The "Look"
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 of HDTV.

The CSC Test
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.

Comparison Pitfalls
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 distribution.

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