by Richard Stringer CSC
I spent a lot of 1997 working as DOP with Robert
Lang and Bob Sandler on "Exhibit A" for
the Discovery Channel. This 13 part series features
the science of forensics and illustrates crime solving
with documentary interviews, dramatic reenactments,
and host Graham Green telling the story from a studio
set. As a client, Discovery gave us a lot of artistic
freedom. My friend, Henry Less set up a distinctive
visual design which fit our limited budget. At first,
we decided to blend Betacam SP with the new Mini
DV Digital 6mm format utilizing Sony's VX-1000 prosumer
camcorder. A number of developments took place along
the way. The producers started to like the unique
look of Mini DV (especially with slow shutter speeds).
It certainly didn't look better than Betacam, just
different. Personally, I was uncertain about the
format and was concerned because it didn't cut very
well with the Betacam. Even when we tried to alter
the Betacam with filters, nets, digital settings,
or Sony's Film Mode, we couldn't bridge the gap.
The sharpness and contrast components of the formats
are quite different. Everyone was so pleased with
Mini DV images and the unique dynamics that the
small size camera gave to the project, the last
six shows were all shot on the little 6mm format,
except for Graham Green on camera (SP), and even
then, his image (on a monitor in a courtroom set)
was double covered on the VX-1000.
So, after shooting about 100 hours with the VX-1000,
you'd think I'd know a little bit about Mini DV.
Well, I'm still learning, but at least I have some
opinions to share with you. Please note that my
comments only relate to the VX-1000, and other DV
cameras will deliver different results. The best
feature of this camera is its small size - you can
get unique shots and work hand held better than
any larger format camera. Its worst feature is just
about everything else, especially the controls.
Sony has invented the worst manual focus system
ever - its totally electronic so the focus ring
just goes around and around! And of course, like
other small camcorders, the buttons and menus are
not user friendly. In the new year, Canon has just
introduced the XL-1, its Digital 6mm replacement
for Canon's very popular line of professionally
minded Hi8 cameras, and it promises to be a big
improvement with interchangeable lenses and better
resolution specs. Panasonic DV products seem to
be trying hard to compete with Betacam SP, but Sony
appears to be keeping their cameras "under
featured" to keep the profits rolling in from
their bigger formats. I have looked at the Sony
200 DV camera but can't see the advantage - the
front end has the same control problems and why
bother with the bigger camera size when the VX-1000
has a real advantage with its portability.
Image quality: The VX-1000's pictures are much more
superior to Hi8 - no question. Whether or not it
competes in that elusive "broadcast quality"
world is a subject for debate. The image has pretty
good resolution, but intercut with Betacam, you
realize it's unique look is softer, more contrasty
and features bright colors. My feeling is if you
try to compete with subjects which are common to
TV, like talking heads and news shots, the VX-1000
image, under critical inspection, can display a
"camcorder" quality - although some shots,
especially close ups, look amazingly good. Certainly,
an average viewer watching a program completely
shot on DVC might not notice any problem. Some people
are more interested in content, not like myself
and other videophiles who go on analyzing subtle
image differences forever!
With "Exhibit A", we decided not to try
to compete with normal TV coverage, but to shoot
things differently, make the most of the camera's
portability and add abstractions to the visuals
- Dutch tilts, shadows, reflections - visually offbeat
shots - within their own realm of visual design.
Also, the drama sections were shot as voice over
recreations which is an alternate style from the
sync sound drama coverage seen on prime time TV.
Shooting Graham on the TV monitor was another offbeat
element. The documentary interviews were covered
hand held (with "stedi shot") at unique
angles and tilts. The portable camera allowed for
a change of frame on every question!
Another major visual component was use of slow shutter
speeds. The VX-1000, like the Xl-1 and earlier Sony
and Canon Hi8 models, offer in-camera speeds of
1/30th, 1/15th, 1/8th, etc.. In Hi8, these speeds
were useful in camouflaging that format's inadequacies.
In Digital 6mm, they become another distinctive
tool and help to obscure some of our violent crime
scenes. So nothing was shot at 1/60th (video's normal
capture rate). All our interviews were shot at 1/30th,
were lip flap is not noticeable and the slight motion
artifact offers more of a "filmlook".
Most of the drama was shot at 1/15th. The 1/8th
and 1/4 settings only work in wide shots, certain
graphics and situations where maximum blur is appropriate.
Panasonic's DV cameras do not offer slow speeds,
but Canon's new XL1 will include them (except 1/4
sec). Slow shutter effects are certainly nothing
new - I used multiple printing techniques in my
1969 film, "Recess". They also can be
When I first tested the VX-1000 a year ago, I was
concerned about generation loss, especially with
analog components in the post path. But now, with
computer editing systems offering higher digital
resolution as well as on-line output (eliminating
extra tape to tape transfers), "Exhibit A"
holds up quite well. I personally would like more
color timing control than is available on our Media
100 output for the series, but this is a project
which is already making the most of a modest budget.
We took the original 6mm tapes and transferred them
to Beta SP. We tried several direct input systems
to avoid this, but there were a few problems - which
could have been overcome with more money and eventually,
new product availability. The shows were edited
on the Media 100 and on lined at 300 kilobytes.
The resulting Betacam SP went one more generation
with the addition of closed captioning, then Discovery
packages the show onto Digital Betacam. I find the
broadcast image is pretty close to the original
tapes, but the more you add tape to tape generations,
you are more likely to be evaluating a inferior
Another problem I originally noticed with the VX-1000
was limitations when shooting low level available
light, which forces you into noisy gain settings.
But now I realize if you add a little professional
lighting (I had 200w inkies on dimmers and used
reflector floods with 40w bulbs!), the results can
be surprising. Some of the drama shots look amazing!
In working with the VX-1000, I have come up with
a number of applications from my professional experience
such as using suitable filters, using extra wide
eyes, adapting the proper audio and video hookups,
and using external monitoring like my heads up virtual
realty glasses. I have even learned the "secret"
method for bringing up VX-1000 color bars.
We are hoping to go into are second run with "Exhibit
A" this year. I have already tested the Canon
XL-1 and am impressed with the images. The camera
is larger than the VX-1000, so I'm not sure how
that will impact on my shooting. I will be doing
more hands on testing very soon.