Sony F23 or Fisher-Price PXL2000: With the right lens, and the right vision, does it really matter?
We waste too much time talking about acquisition formats. How DVCPRO HD compares to HDV and HDCAM. The benefits and drawbacks of 1080p, 1080i and 720p. The supremacy (or idolatry) of 24fps. The quintessence of 4K. None of that really matters. Recording formats are too removed from subject matter to make a big difference in the quality of a story. This goes for corporate, docs, broadcast, indie and Hollywood work.
OK, formats make a difference, but not as big a difference as we usually think. Image quality is more than pristine pixels. Image quality is about having a picture worth viewing. Here’s what really determines image quality. Executive Producer summary: The closer it is to the subject being recorded, the more it affects image quality. Corollary: The greater the distance from the subject, the less it matters. But there is one significant exception.
If the subject isn’t interesting, even IMAX won’t save it. You would think this goes without saying. But consider all the beautifully shot and edited films and television programs that you didn’t finish watching. Compare the expensive travesty that is The Adventures of Pluto Nash to any cheap-but-great installment of "Ask a Ninja." Actually, don’t compare them; I won’t inflict Pluto Nash on you. Just go to www.askaninja.com.
Sound isn’t picture, but poor audio draws so much of an audience’s attention that it doesn’t matter what’s on screen. People gloss over or ignore small visual gaffes, but any drop in audio quality pulls the audience away from the image and, more importantly, the story. That’s why they’re called "audiences," not "videences" (don’t mention "viewers"; that undermines my platitude). Attention to sound is the cheapest way to improve production values- much cheaper than chasing the current hot image format.
Whether you work with a 10-ton truck or available light, properly exposing, creatively shaping and expertly manipulating light crafts an image that looks great. Bad lighting eliminates any advantage a particular format could impart on image quality. Well-lit DV looks better than any poorly lit HD format.
John Chater, San Francisco DP and owner of Chater Camera (www.chatercamera.com), conducted a test with a Sony F900 CineAlta and a Panasonic VariCam set up side by side. John says, "When they both had on the same lens, the director could clearly tell which camera had higher resolution. When I put a Zeiss DigiZoom on the VariCam and an ENG zoom on the CineAlta, he found it very difficult to tell which was which. So did I."
John’s a smarter and more experienced guy than I (luckily, his office will soon be three blocks from mine), but my experiences match his. He isn’t saying one format looks better than another; he owns and uses both an F900 CineAlta and a VariCam. He’s talking about the major role glass plays in determining the final image.
Imaging Chips and Image Processing
A camera’s CMOS or CCD imagers and image processing influence the depth of field and establish light sensitivity, frame rate, resolution, gamma and color control, noise levels, noise reduction and more. The format only records as much of the imaging system’s information as it can.
Finally, at the back of the camera comes the recording format. After all that comes before, the image is either worth recording or not worth recording. Sure, a great image deserves more pixels, deeper color and less compression. But what comes before determines if the image is great.
Behind or next to the recorder (depending on the camera), you’ll find the exception that proves the distance-from-subject rule. The skill of the person or people operating the camera has the greatest influence on the quality of an image. And that depends on their ability to control all of the factors listed above.
Go to the Iraq in Fragments Web site, www.iraqinfragments.com, and watch the 1080p trailer. Or better yet, see it in a theater near you. Let’s not debate the politics. No individual image is technically perfect, but taken as a whole, the images look very, very good. And the story is great. Iraq in Fragments was shot with standard-definition Panasonic DVX100 and DVX100a MiniDV cameras. Sure, director James Longley knew what he was doing. Yes, he had a great editor, colorist and all that. But that just shows that the acquisition format didn’t determine the end result.
That’s not to say I don’t have strong format preferences. I do. But what this all means can be summarized in two sentences: If you get the story, your format doesn’t matter. If you don’t get the story, your format doesn’t matter.
Write Jim at email@example.com