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Varicam Versatility

Shooting ''Sinatra: The Untold Story'' in HD By Dan Coplan, SOC

Sinatra: The Untold Story
Filming a title sequence in Las Vegas with Director Chris Olgiati, US Producer David Marks, and DP Dan Coplan (not pictured). Using Innovision Probe Lens and CamRail for smooth motorized dolly across license plate. (Click image for larger view.)
?Sinatra: The Untold Story (?Sinatra: Dark Star is the title for the European version) is a cradle-to-grave biography of the late Frank Sinatra. Premiering on BBC1 in the UK, ZDF in Germany, Arte in France, and A&E in the US, the big budget feature-length documentary was produced by UK production company PITV (www.pitv.com).

Award-winning documentarian Christopher Olgiati (www.olgiati.com) led the charge and directed the show. The decision to shoot the majority of the program in HD (Digibeta and Super 8 was also used) was made because Christopher, who has historically worked on film, saw and admired the film-like look of the Panasonic Varicam. The ability to shoot variable speeds and maintain lens choices used in his previous projects also factored into the decision.

Having never shot HD before, Christopher teamed up with me based on my experience as both director of photography and digital imaging technician (DIT).. Traveling to a multitude of locations on the West coast, East coast, and Cuba, we often worked as a bare bones run ?n' gun crew and needed a compact, lightweight camera with a user friendly interface.


As a European production, the base frame rate was set to 25fps at a frequency of 60Hz. Imagery was captured at the cameras native 16:9 aspect ratio but protected for 14:9. European broadcasters including the BBC transmit two versions of each channel: 16:9 for viewers with widescreen sets and a ?compromise 14:9 stream for viewers with 4:3 sets who see a cropped image, but one that maintains a majority of the important information. Extensive post color correction was planned, but Christophers metaphoric and highly visual style led us to dig into the bag of tricks available in creating unique imagery on the fly.

Sinatra: The Untold Story
DP Dan Coplan prepares to shoot (no pun intended considering the pic...) an assassination recreation using the CineSpeed Cam capturing  footage at 1,000 fps. (Click image for larger view.)
Chris was excited about the image manipulation possible with the camera. Once I showed him how to turn an ordinary Hoboken sky at dusk into a more contrasty red sunset that bit into the clouds, all bets were off.

I repeatedly warned him about going too far that it can be good to lean in a particular direction if you know thats what you want but that recovery can be difficult if you change your mind later. But he knew precisely what he wanted and I gave it to him. It made me nervous at times, but it was a helluva lot of fun and a great way to become more intimately familiar with the Varicams capabilities.

I outfitted the Varicam with a Canon 11x4.7 HD ENG lens. This offered the most versatility in that the lens includes an extender allowing us to shoot from super wide at 4.7mm to telephoto up to 103.4mm. The wide end was primarily used to give grand scale to establishing shots and smooth out bumps when moving the camera on various platforms. The telephoto end was used to pick up details and for interviews where framing a flattering face and throwing the background out of focus (when larger spaces allowed) were called for. When feasible, a 17 HD CRT monitor was used. However, given the amount of location shooting, the most practical way of monitoring the image was with an Astro DM-3000 onboard LCD monitor.

I was skeptical about using a small LCD monitor as my only critical frame of reference so I compared it side by side with the larger CRT to understand the differences. There were color discrepancies and any viewing of the LCD off direct axis resulted in variable contrast differences but we didnt have a choice. Armed with the knowledge from my comparison I at least had an idea of how to interpret what we were seeing. Critical focus can be a significant challenge in HD but the LCD was surprisingly sharp. I turned peaking up in my viewfinder, however, to aid my focus. A duvetyne cover became a necessity in keeping out ambient light and offering as accurate a reading as possible.

The upside, however, was tremendous. The LCD is extremely portable, lightweight, and can be battery powered. This allowed me to have a second reference to the viewfinder mounted on the camera right in front of me and allowed Chris to watch moving shots as they happened when we had the camera mounted to a car, dolly, or helicopter.

Despite strict limits on manpower and equipment cases imposed by extensive traveling, a MicroDolly and Supergrip accompanied the filmmakers wherever they went. The MicroDolly is an extremely lightweight and compact set of tracks that collapse like tent poles. The kit included both straight and curved track and a tripod mount in the form of a 3-wheeled T-bar. One person can set it up in a matter of a few minutes on most any surface. Surprisingly, the dolly was set up on carpet, concrete, the dirt, and even a bumpy lawn and produced very smooth moves.

The Supergrip is a big suction cup bolted to the bottom of a base plate with several holes to mount camera plates. This unit was used both on the hoods and sides of various fancy cars in Manhattan, Miami, and Cuba. Production also took to the sky. I operated a Tyler mount for shots over the Vegas Strip and trailing a car in the desert and went handheld in a helicopter for shots over Miami.

The various locations represented different times and facets of Sinatras life and for these, Christopher wanted to attribute a different mood. This is where creativity with the camera really came into play. Two SD memory cards were completely filled with looks I dialed in (Hoboken night blue contrasty, Hoboken day slightly red, Manhattan neutral, Queens desaturated blue contrasty, Miami golden/tangerine contrasty, Havana red contrasty, gamma correction OFF for ultra contrasty?).  

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Related Keywords:Varicam, Panasonic, camera , Christopher Olgiati, Dan Coplan, Canon, HD ENG lens, Sinatra: The Untold Story, HD

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