Musings on DV
December 2002

by Steven Trent Smith

It hardly seems possible that it’s been seven years since I encountered my first DV camcorder. That was a Panasonic EZ1, and I remember being impressed as heck with the quality of the tiny miniDV tapes it output. What was then revolutionary has now become commonplace. But curiously, the DV format seems to be in a constant state of revolution, rather than evolution.

Today the array of available DV-based gear is nothing short of staggering. There are dozens of cameras and decks to choose from. And there are four distinct levels of quality, akin to Sears’ “good, better, best” (and “bestest”?). They are: miniDV; DVCPro & DVCam; DVCPro 50; and DVCPro HD. At the bestest level sits Panasonic’s high def system, crowned by a $60,000 camcorder that offers, extraordinarily enough, variable shooting speeds. It’s pretty dang astonishing what’s transpired these past few years. And the development of new products does not seem to be slowing.

So what’s to come? Sony and Canon will have to mount miniDV responses to Panasonic’s hot, new DVX100. Nice as the Sony PD150 is, it already seems a bit dated. Canon’s popular XL1S is in dire need of a ground-up revamp. And at the top, Sony will have to come up with a high def, 24p camera capable of beating Panasonic’s Varicam. Though Sony uses the ½" Betacam-type format for HDTV, their expensive high-end F900 camera does not offer the variable speed recording that is attracting so many independent cinematographers to the Panasonic AJ-HDC-27 (that, and the $30,000 they save).

On the post-production side, we have seen a flurry of new products. Apple’s Final Cut Pro is the current world-beater. If you have the proper gear (i.e., input/output card and lots and lots of gigabytes) you can even edit uncompressed high def on your G4. That is so cool. Not so long ago (a decade) Videosmith spent over half a million dollars on a linear digital edit suite. Today, similar capability and quality could cost a tenth of that. That’s progress.

One of the up-sides of miniDV is that it gives everyone a chance to be a filmmaker. One of the down-sides of miniDV is that it gives everyone a chance to be a filmmaker. Just because you have the gear doesn’t mean you know how to tell a story or hold a camera steady, how to frame a shot or pace an edit. Those time-honored skills still separate the pros from the amateurs, and, thankfully, always will.

I was reading in the December issue of American Cinematographer about Neil Burger’s Interview With the Assassin– an indie fictional film about the JFK assassination. It was shot over twenty-two days by Burger and cinematographer Ron Kobeleski. The film is done in a POV style, and the main camera was a Sony PD150. When the editing was completed, Interview With the Assassin was blown-up to 35mm for theatrical release.

The American Cinematographer is always chock-a-block full of interesting stories about filmmaking. Its editors are open-minded about digital acquisition, whether it’s George Lucas shooting Star Wars II on Sony 24p, or Ron Kobeleski and his PD150. I highly recommend you take a look at this monthly, published by the best in the business– the American Society of Cinematographers. Check out for more information. The website offers select articles from the magazine, as well as special features about ASC members. There is always some new lighting or shooting technique featured, and all the latest gear is profiled. It’s a useful tool for broadening your digital video horizons.

In the same vein, another good website is It’s put up by United Entertainment Media, publishers of Videography, Government Video and Digital Cinema. The site features current biz buzz, as well as links to all sorts of useful places, like the 2-POP forums.

Have a great holiday season. We’ll see you again next year.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.

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