It’s no secret that budgets for TV documentaries continue to contract, even at the high end, where expectations of quality haven’t changed much from the days when the Jacques Cousteau specials were shot painstakingly in 16mm. The southward slide of budgets has necessitated that many filmmakers adopt DV, progressive SD or, sometimes, both. The case is even more compelling for the kind of filmmaker who runs 400 feet of film just waiting for a wild animal to hit its mark.
Andy Young is exactly this kind of director/cameraman. He had stuck with his Aaton until he reasoned that video would make sense if the money saved in film stock would buy him more time in post. The pictures Young and his wife Susan Todd produce through their Croton-on-Hudson-based Archipelago Films appear regularly on PBS National Geographic, HBO, NBC and Discovery. All that globe-trotting has earned them recognition ranging from an Emmy for Madagascar: A World Apart to an Oscar nomination for Children of Fate.
Young’s subjective litmus test of video was that while his footage "didn’t have to look like film," he says, "it couldn’t look like video either." To his eye, traditional interlaced video rips the fabric of seamless storytelling by introducing too much reality. "I got hung up at first on the 24p frame rate" when testing the Panasonic AG-DVX100, Young remembers, "but my uncle [ Irwin Young of DuArt Film Labs ], an engineer, said,Ã¢Â€Â˜No, it’s the difference between interlaced and progressive.’ For some reason the way the highlights are handled looks so much better in progressive. They don’t have the nuclear look of video. It’s a kind of format-independent look."
Young took the camera to Angola with him for a month to shoot " AIDS Warriors," an installment of PBS’s Wide Angle series, and was encouraged when his editor told him it was the best DV he’d seen. But Young always finds himself imagining what his work would look like projected in theaters, and more information at a widescreen aspect ratio was what he really wanted. The answer arrived with the Panasonic AJ-SDX900, which had double the bandwidth of the DVX, a 16×9 aspect ratio, interchangeable lenses and the ability to shoot 480 24p/30p/60i.
While a full SDX package rents out for about the same price as a 16mm package- $800 to $900 a day- the advantages for a cameraman like Young were in faster set-ups and the savings of video stock over film. Says Pete Abel, who’s outfitted Young with both 16mm and progressive SD through Staten Island and Burbank-based Abel Cine Tech, "The thing that people react to out of the gate is the specs – 24p says to them they’ll get more of a film look and they know that progressive image will decrease the inherent video look. The thing they underestimate is the extended latitude and a gamma curve that Panasonic has developed in both cameras [SDX and DVX] that is more closely associated with the natural curve of film."
Won Over By Pre-record
Young packed up the AJ-SDX900 camera and took it to the Pacific Northwest to shoot a National Geographic special Whales in Crisis for producer Bruce Norfleet. He shot underwater footage with a Pace Technology DigiBeta camera housing reworked by Abel Cine Tech for use with the Panasonic camera. And he found himself changing frame rates, capturing most footage at 24 fps but opting for 30 fps on aerial shots or anything that he thought he might want to slow down in post later. Ultimately, he found himself won over by the pre-record board on the camera, which allows the SDX900 to buffer 15 frames of audio and video the minute the camera’s turned on. This allowed him to grab scenes he might ordinarily have lost- like the breaching of whales on the horizon behind an interview subject- and to do time-lapse.
"Shooting the orcas," says Young, "I hit the pre-record the second we saw the splash, and got beautiful images. Contrast that with a previous shoot I’d done in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where I had to shot 400 feet of film waiting for a whale to surface."
Trusting the dynamic range of the camera was going to be critical to Young’s comfort factor in shooting more video. Typically with video," says Young, "you need to white-balance with a monitor, and hauling a monitor around is totally impractical for the kinds of shoots I do. With the SDX900 I shot almost exclusively with the camera’s white balance pre-sets, and I was totally happy. Essentially, I set the camera and shot it the same way I would a film camera, and had total confidence that we could color correct in telecine and that the color information was there."
Young even found himself using scenes that he’d shot spontaneously, figuring they’d never work out. While interviewing an environmentalist, Young grabbed his cameras as a pod of orcas swam by in the background. They were in full sun while his subject was in full shadow. "I thought the results would be ugly because of the high contrast," he says. "When we looked at the footage, we were amazed at how well the details held in both the highlights and the shadow." For mixed lighting situations, he says he’d prefer to white-balance with a monitor, but "for 90 percent of run-and-gun stuff that we do, the pre-sets worked just fine."
His experiences with whales and environmentalists were enough to convince him to shoot the last story for a documentary on modern monarchies with the SDX instead of the Aaton. Using the camera has changed the way Young works with his wife, who would run a DAT recorder when working in 16mm. Young and Todd have more on-camera moments, relying on the camera for sound. Todd sends audio from two Lectrosonics wireless mic receivers to the camera via a 20-year old Electronics Limited SQN-4S mixer. "We have the flexibility of a boom and up to three wireless mics so we’re not tethered." Without her DAT recorder, Todd’s completely dependent on the camera. The upside, she says, is not having to catalog DAT tapes for the edit.
"Having your sync on-camera is a huge benefit in post," says Young, who feels it’s an adequate way to acquire field sound for a broadcast show but if he was preparing for theatrical distribution, he says DAT is a requirement.
While Young is perfectly clear that he doesn’t want to give up his 16mm camera any time soon, he says, "It’s such an exciting time to be a documentary story teller because I can work in a format that doesn’t cause the audience to think about the format."