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Digital Video

Contributed By Glen Berry

There was once a line in between film and video and one did not cross it. However, with all the buzz and excitement surrounding digital video, it’s hard to discuss making an independent low budget feature without addressing the option of shooting on video. The film snobs who have looked down on video as mediocre and amateur aren’t so certain in their disdain for lowly video as more and more indie features appear that are shot on video and transferred to film. Video has come a long way and the quality is indeed impressive but there are a number of issues to keep in mind if you plan on using video for your shoot.

The first topic that usually is brought up when comparing film and video is resolution. This is an important consideration, so let’s go through it by the numbers. Standard VHS can handle about 525 lines of resolution but only about 480 show up on your television, not a very high bar to aim for. A projected film print is around 1000 lines of resolution. HDTV displays around 1125, which is a significant improvement over VHS. In order to scan a film negative, you need a machine capable of handling 9000 lines of resolution. Where exactly that digital video fits into this range is a bit unclear. The Canon XL1, in turn, claims to capture 270,000 pixels. The Sony VX-1000 boasts 410,000 gross pixels per CCD but what this means in terms of quality is unclear. They both claim to produce “broadcast quality” video, another nearly meaningless term.

In more meaningful (but subjective) terms, today’s digital video cameras outperform far more expensive Beta SP cameras of a few years ago. They are clearly sharper than super8 film but not quite to the level of 16mm, although they are not far behind. However, time and time again novice filmmakers look at charts of numbers as a means to compare image quality but this is only the first consideration.

A shortcoming that consistently identifies video as video is its inability to handle contrast ranges in light and dark. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for novice filmmakers to overcome because lighting video requires greater care and expertise than lighting for film. Video can handle a contrast ratio of about 35:1. Film, on the other hand, will forgive a range of up to 120:1. A great deal of contrast in the frame will translate into detail lost in bright and dark areas.

This is especially evident in the recent release of the independent video documentary transferred to film, “The Cruise”. In situations where the subject is against the bright backdrop of the city, the buildings in the background are completely blown out and lost. In other scenes where the subject is lecturing on the bus tour, reflected light from the walls behind him shine back directly towards the camera. This is almost too much for the format to handle and the subject is nearly lost in wash of light that overwhelms the subject. Although there are numerous other examples, these are classic examples of problems with contrast.

Another lighting problem that is compounded by shooting on video is how to handle low light situations. Modern films are excellent at capturing images with minimal light and little grain in the image. Unfortunately, video is not as forgiving when there is insufficient light for the CCDs. Without a bright light source, there are often “mosquitoes”, or video noise, that crops up in the picture instead of a clean, smooth black.

The "mosquitoes" are apparent in the recent Norwegian release shot on video and transferred to film, “The Celebration”. In many of the scenes in the various bedrooms and at night, the frame becomes a distracting swarm of “mosquitoes” as the camera struggles in the low light. It is especially sad since the film was so strong in many other aspects. The look of the video was much closer to Super8 than anything else in appearance and color reproduction but despite looking so much like film, it suffered at times because of the choice of format.

These same problems do exist when shooting film but they are not as difficult to handle. When you’re shooting a low budget production, you don’t need any extra factors working against you, especially in lighting where your crew might not be the most experienced. There is also a tendency to not spend as much time on lighting when the format is so cheap and to “burn tape” to see what the results will be before properly lighting the video, which can result in inferior quality images.

Another daunting obstacle to using digital video is the lack of interchangeable lenses. The Canon XL1 does offer a removable lens but at this point there isn’t the range of lenses available that most directors would like to have to realize their creative vision. Once you begin planning your shots and looking at your blocking and camera placement, you will see how creatively stifling it is to be limited to a zoom lens. Productions can certainly be done without wide angle shots or tight close-ups but it does limit the dynamics of your cinematography.

Originating on video is certainly less expensive than film but when time comes to post produce, you may see your savings get eaten up in a hurry. When shooting video, many producers don’t mind shooting extra tape because the expense is so low. However, if there is more footage to sort through, it will mean more time organizing, logging, digitizing and transferring. Also, tape to film transfer is not cheap ($2.50 a frame is the going rate, which is $60 a second) and the cost can add up quickly.

All these factors should be kept in mind when making your decision. The world of digital video is the wave of the future. There are some brave souls making that leap successfully now and pioneering that route for many independent filmmakers who can now afford to shot. However, digital video is not too good to be true and there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid. If you don’t plan carefully, any project can be a huge, unpleasant headache—just be aware that digital video will not magically yield good results.

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