When Digital Betacam came out a few years ago, I
shot a test comparing film and video. It made me
realize how complex the two formats are and how
much more there is behind the "look" of
each. This "look" thing is very elusive,
and film and video people have invented all sorts
of words to describe it. Video people think film
is just too grainy, kind of fuzzy. They describe
that shuttered, blurry motion as "temporally
subsampled imagery" and they can't understand
why people would shoot film at all. They like to
think their format is immediate, real, crisp, and
precise. On the other hand, film people think video
is flat, sterile, electronic, too clean, with images
that spoon-feed the masses. They refer to their
format as subtle, lush, rich, organic, textured
(that's their word for grain), a human look with
superior aesthetic properties.
One would think that noticeable grain and the strobing
of film imagery would be negative features, but
some people go to great lengths to add these features
to video pictures. Pierre de Lespinos, executive
producer of "The Secret Adventures of Jules
Verne" a series recently shot on HDTV video,
says that after 100 years we are just accustomed
to the film look. American DOP Steven Poster claims
film motion gets the audience's minds working -
on a perceptual psychological level - so it's
more stimulating - a more satisfying experience!
The debate continues, but both formats are flourishing.
Both continue to have a strong presence in prime
time, although I think some of attitudes of film
versus video will be changing with the introduction
I had wanted to shoot film/tape comparison tests
with HD for awhile. I just needed the necessary
facilities and the co-operation to get free access
to them. When Command Post's Toybox said they were
gearing up to transfer film to HD tape, I finally
got my chance.
The tests were shot at William F. White on April
9 with fantastic co-operation from many volunteers,
DOPs Harry Lake and Paul Sarrosy, Sim Video, Kodak
Canada, and Whites providing space, cameras, lights,
and grip gear. Rob Sim brought a Sony HDCAM 700,
fully equipped with a Canon zoom plus primes. Kodak
Canada supplied four or five different stocks in
35mm and 16mm, covering a range from 50 to 800 ASA.
The 35mm camera was White's Super 35 Arriflex
535B with a 16x9 viewfinder. The 16mm was shot with
a Super 16 Arriflex SR3.
The film was processed by Medallion/PFA and transferred
to the Sony HD format using a Spirit BTS scanner
through a Pandora Pixie colour correction board
at Toybox. At the transfer, we corrected using the
video pictures as a reference. I really wanted to
fine tune and follow up working with the film shots
on their own and try some other options, but I didn't
have time. Deadlines are present in every phase
of our industry!
The final 12-minute tape shows a table-top floral
display shot by Harry Lake csc and a drama dolly-type
setup by Paul Sarossy csc. I devised and shot the
other situations: a portrait setup with highlight
and shadow detail; a high-contrast, backlit smoke-effect
shot; an available light night street scene; some
motion effects with shots of a person running; and
depth of field comparisons.
In comparison tapes, you tend to really notice things
like grain, video look, and motion artifacts, but
the fact is, when a show is telecast, it stands
on its own. You could look for grain in a movie
theatre, and it's there, but once the show starts
it's not a big deal. The average moviegoer might
see a entire program shot on Hi8, and if the content
is there he or she will not notice any problems.
So we all have to stand back and not get too caught
up in the details. People should appreciate the
differences and not worry about which is better.
I think the main thing is to applaud the arrival
of HDTV as an improved canvas to work on - for both
film and video.
With such a major jump in resolution (to 1080 lines),
HDTV video product is a much more serious image
than our present standard. With its 525 line resolution,
NTSC was always carrying a lot of unfavorable technical
baggage from the past. Of course, this upgrade will
have an impact on TV stations, networks and post
houses with increased costs. Video producers will
also have to pay more. HD camera rental costs are
three times greater, and tape is double. Film producers
will have higher transfer costs even if they off-line
on another format.
On-line editing, regardless of film or video origination,
will go back to tape to tape. Avids will not be
able to on-line HDTV for a couple of years. In spite
of these higher costs, HD video origination is a
very cost-effective option for producers shooting
film. Stock and handling costs are much cheaper
and HD is ideal for shows with special effects (very
steady, ready to test right away, and there are
none of film's expensive intermediary processes).
You really have to look at the test tape and judge
for yourself which format you prefer. My opinion?:
HD delivers a totally new dimension in life like
pictures - very impressive. The sharp edged video
image is still present in HDTV. If you don't
care for that, you have much more manipulation in
the camera to modify this, and post "filmlook"
treatments are still a valid option. Sophisticated
highlight controls give much more latitude to the
HD camera which seems to have more built in exposure
latitude than in the past. Many other controls like
gamma and colour matrixes give impressive flexibility.
Film still looks excellent with great tonal range.
35mm looks even better than ever on HDTV. Some say
Super 16mm is too grainy for HDTV, but with proper
shooting and post control (as with Super 16 blow
up), I believe 16mm has a place in HDTV distribution.
But you always have to consider other factors beyond
the "look". For people who prefer film,
it is probably a simpler on-set tool - in that you
just set your aperture and manipulate your images
with the great flexibility of film-to-tape transfer.
Film is still timeless (it can adapt to any new
video format with re-transfers), but it does cost
more, both in stock and transfer time.
Because HDTV tape to tape manipulation is more limited
in range than film, I believe it is important to
obtain the best image on set, making full use of
the digital picture controls. This does call for
a different discipline than a film shoot, both in
taking the time to adjust image quality when shooting
and dealing with various opinions of the resulting
picture on the monitor. If the DOP is uneducated
in video, he or she should have video personnel
on set to adjust the picture, or get advice before
the shoot to set up an overall visual approach.
One thing I have discovered - you cannot presume
to take the Sony HD camera right out of the box
or just pick it up at the rental house and think
you can start shooting right away. You should take
time to learn the menu controls and how they effect
the picture - there's a lot more to work with
and a much more serious picture quality to deliver.
Other considerations when shooting HD, which have
always applied to widescreen film, is to use a heavy
duty tripod, maintain a more critical focus, avoid
fast pans, and be aware that HD sees much more detail
in make up, set construction, and other image content.
Multi format framing is also a consideration - you
might have to frame for 4x3 as well as 16x9 for
present and future use.
Video cameras will now be designed more like film
systems with more use of matte boxes, follow focus,
extension viewfinders, properly indexed lenses,
and prime lenses. Clairmount, Whites, and Panavision
are sitting up and taking notice of these new cameras
and will be adapting to HD video systems. Everybody
is now waiting for the versatile 24-25-30fps Sony
HDCAM 900 (due to be available in spring of 2000)
which will open the way for transfer of tape to
film. George Lucas is gearing up to shoot his next
Star Wars with 100% HDTV video origination and film