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.
VIDEO CAPTURE FORMATS
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
- 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.
HIGH DEF AND STANDARD DEF
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
- Shooting in HD will help future sales. It’s
too bad most broadcasters aren’t willing
to pay an extra premium for HD shows!
LITTLE i AND BIG P
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
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
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
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
- 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.
SCREEN FORMAT OR RATIOS
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
- 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.