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HOW-TO, Techniques, & Best Practices Channel

An Adventure in High Definition Filmmaking

By Jon Firestone
posted Oct 19, 2008, 11:40

Working with the HD Format

Jon Firestone is the director of "The Short Way In, ( " a television series about independent film and getting into the industry. He cofounded Thomas-Firestone Productions, and developed and taught the 3D graphics program at the Colorado Film School. Jon works as a freelance cinematographer and director in Denver, Colorado.

While working on a recent film being shot in super 16 using an Arri SR3 from Panavision, a friend of mine commented on how much more professional most film shoots are compared to HD shoots. I looked around, and aside from the format itself, many other things were different. The number of camera crew was larger and more experienced than most HD shoots I had worked on recently. We had a DP, a camera operator, an AC and a 2nd AC for one. The camera was also completely decked out with matte box, follow focus, gear head tripod, video assist and prime lenses, as well as a good zoom lens. We also had a nice decked out grip truck, a great gaffer, and a generator truck. In addition, we had a very involved script supervisor and a rigorous slating and logging procedure, which of course is crucial for syncing the sound in post. Format aside, the entire approach was different. Now this isnít always true, but in many cases the same mentality that chooses to shoot in HD also chooses to compromise on other things that contribute to production value, from experience, and size of crew to skimping on gear.

Heath Firestone is on Camera and Jon Firestone is looking at the monitor.

Complicating things further, Iíve been in several situations where a second camera was added at the last minute, without the thought of beefing up the crew and gear sufficiently to really support it, with the mentality that ďTape is CheapĒ. Itís not that there is anything wrong with multi-camera shoots. In fact, there are many advantages of shooting with multiple cameras, including improved continuity, and providing greater coverage, but there are some pitfalls as well. Lighting can take considerably longer when trying to hide the lights from both cameras and still provide good lighting from both angles. Also, the cameras can get in each otherís way, and usually Iíd rather have one good shot than two compromised shots. Adding a second camera will not necessarily speed things up because the crew is often split up and the setups become more complicated.

On the set of "The Shadow Walkers," Jon Firestone (Camera) and Zach Ankenman (Sound), courtesy of Mostly Films.

Itís been a few years since I began working with HD, but I continue to work on both film and digital projects. HD has evolved considerably, and there are a few things that Iíve learned along the way. I am excited about the evolution of the formats and the growing availability of the technology. With this though, I should mention that not all HD is created equal, and while the newer low cost HD solutions are great, they lag behind the professional formats in several ways. But while they lag behind somewhat in quality, they excel in workflow.

HD as a Format for the Big Screen

Professional HD brought us several steps closer to that elusive film look. George Lucas and others showed us that the format can be a viable format for the big screen. But the cost of the specially rigged Panavision cameras they used is still very high, and didnít exactly kick HD down into the price range of the masses. Nor did it knock film from its lofty position as king of the format hill. What it did do was help change the approach of video camera companies to begin offering features that create more cinematic images. While there have been significant improvements over traditional video, HD still lags behind 35mm film in resolution and dynamic range. But digital acquisition is improving in quality and price at an incredible rate, and itís only a matter of time before the quality of digital acquisition will no longer be a major issue.

Pictured above left: HVX200 at 50mm with no lens adapter.
Pictured above right: HVX200 with P+S Technik Mini35 adapter and a Zeiss Super Speed 50mm Prime Lens.

There are several characteristics generally associated with the cinematic look of film.

  • Frame Rate
  • Resolution
  • Gamma Settings
  • Dynamic Range
  • Lenses
  • Lighting

In order to match the cadence of film many HD cameras can shoot natively at 24 frames per second. Shooting with a 48 frame per second shutter is supposed to give a similar look to a 180 degree shutter on a film camera. Film sensitivity rolls off at either end of the spectrum, whereas video tends to clip. In order to emulate this many cameras have gamma settings which try to emulate the gamma curves of film, making the image behave more like it would with film. The resolution of HD is closer to that of film, however, HD can sometimes look almost too detailed for some, so turning down the sharpness somewhat is commonly done to give a more organic look.

Lighting HD is in some ways easier than film and in others more difficult. With HD you generally know what you are getting. I tend to rely on scopes and zebras, as well as a calibrated monitor when it comes to HD instead of a light meter. HD does not have as much dynamic range as most film stocks, so keeping lighting within the range of the HD camera is key. Primarily this means trying to avoid very high contrast situations. I like to use Ultra Contrast filters to help reduce contrast in uncontrolled daytime exteriors.

Setting up the Red Rock Micro M2 adapter for the test with a Nikon 50mm still photography lens.

One of the most distinct looks of 35mm film comes from the lenses that are used, and the shallow depth of field that is inherent with 35mm. The size of the image plane on 35mm is many times larger than that of a 2/3 inch CCD, and the difference is even greater between 35mm and the 1/3 inch chips on most of the newer inexpensive HD cameras. This larger image plane generally means that it will have a shallow depth of field. While this makes focusing more difficult, it gives a nice separation of the subject from the background. Fortunately, there are several lens adapters that connect 35mm lenses to HD cameras.

On a project I am currently in production on, I got a chance to test two of the more popular 35mm adapters on the market on a Panasonic HVX200. The first was the relatively inexpensive Red Rock Micro M2, and the other was the P+S Technik Mini35 adapter. The process of adapting a 35mm lens to these cameras is not as simple as adding a step-up ring. In order for the lens to behave as it would and have the same focal lengths as it would with film, the adapters have to translate the 35mm image plane down to a 1/3Ē image plane. However this process allows any imperfections in the ground glass to become very visible, so to make these imperfections less noticeable they spin the ground glass. This process slightly softens the image, but in a fairly aesthetic way. You also lose about a stop or so of light going through these adapters.

The primary difference between these two adapters is that the M2 flips the image upside down, in the process. The image quality is similar and both work well, but the inverted image of the M2 causes some workflow issues. This generally includes using monitors with image flipping capability, and doing a flip in post. In the case of the project I am working on, we chose to rent the Mini35 adapters because the workflow improvement of not having to deal with a flipped image justified the extra expense. However, JVC introduced two new HDV cameras at NAB which have built-in image flipping capability to compensate for the use of this sort of lens adapter. So maybe the other camera companies will take note and add this functionality to their camera lines, which would make the M2 more convenient.

The M2 costs between $1295 and $1750 depending on the setup and can be configured using still photography lenses or PL mount cinematography lenses. The Mini35 is primarily a rental unit, and costs around $10,000 to buy. It also only accepts PL mount lenses. Both units work well, and the selective depth of field definitely adds to the cinematic look.

Color Correction

Possibly one of the most important steps in achieving the desired look of a film is in the post production process. It helps that most cameras are including cinema style gamma settings now, and there are also great post production tools that help get the desired look. You can do a lot just with the color correction tools available in your editing software. You can do even more with software specifically designed for color correction; I personally really like Magic Bullet for emulating different film looks and processes. Itís not only the capability of the tools, but the ability of the user, so it is a good idea to use someone with the right equipment and experience if possible, especially when doing a film out. A good color corrector will know tricks that will help for example when increasing the contrast creates banding, they will have techniques to hide the banding. Also, having the right monitors, with proper calibration, and even the proper lighting in the room can make a difference. I prefer to color correct on a nice, calibrated CRT monitor, especially when working on nighttime shots. LCDs have trouble getting really dark blacks, and while they are improving in this way, CRTs still have a distinct advantage here.

One of the reasons that film often seems more professional is that in many ways it is. Throughout the entire process, film is generally handled by professionals with years of experience, where HD is a fast growing ever changing field, where having the same amount of experience is unlikely. There is also an established workflow with film, and the workflow with HD is constantly evolving. But HD is here to stay, and will get better with time. It has some distinct advantages over film, which have drawn the interest of directors like Robert Altman, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez and George Lucas. Whether because of potential cost advantages or advantageous workflows, HD has something to offer over film. Film though is certainly not dead, and will likely have a long life. It offers a great image quality, a huge market of trained professionals, and has a proven workflow as well as established distribution and storage options. In my experience, when working with HD if you want it to look more cinematic, then treat it with the same respect you would film.

This article may not be reprinted in print or internet publications without express permission of

Check out this article in the July 2006 print edition of StudentFilmmakers magazine, page 6.

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