Q&A: John McDougall, Producer/DP
Using JVC ProHD cameras for an independent feature on the realities of making it to the White House
Because of the activity in Louisiana with aggressive film incentives, John also offers production services to other filmmakers from out of state as well as developing his own projects.
A: We used two synced-from-time-code-slate 250U cameras with the JVC PL mount adapter and Zeiss Super Speed S16 Prime lenses on the A cameras and a 13.5×16 HD Fujinon zoom lens for the B camera. It was very laborious, especially when you consider the number of pages we were shooting per day, plus add the fact that we had such a compressed shooting schedule to complete principal photography.
It was a chore. It definitely took its toll at the end of the project. We sent video signals out of the cameras in HD-SDI mode to a series of Marshall HD monitors on set, which allowed us to stop and review what we were getting. Moving the cameras around as well as blocking with the talent was tricky because of the large amount of video and audio cabling running throughout the set.
The Marshall 15-inch monitors are pixel-to-pixel high-res monitors and are absolutely essential for shooting HD because you get a good color representation of what the camera is delivering, especially because we were using two cameras simultaneously on set for this project. Pulling focus solely from the viewfinder or from the small camera LCD, even with the focus assist activated, is tricky at best while shooting HD. So working with any HD monitor will end up being critical on any production.
Q: Having a lot of experience with film production, what’s the difference being on a video set?
A: Well, film wouldn’t have been practical for this project because we were shooting so much footage per day. Video allowed us to run the recorder all day and not have to worry about stock costs. Also, the pace at which we were setting up and breaking down scenes would have been next to impossible with film gear.
I am a film guy and I love working with the right stock (especially Kodak’s Vision stocks) but you have to look at what you are shooting and your subject matter. Moving around between two cameras definitely presented its own set of technical challenges that we had to constantly resolve. The nature of this project was like witnessing a train wreck as our plot unfolded with the actors, so we felt that by going handheld and being less clean as far as the camera work, we would get a better spontaneous feel and mood that supports the actors and the story.
Q: What about lighting HD video? Does it require more or less light than film?
A: I don’t think there’s a tremendous difference. We were running a PL mount adapter, and using speed primes-as well as jumping back and forth to a zoom lens-so by the time you add all that up we were pushing a 2.6 to 3.0 f-stop on what the camera was getting. Even though it’s HD, these cameras still perform better with more light. Visually you’re in a much better position lowering the iris versus shooting wide open in order to get what you want.
This movie takes place mostly at night, so we were lighting in fairly minimal light conditions and it represented some problems. I was always searching for more light with more f-stop, but because of time and budget limitations, we had to work with what we had. I think we got a great gritty, dark look in the end, but we had to make due a lot of the time.
Q: How did the JVC cameras perform?
A: They worked great, and we really put them to the test on this project. I like the JVC camera because for the cost you get a lot value. The weight and shape of the body lends itself to traditional film-style shooting, and it feels well balanced when equipped correctly. Obviously, there are limitations in the image you get with 720p format. I’d equate it with how S16mm compares to 35mm film. It’s great for projects like Dirty Politics. In the right, experienced hands, you can do a lot of good things with it. It’s not the kind of camera that you can simply pick it up and begin shooting and expect a stunning image, without knowing something about working with the settings and features ahead of time.
However, all the settings can be customized on the GY-HD250U to give the video a similar feel to film, and you can put different types of lenses on it, which you can’t do with a lot of camera in this range. Also, JVC is the only camera that shoots true native 24p in this price range, which allows us to get frame-to-frame transfer to a 35mm print, which will be required to screen our film for certain festivals and events.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about shooting HD?
A: The trick is that you have to respect HD as a format that has to be dealt with artistically. With HD, people think you can just let it roll, but you still have to be judicious in what you are shooting in order to get good results.
Whereas HD will allow a lot of people to shoot cinema HD style and paint a really pretty picture. The skill sets that you learn doing film don’t change when shooting HD video. So if someone is pursuing HD cinematography-there still is the need for a set of skills regarding framing, lens choice, filtration, and you still have to light it properly, and then there is camera movement-that brings it to an art form, rather than a high-res video format.
For further information on Dirty Politics and John McDougall, visit www.dirtypoliticsthemovie.com.