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What was the most important tech innovation for doc-makers in 2002?
December 1, 2002

The digital revolution in the production of documentaries and factual programs continued to roll on in 2002 (it was ranked as ‘the most important innovation in the history of docs’ in 2001). Digital cameras – mini-DVs in particular – and digital editing equipment, as well as high definition, were listed as the key innovations this time around.

Digital Cameras – 33%

Smaller, higher quality, lower priced – those are the positive descriptions that came up time and again as RealScreen survey respondents ranked digital video (DV) cameras (and their miniature cousins) the top tech tool of the year.

DV cams make possible ‘higher-quality shooting with smaller equipment, which allows filmmakers to get into areas and capture those golden moments with less hassle and prep-time,’ noted one doc-maker.

Sony’s DSR-PD150 is one popular offering on the market, and is the camera of choice for veteran doc-maker Albert Maysles (Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton). Maysles even came up with a lengthy list denoting its attributes (see RealScreen, January 2002).

A key selling point for cash-strapped independent doc-makers is the price range of DV cams. Sony lists the PD150 at US$4,500 (the top-of-the-line camcorder is $49,700) and calculates worldwide sales of the PD150, introduced in 2000, and similar lightweight cameras at over 310,000 units. Other popular DV cameras are Panasonic’s AG-DVX100 and Canon’s XL-1S.

DV cams have improved a lot, but they still have a way to go. Suggested improvements include ‘zooms that start wider’ than current settings and the ability ‘to film in 24 pixels, but without losing the auto-focus feature.’ Camera manufacturers, take note.

Digital Editing Equipment – 28%

What a difference a year makes. In the 2001 survey, Avid’s Media Composer editing system ranked as the third-most-important innovation in the history of documentaries (after digital video cameras and computers/the Internet). This year, Apple’s upstart editing system, Final Cut Pro, swept Avid out of the picture.

Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents said digital editing equipment was the most important innovation of the year, and when they dropped names, it was all Final Cut Pro – Avid didn’t land one mention. ‘Final Cut Pro allows the producer to edit concepts in the roughest form before going into a costly online session,’ one respondent noted.

It seems Final Cut’s lower price point (US$1,000 for FCP 3 software versus $12,000 for Composer) and the spread of DV cameras as an originating tool have pushed it to the front of the pack. The ongoing price war for editing software bodes well for cash-strapped doc-makers.

High-Definition Television – 18%

High-definition television, as one survey respondent put it, ‘is not new, just growing rapidly and unpredictably.’ Eighteen percent of his colleagues agreed, noting that hd turned a corner in 2002. Over the year, the jerky roll-out of hdtv was smoothed somewhat – on the broadcast side in the U.S., anyway – when a group of major U.Sr. cable operators agreed in May to dedicate time and money to making it happen.

Japan’s NHK, the pioneer in HD two decades ago, is still setting the pace, announcing in the fall their plans to take hd where it never has before: live broadcasts from Antarctica, the bottom of the ocean and even space (one small step for a pubcaster, one giant leap for an industry).

On the supply side, the major cost implications of originating in HD’s pixel-heavy, wider-angle format makes the upgrade to the format intimidating. But, it’s unavoidable for any prodco that plans to still be on the scene in a few years’ time.

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