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About the Author:
Paul Wheeler is a member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC)
If you want to make quality films, whether for the big screen or for television, then you should always consider High Definition (HD) as a serious option.
If you are used to shooting on 16 mm film or Digi Beta then you will see a considerable increase in picture quality.
If you are used to shooting on 35 mm film you should, with the right approach and the right technicians, see no loss in image quality. Indeed, in certain circumstances, you may see an improvement.
Again, if you are used to shooting on 35 mm, you should see a substantial drop in the cost of your recording medium.
That's it! Enough said!
1.1 What Do We Mean by High Definition (HD)?
High Definition is an electronic recording medium that takes on two challenges. First it should be able, either in a purely digital way or by printing the recorded images onto a conventional piece of film, to give the audience in a cinema, even the largest cinema, pictures with which they are familiar and that appear to have at least the technical quality, mainly assessed as definition, that they have come to expect. If it does not, or cannot, then the audience will not bother to go to buy a ticket. Secondly, in the television arena, the requirement is to provide economical recording formats that give stunning picture quality on any of the new television HD transmission formats and their associated widescreen televisions, otherwise no one will buy the new TVs.
My belief is that, handled with care and knowledge, all the above is easily achievable.
1.1.1 The Knowledge Base
Originally many people moving into HD hoped it would look like film. This is not difficult to achieve. We have been shooting film, and admiring the results, for well over a hundred years; by now we ought to know how we have been doing this. Forgive me if you find this a sacrilege, but the process of recording moving images on film is far from perfect. It is very good and, until around the year 2000, was the only medium that could successfully suspend our disbelief in a large cinema. Then HD arrived. Initially almost everybody wanted HD to emulate the film look and I was lucky enough to be, almost from the start, one of those people advising them how to achieve this. My first advice then, as it is now, was to hire a film-trained Director of Photography (DP), for with that person comes around five generations of handed-on knowledge and experience. Someone trained in film will always be able to give you those kinds of image, it's in their blood, and they can hardly help it.
Now, some 8 years on, we are beginning to see a new kind of image maker – one who is prepared to take on the images that only HD can produce. Some of these DPs come from a film background, some from television and some are so young they are finding their own way in this new and exciting medium. More power to their elbow, I say!
1.1.2 What Does It Mean to the Producer – Saving Money!
If you work in my world, or wish to, you have to accept that it is driven by a four-letter word – cash! This may not necessarily be a disadvantage, particularly if the work you have previously been known for has been recorded on film. But don't take that as a raw statement, it gets better.
If you are thinking of moving from film to HD then savings in the budget are obviously going to be an influencing factor, but more can be made of the changes than just reducing the bottom line. For example, a little of those savings can be spent on production values, thus upping the perceived quality of the product. The extraordinary international compatibility of HD should assist the producers in making money, as HD is both an origination and post-production medium. When the film is completed it can be output in almost any delivery format (cinema), any Worldwide Television format (the Net), even digital phones, and all this with an incomparable asset – no loss in quality.
1.1.3 What Does It Mean to the Director?
Confidence. With modern HD monitoring, the Director is seeing rushes (dailies) on set and in real time. Large-screen monitors can give a Director a real sense of how the picture is going to look in its final venue.
A closer working relationship with the DP, something I was nervous of when I first started using HD but have come to love. A good director does not want to be a DP, if for no other reason than they are, or should be, too busy with all the other problems, primarily their actors. A decent monitor is a wonderful communication tool.
1.1.4 What Does It Mean for the Director of Photography?
First, for me, it means I have a new and exciting toy to play with. I admit to liking toys.
Secondly, because of the cost savings involved, I may get to shoot more movies because more producers will be able to afford to get their production off the ground.
Thirdly, when shooting for television, I will be able, at a very small increase in cost, to deliver a significantly higher picture quality.
Fourthly, if the producer is sensible, and it is our job to convince them, I will be able to work with my normal film crew who, with only the slightest of training, can become HD experts almost immediately.
And last, perhaps, by embracing this new, excellent and exciting recording medium and its cameras, I can become more popular with productions and therefore busier.
1.1.5 What Does It Mean to the Other Crafts?
Very little. If they are good enough to work on 35mm film then they are definitely good enough to work on HD. Most of the heads of departments I have worked with in high-end television would have little or no problem working on HD. For instance, I have held Make-up workshops for HD and it just isn't a problem. If the Make-up Supervisor and the DP work closely together, as in my experience they always do, then those worrying lace caps on a wig, the prosthetic nose job and all the rest present the same problems and require the same solutions. No problem!
1.1.6 Editing and Post-Production
Herein lies a very slight rub, and if there is a problem it should not necessarily be laid at the door of the DP or the post-production house. In my experience problems in this area, which are mercifully rare, nearly always follow inadequate planning, and incorrect decisions being made during the pre-production run up to principal photography. If post is going to go smoothly then you have to get the prep right. Because HD is still relatively new, it is prudent to bring together the Producer or Production Manager, the Director, the DP, the picture editor and all the post-production personnel, including Visual Effects (real-time effects) and the Post-Production Effect Supervisor for a significant meeting, or several meetings, before principal photography starts. They should not leave the room until agreement has been found and notes should be taken. I always do!
All of the above must be taken even more seriously now that we have cameras coming on stream that do not record a fully processed image, the data from the camera therefore requiring some manipulation before a fully formed image is ready for conventional postproduction. The RAW data coming from a RED camera comes to mind, but provided this and other cameras using RAW data are treated with respect and the additional post-production layer is fully understood, this way of working can render very good pictures indeed – in the right hands, of course.
When I came to lay out this book for the third time, I realized that there was no "right" or "wrong" approach. Wherever I started I would have to refer to topics to be explained later, so should I discuss the technology first, or should I consider HD from a Producer's perspective?
I decided to start with production decisions for two reasons. First, I believe that until we are all more familiar with the HD workflow, reaching correct production decisions will be an essential prerequisite to success. Secondly, if the sales and cost advantages of using HD are not understood then there is little point in worrying about the technology anyway, as no one will be using it. Getting bums on seats at a reasonable cost is the name of the game, and always has been. Nothing new there!
The problem, as I see it, is that there are a bewildering number of decisions to be made and they must be made before you start shooting or there is a very strong probability you will inherit some terrible problems when you get into post-production.
Things have changed since the introduction of HDCAM in the year 2000. Prior to that the choices were very simple – if you were going to shoot on film there was really only a choice between two formats, were you going to shoot on 35 mm or 16 mm? All the other decisions for many of the heads of departments (HODs) on the production would fall into line quite simply once that decision was announced. If you were shooting on Digi Beta were you working in an NTSC environment or a PAL environment? Again a simple and easy choice.
In an effort to be all things to all people, High Definition (HD) has many, many options to offer. This is good but it can be bewildering. It can look frighteningly daunting but, truly, it need not be. There are eight, yes eight, different frame rates to choose from. However, as you will see, the decision is likely to come down to a simple choice between only two or three frame rates, the same number of choices we had in the old days – so how difficult is that?
2.1 Progressive or Interlace?
There is the thorny question of whether to shoot in Progressive scan or interlace. Again I do hope this book will help with that decision but, usually, choosing between theatrical production and factual, cinema or television and asking yourself what the audience is accustomed to will bring the answers naturally to hand.
2.2 How Many Pixels Do You Need?
How many pixels should I shoot with? The answer is simple: as many as you can afford. The middle ground is still HDCAM with its true 1920 × 1080 pixel array recording on HDCAM 1/2-inch tape. It works don't knock it. Handled wisely it can easily please an audience in the largest of cinemas. It can hardly fail to make television look better than standard definition pictures be they recorded on Digi Beta or 16mm film. Again, handled well, they should look as good as 35mm film when shown on standard definition television, which I believe are just about the best pictures we are used to seeing. It's called the quality headroom getting through.
2.3 Recording Formats
What recording format to use? Difficult, but almost certainly the decision will be budget driven. As I said earlier, use the best you can afford. HDCAM is still the frontrunner for most productions, but if you have a really good budget there are hard drives to record on and cameras that originate their pictures at a much higher resolution than HDCAM, although they can be very expensive. One danger in going to higher formats is the amount of data you will need to record on set and the associated data delivered into post-production.
Excerpted from High Definition Cinematography by Paul Wheeler Copyright © 2009 by Paul Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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