Sizing Up Video

The advantages of shooting in video - primarily cost and ease of use - have made the format a popular choice with doc-makers. But if you think your project is slated for the big screen, or you just want to preserve...
September 1, 2000

The advantages of shooting in video – primarily cost and ease of use – have made the format a popular choice with doc-makers. But if you think your project is slated for the big screen, or you just want to preserve it for future generations, chances are you will need to transfer the final cut to film. On projects requiring tape-to-film transfer, documentary filmmakers need to keep a number of factors in mind, including video format, camera adjustment and post-production techniques.

‘It’s very hard to give blanket suggestions because different video formats introduce different problems,’ says Jerry Poynton, the American representative for Swiss Effects, a Zurich-based company that has done tape-to-film transfers for such docs as On the Ropes (directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein) and The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack (Aiyana Elliott).

But, Poynton notes, there are certain guidelines all documentary filmmakers would do well to follow. ‘They should become familiar with their camera and video technology’s capabilities before production, not during,’ he cautions. ‘Shoot two minutes and then transfer that to film before moving on. This will give the director and the director of photography an idea of what they’re going to end up with.’

In general, the PAL video format, with its 25 frames per second (fps) and additional 100 lines of resolution over NTSC, will yield a higher quality film print. ‘The more information that’s on the video, the more information that will be on film,’ says Michael Ehrenzweig, who produced Paragraph 175, a feature-length doc about homosexuals in Nazi-era Germany, for San Francisco-based prodco Telling Pictures.

Previously, doc-makers avoided the PAL format because of compatibility problems. But now, says Poynton, ‘most of the online editing facilities are getting hip to PAL. And for what you get in improved image quality, the extra cost is peanuts.’

At Swiss Effects, using PAL actually saves a doc-maker money. The company charges approximately 10% less for tape-to-film transfers from PAL than from NTSC. For example, a 10-minute 35mm film (including transfer, negative and developing) in PAL format costs us$5,216; the same film in NTSC format runs $5,796.

Ehrenzweig suggests keeping in close contact with your tape-to-film transfer lab throughout production and post-production. ‘They can give the cameraperson certain measures related to exposure of the video that will give you better quality,’ he says. For example, Swiss Effects recommends lowering the camera’s detail setting (to prevent artifacts), switching off the digital zoom whenever possible, and avoiding rapid shot movements with stationary objects (as these can cause a smearing effect that is visible only on the final film print). Also, remember that the film projector cuts off about 2.5% on all sides of the image.

In post, Swiss Effects recommends producing animation and speed changes in frame mode, and being careful not to crush the levels (in black and white) during color grading. Doc-makers using NTSC take note: moving titles, such as roll titles, are not suitable for transfer and should be created separately on film. Other tape-to-film transfer labs may have different procedures for moving titles.

During Swiss Effects’ proprietary tape-to-film transfer process, images are ‘up-resed’ to 2k resolution, then transferred frame by frame, at five fps, through a computer. They are then developed and printed to film (transfers can be made to any standard negative stock).

A slightly more affordable process is available from Digital Image in Burbank, California. The company uses an electronic beam recorder (EBR) to convert information directly from video onto film at standard resolution – cost: $425 per minute for 35mm, and $180 per minute for 16mm. The drawbacks include no sliding price scale for longer projects (as with Swiss Effects), and the EBR process does not ‘up-res’ the footage to 2k resolution.

‘Shooting video for film can be more difficult than shooting film,’ says Robert Jung, a tape-to-film colorist at Digital Image. ‘However, with careful preparation, understanding the process of transforming video to film, knowing what the limitations are, and testing before shooting the video, you can end up with a project that can be projected in a theater and no one will know it originated from video.’

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