"High Definition of ultra-low budget filmmaking"
NAB Las Vegas from April 19-22, 1999

by Tara Veneruso

This article first appeared in INDIEWIRE on Tuesday, May 25, 1999.

The National Association of Broadcasters convention takes place once a year in scenic "Luck Be a Lady" Las Vegas. It is the place where the broadcasting industry and high-tech industry check out the newest cameras, editing stations, posting systems, and other high-end wares. As a part of Team Next Wave (Peter Broderick, Mark Stolaroff, and myself), we travel each year to see what new tools are available to help filmmakers make a movie at a lower cost. The new initiative of Next Wave Films to produce and finance features under our production arm, AGENDA 2000, gave us another reason to cover as much territory on the digital front as possible.

At every corner the words "digital" and "HD (high definition)" were flung about by every tech junkie or insider wanna-be. An even more familiar phrase was "Lucas is shooting with this..." and "Lucas is using these...". On the higher-priced end of filmmaking, Lucas' presence as a pioneer of the digital frontier seems to be ensuring that research and development money is being spent by hi-tech companies. It is giving them a financial reason to investigate the possibilities. Actually, Lucas used HD footage in "Phantom Menace" (under 10 minutes) which will also help persuade the tech-heads to keep researching the use of video as a viable shooting format. Lucas is rumored to have said, "go find it" when asked where the HD footage was used. This sounds like a technological challenge for the anti-video heads.

Although Lucas' projects are being made on higher-end equipment, DV is quickly becoming the low budget filmmakers' format choice. In last year's article I mentioned that Collin Brown of Kodak in London said, "all the new technologies available will give filmmakers the freedom to be as creative as they dare imagine." The bridges being crossed today for Lucas may be the common tools of tomorrow. The following product overview focuses on what guerilla filmmakers of today can be utilizing. An important note on all of these new tech products is to do as much research as possible on the equipment you are interested in purchasing. Often, it is other companies who give you more valuable information about your future purchase than the manufacturer. People who consider themselves experts are often wrong about their own equipment. Only careful planning and research will give you the desired results.

Highlights: "Pocket Producer", from PLAY, was winning awards left and right during the demo. This portable editing and logging system, for the Palm Pilot, connects directly to a deck or camera, and unbelievably can in or output an EDL to Avid, Media 100, CMX, etc. Cinematographer and writer, David Leitner, turned us on to Play, a company started up by the crew that worked on NewTek's VideoToaster Lightwave. The Studio Version (approx. $500) reads time code, is hardwired to the Pilot for quick buttons, can create logs during or after shooting, and creates an EDL. Play seems to be the most innovative company at NAB making products with our budgets in mind. The Play "Holoset" also showed off chroma keying technology at an ultra-low budget. This funky ring goes on a film or video camera to give the filmmaker blue or green screen on the fly (approx. $1000.) I could have used this in last week's project; go to www.play.com. (Lucas also used a PLAY product in "Phantom Menace" which for the remainder of the article I will abbreviate to "P.M.", or should it be "P.M.S." (Phantom Menace Syndrome)?.

DV Cameras: Our first order of business was stalking down cameras. Panasonic had the EZ30 on display, although the "suit" laughed when I mentioned feature films were being made on this. "I don't know about that, I shoot my baby flinging food around with this thing." So many recent articles (Res magazine and DV magazine) have in depth DV camera reviews, so I will mention only a few things. It was rumored that Sony may be coming out with a VX2000, but Larry Thorpe (XXXOFFICIAL TITLEXXX) dispelled this while remarking that I may have made up a new camera name. Sony displayed the PD-100, which is an impressive camera in its price range, but was the most argued about model. Sony claims it is a true progressive scan camera while industry master Patrick Lindemeyer of Swiss Effects explained how the Canon XL1 and Sony PD100 can not be true progressive scan cameras. "However, the upcoming 24P (progressive)-HD camera will be", he explained. The Sony DVW700WS (digi-beta) is a beautiful model, but I am still depressed it doesn't have a FireWire (IEEE1394) output.

The world of HD Cameras: The older HD cameras were huge and expensive ($400,000), while the current Sony HDC-750 camera was used to shoot under 10 minutes in "Phantom Menace". Lucas will actually be shooting "Star Wars Episode II" on the Sony 24P-HD camera, but is being held up due to the CCD design. Sony said it should be ready for Lucas to test in October for a February, 2000 shooting date. Panavision is working with Lucas and Sony to develop high performance lenses for the camera and "tailor the camera for moviemaking". A Sony technician mentioned that one reason Lucas wants to shoot on HD is to save time, money, and quality on scanning in images for effects shots. Another is to save money for other areas of his productions. The 24P-HD camera will run at $95,000 with the lens. With HD cameras now on the market, Sony dropped the price of the digi-beta cameras ($66,000), but said there were no plans for a 24P-digibeta camera unless a demand arises. Thorpe says that the quality of digibeta is like shooting on Super 16mm when both compared on their 35mm transfer. Other advancements that Thorpe mentioned include the new HD production standard (16:9, 1080X1920), and LA - based Laser Pacific will be able to online projects on HD this summer at 24P at 50or 60 interlace (PAL or NTSC).

Now, all you editors out there may resist this reality - but as Leitner states "why online when you have a perfect digital transfer from the DV system? It's the same as when it went in!" I admit my utter resistance to the notion that I don't need to waste gobs of money in an online suite if I shot DV. The native DV option is an important one when choosing the right system for you. At NAB, the phrase at every editing software company was "ours is more robust". Although Discreet Logic's edit* (NT-based, real-time NLE) is impressive for the mid-budget editor, Apple was the thing for the low budget filmmaker with their new "Final Cut" ($1000 software only) for the blueG3. There are still some bugs that need to be worked out to be comparable to higher end systems (not real time yet (neither is Premiere for Mac) and PAL is being tested), this native DV system kicks butt. The designers of "Final Cut" moved over from Adobe Premiere and Macromedia, to find a home at Apple to create "Final Cut". I presume they worked out several bugs of earlier designs. Apple also showed off the new QuickTime 4.0 with the "Phantom Menace" trailer. QT 4.0 is now streamable and also caught in Lucas fever.

Other edit systems included Avid's first native DV "Showbiz Producer" line ($10,000 software only). There is no 16:9 option and it is only being built for Windows NT. Even then, it is not available until the fall and with no Mac plans slated as Avid says it is going the way of the NT world. The Media 100 also has a native DV (16:9 option) edit system with an extra $3000 card for DV transcoding to and from motion-JPEG. (Note: admittedly this edit overview comes from a Mac point of view - as I have been on the Apple since the Apple II in the 70's).

And talk about drive space... Res magazine reported in their last issue on the VST Blaze FireWire drive (approx. $100 a GB/4GB - 16GB) which looked mighty slim - but in person it was even smaller than promised. It's an editor's dream to use this as a backup storage device (for files - not media). You can daisy chain FireWire (IEEE 1394) devices so you can have other devices attached.

Other anticipated products included the FilmLook 24P camera, which was damaged en route to NAB, but nonetheless is only designed for video output. It was made with the television broadcast industry in mind - and cannot be used to transfer to film. The Sony HD Center gave demonstrations of their 35mm transfers at NAB. The sleek new Arri Laser recorder for video-to-film transfers looked mighty fancy, but Swiss Effects' Patrick Lindemeyer reiterated the most important information I picked up at NAB, "research before you shoot and do tests on different cameras and transfer systems." Swiss Effects (CRT), Sony HD Center (Electronic Beam Recorder), and Arri Laser Recorder (coming to Duart), all give different results with the same footage. In addition, Sony HD Center does not transfer PAL, which is an important format decision.

The Kodak booth was perhaps the most competitive with posters stating "High Definition, 1. See film." And another "24fps progressive capture".

Digital Cinema was also a NAB catch phrase. Thorpe told Team Next Wave that Lucas was helping to ignite the future of digital cinema with his screenings in June of "Phantom Menace" in Los Angeles and New York City, but at the current time the infrastructure is not there to support an instant change. He mentioned that the theater owners, satellite, and fiber optic operators would have to begin working now to make many changes to make this happen. Major issues include encryption of films, and projectors need a hands-off design for a theater operators, which was also reiterated by Tom Stites of Hughes/JVC (electronic/analog projector). Today we have only the "low-tech film projector", yet how many times does a film festival get your print in the right direction WITH the sound on? You can see the challenge ahead for automating the digital projectors. With this road ahead, Thorpe does however feel the image display has arrived and is ready for prime time. In fact, Hughes/JVC was demonstrating their projectors each night of NAB with Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love". Miramax apparently did the test on a Texas Instrument chip-based projector several weeks earlier. According to Stites, Miramax is looking at the different projectors because they are very interested in the technology and their future cost savings of striking prints.

NAB99 proved that going digital was not a passing craze. It proved that the financial barriers are coming down for e-filmmaking. The future of cinema is here today, as it should be at the end of the decade, century, and millennium.

Filmmaker Tara Veneruso is the Director of Film Evaluation & Outreach for Next Wave Films, which provides finishing funds for ultra-low budget feature films and finances and produces digital features with Agenda 2000. Veneruso has written for IndieWire, Sight &Sound, and Filmmaker magazine with Next Wave. An NYU Film Grad, Veneruso directed the feature documentary "Janis Joplin Slept Here". Tara has produced, directed, and edited many music videos, documentaries, and shorts. Tara also co-organizes CONDUIT Digital and Gaming Festival, showcasing digitally-produced shorts, docs, and features (This year included The Item). Additionally, Veneruso directs web series for InterneTV.com including "Chemical Generation" shot on the VX1000. launch@nextwavefilms.com or http://www.nextwavefilms.com.

See the article in Filmmaker magazine in new issue "Beginner's Guide to Digital Video Production".

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