A BEGINNERíS GUIDE TO DIGITAL FEATURE PRODUCTION
By Peter Broderick, Mark Stolaroff, and Tara Veneruso

Next Wave Films has assembled the following information and recommendations from filmmakers on the frontiers of digital feature production. These filmmakers are using rapidly evolving digital tools and pushing the limits of DV technology. Many of the old rules of filmmaking donít apply here, and new ones havenít been developed yet.

This outline was compiled to serve as a useful starting point for filmmakers beginning to shoot digitally. It is designed to help them ask the right questions before commencing production. Successful DV production requires thorough research and careful preparation tailored to the specific requirements and resources of each particular project.

SELECTING A DIGITAL VIDEO FORMAT The choice of a DV format for production is crucial. You need to consider the relative cost of each format during production and post-production; the image quality of each format on video and when transferred to film; and the ease of use, flexibility, and availability of the camera and other equipment required. Formats and cameras can be grouped in four categories: 1) Consumer DV cameras are the least expensive ($1,000-2,000) and provide the lowest image quality. Their single video chip (CCD) limits their overall image quality but enables them to perform well in low light. These cameras are principally designed to make home videos and are not recommended for features (although Thomas Vinterberg used a consumer camera to make The Celebration). 2) "Prosumer" DV cameras cost twice as much ($2,000-4,000) as consumer camcorders. Their image quality is substantially higher because they have three CCDs. They also have more features and greater flexibility than consumer cameras; many also have FireWire outputs. Most digital features have been shot with these cameras, including Lars von Trierís The Idiots and Bennett Millerís The Cruise.

A note on FireWire: this technology, also known as IEEE 1394, enables digital video and audio to be transferred between cameras with FireWire outputs and desktop computers equipped with either FireWire ports or $500 to $3,000 DV capture boards without any loss of image quality. This makes it possible for filmmakers to edit, mix, and even do special effects on a home computer.

3) Professional DV cameras are designed for "professionals" in television and video production. Unlike consumer and prosumer cameras, which both use the MiniDV format, professional cameras use a DV format which is capable of providing somewhat better image quality than MiniDV. This very diverse category includes cameras, such as DVCAM and DVCPro, in the $3,000 to $15,000 price range that have a sampling rate of 4:1:1 ó the same as MiniDV. But this category also includes a series of higher-end cameras (Digital S, DVCPro 50, Digital Betacam). These cameras are significantly more expensive ($20,000-$100,000) and have a higher sampling rate of 4:2:2. Although 4:1:1 has less color information (which can make it difficult to define details in areas of high color contrast) than 4:2:2, in many cases the differences in image quality wonít be noticeable. Because they were designed for television production, 4:2:2 formats have SDI (Serial Digital Interface) outputs suited for t.v. studios and postproduction houses. Since these cameras donít have FireWire outputs, it doesnít make sense to edit their footage on a home computer. Dan Clarkís The Item, the first digital feature to be shown at Sundance in the Dramatic Competition, was shot on Digital Betacam.

4) High Definition (HD) cameras provide the highest image quality, but the costs of using them have made them inaccessible to filmmakers making features on small budgets.

Choosing a DV format is similar to deciding between 16mm, Super 16mm, and 35mm when shooting film. You should carefully research the cost implications of different formats. Once youíve determined how much money and which equipment you have access to, the choice may be a very simple one. You should only seriously consider formats for which you have sufficient resources to complete production and post. Among the affordable choices, filmmakers usually opt for the best image quality but sometimes make portability and ease of use higher priorities. Most filmmakers have chosen to make digital features with prosumer cameras. They provide very good image quality, are affordable, and enable editing to be done inexpensively on a desktop computer by utilizing FireWire. 
 

ESSENTIAL PRODUCTION EQUIPMENT

It is best to own a DV camera. Renting one can be cumulatively expensive, and borrowing one is often unsatisfactory. Currently, the most popular prosumer DV cameras for feature production are the Canon XL1 and the Sony VX1000. Other affordable 3-chip cameras include the MiniDV Panasonic EZ30U (or EZ1U), the MiniDV Sony TRV900, and the DVCAM Sony PD100. All priced under $4,000, these are cameras filmmakers can individually or collectively afford to buy and then use on many films.

The Celebration demonstrated how DV cameras can facilitate handheld filmmaking. The size and weight of these cameras also make it easier to mount them. A good fluid head tripod (such as the Bogen 3140) is essential for smooth panning. A common beanbag is also a useful multipurpose method for mounting them. These cameras also enable complex camera movement. Tracking shots can be achieved with a Steadicam Jr. and several other products specially designed for DV cameras. Creative camera moves with inexpensive homemade jibs and cranes can produce shots comparable to those seen in big-budget studio films.

Pay as much attention to sound quality as picture quality. Bad audio will destroy a filmís commercial prospects. There are two primary approaches to DV sound: 1) record directly into the camera with an external microphone (avoid using the cameraís built-in mic); or 2) record to a DAT recorder (with or without time code). In the case of the former, the Canon XL1 has the option to record one 16-bit (CD quality) stereo track, two 12-bit stereo tracks, or four 12-bit mono tracks simultaneously; an optional adapter provides for balanced XLR inputs. In either case the use of an audio mixer is highly recommended (the Shure FP33 is a popular choice), especially if you are using more than one mic and recording directly into the camera.

In addition to a recording device, you should use high quality mics. Shotgun mics are essential for most productions; they are usually mounted to a boom pole. Highly directional, they can help eliminate excess sounds from refrigerators, fluorescent lights, air conditioners, and distant traffic. A leading, albeit expensive, shotgun mic is the Sennheiser 416. Also useful, depending on shooting conditions, are lavaliere mics (e.g., the Tram 50) connected to good wireless transmitter/receivers (e.g., Letrosonic on the high-end; Azden or Samson on the lower-end). Because digital audio can be so unforgiving if levels are recorded too high, it is recommended to set tone at -3db below 20.

Lowel makes a basic lighting kit which has three 650-watt omni lights. It provides plenty of light for DV but not much flexibility. The Arri combo kit is more versatile and more expensive. ^CLICK HERE  It includes two 650-watt Fresnel lights and two 1K open face lights. Battery powered Halogen lights can be used to shoot night exteriors; by sticking to close-ups and medium shots, you can avoid renting a generator.

Supplement your lights with white foam core boards for reflectors and a roll of aluminum foil to add more intense fill light. Black organza is a fabric that will diffuse light coming through windows.

A playback monitor will enable you to see exactly what youíve shot while you are on the set. A color field monitor should be used to detect color temperature problems. A high-resolution monitor will allow you to check critical focus. If you intend to eventually transfer to 35mm film, and are shooting in 4:3 (1.33:1), covering the top and bottom of the monitor to leave a 1.85:1 viewing area makes it easier to properly compose your shots.  

PRE-PRODUCTION

Before production, shoot test footage under different lighting conditions with the camera you will be using. If you are planning to eventually transfer to film, do a test transfer, and talk with the lab about how to optimize your image quality. Plan with your d.p. how to achieve the desired look, and discuss what shots and shooting conditions to avoid.

Do audio recording tests, especially if you are planning to record sound directly into the camera. Then develop an audio strategy with your sound person.

Even though you are shooting on DV, you should still spend as much time as necessary rehearsing your actors. Do not shortchange the rehearsal process just because DV will enable you to shoot more footage for less money. The film should come alive during rehearsal; donít expect it to first happen on the set.

Assemble a good small crew and educate them as to the particular demands and possibilities of shooting digital video. While some digital fiction features have been made with two person crews, the smallest recommended crew should include a director, d.p., sound person, and, if at all possible, a few other people helping out. In addition, it is helpful to have a boom operator, an art director/costumer, and a gaffer/grip. Some DV documentaries (e.g., The Cruise) have been shot by one-person crews, but the smallest recommended crew for nonfiction is two. If you are planning to eventually transfer to film, find a d.p. with DV-to-film experience if at all possible. If not, do your homework by talking with knowledgeable d.p.ís and transfer houses.

The smaller the crew, the more roles each person has to play, and the harder it is for each person to do every one of his or her roles well. Having more people than the bare minimum enables crew members to focus on their primary jobs.  

DV PRODUCTION

DV production has several advantages. You can afford to shoot at a much higher shooting ratio than you can on film. Some video features (such as the award-winning The Headhunterís Sister) have been shot at 30:1. This is in contrast to ratios of less than 5:1 for many ultra-low budget features shot on film. A higher shooting ratio provides more creative freedom, enabling improvisation and experimentation during production. But you also need to be disciplined so you donít shoot too much and then have to wade through the excess footage during post.

Because DV cameras can record in mixed light situations and can capture images well in low light, lighting can be faster, less expensive, and require fewer crew members. This reduces the time it takes to set up each shot, and increases the number of set-ups that can be done in a day.

The opportunity to review on location exactly what youíve shot permits adjustments to be made to lighting, etc., and eliminates potential disasters resulting from malfunctioning camera or sound equipment.  

PICTURE DOíS AND DONíTS

Light scenes evenly. Video has around a 50:1 dynamic range versus filmís 100:1 range. Itís better to underexpose than overexpose.

Resist moving the camera across complex patterns. If shooting with an NTSC camera, avoid quick pans over stationary objects or moving objects going in the opposite direction of the pan. This movement will create an irregular motion effect when transferred to film.

Donít use shutter speeds higher than 1/60 and lower than 1/30 unless you are seeking a blurring effect.

Manually override as many of the automatic functions on the camera as possible (e.g., auto focus, auto iris, auto white balance).

If you are planning to transfer to film, avoid applying any type of electronic "film look" process to your video. You need the sharpest, highest quality video you can get for the transfer process. Your video will acquire certain film attributes when a print is made of the transfer, not before.

Avoid turning up the cameraís video gain control. If possible, turn down the cameraís enhancement/detail control.

Switch off the digital zoom.

Avoid electronic picture stabilization. Optical stabilization is generally okay except in bright sunlight and high contrast situations.

Do not over-filter. Diffusion reduces picture sharpness and can make an image look out of focus on the big screen.

Consider your final aspect ratio and compose your shots accordingly. If you plan to transfer to 35mm, your final aspect ratio will most likely be 1.85.

Fades and dissolves should be longer than one second. Do not use scrolling titles.

Consult potential transfer houses before shooting in the frame movie mode (or progressive scan mode); several processes cannot transfer frame-based video.

The jury is still out on the 16:9 mode on NTSC cameras. Some transfer facilities favor it; others say it degrades the quality of the video. Century Optics makes a new 16:9 widescreen adapter for cameras with a 4:3 chip. Unlike the switchable 16:9 mode, this anamorphic adapter utilizes every pixel on the chip. Currently it is available for cameras such as the Sony VX1000, TRV 900, PD 100, DSR 200 and Panasonic AG-EZ30U & EZ1; however it does not fit the Canon XL1.
 

POST PRODUCTION

The bare minimum equipment you will need: as powerful a computer as you can afford with as much hard drive space as you can buy or rent (a 13.5 gig hard drive stores one hour of DV footage); a DV capture card (e.g., Digital Originís [formerly Radius] MotoDV software codec for the Mac, or Fastís DV Master hardware codec for the PC); nonlinear editing software (e.g., MotoDV comes bundled with EditDV for the Mac and Adobe Premiere 5.1 for the PC; Fast comes with in:syncís Speed Razor).

If you have more money to spend, you should also consider a video monitor that accepts component and S-Video inputs; a DV recording deck (e.g., Sonyís DSR 20 or DSR 30); more digital storage (e.g., a RAID, which is basically two or more identical hard drives linked together, plus a SCSI controller card to connect it to your computer); and a pair of self-powered, near-field speakers.

Until recently most filmmakers who shot features with MiniDV cameras dubbed their material to Beta SP, an analog format, and then used the Beta tapes as masters. Many of these filmmakers cut on Avids which didnít (and still donít) permit editing in native DV. Dubbing to Beta SP means going from digital to analog, and then down another generation when itís digitized into an Avid. One costly way to avoid this generation loss is mastering on Digi-Beta, a digital format, while simultaneously creating submasters (often on 3/4" tape) for offline editing. Digi-Beta decks, particularly PAL ones, are expensive rental items.

Today a growing number of filmmakers are following an alternative post-production route that is more affordable. Instead of renting Avids, they are editing their films on desktop computers. Utilizing FireWire, they are transferring the information on their MiniDV tapes directly into their computers. By enabling them to stay in native DV during editing, this route makes it possible to avoid the significant generation loss produced by going from digital to analog to digital. This path also allows filmmakers who cannot afford to rent an online suite to online on their desktops.

Each route has advantages and disadvantages. As powerful and reliable as Avids can be, they are expensive to purchase or rent. While much more affordable, desktop post-production can necessitate wrestling with software bugs and hardware conflicts, as well as dealing with slower rendering times.

The most expensive route is to master on Digi-Beta, edit on an AVID, and online the movie in a professional suite. The least expensive route is to offline and online on a desktop computer. However, if filmmakers who edit on desktop computers can afford to do a final online in a pro-suite, it may significantly enhance the quality of their final products. Spending as little as a day in an online suite will give them much better opportunities to color correct and meet broadcast specs. In most cases the resources available to the filmmaker will dictate the best path.

TRANSFERRING VIDEO TO FILM

Some features shot on video are never transferred to film. The only major distribution channel that currently requires a film print is theatrical. Major studios are currently examining the possibility of projecting movies on digital video during their theatrical release. This June, George Lucasí The Phantom Menace will be shown digitally in four theaters across the country to showcase this technology.

A feature that only exists on video can be shown on broadcast, cable, satellite, and home video. However, having a print currently provides significant benefits. It allows the film to be shown, and possibly sold, at major film festivals (which will also soon be able to project films digitally), and hopefully raises the profile of the filmmaker with critics and executives looking for new talent. It makes possible theatrical distribution, which can be a major source of revenue and can expand the audience for a film when it is shown on television and home video.

During the past few years the quality of transfers from video to film has improved. This is partly due to the development of digital cameras and partly because filmmakers are doing tests prior to production. It is also a result of the continuing improvement in transfer technologies. Increasingly audiences who see digital features projected on film in theaters have no idea they werenít shot on film.

Shooting features with PAL cameras provides two significant advantages when you transfer to film. First, the PAL format provides 100 more lines of vertical resolution (625 vs. NTSCís 525). Second, PAL runs at 25 frames per second (50 video fields) versus NTSCís 30 fps (60 video fields). This so closely approximates filmís 24 fps that PAL video is transferred to film at a 1:1 ratio, and then played back at 24 fps (the 4% slower speed isnít noticeable). With NTSC, 6 frames per second must be removed to get from 30 fps to 24 fps. This interpolation can create certain motion artifacts noticeable even to the untrained eye. To reap the benefits of shooting on PAL, a filmmaker must keep the film in PAL throughout post-production. Because PAL equipment is not readily available in the United States, filmmakers must determine whether it will be possible to stay in PAL during post. The PAL format, especially with regard to sound, can potentially create snags at post facilities in the U.S. that do not often deal with PAL productions.

Currently the price range for a high quality transfer of a 90-minute feature from video to 35mm is approximately $35,000 to $70,000. (A transfer to 16mm costs less than half as much.) At $35,000, the cost is about the same as a film blowup from 16mm to 35mm. Prices vary from lab to lab. There is growing lab competition so prices may fall or it may become easier to make deals.

There are basically three types of video-to-film transfers. The lowest cost (and lowest quality) processes are the aging kinescope process, and itís higher quality cousin, the triniscope. They produce scan lines that may betray the filmís video origins for some viewers. But depending on the project, its original video format, and the budget, these processes may be sufficient.

Higher quality transfers done with an electron beam recorder (EBR) eliminate scan lines. They also reduce the artifacts created when 6 frames per second are removed during the transfer process from 30fps NTSC video to 24fps film. Four Media Companyís (4MC) and Sony High Definition Centerís Electron Beam Recorders actually blend fields together to achieve the necessary interpolation from 30 fps to 24 fps; this blending blurs the jagged edges of the interlaced fields.

Another high-quality transfer process utilizes either a CRT or laser film recorder. The prices of such transfers are falling as more companies are modifying their film recorders and software to transfer 30fps video-originated footage to film. Four Media expects that their Celco CRT recorder will be ready this summer to do video transfers, especially HD transfers. DuArt should have their new Arri laser recorder ready for transferring digital features in August.

Transfer facilities in the U.S. include 4MC (16mm & 35mm), the Sony High Definition Center (35mm), Film Craft (16mm & 35mm triniscope), Cineric (35mm CRT recorder), Magno (triniscope), Film Team (35mm CRT recorder) and Duart (16mm kinescope and 35mm laser recorder). European facilities have been doing exceptional PAL transfers to 35mm film: The Idiots (Hocus Bogus in Denmark), The Celebration (Lukkien in The Netherlands), The Saltmen of Tibet (SwissEffects in Switzerland), and Meeting People Is Easy (Colour Film Service in London).

 This article is a reprint from Sight and Sound magazine

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