Digital Cinematography: You can be an independent filmmaker with your camcorder

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2002

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

Not only are hobbyists able to get sharp, beautiful pictures from Mini-DV camcorders, independent filmmakers have discovered that the high resolution images allow for clean transfer to film for theatrical distribution. In the May issue of C&CV we wrote about Hollywood director, Steven Soderberg using a Canon XL-1S to shoot the majority of “Full Frontal” staring Julia Roberts.

While Soderberg purposely added an excessively grainy look to “Full Frontal,” other professional filmmakers are achieving a smooth “film look” with special image processing software and professional video-to-film transfers.

In 1999, Ethan Hawke directed “Chelsea Walls” starring Uma Thurman and Kris Kristoferson. Hawke and his crew shot the film with two Sony PD-100s, a DVCAM version of the TRV900 three-chip, palm-sized camcorder. The filmmakers liked the flexibility of the handheld camcorder and it’s LCD screen.

They chose European PAL standard camcorders, and outfitted them with matte boxes to hold professional lens filters. PAL camcorders record at 25 frames per second–closer to film’s 24-fps rate. While it is still possible to transfer 30 frame-per-second US standard (NTSC) camcorder footage to film, a lot of independent filmmakers feel the extra processing causes subtle changes the motion. In addition to smoother film transfer, PAL video operates at a higher resolution due to the additional scan lines available in the European television standard.

Hawke shot “Chelsea Walls” using very basic lighting, and his crew recorded the audio onto digital audio tape (DAT). This double-system recording, a staple of the film industry, gives the sound recordist control of the audio levels and allows for flexibility in editing. Editor, Jake Abraham said that the crew sometimes transmits the DAT audio back to the camera using a wireless mike transmitter for simplicity in editing with a nonlinear editing system.

Abraham is Director of Post Production for InDiGent Films, a division of the Independent Film Channel (IFC)–provider of partial funding for “Chelesa Walls” and other “exploratory digital cinema.” InDigEnt, or Independent Digital Entertainment, began in 1999 as a joint creation of IFC Productions, businessman John Sloss and Tadpole director, Gary Winick. InDigEnt draws on established screenwriters, directors and actors who agree to share the films’ revenue in exchange for working in an environment that nurtures their creativity—a structure quite different from traditional Hollywood corporations.

In another InDigEnt film, “Final,” Denis Leary plays a character who believes he is being driven mad by a futuristic doctor (Hope Davis). Directed by Campbell Scott and shot with two Canon XL1 camcorders, also in PAL, the digital videotape was given a film look at the Orphanage, the San Francisco image processing house that developed Magic Bullet software. Magic Bullet ($999), currently available only for Mac computers, adds a variety of electronic filters to digital videotape to expand the contrast range and achieve the softer look of film.

The filmmakers attached Fujinon manual zoom lenses to the XL-1 camcorders. This newly-developed $1200 lens was designed specifically for digital cinematographers who use the XL-1. It has manual zoom, manual focus and manual iris—controls the pros need to achieve the perfect shots they get with 35mm motion picture cameras costing tens of thousands of dollars.

They set the XL-1 to record in the Frame Mode, as opposed to the Movie Mode used for video. Movie Mode uses standard interlaced video designed for television. Alternating lines make up fields each 1/60 of a second. The two interlaced fields make one frame. Frame Mode, on the other hand, uses progressive scanning to display a full frame at a time, as does movie film.

The crew used professional-grade Miller and Sachtler fluid-head tripods and a shotgun microphone on a fishpole. Offline editing was done with an Avid nonlinear editing system, and final editing was completed on Apple’s Final Cut Pro. After the film-look filters were electronically added, the film was sent to Tape House Digital in New York for transfer to 35mm motion picture film. Video-to-film transfers can be a large portion of production budgets. They range in price from $250-500 per screen minute, but shooting a motion picture in 35mm film can cost $10,000 per minute or more.

Achieving the Film Look

In addition to professional microphones and lighting gear, film crews shooting with video camcorders use monitors, reflectors and diffusion filters. Standard video has a look that is a little too sharp and crisp for motion picture projection. The high-contrast look of video sometimes emphasizes blemishes and wrinkles.

To achieve the softer, film look, filmmakers attach to the camcoder such filters as Tiffen’s Black ProMist or Cokin’s Diffusion filters. The Cokin Sunsoft Filter creates both diffusion and a warmer color. Another popular filter, a graduated grey filter, gradually goes from grey to clear, allowing the photographer to darken a sky and focus attention on the actor in the foreground. An amber or tobacco colored graduated filter gives a sunset a golden look while the foreground maintains the proper tint. Remember to manually white balance before applying color filters.

Another popular filter with filmmakers is the neutral density filter. Like sunglasses for your camera, it is solid grey and comes in a variety of densities. The filter is usually used for shooting out-of-doors and allows the videographer to control the depth of field. Since camcorders are designed to operate in low light, when you go outside, the iris closes down, yielding a wide depth of field. Wide depth of field means everything is in focus, and while videographers may like that look, pros sometimes like a narrow depth of field. It enables them to focus the viewers’ attention to the actor while the background is out of focus. A neutral density filter requires the lens to be closed down, and that is what creates the narrow depth of field.

While screw-on filters are common for videography, they are limited in their colors and densities. Filmmakers traditionally use a matte box attached to the lens where they can drop in square or rectangular filters. These flat filters can be stacked together and give the filmmaker a wide degree of flexibility. Some camera operators even make their own special effects filters out of plastic or cloth to drop into the matte box.

Until recently, matte boxes were designed only for larger motion picture and broadcast cameras. Now, companies such as Century Precision Optics and Chrosziel make matte boxes specifically designed for Mini-DV camcorders. In addition to holding filters, the matte boxes let you install a lens shade to avoid lens flare from lights.

Filters are but one accessory that allows for digital cinematography. Filmmakers also change settings on their camcorders to achieve subtle effects that viewers come to expect when watching movies. Slow shutter speeds (not available on all camcorders) can produce the slight blur to motion that moviegoers have become accustomed to. A shutter speed set to 1/8 or ¼-sec can produce a simulated slow-motion effect or subtle trails coming off the subject. In some camcorders you can get to the slow shutter speed option in the auto exposure program mode called “Twilight.” A slow shutter also lets you add graininess to your video by increasing the gain.

Most camcorders let you shoot in black and white. Professional photographers have long known that when shooting black and white outside, the addition of a red filter helps create distinct clouds in the sky. Some camcorders, such as the Sony VX2000 let you turn down the sharpness and turn up the color—two effects that add to the film look.

Lighting for the Film Look

Lighting for film usually is anything but the flat lighting frequently associated with video. Watch movies and you will see that the key light sometimes comes from the side or from behind the subject. This modeling and use of shadows creates a 3D look to an otherwise flat picture. Movie film can utilize lighting as a design element because it has a much wider contrast range than video.

If you are going to use this technique with a video camera, especially the non-broadcast cams discussed here, make sure you add some fill lights to limit the contrast range. Buy or rent a light meter and measure the bright and dim areas of your set. Adjust your key lights and fill lights so that the contrast range does not exceed five f/stops. Otherwise light areas may appear too bright and dark areas too dark, eliminating detail.

You can create shadows on walls with “flags” or sheets of cardboard to block portions of the light in order to draw attention to the foreground. Or you can create patterns on the wall in the background by cutting out shapes in cardboard and shining colored lights through them. Called a cookie or cukoloris, the pattern might be of Venetian blinds, a window frame or simply an abstract shape. This is but one way you can “paint” with shadows.

You can paint with light to create a mood. For example, menacing stranger might be lit as a silhouette; a scary scene may have lighting coming from below. A glamour shot would have plenty of hair light and maybe a spotlight focused at the eyes. A romantic scene can be warmed up with amber filters on the lights or on the camera. A nighttime scene is more effective with a blue filter. Remember to do a manual white balance before applying a color filter.

Avoid shooting against a white or beige background; it distracts attention away from your foreground subject. Watch your colors so that the actor’s costume doesn’t clash with the colors on the set. A beige blouse is less effective with a Caucasian female than a darker color. Wardrobe choices and attention to backgrounds should help draw the viewers’ attention your actor’s faces.

Shooting in 16×9 Wide Screen

Since motion pictures are projected on wide screens, filmmakers usually shoot in the 16×9 aspect ratio rather than the standard 4×3 ratio designed for television. Don’t use the wide-screen effect on your camcorder; it simply creates the letterbox look by masking the top and bottom of the screen. Since it does not use the entire surface of the chip, you don’t get the full resolution the camcorder is capable of.

Companies such as Century Precision Optics make what’s called an anamorphic lens that works with a mattebox to squeeze a wide-screen image onto the 4×3 ratio camcorder chips. In processing, another anamorphic lens widens the image so it can be printed on 35mm film. If you use an anamorphic lens attachment, you need to use a monitor capable of 16×9 to manage framing, lighting and composition.

Camcorders for Digital Cinema

Different movies may require different kinds of camcorders. Will you need to position the camcorder where you won’t be able to look into a viewfinder? Will you want to mount the cam on the outside of a car or on the dashboard for interior car dialog? Will you want a small camcorder that will not draw attention to itself when shooting on the street? Some filmmakers want camcorders big enough to hold a matte box, while others want a small cam that they can hold over their head.

Soderberg used the Canon XL1-S for “Full Frontal” because of its interchangeable lenses and manual audio. Other cinematographers like the lighter camcorders, especially those with LCD screens, which the Canon lacks. But it also has slow shutter speeds for blur effects, a host of manual operations and Frame Mode for easy transfer to film.

Panasonic recently introduced the AG-DVX100 Mini DV camcorder (MSRP $3495) that can shoot at 24 fps. C&CV Senior Editor, Bob Wolenik, wrote a brief introduction to this digital cinema camcorder in the November issue. Panasonic claims this is the “world’s first Mini DV camcorder to capture cinema-style 24-frame progressive-scanned images.” Previously Panasonic and other broadcast camera manufacturers had offered 24P only in expensive, high definition cameras such as Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 Varicam. Digital cinematography is not that new, and filmmakers have been saving money shooting movies and television commercials with these “film look” high-definition video cameras.

But digital cinematography for Mini DV is new. This 4.4-pound, 3-chip Mini DV camcorder brings digital cinematography to the masses of inventive videographers with stories to tell. Its FireWire interface lends itself to nonlinear editing systems. The 3.5″ LCD screen makes monitoring shooting a breeze. Two internal neutral-density filters, stereo XLR mike inputs, manual zoom, manual focus and manual iris are the features attractive to pros. The camcorder also records in standard 30 fps interlace video and has a host of automatic features.

The Sony VX2000 3-chip Mini DV camcorder also gives the user a choice between automatic and manual controls. It is one of the few small camcorders that has a Custom Program setting where the user can adjust the sharpness and the color. It also has manual audio and slow shutter speeds for blur effects. Sony sells a DVCAM version of this cam, the PD-150 with XLR mike inputs and professional time code.

Sony’s TRV900 also has three chips, but is truly a palm-sized cam that draws less attention to itself for surreptitious shooting. It has slow shutter speeds down to ¼-sec. and progressive-scan, but only up to 15 fps. While this camcorder lacks many manual features, it does have manual exposure plus several AE Program modes that can produce film-like effects. For example the Sport mode causes the shutter speed to go faster and the digital gain to increase, simulating film grain. In the Twilight mode the cam shoots at a slow shutter speed with a strobe effect.

Whether you use a large or small camcorder, digital technology is now available to give videographers the option to achieve the film look with a video camera. Previously, motion picture production required working for a Hollywood studio or undertaking the arduous task of finding investors for a multi-million dollar venture. Absent of the creative constraints Hollywood system, ambitious filmmakers now can shoot a dramatic motion picture using digital cinema tools. Not only can a movie be produced at a greatly reduced budget, the producer can retain creative control over the film.

Unfortunately, transferring the video to 35mm film for theatrical projection remains a financially limiting factor for most emerging cinematographers. However, digital projection systems designed for movie theaters are in the works. They allow for videotapes or DVDs to be projected with the same brightness and clarity of 35mm motion picture film. When you can distribute your “film” directly on video, your work can be viewed by theater audiences worldwide.

Websites for additional information on digital cinematography:

Robert Redford’s Independent Film Festival–
Independent Film Channel–
Magic Bullet Film-Look Software—
Essay on Digital Cinematography–
Links to Sites on Cinematography–

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