"I grew up with video, but HD is its own medium," says performance artist and videographer, Miranda July, who wrote, directed, and stars in IFC Films' delightful Sundance hit, Me and You and Everyone We Know, shot in Sony's high-definition (HD) format.
Cheaper than film, bigger and better than plain, old digital video, high-definition digital video definitely came into its own during this year's Sundance Film Festival. According to Sony, nearly half of the features, documentaries, and shorts screened in Park City were shot in HD, using cameras such as Sony's HD Cine Alta F900, whose 24P mode is capable of capturing the look and feel of film.
("24P" means "24 frames per second," which approximates the frame speed of film, giving screen images more depth and dimension, as opposed to standard video's flatter 30 frames per second.)
But, was the decision to shoot Me and You... creative or financial? "Both," said producer Gina Kwon, during a panel discussion at the Sundance Digital Center. "High-def seemed really right for Miranda, and we were on such a tight budget and schedule, digital video made more sense than film." Kwon estimated that shooting digitally shaved about $150K off the production's up-front costs such as film stock, dailies, and film-to-tape transfer for off-line, non-linear editing.
"Of course, some of that savings is cannibalized on the back end when we film out (transfer to 35mm for exhibition)," Kwon noted.
Director of Photography (DP) Chuy Chavez, who shot Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck on mini-DV, concurred that HD was the right way to go for Me and You... because, he said, "The story and performances were primary, and these smaller, digital cameras are more intimate" than, for instance, big, clunky Panavisions.
Remarkably, Panavision debuted its newest HD camera, Genesis, at the Sundance Digital Center. Filmmakers sat, somewhat dumbstruck, in this mecca of low-budget filmmaking, as the rep patiently explained: "The Genesis is Panavision's most expensive digital camera to date" and that "around twenty" may be in use by filmmakers like George Lucas at year's end.
"Could we...demo it?" asked one intrepid audience member. "Uh, no," replied the Panavision rep, clearly on a boondoggle in beautiful Park City (well, who can blame him?).
The Genesis notwithstanding, if digital and, in particular, 24P HD, so closely approximate the look and feel of film at a much more affordable cost, then why were the majority of films in Dramatic Competition--like Craig Brewer's rousing, crowd-pleasing, record-setting (price tag: $9 million) Hustle and Flow or Mike Mills' exquisite Thumbsucker--shot in gold, old-fashioned 35mm?
Even Super 16mm had a resurgence with, for example, Rebecca Miller's (Personal Velocity) latest Sundance entry, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. (Trippy, to say the least.)
The short answer is that 24P HD "approximates" the look and feel of film the way Diet Coke "approximates" the Real Thing.
But, as the technology continues to improve, proponents of digital filmmaking will continue to extol its virtues. "For low-budget independent filmmakers, there are significant benefits to shooting HD," says bi-coastal production and post facility, HD Cinema's, Jeff Blauvelt. "Lower wattage lighting packages can be used due to the sensitivity of digital video cameras, for instance, possibly precluding the need for an on-set electrician or generator."
Adds Blauvelt, "Also, you can record audio directly to the Sony HDCAM, which has the same digital audio quality as a DAT recorder but is inherently synchronous with the video," so your low-budget film will not end up looking like a scene from The Dancing Cavalier (the hilarious, out-of-synch movie-within-a-movie in Singin' in the Rain).
Since DP Chuy Chavez consulted with HD Cinema regarding the proper camera settings in advance of shooting Me and You..., only two four-hour days of Da Vinci color correction were required.
Blauvelt advised everyone, "Call it '24P HD,' but we really mean 23.98P frames per second, which is the right frame rate for easiest down-converting (transfer to lower resolution media for off-line editing) and, later, audio editing." Another tip: In very bright environments, underexpose slightly...the opposite of film. The reason: "We can recover detail in the dark areas in post easier than blown-out areas," Blauvelt explained.
Speaking of post, according to Me and You... editor Andrew Dickler, another benefit of shooting digitally is that, on a lower-budget project, "you get much more footage than you would with film." Writer/director Miranda July agreed: "We could just let the camera roll between takes. I didn't have to be so judicious about calling cut, thinking, 'Oh no, we're wasting film.'"
After down-converting nearly 70 HD tapes to DVCAM (you could edit in HD, but it's much more expensive), Dickler used Apple's Final Cut Pro for many weeks of offline editing. Upon completion of principal photography, the Final Cut project, along with the original HD field tapes, were brought to HD Cinema to assemble a 1080x24P HD sub-master.
This sub-master was later used as a source for additional color correction with a DaVinci 2K system to create a final master of Me and You... before delivery of a distribution copy to Sundance.
Me and You and Everyone We Know will be distributed by IFC Films later this year.
If you weren't able to make it to Park City this year, me and you and everyone we know can still enjoy several Sundance short films, many of whose native formats are HD, by visiting the Sundance Online Film Festival.
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