Can high-def footage, shot in a compressed format at 720p/30, survive the rigors of extreme conditions and remote travel and make it safely out to HD, SD and film? Documentary filmmaker Andrew Young, armed with JVC’s GY-HD100U, decided to find out.
When Andrew Young got the assignment from the Bronx Zoo, and then National Geographic Television, for a shoot through a soon-to-be protected area of Madagascar, he took a long, hard look at everything involved. He would be going solo on shoots of breathtaking vistas mixed with close-ups of exotic and endangered species of mammals, insects or reptiles hanging from a branch or nestled within the curve of a leaf; traveling remote and treacherous routes that would take him from dusty, ditch-ridden roads to whitewater rapids and through leech-infested rainforests; and creating three final pieces, one of which would be displayed in HD on three synchronized, large-format screens in an upcoming zoo exhibit, and the other two, which he would deliver in standard-def, for television broadcast. (The idea of a film out was just a glimmer in his eye at this point, but more on that later.) The budget? It was only enough to cover the cost of one MiniDV-type camera and kit for an initial trip to the remote island alongside a team of the zoo’s scientists. How, he wondered, was he going to do all this?
"It was a lot to think about. I needed to be able to go from a macro to a telephoto lens quickly, and I had to go out to both HD and SD, on a budget scraped together long after the rest of the money had been approved and allocated," says Young, whose work is also featured in the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest and Tiger Mountain exhibits. For the upcoming Madagascar exhibit, scheduled to open in 2006, he is not only producing the large-format HD theater show but is creating a long roster of other still and moving media elements as well. "When National Geographic became interested in the trip for its Wildlife Chronicles series on PBS, that certainly helped," he adds. "But I still had to one-man-band the entire thing." His filmmaking partner and wife, Susan Todd, the other half of Archipelago Films, their award-winning New York-based production company, had just given birth to their second child at the time of the trip and was therefore unable to join him. "It quickly became my obsession to try to figure out what was the right format to shoot this in."
All roads, including the main one left unpaved by the meager budget, ultimately led him to HDV. Though the format’s a natural choice for anyone migrating up from lower-end video formats to high-def, it is a less obvious one for Young, whose last shoot in Madagascar, for ABC/Kane Productions’ The Living Edens series on PBS, was shot in 16mm film. "I’d say that 98 percent of everything I’ve done, up until two years ago, was film," he says. But Young’s no film purest. While he believes more in expressing one’s style as a filmmaker than in using the latest and greatest technology, he admits his Aaton just doesn’t get out much anymore. And the key to his digital transition was progressive recording.
"About three years ago, I started to notice the shift away from film and I watched many other filmmakers gravitating toward MiniDV," he says. "That just wasn’t happening for me, mainly because I was wary of acquiring in a compressed MPEG format. It really wasn’t until Panasonic introduced its 24p products, from the VariCam on down to the DVX100, and I started to use those cameras, that I saw digital acquisition as a viable alternative. Mostly, it was because of the look that progressive gave to digital. I wasn’t the only one who noticed that- a lot of people did."
He is not a fan of interlaced formats, he says, despite the higher pixel resolutions or options to approximate 24 fps recording with cinema settings. "Interlaced footage will always have the look of live video. An image that’s captured all at once, like a film frame, just feels and looks better to me," he says. "It feels more like storytelling and interlaced feels more like news." Once he gained some experience with progressive camcorders like the SDX900 and VariCam, he says, "All of a sudden my work just shifted and I started to go out on a lot of video shoots."
Finding a Camera and Kit Up to the Trip
Young knew the VariCam would be too heavy and too expensive to risk taking on the Madagascar expedition, much of which would be spent crammed inside a raft for days at a time following uncharted rivers into the island’s interior. Instead, he took a chance on a less expensive and smaller variation, JVC’s new GY-HD100U, which, using three 1/3-inch CCDs, progressively records HDV onto MiniDV tapes at native 1280 x 720 resolution and variable frame rates of 24, 30 or 60 fps. Barely out of the factory when Young bought it through New York’s Abel CineTech one week before his trip (it was the first one to arrive in New York, in fact), the HD100U appealed to him in ways that the other HDV cameras did not. "I liked the basic ENG-style design," he says. "I needed a camera that worked the way I was used to working- I wanted it to sit on my shoulder but I also wanted it to have a certain mass that responded to my handheld shooting style. The fact that it recorded at greater pixel dimensions than SD was also a plus." But even more important, he says, was its size. "I knew the raft was going to be very bouncy and I didn’t want to have to worry about stabilizing a smaller palmcorder-style camera. A rig that would do that for me was also out of the question. Can you imagine if I fell in the water strapped into one of those things? Almost certain death! I was after more flexibility."
Nothing, he also knew, would be more constraining to him than a single lens. "Those fused-on lenses that come standard on smaller HDV camcorders just don’t have the kind of range I typically need, and I didn’t want to have to fiddle with an electronic lens ring that never stops," he says. Unfortunately, neither JVC’s adapter nor Fujinon ProHD 13x wide-angle zoom lens were available at the time of Young’s trip, leaving him to his own, more desperate devices. "It was a nail-biting experience, actually, " he says. "The night before my flight, I went into my camera closet and found an older Century.7 wide-angle adapter for a manual-focus Canon lens I had used on an XL1 shoot. So, with a tube of Gorilla Glue, I attached an 82-millimeter thread to the adapter, which would let me interchange the Canon lens with the one that came standard with the camera."
Was it a compromise optically? "Definitely," he admits. "It was risky. I wasn’t sure if it would last the trip, and I was less sure of what it would do to my image. I saw in my quick tests before I left that there was a slight loss in sharpness. Very few people, in fact, have noticed the loss of edge-to-edge sharpness in the final footage. But I was willing to give up a degree of sharpness for the ability to shoot more dynamically. And it never did fall off." Young had already discovered that his older Tiffen Series 9 filters, including close-up diopters and polarizers, fit on the detachable 16x Servo Fujinon lens that came with the camera.
"I didn’t think I’d have a working camera by the time we got there," he says, "especially after what I’d put it through."
Abel CineTech and Anton Bauer outfit the rest of Young’s kit. "I’d heard that the JVC batteries weren’t adequate for the kind of expedition I was taking- we were going to be going for day-long stretches without access to electricity- so I knew I needed the Anton Bauer battery back and Dionic batteries that would give me about five hours per pack and let me see how much runtime I actually had left," he says. "It wasn’t quite ready for retail when I left, so the guys at Anton Bauer drove out to my office and rigged an early version to my camera for me." The QR-JVC7/14 HDV battery back, which began shipping soon after he returned, detects camera load and displays runtime, based on the operating conditions at the time, in the camera’s viewfinder.
Into the Wilderness
Technologically prepared as Young was for the shoot in Madagascar, he didn’t count on the shifts in extreme conditions that confronted him and his camera along the way. The expedition began with a grueling three-day trek across an arid stretch of the island, the gear strapped into ox carts and subject to seemingly endless veils of dust and debris. "I made sure I only changed tapes away from the road," he says. Those conditions soon changed when the group reached the river that would take them into the rainforest. "It started to rain and rarely let up," he says. "My Kata rainhood was critical. I had to force myself to use my HD preview monitor; I worried it would get damaged because it was so wet. Even the locals we met along the way couldn’t believe how relentless the weather was."
While hired porters trudged with back-up gear and generators along machete-whacked rainforest trails, Young and the team traveled with minimal gear by raft, one time sleeping in the boats overnight without food. Shooting on rapids that had never been navigated before (the team’s safety was entrusted to two highly skilled and blithely unfazed Italian kayakers who scouted ahead of the rafts for waterfalls and other dangers), he and the camera took "numerous direct hits from waves and the raft very nearly flipped," he says. His Canon Rebel digital still camera was the first to give out. Unable to revive it, he steeled himself for the worst. "I kept thinking,Ã¢Â€Â˜When is this video camera going to die?’ The viewfinder fogged up on the fourth day into the shoot, which meant I had to focus by distance. It was a handicap, but I continued working. Luckily, the lens itself never fogged up," he says. He often brought the camera into his tent, when sleeping on land, to give it a chance to dry out overnight.
The worst came during a shoot outside the raft: Young tripped on a rock in a stream bed and both he and the camera momentarily slipped below the water’s surface. "It completely died and I thought it was all over," he says. "But I decided to put it over the campfire, trap the heat with a jacket, and slow roast it for about five hours. Miraculously, it worked- all the functionality came back," he says. "Given the abuse it took, I was amazed the camera kept working. I’ve been doing field shoots for 20 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like this."
An Unconventional Film Out
Back in New York Young, working mainly in Apple Final Cut Pro, took his 20 hours of 720p30 HDV footage from the trip, downconverted and finished the two Wildlife Chronicles episodes (to air in January) to an NTSC-ready DVCAM master and began editing the HD theater show and other media pieces for the zoo. He should have known better, he admits, but he couldn’t shake the idea of also taking some of the 30p footage out to film. "He’s a cowboy," says DuArt Film and Video’s chief engineer Maurice Schechter, who helped Young finish his film short. "This camera was brand new and untested. He already had two projects to post when he returned, but that didn’t stop him from asking the next obvious question: Can this HDV footage, which wasn’t even shot in 24p to begin with, be uprezed to 1080p and printed out to film?"
Young began by dumping the footage into the native 30-frame edit timeline of Final Cut Pro. He then transcoded it, using a Blackmagic Design codec, and retimed the frame rate to conform to 23.98. "It gave the footage a nice effect," he says. At DuArt, he and Schechter output the edited eight-minute piece at 720p/60 with a 3:2 pulldown to D-5 in order to uprez it, using a Teranex in film mode, to 1080p/23.98. After recording to D-5 at the higher resolution, they color-corrected on a da Vinci 2K and output a D-5 1080p/23.98 master. An ARRI Laser produced a work print and timed print. "Once we got to a frame-based sequence, we could more easily go out to film," says Schechter. "When you start out with footage captured in 24p, of course, you cut the amount of steps in half."
The day after they made the print, the two men, with help from JVC, Abel CineTech and Anton Bauer, hosted a demonstration at the Tribeca Film Center in lower Manhattan to share what they learned with other filmmakers navigating the HDV-to-film out process. The eight-minute print showed some minor feathering and slight loss of edge-to-edge sharpness due to Young’s homemade lens, though the footage was remarkably clean. "What I hope people saw that day was not the minor imperfections but that the camera was in the right place at the right time catching the right action," says Young. "I left the detail setting on the camera at the factory default, and I don’t think I’d do that again. And in all honesty, the color-corrected film out is too contrasty for my tastes."
Young, who also is now DuArt’s vice president of special projects, has a unique relationship to the facility. Founded by his grandfather, a documentary editor and inventor, and run by his uncle, Irwin Young, DuArt is an old-school filmmakers’ lab with an altruistic soul. During the silent era, it created titles for early Paramount, Loews and Universal films and navigated the transition to sound with a series of homegrown machines that streamlined film and sound processing and printing. DuArt built its modern reputation, however, during the 1970s and 80s, when Irwin Young and his team fostered emerging independent efforts from the likes of Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman and Michael Moore. Today DuArt offers a diner’s menu of services, from single pass encoding and audio post to film and HD mastering and restoration, and Andrew Young sees his emerging role in the family business as a conduit for sharing the faith. "I want to try to help other filmmakers find the best path because I’ve been one of those filmmakers trying to find that same path," he says. His perfect day consists of loaning out the facility’s Sony BVM monitors to other filmmakers and dishing about formats and settings as the dailies roll by. One day in mid-November, documentary filmmakers Sarah Price, Sunmin Park and David Leitner stopped by to view footage also shot with the JVC GY-HD100U, this time in 24p. Price and Park, with some test footage help from Leitner, are producing a documentary for the post-911 philanthropic foundation We Are Family and the 14-year-old Building with Books foundation that will follow a group of American teenagers on a volunteer mission to build a schoolhouse in rural Mali.
Price and Park, both trained in film, are fairly new to HDV. Leitner, however, is not. An Emmy- and Oscar-nominated cinematographer, he has been shooting digital video for some time and, as Young says, "has a talent for coaxing the best footage out of even the smallest of palmcorders. When David told me that HDV looks a lot better than it has any right to, that’s when I decided it was time to take another look." Leitner is also a DuArt alum; in the 1980s, he was the facility’s director of new technology and an expert in 16-to-35mm blow-ups, which he did notably for Al Reinert’s Apollo mission to the moon documentary, For All Mankind.
Price, the producer of the cult classic American Movie, says shooting with the JVC camera is, indeed, "like shooting with a film camera. I like the manual lens and focus. But you do have to shoot with a shallower depth of field." In one of the online suites at DuArt, she and the others look at footage on a Sony BVM-series 60p monitor with a pulldown to 24p. A potential dropout blips by. Leitner suggests that it might just be error correction; playing it back again, it disappears. As Young and Leitner compare the HD100U’s color space to other HDV cameras, and the entire group considers the merits of using or ignoring its built-in camera settings, Price levels a complaint. She’s disappointed with the lack of color saturation, which the less accurate LCD monitor up in Young’s office artificially heightened. "It’s just not as alive," she says. "I liked the way the brighter color on the LCD monitor upstairs matched the energy level of the kids. This is duller, and overall, more gray." Offers Young, "You can always pump them up later, before you go out to film."
The Road Ahead
Young is heading back to Madagascar in the coming months to shoot forest backdrops for the Bronx Zoo exhibit; they will show on the multi-layered triptych of displays when the documentary isn’t running. He says this time, he’s thinking of bringing two other cameras with him in addition to the HD100U, which he’ll fit with a Nikon adapter and super telephoto and super macro lenses. He’s even contemplating adding on Panasonic’s new HVX200 to shoot his large-screen backdrops.
But there are no easy answers for any shooter right now, he says. "People are so confused right now, and so am I. Almost every job I get is on a different camera. But shooting is a personal decision. When other filmmakers ask me which one they should choose, I tell them,Ã¢Â€Â˜choose the one that feels best in your hand. You’ll be a better storyteller with a camera you can use more intuitively.’ That same philosophy affected my choice of the JVC camera for this trip- I decided that if I have a camera I’m comfortable with, that would let me work the way I was used to working to catch the maximum amount of drama; I knew I’d do a better job. And that’s what happened. I didn’t want to have to change my style to fit a piece of equipment."
Personally, Young says, it makes the most economic sense for him to buy low and rent high. "I needed a camera, so I went out and bought one with a native widescreen chip and interchangeable lenses for what I think is a terrific price [$5,495]. Filmmakers on a budget now have more options, as does the MiniDV crowd, who have a much better shot of delivering in high-def." Is he done with film cameras altogether? "Absolutely not. There will always be a place for them," he says. "I’ve got a dramatic feature in the works right now and much of the action will take place on the open Alaskan tundras. I can’t trust shots that will create the emotional landscape of the story to a 1/3-inch chip. If we get the green light for this project, I’m definitely shooting in 35mm film."