I’d like to order a “720 HD DCVPRO at 24P with 16:9”, and hold the fries!
The Video Smorgasbord of Today A Primer for Producers
During the 1990s, when working with producers as a DOP, deciding on which video format to shoot was pretty simple. Beta SP was the common denominator. The camera choices were limited to a few models. Digi Beta was looked upon as a luxury. If the BBC came into town, I might shoot on the European PAL format.

But now, there are many more formats to choose from and within these formats, many new camera models are available. There are also many new aspects of video that are confusing to those who can’t keep up with the unrelenting flood of new technology. I find when discussing choices with film makers, there is much confusion and misunderstanding. Some might think that 24P is the same as High Definition (it’s not). They will buy a new big screen TV and think all the Digital TV channels or the images played back from DVDs they rent are HD (they aren’t). They don’t understand all the new numbers! - 1080i - 30P - 720P - 60i - etc.

So I am writing this article - specifically for producers - to clarify some of the many choices now offered in video production - and I promise to keep it simple. Even I can get totally lost when too many “tech savvy” terms come up at a new product presentation.


Now professional formats can include: HD tape, DVCPRO tape, Digital Beta tape, Beta SP tape, DVCAM tape, Mini DV tape, Sony’s XDCAM disc, Panasonic’s P2 cards, and even direct to disc drives. All these can come in different physical sizes and time lengths. Producers might choose to shoot on a certain format, but distribute in a different format. They might shoot on a Mini DV camcorder, but release their show to TV on Digi Beta. A producer might originate on HD but choose to distribute in Beta SP for now and wait for a re-release in HD later. With upcoming upgrades to HDTV and large wide screen TVs, broadcasters are now getting more particular about originating formats - some digital formats might not be accepted because of issues like compression (that’s when the image is manipulated in various ways to get a lot of information on a small tape and might not translate properly when transmitted). But broadcast standards are changing and I’m not sure if all broadcasters have methods to test images. I started shooting a show on Digital Beta because the broadcaster did not want DVCAM. Then when the producer ran out of money and did the last few shows with a Sony PD150 camcorder, the broadcaster didn’t even notice the difference!

- Research the specific needs of your distribution chain and think ahead so you can adjust for changes in the near future!


Be aware that recording formats and the cameras that record them are not necessarily linked by quality. Producers might use Mini DV tape and think the quality is limited to prosumer camcorders which have minimum resolution and high contrast images - but Mini DV tape can be used in larger cameras that deliver much better pictures - the image quality limitation is not with the tape format but with the camera. Please note - these small camcorders that cost around $5000 have major limitations over their more expensive big brothers - they are only a low budget alternative or should only be used to fill a special need!
I have been on shoots that use a Digi Beta full size camera with a small camcorder for two camera coverage! This is not a good idea. There has to be a reason why the Digi Beta is 15 times the cost of the small camera! When viewed on the new large screen TVs, the quality differences will be very obvious!

A significant variable with video cameras is the extensive menu selection which can alter the look of the images. A producer should always review these settings with the DOP, choose what they like, and keep the look consistent - especially when other DOPs are brought on to the show (like when many local shooters are used at different locations). Be sure to specify the same type of format, camera and menu settings. Often these settings can be stored on a memory card and automatically transferred from one camera to another. But the best way to match two cameras is to let the rental company line them up properly.

I would like to comment about producers presuming that shooters will know how to use their particular choice of camera. If you hire someone who is willing to use your camera choice (many owner-operators may not work without their own camera), be sure they have used it or that they have time to become familiar with it. My point is that many small camcorders operate quite differently from standard size cameras - all the operational features are in different places and prosumer cameras can be harder to operate manually (which is the proper way). I find that producers just presume that if you are a professional camera operator, you should know all cameras. Nowadays, new models with new learning curves keep coming on the market. So allow some time for your camera operator to review the camera and check the menu settings.

- Take time to consult with the experts on camera choice and settings! The word “Digital” is overused. It applies to too many things. Try and be specific when explaining yourself.


The existing North American system for broadcasting is called NTSC - National Television System Committee - jokingly called “Never The Same Color”. This is now known as “Standard Definition”. High Definition is a totally new standard - requiring different cameras, capture mediums, playback machines, transmission facilities and TVs. The broadcast term ”Digital TV” can also be misunderstood - Standard Def can be delivered in Digital or Analog - HD is always Digital.

The main criterion of these formats is the number of lines that make up the picture - the more lines, the sharper the picture. When TV started in North America we chose 525 lines, whereas Europe chose 625 for its PAL system. HD systems can range from 720 to 1080 lines. I have an opinion that we really did miss the mark with 525 lines - there seems to be a quality threshold just beyond this. PAL’s 625 lines looks so much better - so much so that PAL broadcasters are not as concerned about upgrading to HD right now. These scanning line numbers are actually an oversimplification - TV engineers use “lines of horizontal and vertical resolution” - those figures truly show the increased resolution of HD - more than five times Standard Def! Pixel count and “megabytes per second” are other systems for rating picture information.

In Canada, most of us are still looking at Standard Def pictures. HD is only available on a limited numbers of channels and you require an HD television set and conversion box. They are still working on a universally accepted copy proof HD disc system for home movie viewing - right now there is only JVC’s DVHS or viewers can record HD material right to computer disc or cable memory systems.

- Shooting in HD will help future sales. It’s too bad most broadcasters aren’t willing to pay an extra premium for HD shows!


When you see “1080i” and “24P”, the letters refer to another element in the scanning system. Until recently, all TV pictures were interlaced or “i”. That means that, if there are 525 lines, lines #1, #3, #5, #7 (up to #525) are presented (as a “field”), then after that is finished (in 1/60 sec.), lines #2, #4, #6 (up to #524) are inserted as the next field. This breaks up the picture and causes certain issues in post. “P” is for progressive - when all the lines are shown in the same scan. This results in a better picture and suits tape to film transfer because the video frame is a totally entity, like the film frame.

- Progressive gives a better image, but do some research - some progressive systems are not truly progressive.


Standard Def in North America offers up frames at the rate of 30 frames a second (with interlace, that’s 60 fields so that format is called 60i - with progressive that’s 30 frames or 30P). There has been a big problem when transferring 30 frames of video to film’s 24 frames - you have to lose information. It’s much easier to stretch out film’s 24 frames to video’s 30 by repeating some parts of the frames (called 3-2 or 2-3 pulldown). PAL’s frame rate is 25 which is very close to film. When HD was introduced, Sony made a video camera which captured at 24 fps. There are two ways of using this feature:
1. It can be used for what it was intended - to transfer to film - frame for frame.
2. It can be used as an effected image on video productions. Shoot at 24 and get an effect of the raw video output which creates a blurry stuttered motion. This is very popular with producers because it looks different from clean smooth running video and looks more like film. Ever since video was invented, whether it makes sense or not, people have been trying to make video look like film.

Certain video cameras can provide variable frame rates up to 60 fps. With these variable frame cameras, you select a frame rate, have the proper interface to translate this and get genuine fast or slow motion on video. You can also get altered motion in post with any video but you don’t get a true slow mo effect. If you just use the unaltered raw video with variable speed cameras, you can get blur or strobing effects (as in #2 above).

Don't confuse the above with shutter speed settings, although there certainly is some overlap in the look achieved. Video cameras can offer slower or faster shutter speeds than the standard 1/60 sec. This will generate a blur or strobing effect, but will not alter frame output as with the frame rate.

- This frame rate/ shutter adjust can be a complex techno warp, but just try different settings, play them back in the finished format and see what works best for you. Or research other shows and use the rates they used.


A long time ago, movies changed from being square to widescreen - it fits our peripheral horizontal vision better. One of the main components of HDTV is a widescreen. To understand screen format or ratios, we have to learn some more numbers. Film people call their squarish format 1.33 to 1 - that means the width is 1.33 times the height. They have since introduced many wide screen formats from 1.66 to 2.40. Video people decided to be different by calling 1.33:1 “4:3” and picked a HD widescreen size of 16:9 - which, if you do the math (divide) is 1.77 in film talk. The challenge has been how to show widescreen movies on 4:3 squarish frames. You can either pick part of the frame (pan/scan) or show the whole picture with black top and bottom (letterbox).

- Nowadays it’s best to shoot widescreen (so long as your camera does not create a lower resolution output at the 16:9 setting). Insist on letterbox when making 4:3 versions so the full image is shown.


All these elements can be made up of various combinations and might describe a production or distribution format as well as TV set features. Some production examples might be: “720 HD at 24p 16:9 on DVCPRO” or “NTSC 525 60i 4:3 on Beta SP”. HD is always in 16:9.

- With all these options its best to consult with the DOP, the manufacturer, rental house personnel or an engineer / colorist. Options are changing with each new camera model so the information in this article will probably be out of date by the next issue!

Richard Stringer CSC is a Gemini award winning cinematographer who has worked for over 30 years with many formats and genres. He is vice-president of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. Find out more about Richard Stringer's work and articles at www.stringercam.com.

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