Best Buys

At festivals such as Hot Docs, the top-tier conversation is all about the films. But, underneath the creative buzz is a steady exchange about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking - the cameras and the editing systems. In this report, MATTHEW SYLVAIN speaks with a cross-section of producers about their choices
April 1, 2003

At festivals such as Hot Docs, the top-tier conversation is all about the films. But, underneath the creative buzz is a steady exchange about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking – the cameras and the editing systems. In this report, MATTHEW SYLVAIN speaks with a cross-section of producers about their choices

In today’s ever-changing broadcasting world, selecting the best camera and editing equipment – for the price one can afford – is among the toughest decisions independent producers face, particularly for those hoping to transition from renter to owner. Purchase the wrong equipment and a doc-maker risks making a less-than-perfect production in the eyes of the all-important buyers. And, don’t forget the burden of unwanted maintenance and operating expenses. So, what are the wise investments? High-definition cameras, offline editing suites and the ever-faithful digicams.

Dreaming in HD

With many major broadcasters spearheading their upgrade from analog to digital transmission on the back of high-definition programming, producers are heeding the call to shoot in HD.

Pasadena, U.S.-based Vision Media Productions has produced projects such as The Battle For Jerusalem (2 x 1-hour) on rented HD cameras and editing suites, but is increasingly leaning towards buying, notes Duane Abler, a producer with the company. ‘I’m educating myself toward making a decision [to go with] one manufacturer and one HD path for both production and post-production,’ he says, adding that there is a heated Sony-versus-Panasonic debate raging in the HD world.

Freelance director of photography Bob Scott has made his decision: he acquired a Panasonic AJ-HDC27F VeriCam six months ago. The Orlando, U.S.-based dop was first introduced to the HD camera while shooting Salt Lake 2002: Stories of Olympic Glory with director Bud Greenspan of New York, U.S.-based Cappy Productions (Panasonic loaned them eight VeriCams). One of the key features that impressed Scott was the camera’s versatility. ‘It’s a camera that works both sides of the fence. I’m shooting in HD, but I know we’re not going to finish in HD,’ he says. Salt Lake 2002, for example, was onlined in standard definition to comply with U.S. cable network Showtime’s transmission format.

Scott says the Cappy crew spent nearly a week putting the camera through its paces experimenting with frame rates, shutter speeds and filters, to achieve ‘a look we were really happy with.’ Minor frustrations with it included an inconveniently located on/off switch and an inexplicably complicated built-in menu. Notes Scott, ‘To change the frame rate you had to do a three-step process of flipping through menu folders.’ Panasonic incorporated the feedback and tweaked the design, he adds.

Overall, Scott says the VeriCam performed well despite the winter weather and heavy usage – three or four locations a day, at three or four sporting events. But, at US$63,000, purchasing the Panasonic camera is not an option for all doc producers.

James Taylor, head of Bainbridge, U.S.-based Circle Rock Productions, says cost has held him back from shooting in HD. ‘If I had the funding, I would turn my doc on body painting [Invitation to Stare] into an HD project in about two seconds.’ Instead, he shot the US$400,000, 54-minute documentary on mini-DV, employing several different digital cameras: his own Canon GL-1, a rented Canon XL-1 and a Sony DC Pro 500 series, which was supplied by his director of photography.

But, producers needing a more cost-effective option than HD has traditionally offered may no longer have to abandon the format.

Less is more

At the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas, U.S. (April 5 to 10, 2003), Vision Media’s Abler planned to seek out JVC’s GR-HD1, a new, consumer-grade HD camera set to retail at approximately US$3,500 when it is launched later this year. He says he asked himself the same questions about the GR-HD1 that he would ask about any piece of equipment. ‘The price point would be phenomenal, but can it really deliver on the quality? Is it something that is going to be integratable into our editing systems? Is it going to integrate with other HD signals? JVC says it’s going to write on a mini-DV cassette, but can it really sustain the quality that we associate with high definition?’ Since the camera is not yet in stores, the answers remain unknown.

Abler’s pondering doesn’t stop when he turns away from the GR unit. ‘One thing I try to keep a careful eye on is, with every piece of equipment or software that I’m considering, does it have a future upgrade path? The danger in this rapidly deployed technological curve is that the minute you buy something and bring it home to your office, it’s obsolete,’ he says.

Abler’s cautiousness is well founded. Bill Harris, the senior VP of production and broadcast operations at New York, U.S.-based cablecaster A&E, advises cash-strapped independents to be careful when thinking about purchasing or renting the latest new camera or editing system. ‘In the rush of technology there are things that still feel a little too close to consumer – especially for the quality of our content – as opposed to professional-grade equipment,’ he says. ‘For instance, you have to be careful if you’re going to accept a desktop-editing solution versus a full-blown Avid suite,’ he observes.

A&E and its family of networks (which includes The History Channel and Biography) can incorporate ‘almost any generally accepted format that is of this century.’ However, DigiBeta is the standard, Harris says.

The company is exploring HD – it has commissioned several HD productions, though they were aired in standard definition – but isn’t aggressively pursuing it. ‘Today, in terms of transmission, there just aren’t enough true, honest HD venues that make much of a difference to the consumer,’ he notes.

When you’re ready to cut and paste

Whether producing in high definition or standard definition, every prodco needs an offline editing system for rough cuts and pitch treatments.

Mike Chamberlain, managing director of London, U.K.-based prodco Stampede, says he invested in a CineStream system (formerly called Edit DV), because ‘it was recommended by a techno whiz kid and we were going to be working together. It seemed like a good idea – getting free setup and technical aid while collaborating together creatively.’ CineStream proved simple to use and could manage uncompressed video, he explains. Chamberlain purchased it nearly four years ago for approximately £800 (US$1,300).

For small companies like Stampede, there is a trade-off involved in purchasing complex software. ‘As the MD, I have to become an expert in any technology we buy,’ Chamberlain says. ‘If I bought an Avid, I’d have to become an expert in that as well, which I don’t relish.’ Stampede’s editors will nevertheless rent time on an Avid Symphony to post big projects, such as Before the Flood, a 70-minute, 373,000-euro ($402,000) tale about Tuvalu, a Pacific island nation that faces possible extinction from rising sea levels.

Chamberlain concedes the day is approaching when Stampede will need to graduate to a more powerful editing system, a decision that involves crossing several bridges. ‘When we get enough money I will look to upgrade to an Avid Xpress or something like it. But, it must be A) easily transferable and B) must not faze editors so they don’t turn their noses up at it,’ he says.

Toronto, Canada-based prodco Ellis Vision crossed the rent-versus-own threshold for editing suites two years ago, when less expensive editing technology was released on the market. Ellis’s head of production, Kip Spidell, explains: ‘We were able to justify the cost of investing

in [an Avid Xpress suite] when it came down below CDN$100,000 [$69,000]. We bought a couple.’ He continues, ‘That was a part of the business we would never before have considered, because for years, [company founder] Ralph Ellis said he didn’t want to get into the equipment game. You end up having to justify the cost of the most expensive equipment and not only storing it, but maintaining it too.’

Now, due to an increase in business coupled with falling equipment prices, owning makes more sense for Ellis than renting time at an outside media center. ‘Those Avid Xpress suites have paid for themselves many times over,’ says Spidell.

Not everyone agrees, however. Bruce Beffa, a senior producer with Cappy Productions, notes his prodco rented time at a production house to post Salt Lake. ‘For us, it’s better renting, because with edit decision lists you can go in for quick edits. We still find it’s more cost-effective for us.’

Old faithful

In the doc-making world, sometimes less is more, and a digicam is all one needs. At Stampede, Chamberlain says he considered going with film for Before the Flood, but opted for his dop’s Sony DVW790SP DigiBeta camcorder instead. ‘We discussed using Super 16, but I saw cameraman Dirk Nel work on his DigiBeta, really liked it, and had no problems with his images,’ he notes.

There were logistical considerations as well, since Tuvalu is among the most isolated islands in the Pacific.

Says Chamberlain, ‘If we had shot on film, we would have had to ship the exposed rushes thousands of miles at a lot of expense and quite a lot of risk. I.e., it would be passed through the hands of anonymous airport staff, a multitude of couriers, security people and x-rays, and then the developed rushes would have to come all the way back again before the director could see them. Apart from the extreme stress this would have caused the director, it was beyond our budget.’

Stampede also owns its own Sony PD 100 series camera, a portable and relatively inexpensive tool the company uses to help ‘premake’ programs for pitching purposes (camera, tripod and supporting gear cost a total of about $63,000). ‘A little pilot tape can do wonders,’ says Chamberlain. ‘DV has become an extremely important and cheap way of promoting our products,’ he adds.

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