July 24, 2010

Most Def: Take the Hi Road When Shooting Your Next Doc

Everyone's going hi-def, right? 

Well, actually, I've been surprised at how many documentarian friends have resisted the switch. Or at least they've put it off "for one more project." But it's past time to switch, and I'm hoping this article offers some practical advice. 

My partner Julia Reichert and I spent six years shooting 525 hours of standard-definition video for our film A Lion in the House. But our most recent documentary, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, was our first in high definition.

The Last Truck chronicles the final six months at a huge GM truck factory in Ohio, from the autoworker's point-of-view. The film premiered at Telluride and on HBO in 2009, and was an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject this year.

Filming around a giant factory required multiple cameras, yet we couldn't find six of the same make or model. As usual, we rented, borrowed and traded favors with friends to put together our gear. In the end, The Last Truck was shot on these cameras:

The Sony Z7U HDV camera (shooting on regular mini-DV tapes)

The Sony EX1 (shooting on SxS cards)

The Panasonic HVX200 (shooting on P2 cards)

The Canon 5D Mark II (shooting on CF cards)

The tiny Canon HV30 (shooting on regular mini-DV tapes)

And finally, the Flip Mino (recording to its own internal hard drive).

Mixing and matching cameras can be tricky, particularly in creating a seamless final movie. The lush, movie-like images of the Canon 5D won't look anything like the compressed images from the Flip. Yet they do work together in a film, as long as you're not mixing such different footage within the same scene. That, plus careful color correction (we use Glue Edit in New York City) makes different cameras a non-issue.

Tape vs. Cards

Many people have argued that tape is dead, and that recording to P2 cards or SxS cards is the wave of the future. I disagree. For many documentary productions, the most important thing is to keep shooting. Why should we miss essential moments because we have to download cards to a laptop? And hey, why should we have to be lugging around a laptop at all?

Over the last few years, I have read so many negative things about shooting in HDV: the compression is awful...the sound suffers...the images do not compare to those from an HVX-200 or EX 1... 

None of this is true. The mini-DV images from our HDV camera, the Sony Z7U, are just as good as the EX1 or HVX200. Strictly speaking, the EX1 is sharper than the Z7U. But the difference is so small that 99 percent of viewers will never notice the difference. If you don't believe me, watch The Last Truck and tell me which scenes were shot with which camera. 

As long as the images are comparable, the difference in not having to deal with downloading digital data cards is huge. If you shoot on cards, you're making a bigger investment in the camera you choose. You may need a laptop and hard drives on location, and you may need a media wrangler on location to deal with cards while you keep shooting. Or, if you can't afford that extra crew person, maybe you just won't sleep at night after a long day of shooting, because you need to download and backup your footage. 

I much prefer just sticking a small tape in my pocket.

In the long term, I also much prefer seeing a labeled tape in a plastic tub to trying to remember which of the dozen hard drives stacked up in our edit room holds footage from a particular day of filming. And, at least in my experience, hard drives get used much more than tapes, and crash far more than tapes break. 

Plus, please note: Some broadcasters require tape backup anyway. You might shoot on cards, save on hard drives and yet still need to rent a hi-def deck and spend a lot on hi-def tape stock for archival purposes. We rented a DVC-PRO HD deck to backup all our HVX200 and EX1 footage for HBO.

Getting Started in Hi-Def

We started filming The Last Truck with the Canon HV30, which my intrepid partner Julia found through her friends in the New Day Films documentary co-op. This $600, three-chip, hi-def camera is amazing. The images are stunning for a camera that small and cheap. It's a great starter camera, and when you eventually can afford a bigger, better camera, the HV30 makes a great backup or B-cam.

As filming continued, and the project grew, we upgraded to a bigger HDV camera. Before buying, we talked to a bunch of folks, including a few broadcast engineers. The reports were very positive about the Sony Z7U. One engineer for HBO said the color space on the Z7U rivaled that of a much more expensive camera shooting 4:2:2. This convinced us. The camera is also great in low-light, opening up to F1.8. It's become our workhorse.

The Canon 5D Mark II, however, has added a remarkable new tool to our kit. This camera is not so great for cinema vérité shooting--mainly because it's hard to focus on the fly. But for interviews or landscapes, it does amazing work.  We got our hands on one just before the GM plant closed in December 2008. We used it in a crucial scene--shooting portraits of the workers, with the plant in the background. The low depth-of-field and the cinematic nature of the images combine to great effect, giving dignity and even grandeur to these people losing the jobs they love.

Nowadays, I keep the Canon 5D with me almost everywhere I go. It's like having a Bolex in your backpack, except you don't have to pay for film or processing.

Hi-Def, Low Profile

The final, and in some ways most crucial, camera in The Last Truck's palette is the Flip Mino. This cell phone-sized hi-def camera takes remarkable images for something so small. Yes, it is discernibly grainier and noisier than the other cameras mentioned here, but it's ideal for shooting where you don't want to call attention to yourself. With The Last Truck, no outside camera crews were allowed in the plant during the last days. Yet we managed to get footage from the inside, with three Flip Minos used by auto workers to document the final moments of the plant. The images are beautiful and remarkable, especially for first-time camera people.  

Okay, so clearly there are options when it comes to making the switch to high definition. What should not be an option is the idea of shooting in standard definition. Those days are over.

Addendum

We are now shooting more and more with the Canon 5D Mark II (we now have two of ‘em). We're even shooting long interviews with them, recording sound on a separate digital audio recorder. 

It feels like a throw back to the good old days of 16mm cameras and sound recorded on a Nagra. But no one is nostalgic for the tedium of syncing up hours of footage. Well, there's an app for that too. 

That's right, the software Plural Eyes takes multiple sources recorded at the same time, and syncs them up by analyzing the audio tracks. So the rough audio guide track from the Canon 5D is aligned with the good audio from a well-placed microphone.

 

Steven Bognar is a documentary filmmaker from Dayton, Ohio.His films have screened at Sundance, SXSW, Full Frame, IDFA and Hot Docs; at the Museum of Modern Art & the Guggenheim Museum, and on Independent Lens, POV, the Sundance Channel, IFC and HBO.   

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