Videomith by
Steven Trent Smith

Viva DV

This spring Martha and I had the pleasure of hosting a pair of DV seminars. The first was organized by the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association (PIFVA) as an event tied into the annual Philadelphia International Film Festival.

The PIFVA meeting was a sort of "hands-on" clinic, chock-a-block full of tips for shooting DV in its various iterations. This format has become wildly successful, and our audience revealed the diversity of interest in DV. About half the folks were focusing upon documentary filmmaking. The other half wanted to produce fictional films, especially features.

I opened the session with my preachy dogma- that we are witnessing a "sea change" in motion picture production, and that because of DV's low cost and ease of accessibility, this format is "democratizing" the production process. Anybody can now make high (technical) quality programs for a fraction of what it cost a few years ago. Anybody.

We then showed examples of how DV is changing the video world.

On the non-fiction side, the first tape we looked at was a 1996 episode of The Learning Channel's Travelers series, shot in the Philippines. That show was one of the first to embrace miniDV in a serious way. The first few were shot with a pair of Betacams. That was proving to be a budget-buster, so the producers asked Videosmith to take an off-the-shelf Sony VX-1000 camcorder and give it the capabilities of the big Beta cameras. We fiddled around a bit and came up with what we called the "Mightywondercam." The VX-1000 sat atop a shoulder pod that carried a 12v battery for the camera (through a 7.2v converter) and light; a Sennheiser ME-66 short shotgun microphone and a pair of Lectrosonics VHF radio mics. The microphones plugged directly into the camera (via a "Y" cable), for in those early days of DV nothing like the Beachtek DXA box existed.

The idea behind Mightywondercam was to provide two-camera coverage on Travelers at a substantial savings over all-Beta. The rig worked surprisingly well. And in the Philippines, it was a life-saver. Because of the heat and high humidity, the Beta got a mother head-clog and was rendered useless. Until we could get a replacement up from Manila, the Mightywondercam was all we had. I showed segments of this footage to the PIFVA people as a demonstration of both early DV quality and versatility.

The second tape we showed was a few scenes from the Naudet brothers' gut-wrenching coverage of the collapse of the World Trader Center towers (shown on CBS as 9/11). The mere fact that their DV camera continued to work after several dust baths was a remarkable testament to the ruggedness of the gear and format.

We then shifted gears- to the fiction arena.

I showed excerpts from British director Mike Figgis' groundbreaking Timecode. This film was shot simultaneously with four Sony DSR-130 DVCam camcorders. Figgis chose these because he wanted to roll continuously for ninety minutes (the big DSR's can record up to 184 minutes without a pause). The final product is displayed as a "quad-split" on the screen. The action is synchronous on each quadrant, sometimes diverging, sometimes converging. The story is rather bland, and I found Timecode a very hard film to watch. But the very fact that it was made on DV and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release makes it a landmark.

BTW- Figgis's next film is also being shot on DV, with little PD-100A three-chip cameras.

All four cameras were handheld, and the images looked like video - no attempt was made to go for a "film-look". But the final demo of the day was The Anniversary Party, shot very definitely in film-style, with a Sony DSR-500 DVCam. John Bailey, ASC was the DP. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming co-wrote/directed/produced, and starred in the film. Also appearing were such luminaries as Kevin Kline, Jennifer Beals and Gwyneth Paltrow. The main reason for shooting DV was the cost savings. The film looked gorgeous, and only occasionally could the viewer see the video origins (mainly in contrast ratios and motion artifacts).

What I pointed out to the participants was that if the story and the acting are good, an audience does not much care what format a film is shot on.

Also BTW- the latest Star Wars episode was shot on high definition video.

The second meeting we did was for the Media Communications Association - International (better known in the Philadelphia as the ITVA). The group was made up mainly of old-line video producers and technicians, most of them with corporate TV backgrounds, who'd seen it all and done it all. This session was billed as a "shootout" between DV and Betacam SP. Using our new Sony DSR-570, we were able to simultaneously record DVCam and SP on separate decks. This then allowed us to compare the images side-by-side. The group was truly stumped. They were unable to tell the difference.

After the "oohing" and "ahhing" was over, we showed the same tapes we'd played during the PIFVA meeting. At the close of the session we took a poll - who in the audience already had experience with DV? To my astonishment, a majority raised their hands. And not only had these folks used DV, more than half of them owned their own DV cameras, decks and edit stations. Here was proof positive that the sea change was reaching high tide.

As I've said before- this is an exciting time to be working in video. Opportunities are rife. Doors are opening. The inundation has begun. There'll be a lot of failed DV films, but they are films (personal statements, if you will) that could not, would not, have reached us even five years ago. Viva DV!

© 2002 Steven Trent Smith

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist