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DV and the independent filmmaker

Contributed By Glen Berry

Ah, Technology. Although it has been the answer to most moviemakers' prayers, technology can also be the source of a lot of questions. Not only that, but the answers can change with each new development. This has never been truer than with digital video and non-linear editing, hereafter referred to as DV (digital video) editing.

A few short years ago, the process of editing a film or video was quite complex and expensive. Film needed to be transferred to your analog tape format of choice, be it Beta SP, SVHS or VHS with time code. Then you digitized that footage with an internal video capture card, costing from $600 for one of reasonable professional quality to $2500 for top-of-the-line. This was done on a machine with expensive SCSI hard drives and running DVE software that cost from $25,000 upwards.

The development of the DV codec and Firewire changed all that, and has been much heralded as the backbone of the DV revolution. This is quite true but it was only until recently that the tools and services have matured to the point where professional filmmakers could adopt the new technology with impunity.

Although the quality of DV falls a little short of Beta SP, it is more than suitable for any offline presentation of a film project or shorts prepared for web or promotional distribution. The goal of most independent producers is to get their project into a form that can be shown (and therefore sold) at the lowest cost. According to Howard Phillips, a postproduction supervisor, most telecine houses still transfer to Digibeta and Beta SP but “…are increasingly offering simultaneous DV-copies with jammed TC, expressly…because of the power of Firewire-based editing systems”. Transferring to DV can be done at any tape house, or through the use of inexpensive “media converters” like the Canopus ADVC-100 available through ProMax. Any analog deck with RCA jacks can be plugged into the box and a Firewire connection goes out the other side to your DVE system. This process goes in reverse as well; if you want to output VHS copies of your project you will need this media converter. However, at $319, it’s not that difficult of decision to make.

Utilizing DV tape formats for editing means that filmmakers no longer have to acquire or rent expensive Beta decks, which could cost $25K to $40K. The only requirement is a DV deck or camera. To bring that footage onto the computer requires only a Firewire connection, which is proving to be everything that it has promised to be. However, Phillips does point out the problem of “…the basic ‘sluggishness’ of most DV-decks, which can lead to wrong in/out points when batch-capturing. The more accurate description would be that the Firewire ’spec’ does not guarantee frame-accuracy, and extra care must be taken when logging and batch-digitizing.”

Another fortunate advantage is that the DV codec is so light that it doesn’t require a great deal of hard drive space or the throughput of pricey SCSI hard drives. Any off-the-shelf G4 (or Powerbook, for that matter) comes with Firewire and sufficient hard drive capacity for all but the most demanding editing projects. Not only that, but all new G4 machines come with the Apple Super-Drive and iDVD software for burning DVD masters. Duping DVDs of your projects requires little effort or expertise; passing the master on to a duplication house for mass production even less.

At $1000, Final Cut Pro supplies all of the functionality an independent filmmaker would require. The basic editing functions contained in all editing systems supply the nuts and bolts of assembly and trimming, along with enough project and media management tools to build long form projects. With the 3.0 release, Apple has improved the editing functionality and added better audio manipulation tools. In fact, the price and performance balance of Final Cut Pro is so good that there is virtually no other competitor in the market for prosumer DV editing software aside from Avid. Consumers have benefited greatly from the introduction of Final Cut Pro because it has forced Avid to lower the prices of their DVE systems to remain competitive in the wake of the explosive popularity of Apple’s DVE offerings. However, Avid DVE systems still provide higher level project management, and inter-project exchange ability, but if you feel the need for these options then price shouldn’t be standing in your way.

Although other inexpensive DVE systems has been used in the past for offlining film projects, the process is much easier now that both Final Cut Pro and Avid XpressDV offer negative cut list options.

The technological improvements has eliminated the need for expensive decks and capture cards and reduced the hardware requirements of the computers being used. Competition amongst software makers has put professional-quality editing tools in the hands of nearly everyone. In this sense, DV may offer the greatest advantage to independent filmmakers. Creating independent projects doesn’t require D1 or Digi-beta quality video. DV is more than sufficient for self-distributed DVD or VHS, promotional use, small festivals or Internet distribution. It is also an excellent offline medium for creating negative cut-lists to finish on film, the highest quality medium that the independent filmmaker could work with.

The question always arises with technology, “should I buy now or should I wait for the next thing to develop?” The answer with DV, DVE systems and DVD burning is that the time is now. You may always be waiting on technology but this combination is proven, painless, cheap, easy and here to stay.

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