When the 1080i high-definition camcorder hit the market several years ago, it took time to win over wildlife doc-makers still enamored with the look and feel of film. But, the arrival of progressive-scan, full-frame hd camcorders is generating genuine enthusiasm among producers and programmers alike. Unlike standard 1080i, which interlaces two partial frames, progressive HD brings video even closer to a filmic look.
Two camcorder models in particular – Sony’s CineAlta 1080/24p and, more recently, Panasonic’s 720p VariCam – have been key in winning over film veterans. Sony’s CineAlta operates at 24, 25 and 30 frames per second in progressive mode, as well as in 1080i. Its ability to capture the highest resolution video (1,920 pixels x 1,080 lines) at 24 full frames per second has spurred hd pioneers such as Barry Clark, executive producer with Los Angeles-based Mandalay Media Arts, to use it in lieu of a 35mm camera.
‘We’ll be using twin-mounted CineAltas to achieve realistic 3-D for two IMAX projects [Track of the Cat and Sunstalker],’ he says. ‘If it works out, it will replace a 300 lb [136 kg] camera with a three-minute magazine, costing US$5,000 in stock and lab costs.’ By comparison, a CineAlta camera weighs about eight kilograms and a standard tape runs for 50 minutes.
A basic CineAlta package goes for around $107,000.
St. Petersburg, U.S.-based filmmaker Bill Mills (Tigers of the Snow, Pursuit of the Giant Bluefin) favors Panasonic’s VariCam. ‘I can shoot at two to 60 frames per second and get a rich, textured film look,’ he notes. Alan Ritsko, managing director for Boston public channel WGBH’s ‘Nova’ strand, concurs. ‘The [Panasonic] cameras are more affordable and our filmmakers are buying them for their next ‘Nova’ projects.’ The price for a VariCam is about $65,000.
Thomas Lucas of New York-based Thomas Lucas Productions experimented with progressive HD on his one-hour doc Unfolding Universe (for Discovery) and was pleased with the results. ‘We shot a third of [the film] in 720p at variable frame rates. By undercranking we got a streaky, dreamy film look that we couldn’t get with DigiBeta. The 720p look even holds up when downconverting to standard definition,’ he notes.
To better realize the potential of progressive HD, filmmakers need to do their homework in pre-production. ’24p is the biggest [production] breakthrough since HD,’ asserts Bill Thompson, VP, post production, at Atlanta-based Crawford Communications. ‘But, there’s a lot to know to avoid costly mistakes in post.’ For example, when shooting in progressive HD it’s better to underexpose the white levels or highlights by one to one-and-a-half stops, which is opposite to how film works, he notes. In response to demand for advice like this, Crawford offers free pre-production consultation to producers. The company’s efforts appear to be paying off; Thompson says HD business is up considerably, much of it in 24p.
Arlington, U.S.-based post facility Roland House has also seen an increase in 24p HD work. ‘It’s really taking off, especially for theatrical use and museums,’ says Tim Lorenz, who handles business development at Roland House. ‘We just posted a doc on the Mississippi River in 1080/24p for the Museum of the Mississippi for viewing on a full-sized theater screen [2.35:1].’
While the surging interest in progressive hd formats is good news for Sony and Panasonic, it’s less positive for film suppliers. Observes Mandalay’s Clark, ‘[In 1997/98], when we shot Sahara on Super35 for HD, we had a $2 million budget. Today, you would be lucky to get a third of that. With 24p you can get a film look on HD without the high costs of 35mm. With budgets being squeezed it’s great for producers, but doesn’t bode well for the future of film.’