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Achieving a Film Look with DV and HDV Cameras

Hard Earned Secrets For Professional Filmaking In Digital Formats By Heath McKnight

Years ago, Francis Ford Coppola predicted there would be a day when a girl in Ohio using her Dads video camera would produce a masterpiece. Since 1999, when the Canon XL1 and the Sony VX1000 mini-dv cameras were all the rage, and Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid Xpress were helping to revolutionize the ?little guy, Coppolas prediction was becoming a reality. With so many budding filmmakers turning to digital video (DV) and high definition video (HDV), many are trying to emulate the look and feel of film. But there is much more to a film look than just shooting in native 24p (24 progressive frames per second, which is what film runs at, worldwide) or converting and delivering your movie in 24p.

When I started out in film school in 1995, we were using analog video cameras, such as Hi8 and BetaSP. I worked with 16mm on two projects, but soon realized, even with Rick Schmidts excellent primer ?Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices, shooting a feature-length film was going to be an expensive endeavor. So when Digital Filmmaking became widely accepted, I pounced on the opportunity and shelled out around $15,000 for lights, a Final Cut Pro system, an XL1 and more, to start producing digital movies. This was in 1999.

After years of practicing everything from dogme 95 (shooting with available light, stripped down sets and costumes, available sounds and music, etc.) to what I felt was standard filmmaking practices, I decided to research what goes into making a digital film look more like film. What I discovered was several items to achieve a film look, which Ill go into more detail later in this article.

  1. The frame rate of film, as stated above, is 24 fps; until 2000, when Sony, Panavision and George Lucas introduced the HDW-F900 CineAlta to shoot ?Star Wars, Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, no other digital video camera could shoot in native 24p. Within 2-3 years, the mini-dv market saw the Panasonic DVX100 series and the Canon XL2 deliver 24p and other cinema-like features for filmmakers. There is also the psychological effect of seeing video in 60i (interlace), which makes the mind think of TV news, some documentaries, reality shows and more. 24p, in our minds, is more for drama, and by drama I mean any type of film and its genre, and some documentaries and television shows produced in the 1990s and on.
  2. The Cine Gamma ?look of your footage; what I mean is, how does it look? Are the colors rich and vibrant or slightly muted? This is known as Cinema Gamma, so named from the chemical process in film. Its taken years for Kodak and others to create film that has rich and vibrant colors, but the blacks are still rich and ?dark. This is something the DVX100-series and now many HDV cameras offer?the ability to either mute or ?brighten colors and ?crush, or deepen, the blacks to specific levels.
  3. Aspect ratio in film is wider than standard definition television, which has a more ?square image in 4:3 (thats ?4 wide and ?3 tall). The aspect ratio of film is widescreen (also known as anamorphic), which is usually either 1.85:1 (or flat in movie theatre projection terms) or wider at 2.35:1 (scope). Fortunately, all HDV cameras shoot in widescreen/16:9, so a more film-like image can be produced. Ill talk about how you can get a wide look if your camera shoots 4:3 best later.
  4. Depth of Field is the other aspect of films. DoF is essentially the overall focus range in the shot. Many films incorporate shallow DoF when shooting close ups or medium shots, which is a better way to control what the viewer is seeing. Shallow DoF is when the central subject is in focus, but things in the foreground or background are out of focus. This is achieved with longer lenses on both film and video cameras. A wider lens, like those found on sub-$10,000 DV and HDV cameras, produces a deep focus, where things are sharper in the fore-, mid- and background. This is something that legendary filmmaker Orson Welles and his cinematographers tried to achieve, with greater difficulty than with modern cameras and lenses.
  5. Lighting is another aspect of a film-look. When you watch TV news, reality shows or sitcoms, whether produced in 60i or 24p, the lighting is very saturated. Its warm, inviting and makes you feel at ease. In film and dramatic television shows like Law & Order, there is more of a contrast with the lighting, where the shadows are more prevalent on a persons face. Film comedies can be an exception, since a more playful tone is suggested with even lighting.
  6. Camera movement is different in film than it is in video. The camera doesnt always move on a film set; there are plenty of tripod shots. But watch a film?there are always slow dolly ins or outs during key moments, or tracking dolly shots either left or right. Youll also see Steadicam used more, along with handheld, which is used mostly to convey a sense of urgency and/or realism. In TV, mostly news and soap operas, youll almost never see camera movement, and usually that is achieved with zooms rather than physically moving the camera. There is a difference, which Ill talk about later.
  7. Set design and costume; believe it or not, this is very important. Living in Florida, its commonplace for people to wear white or other light colored shirts, and most homes have white exteriors and interiors. Its all part of tropical living, but it can lead to very bland and colorless filmmaking. And many homes Ive been in around the country have white walls, too. Put things on the walls, if painting is out of the question, like artwork (with a release, of course) and other interesting items. Put your actors in colors, not just white or light-colored clothes, but with video, be mindful of patterns and go for solid colors, nothing too dark.



It took around seven years for a mini-dv camera, the Panasonic DVX100a, to not only acquire 24p, or 23.98 fps (packaged in a 60i stream with a 2:3 or 3:2 pulldown?see sidebar), but to also allow the filmmaker to control the image overall, such as color and black levels.

The other mini-dv camera is the Canon XL2, which also adds native 16:9 without any quality loss. The DVX100-series, like other mini-dv cameras, can support widescreen capturing, but the quality decreases significantly.

The HDV cameras that shoot 24p include the JVC line (HD110, HD200 and HD250), the Sony V1u and the Canon line (XL H1, XH G1 and XH A1), which shoots in 24f, or Full Frame, similar to progressive. For more on the HDV cameras, check out my article here (provide link). Also, Panasonics excellent DVCPro HD camera, the HVX 200, acquires 24p in both 1080i and 720p, and the 24pn (native) mode doesnt use a pulldown and package the footage in a 60i stream, but is native 24p.

In the higher-end range, you have the Sony XDCam HD units, that use HDV-like compression, but both the F330 and F350 CineAlta cameras can set you back around $25-35,000! The Sony F900 and F950 also shoot in 24p, but the rentals on these units, with a full package of lenses, etc., can total up to a couple of thousand a day. Panasonic has the VariCam, which can shoot in multiple frame rates, which can deliver fast and slow motion.

Panavision and Sony teamed up again to deliver a high-end HD camera with an S-35 sensor, similar in the aspect ratio of film, called the Genesis, which many filmmakers have embraced. In 2006 alone, ?Scary Movie 4, ?Superman Returns, ?Click, and ?Apocolypto were among the major films shot with the Genesis.

There is also the Thomson/Grass Valley Viper Filmstream, which Michael Mann used extensively on both ?Collateral and ?Miami Vice (he used the Sony F900 for wide shots at night, to make the sky visible), and the first film to shoot 100% on the Viper is David Finchers ?Zodiac. The Dalsa Origin shoots in 4k resolution (Ill detail here), which is around 4.5 times the resolution of HD and the upcoming RED One (www.red.com) promises the same resolution.

If your camera doesnt have the 24p feature, you can follow some simple steps to help you out:

1) Get the shutter as close to 1/48 as possible; most of the 24p cameras have this shutter except the DVX100-series (turn that shutter off, which will go to 1/50 and AVOID syncro-scan to get to 1/48?your image will suffer). If you cant, stay with 1/60 of a second, unless youre going for an effect.

2) If your camera can shoot in PAL or 50i, like the HVR-Z1u, shoot in this frame rate. 25 fps is closer to 24p than 29.97 fps (60i). In post, you can de-interlace and then use software to go to 24p. Also, in the SD (standard definition) world, PAL has a bigger frame rate and better color space than NTSC (720x576 and 4:2:0 vs. 720x480 and 4:1:1).

3) Use software plug-ins to convert your 60i footage to 24p. Some of the best tools Ive used include Nattress (www.natress.com) for the Mac and DV Film Maker (www.dvfilm.com/maker) for the Mac and PC. Both are clean ways of achieving 24p, and both offer the option of packaging the 24p signal in a 60i stream or even 24p without a pulldown. Check out those sites for more, and also visit www.redgiantsoftware.com to see the Magic Bullet software, to also help with the 24p conversion and even a way to color correct your footage to look more film-like, aka, Cinema Gamma. For 50i or 25p footage, use plug-ins or built-in software in your NLE (non-linear editor) to effectively slow down your footage by 4%, which will make it 24p.


60i (above) and 24p (below) examples, DV with Nattress 24p G Film Filter. MPS Digital Studios.


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Related Keywords:film look, HDV, DV, video editing, color correction, 1080i, 720p, 24p, 60i, 16:9, depth of field, deep focus, shallow focus, pro camcorder, professional camcorder


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