Digital Films: Notes on Tools and Process

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Introduction - Before DV

I used to love Hi8. It was the first truly compact high performance format. I remember looking at my first Hi8 test footage and thinking how it was nearly the equal of BetacamSP. I was wrong of course, and it didn’t take all that long to realize it.

It was 1989 and I was traveling through the parched Northeast of Thailand with my trusty Sony EVO-9100 Hi8 camcorder. It was a mean little machine that was empowering me to do a long and studied doc about U.S. veterans who had settled in Southeast Asia, guys who would turn their back on a big ole Beta rig and wouldn’t dream of talking to a punk from New York until we had shared at least a half-dozen bottles of beer or a bottle of cheap Mekhong rice whiskey.

I shot about 60 hours of tape, some great stuff, but now that I had lived with it, every imperfection screamed at me from the monitor. The dropouts were atrocious and they seemed to get worse every time the tape was played. Careful viewing was no longer required to see the soft, noise, misaligned chroma or the ratty looking tattered edges that are that part and parcel of the Hi8 look.

Indies suffer, but we rise to the occasion. Good, bad or ugly, Hi8 was ours and we were going to do great things with it. At my company (then ESPI, now DMZ) we embraced it, delivered seminars to our peers in how to wring the most out of it, even found ourselves a lucrative niche, performing bump-ups for the networks. (They didn’t bite the bullet on Hi8 equipment until the war in Iraq finally “legitimized” the format).

Some adventurous souls actually took Hi8 to the silver screen. Artist/filmmaker Ari Roussimov came to me for post-production help. He had shot an astounding Hi8 feature with his Canon A1, painterly and witty and truly unnerving, “Trail of Blood” premiered at Anthology, having been transferred to 16mm via a kinescope at some lab in Detroit. The print didn’t look good but the sound was truly awful, simply unacceptable.

There had actually been a few studio projects that originated in video, even in those bad old days, “Richard Pryor Live” springs to mind, but “Hoop Dreams,” still stands out as the first breakaway indie video to film success story. Shot in both BetacamSP and plain vanilla Betacam, it was transferred to video by the legendary Image Transform in Burbank. Now known as Four Media Company, they have since gone through many changes, but you can still enjoy the same process of EBR to 16mm red, green and blue separations, optically printed to 35mm.

My film about expats in Thailand still languishes on my shelves, but that’s another story. No doubt, little bits of oxide are flaking off my originals at this very moment.

Part 2 –Digital Hits the Streets
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