Digital Films: Notes on Tools and Process

Part 2 - Digital Hits the Streets

Our ambitions bring us satisfaction while our “day job” puts food on the table. I am lucky, I like making media and no longer have to schlep that big U-matic deck around at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. In November of 1995 I got a plum industrial assignment: a trip to China for a large American corporation and they were sold on digital video. I had already committed my organization to DigiBeta (the first and still foremost portable digital video format) and was prepared to shoot the Great Wall in 16:9 with an amazing new camera, the Sony D700WS DigiBeta Camcorder. A wide screen camera required a wide screen capable monitor, so I went off to B&H to pick one up. While waiting for assistance, I spotted a strange silver camera on their shelves. The VX-1000 MiniDV camcorder was the 6mm digital format that I had been hearing rumors about for two years. I bought one immediately.

Two days before our scheduled departure our company contact informs us that the Chinese will not issue a permit for the transport of a professional video camera: no digital video, no go. The solution was obvious, we purchased another VX-1000 and then proceeded to scrounge up every battery and bit of tape stock between New York and Philadelphia.

We had a sweet honeymoon with MiniDV, our client was blown away with the coverage and we even caged the cover feature in Video Systems Magazine. When I returned to New York, I sold all my Hi8 gear immediately.

I may occasionally be full of shit, but there are some things I do well enough to consider myself beyond the mundane individual. One of them is looking at good video monitor and seeing things that others cannot see, generally bad things. This talent will rarely help someone make friends, but who wants a sloppy key, greenish blacks or pinkish whites? The real difference between how two people look at a monitor is an issue well beyond that of individual taste (which we all suffer from).

I knew enough to know that while a VX-1000 was a great camcorder, it only made good pictures. What the DV format was capable of in image quality could not be fulfilled by the DVX-1000, or any camera near its price point. There are many weaknesses in this arena, contrast handling, video noise and difficulty in focusing, being the most significant. (Note to XL1 owners: get the b&w viewfinder as soon as possible, you will make much better pictures).

We finally got a fat juicy Sony DSR-130, no longer able to travel light, but getting much prettier, much sharper, wide screen pictures. We also carry a PD100A for B-roll, freaky shit and second camera coverage. (Beware: these little cameras frequently suffer from pixel dropout, and an unmoving white pixel is definitely not cinematic).

I want wide screen video, but only from a real wide screen chip, anything else is a kludge. What do you get after you discard nearly 1/3 of your camera’s already limited resolution and then stretch what’s left with the camera’s own jack cheap $3 integrated circuit... not a lot You can do better, at least you can stretch it yourself. Maybe you don’t even have to stretch it very much because the material can often sustain some minor aspect ratio twisting, in other words, treating a normal image as if it were already squeezed wide screen material.

I ran out before a shoot and bought a $700 anamorphic front lens device from Century Precision. A handsome piece of glass, but what a problem. So difficult to focus, so susceptible to flare, a pain to align, it limits your zoom range, and it had to be kept ultra clean because it showed every speck of dust in sharp focus... the image was pretty soft though. Maybe you get the sense that I didn’t love it, certainly not for gun and run; it is much better suited to the controlled lighting of narrative production.

Of course content is our number one concern, but there is plenty of pleasure in creating beautiful images and in the careful craftsmanship that can complement our spontaneity. Careful lighting and camerawork can contribute more to the ultimate beauty of your 35mm print than any other single factor, generally including your choice of camera. Of course a better camera will always offer more options to the craftsperson and always make a better print, all else being equal.

Part 3 – After the Camerawork
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