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Tuesday, 15 November 2011 23:27

Documentary Cinematography

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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Believe it or not, it’s been barely 15 years since high definition made its first appearance in North America, yet most of us — even production professionals — have had little hands-on experience with HD until the past five-to-seven years, the most intense stage in its evolution. Cinematographer Randall Dark caught the high-def bug 15 years ago after watching an HD demo in his native Toronto, and he hasn’t looked back since launching his high-def production company HD Vision Studios in the early ’90s. “The goal of all documentaries is to capture reality without manipulation, and HD captured it especially realistically,” says Dark.

The camera which inspired the DP’s enthusiasm was Sony’s HDC-100, an analog three-tube camera with an ASA of only 50. “You needed a lot of lights with that camera, but you couldn’t point the camera at any of them [without the] risk of blowing out one of the expensive tubes,” recalls Dark. The HDC-100 also required a camera-control unit and separate large, very heavy HD recorder, plus a large CRT monitor — basically a small production truck. “To me it was ‘user hostile,’ but I loved the images,” notes Dark. Apparently so, as HD Vision Studios was one of the first production companies in North America to specialize in HD.

Along the way, Dark became an HD evangelist speaking and demonstrating HD at trade fairs and film festivals across the U.S. and beyond. He also bought one of the very first HDCAMs on the continent. “My first HDW-700 had serial number 004,” says Dark. “I was one of the first in North America to shoot HD with a camcorder.” The first HDW-700s cost well over $50K without a lens or batteries, and Dark used the HDW-700 and 700As in many documentary projects over the next decade and beyond. “In the early days of HD, all HD cameras were ‘high end,’ and most indies had to rent cameras, including mine, to shoot in HD,” he remembers.

However, Dark shot many documentary projects with the HDW-700s over the next decade or so, including Fiesta in the Sky (about a huge annual hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico) for national broadcast on PBS in 1999. “The HDW-700 was the only portable HD camcorder available [at that time], and only captured 1080/60i, but we were just happy to have a self-contained, portable HD camera,” says the DP, who also appreciates the ruggedness of the early HD cameras. “While shooting Fiesta, we broke the 700’s viewfinder in a bad balloon crash, but the camera per se was fine. Also, while shooting Iced, an extreme-skiing doc, it grew so cold that they shut down the mountain. However, the HDW-700 kept shooting without a hitch.”

Dark and his producer/partner Kristen Cox have shot and produced many docs and non-fiction projects with the HDW-700 and 700A, many of them HD firsts for the U.S. and north. Hence, there was little pressure on them to upgrade to a newer HD camera until 2000 when Sony introduced the HDW-F900, its first CineAlta camera. The F900 was first to capture full-1080 HD resolution at 24 and 30 FPS. This opened the floodgates to more film-like HD cameras capturing HD at 24p, 30p and many other frame rates too. And this further accelerated the sea change from film to digital acquisition.

Among Dark’s first large documentary projects with the F900 was “European Getaways,” a TV series of travelogues featuring visits to nine famous European cities. As “European Getaways” was shot for broadcast, Dark didn’t need the 24p feature, but he did need the F900’s light sensitivity and wide dynamic latitude. “We shot this mainly with available light, plus a few portable lights, but only when necessary and convenient,” Dark recalls. “The F900’s sensitivity and latitude spared us from having to light most scenes. This enabled us to change scenes quickly and to do up to 50 setups per day.”

Some of these documentary locales were so unique and rare that it required total confidence in the shoot results. “At the Vatican, we got permission to shoot the Pope saying mass, only a few feet away,” notes Dark. “After leveling the tripod, I simply white-balanced the F900 and shot it without disruption to the mass. I was so confident in the camera’s ability to capture what I saw in the viewfinder, that I shipped most of the footage home without even a glance. The F900’s broad dynamic range and great picture quality let us cut our prep time in half [and] move from location to location to set up and break down quickly without sacrificing image quality.” Each of Dark’s two crews also had at least a three-light kit and a Sun Gun, which were used as needed but, more often than not, sat in their cases.

Dark also lauds the F900 as a camera with long shelf life. “Even though the F900 was the hottest camera of its era nearly a decade ago, many great cameras have matched or superseded its picture quality since,” says Dark. “However, it can still hold its own against most of the newer cameras, and ‘European Getaways’ is still being broadcast today. I still use the F900 for projects today and stock footage I shot with it years ago still intercuts with that from the newest cameras.”

Nevertheless, cameras have come a long way since the birth of the F900. There’s currently an explosion of options, including 2K, 4K, 3D and 1080p/60, with some of those options now appearing in prosumer camcorders and even cell phones — all tapeless. And the recording quality of some of these products is now good enough for many pro applications.

For documentarians, 2011 is the best of times as well as the worst of times, with myriad options but limited guidance on the best choices for documentary productions. Dark advises shooters to evaluate the goals of each new project. “When I started shooting HD, owning gear made sense,” says Dark. “It was hard to find and expensive to rent, and being among the first to have it got me jobs. When I started there were only a handful of camera formats, but today there are dozens and one size doesn’t fit all. These days I’m format and camera agnostic rather than being pigeonholed as the DP with a particular camera. Now I ask, ‘What’s the story and how do I want to tell it?’ If it happens long ago and far away, I may go for a filmic or even an SD video look. But if it’s happening right now, I’ll go for a realistic look, as if the audience has their faces pressed against the window to see in. That, the audience, the delivery medium, the shooting environment, and the budget all affect my camera selection for new doc projects.”

Dark’s recent documentary Makarios: A Rising Tide was shot mainly in poor rural villages in the Dominican Republic with limited electricity for lighting. “The camera had to be as sensitive as possible as I had to rely on two DC lights, a Frezzolini Sun Gun and a Litepanels MicroPro LED camera light much of the time, with limited battery power,” the DP recalls. “A DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark II or the 7D would have been ideal with their large sensors, except for the audio recording issue. Good audio was critical, and we couldn’t take a chance recording it to a separate recorder.” Dark adds that the F900 was also too power-and-tape intensive, as it would have been a distraction in the small remote villages and changed people’s behavior.

In the end, Dark chose Sony’s EX1 camera with half-inch sensors, which is fairly light sensitive and has high resolution. “[The EX1] is also fairly compact and unobtrusive, and it records to high-capacity data cards, which we downloaded each night to hard drives versus accumulating boxes and boxes of tapes,” Dark explains. “Fortunately, in 30p mode it also captures great image quality at high-enough resolution to be projected on a theatrical screen for our target audience of teachers, students, civic groups, etc.” According to Dark, the EX1 handled the shoot’s lighting challenges pretty well. “We relied on available light as much as possible in the villages because we had limited battery power for lights and camera,” the DP notes. “So we mainly used the little MicroPro, which takes standard AA batteries, and interviewed most people outside their houses rather than inside where it was often dark.”

Dark also had Frezzi’s 75-watt Sun Gun but no way to recharge once the battery wore out. “With the sensitivity of the EX1 and those two lights, we got the job done by maximizing available light and boosting it with reflectors,” explains Dark, who also used higher-powered lighting to interview teachers inside the schools. “We needed to intercut interviews with teachers in the Dominican Republic with interviews of teachers in U.S. schools shot with three-point lighting,” says Dark. “Hence, we were able to use the same Lowel 200s and 500s in the schools that had generators.”

If Dark were shooting Makarios today, he might use Panasonic’s AF100 or Sony’s FS100 or the pricier F3 instead of the EX1. “You don’t have to use a $50K HD camera today to shoot a great-looking doc anymore,” Dark says. “Many of today’s $5K cameras can capture higher-quality HD than yesterday’s $50K cameras. Today’s $50K cameras are much better than yesterday’s, but it still comes down to how you use the tools you have rather than having the latest and greatest ones. The stock footage shot with the F900 and 700A is still in high demand for intercutting in docs shot with today’s best digital cameras.”

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