows, drama series, soap operas, local news, live sports - and all these programs use different originating material, new and old post path technologies involving various generation stages, with many different people contributing their two cents at every phase of production. And these images end up by air, satellite and cable on one of the most limiting components - your NTSC television receiver.

The originating material has a large part to play in picture quality. The two fundamental image capturing systems are film and video. One uses photographic emulsion to form a real image and the other converts images to electronic information which is eventually scanned onto a video screen. Of course, on television, both formats are presented through the video medium.

Motion picture film has had a consistent longevity for over 100 years. At present, film's biggest asset is large screen projection. All you have to do is experience an IMAX film on a screen six stories high to realize the power of film projection. This is why feature film production and distribution uses film. Video projection, in spite of significant improvements, has many obstacles to overcome to compete with a projected film image. There are NTSC resolution limitations, and with image format uncertainty, the high cost factor becomes a problem.

Film maintains a visual prestige with its dominance of the big screen as well as subsequent movie videotape sales and rental distribution. A large portion of television time is taken up by feature films and many TV programs are shot on film.

At present, with much uncertainty of video standards to come - HDTV, digital tape, disc storage, home computer video - film with its photographic image and standard 16mm and 35mm formats has a much longer life than video images which are governed by specific cameras, electronic components and different recording mediums. If you shoot film, the image is ready to adapt to any new format, and you have optional framing available for widescreen. Future formats will have to cater to film transfer for a long time to come. When servicing world wide distribution, film can be transferred to the different international standards with no conversion compromise. Film also allows a TV show to have optional theatrical release and festival distribution. Stock shot companies certainly prefer the archival nature of film. Ernest Dick, an archivist for CBC Ottawa commented in Playback's Video Innovations: "In the almost 40 years we have had video amongst us, we have created almost 40 formats to contend with in our archives. Most of these formats were specifically designed to be idiosyncratic without concern for compatibility with competing or succeeding technologies".

Video as a visual medium is amazing. You can see the image right there. Playback the tape immediately. Shoot events live. Indeed, the invention of the video signal itself allowed televisions to enter our homes. But the formats within video keep changing, and since new equipment is comparatively more expensive, it is very difficult to keep up with the latest developments. Broadcasting has changed from black and white to color, from live to tape. And even over the past few years, we have seen many changes in videotape formats, from 2" to 1" to D1 and D2, from 3/4 to VHS, and from Betacam to SP to digital. Manufacturers complicate the situation by introducing competing standards. Panasonic has their own MII system and what about Sony's Betamax format for home consumers - it is now virtually extinct from competition with VHS. Not only does video equipment go out of date quickly, but it takes a while for new technology to catch on, especially since it is usually the most expensive toy in town. Sony's new digital Betacam is a good example - why buy a one-piece digital tape camera when most of your clients are still posting in SP? Even the recent non-linear edit systems are generally hooked up to Betacam SP machines. This makes it difficult to trade in your old camera, that is, if there is still a demand for the older model. Video cameras only have a life of three to five years - then they're considered obsolete ........ just paperweights!

The cost of the actual film material is much higher than videotape. Half hour sitcoms cost $50,000 US more to produce in film. Just to see a 16mm workprint costs $30 a minute for stock, process, and print. If you transfer processed 16mm negative to a corrected master tape it costs approximately $40 a minute (for 35mm it's more like $100 a min). Tape stock in the popular Betacam SP format costs $1 a minute, and it's ready - right out of the camera, but of course, the recorded images and the tape format are fixed at the present day standard.

There is another downside to lower cost videotape. On video productions, people tend to shoot more than they need. Film has always had a built in discipline where people have to know what they want and plan their shots carefully. I think editors who have been around for a while will agree on this point.

In general, film cameras are cheaper to rent because they have a longer life. This is especially true on a weekly rental where film cameras might be half the rental cost over the latest video cameras, although with video you have a choice of lower end cameras with varying image standards. Camera purchase prices could be considered equal in the two formats now, but an older film camera, which was one third the cost ten years ago is still competitive, because it is the film stock which improves with time, not necessarily the camera. Recent changes in film cameras include user refinements but the basic principles remain the same. NTSC video cameras have no international flexibility. There are almost no PAL video cameras in Canada and importing one can be very expensive. With film, set your camera at 25 fps, and the film can be transferred to PAL (or whatever the producer requires) without any quality loss.

Unlike video cameras, film cameras can be upgraded for widescreen formats, time code, video assist, and they accept prime and specialty lenses. But there are certain camera products which film cannot easily duplicate, like the mini video cams that ride with race cars or capture hockey goals from inside the net.

Television uses both film and video product on almost a 50-50 basis. Some sources say film content is as high as 70% in prime time. Film is used on the popular evening shows, commercials, music videos, movies, and some documentaries. Some multi camera studio shows like Seinfeld use film, but Home Improvement is shot on video. The John Larroquette Show and Beakman's World are shot on video but utilize the Filmlook process, which mimics some of film's properties (at a cost of $100 a minute). Video cameras are used for sports, news, and many other information shows and studio entertainment programs. Film image quality usually varies with the age of the show, the scanner technology available at the time and whether or not it was transferred from print or neg. Video product can vary a lot depending the quality, cost, and age of the actual camera and format used.

In 1954, when Ampex introduced videotape, the Daily Variety headline proclaimed "Film is Dead". Since then, many people thought video would have replaced film's presence on television. But so far, history has proven them wrong.

The Look
Most viewers don't pick up on the differences of film and video. They are too involved in the content of the program. But for those of us who are interested, the difference is fairly significant.

One fundamental difference is the function of exposure over time. Normal 24 fps film records an total image in 1/48th of a second, but misses the information occurring in the next 1/48th as the shutter is closed to allow for the film to move on to the next frame. When transferred to tape the image is broken up in a "3-2 pull down" process that splits up the image so that 24 film frames fit into 60 fields or 30 video frames. Filmlook utilizes this situation with what they call "frame-rate illusion" to help create film-like images. You can also shoot and transfer at 30 fps, then every frame of film fits a video frame. Video cameras lay down image information constantly and form a total scanned image in 1/30th second. There is less strobing on pans and car wheels don't look like they're going backwards on video. But with film cameras you can increase the frames per second to create a much smoother slo-mo than normal video cameras and most have built-in time lapse capability.

I asked some friends in Compuserve's Broadcast Forum for some opinions on the different "looks": Film - "sits so comfortably to the eye", "a human look", "subtle colour quality", "textured and dreamy", "creates a better atmosphere for imagination and fantasy", "lush, moody, and rich".
Video - "flatter and less magical", "here and now reality", "in the face", "smoother motion", "crisp, precise, and electronic", "more immediate and real".

Some say that the "look" can be explained with a microscope. Film images are made up of integrated organic film grains with a fibre like quality. Film granules record information independently and they contribute to film's high resolution and photographic tonal range. Video pictures consist of pixels or scanned dots and are influenced by the overall picture signal.

Everyone has different opinions on an image's "look" based on their background and experience, not to mention a person's feeling on what imagery best matches the eye's rendition of the world around us.

Elements of craft
Of course, regardless of the camera system or all the other variables down the line, these images have another important criteria - they are created and manipulated by people known as DOPs, camera operators, videographers, art directors, and lighting directors.

I'm one of those camera people who started my career 28 years ago shooting black and white news film and have since worked with many different formats. I moved on to color reversal film, and started shooting 16mm color negative in 1974, when product improvements made it more popular in North America. I started using tube Betacams in 1985 and have followed all the various improvements in video and film, including shooting Hi8 video in some corporate and commercial work. I have been fascinated by the differences in the various formats, as well as the reasoning behind producers' usage and the video suppliers' motivation behind technology and design.

The experiences of the past
When I first shot video with a tube Betacam in a studio, it was obvious there were disadvantages to using portable tape cameras on high production value shoots. I found myself spending more time lighting - dealing with cutting down highlights and building up shadows - so much so that when I took my eye away from the B+W viewfinder and color monitor - I couldn't believe how flat my lighting had to be! And then - it still looked like "video". The general conception was, in a controlled lighting situation, especially when you have many subject elements or want to shoot dolly shots, film has a faster "point and shoot" nature - a latitude that is flexible and handles a larger range than video, especially with a wide transfer latitude which offers seamless timing changes. Now, video fans would say "point and shoot" is video's forte - but that might apply only to location shoots using available light and simple subject matter.

Film advocates have said that film cameras are more portable, but I believe, especially when you use wireless transmission for monitoring picture and recording sound, video cameras, although still designed like boxes, can be reasonably portable.

One piece of video equipment has a major effect on shooting procedure. The ever present television monitor is necessary to evaluate the colour picture. But this allows a lot more people to have control over the picture than just the videographer and can reduce craftsmanship to a routine.

Christopher Clayton in an article for Television Lighting (UK) had a comment about video usage: "... sadly (video's) accessibility for the amateur and the novice means that we witness more poor quality video than poor quality film. This allied with the fact that it is the cheaper option and has undergone a relaxation of quality control, results in greater respect for film and, of more concern, a regard for video as the
second rate option." David Stringer, a local video guru, said: "If film people learn to stop sticking pantyhose (as a diffusion net) behind the lens, and TV people learn to light properly, there could soon be peace in the land."

Things are changing
A lot of people in the industry who were used to film and preferred its "look", gave up on video when it came to higher production value applications, even with the introduction of CCD cameras.

But, as I mentioned earlier, video keeps changing. New digital technology, along with improved CCD resolution, and more access to image control has created video cameras with a new "look" - with a quality all their own. The pictures from these cameras are just starting to appear on television, and when you see them, even the skeptics might agree they are bridging the gap between video and film. Rob Sim of Sim Video believes the Sony DVW-700 camera could take on a film TV series and he just recently completed tests with producers who are interested in the potential of the new camera. He believes the overall cost saving (estimated at $13,000 a show) will appeal to producers who are faced with tighter budgets nowadays. DOP Harry Makin is quoted in a Sony article: "The look is transparent. It's silky. Digital creates its own visual reality and its damn good!". Another big advantage is that digital tape has no generation loss through the digital post process and therefore should be more adaptable to format changes.

There was a write up in American Cinematographer, November 95 about a low budget feature film "Dying Is Easy" by Deborah Dobski. Sony offered a wide screen DVW-700 to the production as part of a test program. The feature was edited on Avid and had an film transfer for release. According to Dobski, it was a success, but she is shooting her next feature with a larger budget on 35mm.

I was impressed with a technical paper in SMPTE Journal (also reviewed in last month's CSC newsletter) regarding the all digital camcorder ("the arrival of electronic cinematography") which claimed the pictures from the 700 were as good as 35mm - then I noticed it was written by two Sony vice-presidents. It claimed that the camera was equal to 35mm in sensitivity, dynamic range, colorimetry, resolution, and highlight handling. But, "it does not lay claim, however, to producing the "film look" which remains bound up with those secondary imaging characteristics exclusive to 35mm and 16mm film such as 24 fps, shuttered capture, and film grain". The article goes on to suggest these are fundamentally undesirable qualities with grain structure akin to video gain "noise" and that 24 fps images are "technically subsampled temporarily".

Another interesting development is the introduction of digital cameras designed for home use which are also producing very impressive images. The new DVC cameras are being scooped up by corporate producers who feel the pictures are as good as analog Betacam technology which has a solid hold on the market now, but is 10 times the cost of the most expensive digital handycam!

The Future
New products are being introduced all the time. This article will probably be out of date soon after this magazine is printed! Already there are new camera models I haven't even seen yet. The future holds many changes - computer imagery with internet transmission and direct delivery of programs by satellite or hybrid fiber coax might totally override NTSC limitations which was originally designed for black and white antenna reception. Already non-linear editing and Cineon style computer effects have made storage of video on disc a reality, so much so that Avid and Ikegami have developed a disc drive back for cameras. The potential of connecting CCD or other image capturing devices direct to digital data will create flexibility in future video systems, perhaps reducing tape's use to only a back up. TV scanning will probably be replaced with grid point systems using liquid crystal light valve technology with flat screens "wired" for picture information . This is an exciting time of change right now - but perhaps things are moving too fast for us to keep up.

In summary
Certainly, controversy over film and video will be with us for a long time and the introduction of digital video product is going to mean stiffer competition between the suppliers. When you consider the many pros and cons, there is a lot more to it than "the look". A lot of the articles I've read go to neutral corners by saying film has its special application as does video. It is not an issue of which is better but more the function of how each suits the particular production, story and budget. Sounds good to me!

Part 2 - Camera comparison test
by R.A. Stringer csc
MAY 1996

Seven Systems - A Comparison
With all the latest developments in digital video products, I thought it was a good time to try some new and existing video formats with film - side by side. A lot of the opinions and comparisons of film and video in part one of this article come from the experiences of the past, and I felt it was time to re-visit this domain and see at what digital video had to offer.

I tested seven systems: 35mm Kodak 5293 stock using an Arriflex 2C, 16mm 7293 stock using my 16mm Aaton XTR, Sony 537A with PVV-1A recorder and SP tape stock, Sony 570is with BVV-5 and SP tape stock (similar to 400A), Sony DVW-700 digital camera with digital tape stock, a Sony 3CCD Hi8 camcorder with Fuji E6120 tape, the new Sony DCR-VX 1000 digital handycam with Panasonic 6mm DVM60 tape. I shot a color chart, a newspaper page, some portrait studio lighting setups with demanding lighting elements (bright window, table lamp, neon sign, and dark shadow detail), candle lit face, natural window light, night exterior, and various day exteriors.

I realize there are many competent manufacturers of professional video cameras whose product is just as good as Sony's - but I used the Sonys based on the popularity of their portable cameras in this region. In Canada, Sony has a solid hold over this product than in other countries. In the States, companies like Ikegami and Panasonic participate in a more competitive market. As it was, this test became a large undertaking and I had a full day of shooting with this many cameras. By the way, the 35mm Arri 2C is probably 20 years old and worth $7,000. The DVW-700 package costs at least $100,000.

General observations
The first thing I learned from this shoot was about comparison testing itself. In side by side cutting of the same subject matter, you pick up on things you don't notice when screening just one item. The most obvious example was the motion breakdown component of film. When screening the shots on film alone, the motion seems natural and normal. But, cut next to video, the film movement becomes exaggerated - a slight strobe like quality similar to multiple printing (two or more frames re-printed). Perhaps this illustrates a facet of the different "looks". In film, movement is integrated into the picture, rather than video, where motion is crisply defined.

Also the issue of proper exposure is critical. A shot might seem fine on its own, but compared with others of the same subject, overall variances are more noticeable and affect comparisons. In some situations, I bracketed exposures and picked the best combination.

Another problem, especially with the new digital tape product from the Sony 700 and the DCR-1000 6mm, was image deterioration though the editing stages. After going through a few analog stages and a non-linear edit, the VHS copy of the DCR-1000 didn't look at all like the original - much worse than normal generation loss. The pictures lost their snap and the blacks were just mush. The pictures from the 700 also lost their high grade look. This means these new images are not practical unless kept in their digital domain. It also underlines the problem of format change - right now it isn't as easy to access digital post gear especially at a competitive cost. Even the digital tape itself is double SP tape costs. For my final edit, I chose a digital tape to tape on line to keep image quality equal and consistent. Another factor in the new digital formats is a problem which I discussed in part one of this article - video format incompatibility. Manufacturers are already shooting themselves in the foot with Panasonic and Sony introducing two different digital format standards.

One thing I noticed in post was the flexibility when scanning film to tape. There was a large range to choose from the photographic film emulsion. Video images are less flexible to alteration once they're shot and any adjustments made in camera are permanently built in to the image. Ian Brown at Medallion PFA says with Rank scanners you could actually correct for 3 stops overall underexposure and 1 stop over (with some compromises of course) which is not yet possible on tape. But with tape, so long as you are monitoring the picture when shooting, such exposure variation shouldn't happen, right? Colorist Brian Lovery told me digital videotape now has more latitude in post than analog but there are still obvious limitations compared with film.

Looking at the colour chart shots, the Betacams were apparently more sensitive than the 200 ASA film. The 537A was better by a half stop, the 570 a bit more, and the 700 perhaps a full stop. The 700 worked best closed down as much as half a stop after eliminating 98 unit zebras from whites. The Hi8 and Digital DCR-VX 1000 seemed pretty close to the film rating, with the DCR less sensitive in some situations at zero db. But sensitivity depends a lot on subject matter because video adjusts to reflective values. In one situation where the subject was in front of a bright window, only film maintained shadow detail in her face. The hot window influenced the rest of the video picture, creating a silhouette effect (this is not to be confused with auto iris effect - the cameras were all set manually). And even though the film's rating seemed lower than the Betacams on a brightly lit colour chart, in a dark hallway or in candlelight, the transferred film image kept pace with the video cameras.

The lower priced Betacam 537A compared very well to the higher end products. In one instance it rendered more detail in an overexposed window than the other video cameras, including the 700, even though they all had the same wide open aperture. The 537A looked very close to the more expensive, but older 570is, if not better on some shots.

The results from the $6,000 DCR-VX 1000 were impressive, especially when screening the original tape. The images had a softer quality and I think the camera deserves the "look all its own" description more than its digital big brother. The DCR images delivered good bright color rendition and sharpness and latitude was right up there with the expensive cameras. But in low level lighting situations, the camera didn't have the sensitivity we expect from video nowadays, and relied more on noisy video gain to boost exposure. The DCR-VX 1000's viewfinder (color LCD) is a nice idea, but is difficult to work with, both in focusing and setting manual exposure because the contrast of the image varies with the angle of view and it is not as sharp as standard viewfinders. And the manual overrides and extra gimmicks are annoying as they are on any of these small cameras. The DCR produced smear with a candle flame but wasn't as noticeable on night headlights as the Hi8.

The 700 certainly gives a very crisp image and a very pleasing picture, but still has video imaging characteristics. The camera delivered good shadow detail in the studio setups and looked very good in the exterior shots. Internal setting adjustments, one of the main advantages of digital cameras, can be stored on a small setup card. This is a much better way of creating a softer looking picture than shooting with diffusion filters. Newspaper typeface was very sharp on the 700. In comparative cutting with 16mm, especially viewing on high end equipment, the 700 has a very clean look.

The film images were precise and accurate, predictably consistent within the realm of the film "look". Film had good latitude in all situations, especially in highlight detail, which has been always been an advantage of film over video. When video was fighting a bright window in the shot, film not only maintained the shadow detail, but managed to hold exterior detail better than video. Most of the time grain added texture and tone to the 16mm image. Although, with certain subjects, especially on exteriors, it was more noticeable beside the clear image of the 700. I could have shot a finer grain emulsion outside, but then the camera sensitivity comparison would have been off balance. Grain was not a problem with 35mm, which in general, delivered high quality images with good crisp detail, while still maintaining a soft tonal look. 35mm's minimum depth of field creates a distinctive look as sharp foreground subjects stand out from the softer backgrounds.

In summery
From observations of my test footage and others, I feel the DVW-700 still has video characteristics and a video look, but a very good video look - sharp and clean. It looks best when kept within the digital process and viewed on a good monitor. And this can be a severe limitation in the present analog world with VHS distribution systems and not much improvement in present day consumer TVs. But I still think film, especially 35mm, which holds up well on any video system, will maintain a solid position on prime time TV. An article in ASC magazine (Jan 96) quotes Larry Thorpe of Sony: "We don't think that digital origination for television will take a big bite out of film origination. We believe the total pie is just going to grow and grow based on the stimulus of all the new digital distribution media of the future".

The Sony digital 6mm format has great potential but inherent limitations like built in compression make it difficult to edit and copy, especially now, as auxiliary gear, including interface connectors which feed right into computers, are not yet available. Panasonic is ahead of Sony in this regard, with their present mini-digital system which allows the small tapes to played on a DVCPRO VTR with a cassette adapter.

I would like to thank the various suppliers who contributed to the comparison test: Kodak, Sim Video, Medallion PFA, Post Port, Production Services, Cinequip, Doug Wright, Tom Fletcher, Ron Chapman, Vlad Czyzewski., Freway Productions, and Sherrida Personal Management for providing Teri Landry. Teri was great and hung in there through 40 shots. Thanks to Lance Carlson and Suzan Poyraz who helped on the set.

Part 1 - An Overview Part 2 Camera Comparisan Test

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