You have your script. You have your camera and computer editing software. You have actors, a crew, and some locations. Now you begin to shoot your “digital” film. Although the “filmmaking process” described in here uses the “film” word, what we’re really talking about is the overall project, not the medium on which it is shot. In recent years many traditional filmmakers have made the jump from film to digital video as have many television series. The reasons are clear: even using the highest quality digital video formats available, the cost savings over shooting traditional 35mm film are not to be ignored, as well as the fact that today many traditional film shoots use a “digital intermediate” (a fancy way of saying the film footage is scanned frame by frame into a series of digital still images) to provide color correction, add special effects (if needed), and in the case of regular television series, are output directly to tape or disc and never see film again.
In the independent film world, these recent changes have had an enormous impact on the affordability of production. “Prosumer” digital video cameras ranging from $1000 up to $10,000 provide relatively clean, clear images. Also extremely affordable are computer hardware and editing software which provide single-source solutions, not only for editing of images, but also color correction, special effects, sound mixing, and DVD authoring. Just a few short years ago, a feature-length independent film shot in 16mm color film would have enormous costs simply in the rental/purchase of a proper camera; the cost of a film (400 foot reels at more than $90 each), processing, negative cutting and color correction costs, and all this even IF one chose to output to videotape and edit the final footage there (a la Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi”). Now a single mini-DV tape costing around $4 can record up to an hour of footage. Portable laptops and/or proprietary hard drive systems can record directly to disk format ready for editing without even the need for capturing from tape. However, one fact still remains – you are still shooting “video” and, unfortunately, video does not look like “film”. There are several reasons why:
Film is shot at 24 frames per second (fps); video is shot at 30fps (although because standard video is interlaced, i.e. each frame is made up of two fields which are scanned at odd/even intervals, it actually appears more like 60 fps). The extra frames of video provide more detail in an object or person’s motion, making the image look more realistic in nature However, as a society we’ve become so used to the 24fps look of film that video does not create the “suspension of disbelief” when we watch it.
Standard definition DV video uses a frame size of 720×480 pixels. Doing the math, that’s a paltry 345,600 pixels to reproduce each frame. If printed on a sheet of photo paper at 300 dots per inch (DPI – the minimum amount needed for a clear printed image), it would barely be 2 ½ inches wide. By comparison, today’s digital still cameras now operate in the 5 megapixel range and up, providing 14 times more image data than standard video. This approaches the clarity of 35mm film, which, although not having a specific pixel count, can be magnified and blown up to larger proportions (i.e. 8×10 photo or projected onto a 30 foot screen). However, newer High Definition (HD) video formats provide much sharper images (the two most popular formats are 720×1280 pixels and 1080×1920 pixels).
Although film technically has more resolution than standard video, the overall look of the image is “softer”. This is due to colors on the film emulsion blending gradually from one to another, whereas each pixel in standard video has specific boundaries between itself and its neighbors. New digital cameras have special circuitry to help create smoother images, especially in areas of color than approach skin tones.
Until recently, video was shot with a picture height that was ¾ of it’s width (often referred to as 4:3, or in film terms, 1.33:1) For years, film has been projected with aspect ratios ranging from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1. New high definition television sets and portable DVD players use a compromise aspect ratio of 16:9 (or 1.78:1, close to the 1.85:1 number mentioned above). This does not have as much of an effect as the items mentioned above, however it goes a long way to selling the “look” of video as film.
DEPTH OF FIELD
This is a range of distances from the camera lens in which an object stays in focus. It is based on several factors, the most important of which are the actual frame (in film) or CCD (in video) size. The larger the frame surface, the less depth of field at a particular aperature setting. Traditional film cameras receive light through a lens onto a square that is 35mm (1.4″) diagonal. Many of today’s smaller DV cameras use 1/3″ or even ¼” diagonal CCDs. This is why a traditional 35mm film image will have a subject in focus and the immediate background out of focus. This effect also helps separate the foreground character or object and allows the filmmaker to force the audience to concentrate on a particular part of a scene. Video cameras tend to allow more objects (foreground and background) be in focus at the same time.
Another way to generate a “cinematic” look to a moving image is by moving the camera as opposed to using the zoom lens. Except for a brief period during the 1970s, zooming in the film community has been rarely used. Instead, the process of physically moving the camera helps create a more three-dimensional feel and is more closely related to what we observe through our eyes every day (remember our eyes cannot “zoom” the way a camera lens can). Zooms are also more typically used in television programs (news, sports, talk shows, etc.).
So, what can we do to overcome the “video” look in favor of the more pleasing “film” look? First of all, the selection of a proper camera is the key. Many newer cameras (starting with the groundbreaking Panasonic DVX-100 series) are capable of shooting at 24fps. The resulting set of images is then laid down onto DV videotape using a 3:2 pulldown method (similar to how traditional film at 24fps is converted to 60 interlaced fields). This allows compatible playback on any standard DV camera or deck. The byproduct of the 24p mode is also that the image is scanned progressively, which yields a slightly sharper image than the typical interlaced video frame.
Other cameras just out on the market (such as the JVC HD100 and the Sony FX-1) shoot in HDV mode (an abbreviation for High Definition DV), which again utilizes a standard DV videotape to record more pixels per each frame. The drawback is that this system uses MPEG-2 compression, a method of compressing data which is used in standard DVD discs and players. Because of the large amount of data that has to be “squeezed” onto the tape, occasional artifacts can appear, especially in scenes with a lot of motion.
Finally, true HD cameras such as the Panasonic HVX-200 provide “true” HD recording capability, however here the cost of the recording media begins to rise. Although the HVX-200 has a mini-DV tape drive built-in, in order to realize the higher quality images, one must use Panasonic’s proprietary “P2” storage system, which records the data onto a series of removable memory cards. At this point, these cards are still extremely expensive, however as technology improves and memory price falls, this may prove more affordable in the future.
When shooting on video, several key factors can help avoid the “video” look. The first one is to avoid overexposing even part of the frame. Overexposed film reacts much differently than overexposed video, which tends to sharply lose all color and generates a noticeable “blooming” along the edges of the overexposed part of the scene. By closing the iris of the camera ½ to 1 full f-stop, you can bring potentially overexposed highlights down into a usable range. With the color correction tools in most major editing programs, the image can be brightened a bit later if necessary. Also, some of the newer DV cameras have selectable gamma settings which expose the mid-tones of the scene in different ways to better match the way film reacts to light. Also, the use of soft, diffused light is extremely important – this helps keep shadows to a minimum and softens the image that is captured by the camera’s CCDs.
The aspect ratio of your video frame is relatively easy to change. First, you can shoot full-frame, then add black bars across the top and bottom while you edit. Although this gives the video a “widescreen look”, you have essentially thrown out 25% of your image data. Many DV cameras have 16:9 widescreen modes, although they vary in how this is accomplished. Some simply add the black bars across the top and bottom and record the frame that way; others will turn off the top and bottom portions of their CCDs and “squeeze” the rest of the information into a full frame (referred to as anamorphic), which yields slightly better results. The resulting “squeezed” frame is then restored to normal aspect when viewed on a 16:9 monitor or projector, which then “stretches” the frame out to its normal width. With standard definition DV cameras, the highest quality method for obtaining a 16:9 image is to use an anamorphic lens, which optically squeezes the image to fit into a 4:3 frame, allowing you to use all of the available pixels on the camera’s CCD. Unfortunately, anamorphic lenses can cost upwards of $800 or more. With Some of the new breed of HDV and true HD cameras, the CCDs within them actually have 16:9 aspect ratios and the pixels to match.
Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to match the narrow depth of field look of film. Even large professional cameras with ¾” CCDs still have trouble matching that of 35mm film. There are other factors which affect depth of field, however, one of which is the aperature setting on the camera lens (also known as the iris). The more open the iris, the more narrow the depth of field. So even if you’re using a lot of light on a particular scene, you can force your camera to shoot with a narrower depth of field by using built-in neutral density filters, which most prosumer cameras have, or by putting neutral density filter in front of the lens to darken the image coming into the lens. Another factor is the focal length, or how far the camera is zoomed in to a subject. The more telephoto a zoom setting is, the more critical the depth of field. However, this must be used carefully; by setting up the camera too far away from the subject and zooming too far in, it can cause the background, even if slightly out of focus, to seem closer to the subject than it is in reality.
Camera movement is an issue that can be solved either with a larger budget, a bit of ingenuity, or a little of both. Simple hand-held movements are the cheapest, but also require some skill, even if the resulting shot is supposed to look “a bit shaky”. Simulating the use of dollies can be done in the age-old tradition of using an old wheelchair, placing the camera and/or operator on it, and rolling it along a relatively smooth surface. For high angle shots, nothing beats a crane; even lifting the camera up 10-12 feet above your scene, especially with the lens set as wide as possible, will achieve impressive results. Again, with a bit of skill you could construct a simple crane system using some 2x4s, a trip to the hardware store and some old exercise weights. However, some new affordable (around $300) crane systems have become available in recent years. There are varying styles of camera stabilization systems (i.e. “steadicam”), some as simple as a counterweighted platform requiring the operator to hold all the weight with his/her arm; others come equipped with vests and spring systems which transfer the weight to the body and allow for even smoother movement. Again, using systems like this take practice, but can achieve impressive results when implemented correctly.
By taking all of these items into account when shooting, one can create a believable film look which is enough to “fool” most audiences. Of course, ultimately the overall production value of the shoot (lighting, sound, acting, set design, makeup, etc.) will also determine how “professional” the finished film is, regardless of whether it looks like film or video.