MARCH 1999
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 overused.

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 product.

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.

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