Cinematographers Discuss the Do’s and Don’t’s of Shooting in HD
By Pauline Rogers
REYNALDO VILLALOBOS was nominated for the HD mini-series American Family and has just finished shooting the HD feature Bordertown. He is currently directing Battlestar Galactica for the Sci- Fi Network.
PAUL MAIBAUM shot five pilots in HD this season including Thick and Thin (midseason pick up), Committed (Crazy For You), Run of the House (multi-camera), Lucky (single camera), Method & Red. He also shot Christopher Reeve's last project, The Brooke Ellison Story in HD as well as Anna's Dream and Mary Christmas. His latest project is the HD series Related.
VICTOR NELLI, JR. has recently slipped into that position many cinematographers want to take-directing, with his feet firmly planted in HD. As a cinematographer, he has shot over 20 pilots in HD, including Family Affair and music video and concert films. As a director, he is working on HD projects like The Bernie Mac Show, Unfabulous and Method & Red.
DON A. MORGAN, ASC, an eight-time Emmy Award winner is no stranger to HD. A forerunner in the format, he has taught many workshops on the subject and even traveled to Russia to teach their first classes in HD. He's shot dozens of projects in HD, including the Essence Awards, NAACP Image Awards, dozens of pilots including Straight White Male and Gene Pool, Reba and is now helming two series, Girlfriends and Stacked, in the HD format.
ROBERT PRIMES, ASC is one of those rare cinematographers who moves easily through television and feature projects. In addition to teaching the art of cinematography, he's shot (and directed) the first progressive scan production ever (Theo Plays Chopin in 720P), been nominated for his work on The Quantum Project (480P) and won the first ASC award to a digital show for MDs. At the moment, he is shooting the ABC series Night Stalker, in HD.
Today, HD is a format with strengths and weaknesses that those working with the new digital cameras and lenses need to understand.
Although it was impossible to gather all of today’s HD shooters in the same room, ICG Magazine decided to pose a few questions on their “coffee break” to five different DPs and see what they might add to a library of information on the new (or rather young) kid on the block.
PAUL MAIBAUM shot five pilots in HD this season including Thick and Thin (mid-season pick up), Committed (Crazy For You), Run of the House (multi-camera), Lucky (single camera), Method & Red. He also shot Christopher Reeve’s last project, The Brooke Ellison Story in HD as well as Anna’s Dream and Mary Christmas. His latest project is the HD series Related.
DON A. MORGAN, ASC, an eight-time Emmy Award winner is no stranger to HD. A forerunner in the format, he has taught many workshops on the subject and even traveled to Russia to teach their first classes in HD. He’s shot dozens of projects in HD, including the Essence Awards, NAACP Image Awards, dozens of pilots including Straight White Male and Gene Pool, Reba and is now helming two series, Girlfriends and Stacked, in the HD format.
VICTOR NELLI, JR. has recently slipped into that position many cinematographers want to take—directing, with his feet firmly planted in HD. As a cinematographer, he has shot over 20 pilots in HD, including Family Affair and music video and concert films. As a director, he is working on HD projects like The Bernie Mac Show, Unfabulous and Method & Red.
ROBERT PRIMES, ASC is one of those rare cinematographers who moves easily through television and feature projects. In addition to teaching the art of cinematography, he’s shot (and directed) the first progressive scan production ever (Theo Plays Chopin in 720P), been nominated for his work on The Quantum Project (480P) and won the first ASC award to a digital show for MDs. At the moment, he is shooting the ABC series Night Stalker, in HD.
REYNALDO VILLALOBOS was nominated for the HD mini-series American Family and has just finished shooting the HD feature Bordertown.
We thank all these distinguished cinematographers for their insights and hope that their experiences will demystify the format for others to follow.
WHY SHOOT HD OVER FILM—16MM OR 35MM?
MORGAN: It is about production costs—the cost of processing film and transferring from film to tape. For a 4-camera ½-hour film sitcom, the cost is approximately 15k to 20k per episode. There is also an advantage to shooting in the HD format because it lends itself to different formats internationally. For example, HD can be extracted to 24P, which can look like film, “25,” a European standard, “30 frames NTSC,” an American standard, and a high quality “60 frames.” And, the technology is changing for the consumer. More networks are broadcasting in HD and newer TV sets are being made to receive the HD signal.
VILLALOBOS: I think the quality of the image translates to television quite well. You are able to change the dynamic with the actors by having the ability of repeated takes without cutting the camera by the mere fact that the tape stock is so much cheaper than film stock.
NELLI: For me, it has always been about what helps tell the story. They all have a different look. Unfortunately, there are people in production that see nothing but a number. That number must be met. So, the decision sometimes is left to accountants and not the filmmakers.
MAIBAUM: HD 24P, with the current cameras available, is clearly a better choice for the multi-camera episodic format for financial and artistic reasons. It is cheaper than film, can achieve quality close to film, and the shows are not driven by the visuals as much as single camera shows. My DIT, Ryan Sheridan, would add that unless you are a master DP and have a killer post house and lab, it is “cleaner” and more versatile than 16mm, in terms of grain in the shadows, blue and green screen resolution and mastering for future use.
IS HD FASTER, SLOWER OR THE SAME IN TERMS OF PRODUCTION TIME SPENT?
MORGAN: The set-up takes longer because of the electronic nature of HD. When you begin to shoot, there is not much difference in production time. In post there is a significant timesavings. You can take the tape to a digitized medium to edit or what is even faster these days, you can take the laser disk from the HD tape machine and put it directly into the AVID hard drive and edit right away.
PRIMES: The setup and tenting of the monitor is an extra step, but normally accomplished before the blocking and basic lighting are finished. The time is saved because you can more readily shoot in low or available light, and because when working at the edge, you need no safety blanket.
VILLALOBOS: If you have time consuming setups, it’s the same. If you have quick setups, it is slower because you have to set up the video village in a dark room, black tent, or enclosed truck for viewing and lighting the scene. Also, those same monitors might go down, change colors, etc., which is another element you have to rely on.
NELLI: I find myself working faster in HD. I have a beautiful 20-inch monitor that tells me right away what the picture is. I have to be careful in HD. You can see everything. The art department has to have (it all) together. As does lighting, wardrobe, sound and camera. At first, it is a hard format to work with, but once you know the rules, I find some freedom in it.
MAIBAUM: Using the HD technology available now, HD production time is on par with shooting on film; neither faster nor slower in most instances. That is the case, as long as you, as a DP and your crew, are familiar with the gear and the limitations of the medium. There is definitely a learning curve.
IS THERE MORE OR LESS CREW?
MORGAN: In certain types of productions it is the same. Some studios are making the creative choices to remove the dolly format, similar to film. The four-dolly shows to four-pedestals. The show Girlfriends was four-camera film and it went to two-dolly and two-pedestals. This has eliminated one dolly grip and one first-camera assistant per camera. But we have gained a Video Colorist and a Digital Imaging Technician.
PRIMES: If you use both a Digital Imaging Technician and a Digital Utility, you have one more person than with a loader. If you work with only one digital technician, they have to work extremely hard, especially with the 2-camera set up. The grips have to do a little more work because of flagging or tenting the monitor.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT CREW NEEDS? WHAT DOES THE HD CREW NEED TO KNOW THAT FILM DOESN’T?
MORGAN: The lighting crew works a little more because of the HD lighting ratio. It is not as much as film. Film has more latitude. There is much more fine detail in the HD environment and in details in the highlights and lowlights. Because of the lighting ratios, you have to create highs and lows. The lighting is more painterly, the picture flattens out so you need to create depth and atmosphere with light.
PRIMES: There is an entire suite of image manipulation tools that should be understood because they can improve the image, reduce lighting effort and/or communicate the cinematographer’s intent better to post production. There is also a need to understand camera menus, monitor calibration and cabling.
VILLALOBOS: The cameras are really designed to be used inside a clean, temperature controlled stage. Location work is difficult and you must be careful with dust, etc. The crew must know how to work the cameras and menus. It is completely different than a film camera.
NELLI: Most of the procedure is the same. The equipment is much harder to troubleshoot. It no longer is a piece of film passing by a hole. There are so many things to the HD format. They do need to be up to date and willing to pull their hair out when things go wrong.
MAIBAUM: On a multi-camera show, I believe one needs a Video Controller and a DIT besides the usual compliment of operators, assistants and utility people. On a “single camera” show (what is sometimes referred to as film-style utilizing between one and two cameras), I believe the DIT can and should be able to do both jobs. Obviously, a camera crew working with HD equipment needs to be familiar with the HD cameras, which require extensive cabling and monitors, etc. It’s very different from film cameras where one can plug the camera into a battery and shoot. One can, of course, slap a battery onto the back of a Sony F900 and shoot ENG style and get fine images, if that is what the project requires.
IS HD AS GOOD VISUALLY?
MORGAN: To the layman, 24PHD can look very much like film. Sporting events like football look great in HDTV and some documentaries are also good looking in this environment. But I have to be flexible. It depends on what the producers want, and what the budget is like. Sometimes it is easier to light skin tones in a film environment; because it has more latitude and is more forgiving or pleasing.
PRIMES: I believe it certainly is for television. For the big screen, it is getting very close. I believe the cutting edge of HD to be virtually indistinguishable from film on the big screen.
NELLI: It doesn’t matter. Is the script visual? What about the director? And the DP? That’s what matters.
MAIBAUM: That is very subjective. For other more “theatrical” projects such as one-hour dramas, I believe there are still compromises that must be made when shooting HD, such as increased depth-of-field and reduced latitude in the over exposure area.
WHAT CAN YOU DO IN HD THAT YOU CAN’T DO IN FILM?
MORGAN: In HD you know the results right there. When you are shooting in film, you don’t know until tomorrow. That’s one of the more exciting ideas of using HD.
PRIMES: You can go beyond your comfort zone and experiment with confidence on the spot. Shooting continuously with longer, much cheaper loads.
MAIBAUM: I believe that, essentially, whatever you can do in film you can do in HD and pretty much visa versa, with certain qualifications when it comes to off-speed shooting. I don’t believe a cinematographer or anyone on a camera crew should feel that they are limited by the format that they are working in, whether that choice was fostered upon them or not. As the old saying goes, one has to be smarter than the equipment.
WHAT CAN’T YOU DO IN HD THAT YOU CAN DO IN FILM?
MORGAN: The different camera speeds and shutter angle in the film environment are vast compared to HD. Even if you are able to manipulate the image, the effects don’t look quite like film and most have to be done in post.
PRIMES: Most of the HD cameras are still more difficult to handhold or use on a Steadicam, especially if you are tethered to a monitor. There is currently no small monitor as easy to focus as an optical finder. You generally cannot see objects like microphones until they have actually invaded the frame. Off-speed work is limited in HD, although the Panasonic HD system ramps from 1-60 fps with no quality loss. The infrastructure of HD gadgets is not as mature as film, but is growing quickly.
WHAT PROJECTS ARE GOOD CANDIDATES FOR HD? WHAT SHOULD YOU STAY AWAY FROM?
MORGAN: The current mandate from the studios is four-camera shows, some one-hour dramas, in HD. Also, low budget films, sporting events, musical events, award shows. And, the saving in production cost is worth it. The studios, however, think major motion pictures should stay away from HD for the time being.
PRIMES: I generally prefer working in HD to film. I would think twice-about run and gun projects, where you couldn’t utilize a monitor for lighting.
NELLI: Everything. What are you comfortable with? What is the budget? How fast do you need to move? Does it help the story?
MAIBAUM: Ryan and I were talking about this just the other day. HD shows with very green actors or directors. Shows with extremely tight turn around. Budget strapped shows. Projects that require the “look” of the show to be locked in and delivered to post that way. If you are on a show where there are a lot of “cooks” in the kitchen, HD is a great way to “lock-in” the look, if you take the image to the extreme. If you don’t take it to the edge, it is almost 100 percent correctable.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE NEW HD TOOLS THAT YOU ARE USING?
MORGAN: The cameras—Sony F900, Thomson Viper, Panasonic Varicam, etc.
PRIMES: We are shooting Night Stalker with Panavision’s Genesis cameras, which use all the 35mm Primo lenses. We are also using their ultra new Gamma correction software to alter the curve on the monitor and, via flash memory drives, color correct our dailies from the set.
VILLALOBOS: On the feature I just finished, Bordertown, my digital assistant, Derek Grover, discovered a wireless system from Link Research out of England, the Link XP SDI transmitter. It frees up the cameras and the hassle of being tethered to the monitors. The quality of the image is very good. It transmits serial digital video in packets.
MAIBAUM: Ryan and I are using the new Evertz Fiber System. Aside from some power supply issues we worked out early in the show, it has been a great system. Very easy to use and very neat and tidy on the set.
IS LIGHTING DIFFERENT FOR HD? DO YOU USE DIFFERENT LIGHTING TOOLS FOR HD? IS LIGHTING THROUGH THE MONITOR INSTEAD OF CAMERA/METER DIFFERENT AND HOW DO YOU HANDLE?
MORGAN: Lighting for HD is not visually different. The art of lighting doesn’t change. It is true that you can use less light for interiors and for day exteriors. I use more lighting units to offset the sun—HD still doesn’t have the latitude that film has. I like working through a monitor in HD. In film, I use the monitor for framing purposes only. I use my eye and meter for the look.
PRIMES: I have come to regard the plotting of densities with a meter as one dimensional and old-fashioned. I greatly prefer just looking at and painting an image free from numbers and calculations. The caveat, of course, is that the monitor must be accurate, calibrated and in a dark environment.
VILLALOBOS: Basically, I light the same for HD as film. To me, the only difference is the contrast ratio—it doesn’t hold over-exposed as well as film. Day interiors are harder to balance with hot exterior light. I like to use very little fill light and light very moody if it calls for it. I think this type of lighting translates favorably to HD so the transition to HD was personally very easy for me.
Lighting, for me, is the best part of HD. I don’t use a meter. I light by eye, go to the monitor, and make any adjustments if needed. What you see is what you get. It is great! They say that you should light it neutral, and change it in post, but I know the look I want. The director can really get a sense of the film. As well, I move onto other film projects and don’t want someone changing and/or timing the film.
MAIBAUM: With HD, because of the great quality of the monitor, where the DP and crew can really see what they are getting (at least with the Sony and Panasonic camera systems), I find that I use the monitor as my meter. I am at the point now, five shows into Related, that I am actually less and less dependent on the monitor as well. My eye has adapted to the “film speed” and contrast issues and latitude of HD. I am able to balance the lighting without resorting to running back and forth to the monitor.
IF THERE IS ONE THING THAT YOU WOULD WANT TO CONVEY TO SOMEONE WANTING TO USE HD, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
PRIMES: Every artist does their best work with the tools with which they are most comfortable. Take the time to learn the image manipulation tools and find the extreme limits of HD. Respect the monitor. Don’t take shortcuts setting it up. Trust it and you will find yourself immersed directly in creating the image, free from the distractions of exposure and sensitometry.
NELLI: Test! Test! Test! Have fun and embrace the format. Don’t be scared of it!