Shooting a la Mode

Explanations of all those non-standard modes that today’s camcorders are capable of shooting.

Emerging digital video standards are anything but standard. As usual, competing electronic companies vie for market share and continually release camcorders that boast some stunning near-film-quality-resolutions, different aspect ratios, non-standard frame rates, etc. In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common of these in an effort to understand why all of a sudden the old standards are beginning to make way for the new, and how this might affect you in your own video pursuits.

24P

Let’s tackle 24p first. The term refers to two things: frame rate (24 frames per second) and scan type (progressive, as opposed to interlaced). From the beginnings of U.S. television, the frame rate for broadcast TV and video has been 60i, or 60 fields per second, interlaced. (Interlaced video alternates odd and even lines on the screen, whereas progressive video draws all the lines on the screen at once, top to bottom.) Why, then, the sudden change to 24p?

In a word: film. The frame rate for film, worldwide, is 24 frames per second, and film is, of course, more like progressive scan in the way it displays moving images. In recent years, many filmmakers have begun using high-quality digital video cameras to shoot their films, then capturing the video on a computer for processing, and sending the finished product to film. As it turns out, this is much easier to do when the video camera shoots at 24p instead of 60i, because you don’t have to worry about the difference between the frame rates, much less the progressive/interlaced issue.

One of the early pioneers of 24p digital video was George Lucas, who worked with video camera manufacturers to produce a digital video camera that could digitally shoot at the film standard of 24 frames per second. He did this because he knew he wanted to do a lot of work with digital animation and effects during the production of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and he didn’t want to have to switch back and forth between film and video. In short, he wanted an all-digital solution, from the acquisition of the images right up until it was time to print the film.

24p video is also a godsend for low-budget film producers, because it allows you to shoot and edit on equipment that costs much less than film technology.

There are many other reasons why 24p video makes sense. For example, video shot at 24p allows you to easily intercut your video with existing film sources, such as documentaries, music videos, film school training, or other existing film archives.

One more thing about 24p video: with 24 frames per second film being the predominant format for moving image in the past 100 plus years, we humans have become accustom, maybe even more comfortable with, the "dream" like quality of the motion blur it creates. In other words, it presents a quality of motion that is somehow more pleasing to the eye than the sharper 30 frames per minute video. Shooting in 24p progressive mode, if done correctly, will many times be more pleasing to your audience (unless you are trying to achieve that video look that you might see in news video or soap operas).

Go Wide

The video we most often watch on television has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means for every 4 horizontal inches, there are 3 vertical inches to match. Most camcorders now have the ability to shoot at a wider aspect ratio, 16:9, which more closely resembles the widescreen look of films you watch at the movie theater. While this is good news, especially for those who own a widescreen television, there is an important caveat: camcorders have different methods for recording 16:9 images. Some record true, "anamorphic" 16:9, which means if you view it on an ordinary television, the picture will look pinched and distorted. Such effects only look right on a 16:9 television screen or when detected by a 4:3 television set that is able to compensate by adding letter boxing (black bars above and below the picture).

Shooting 16:9 is always best whenever a videographer can do it. It not only looks better, as widescreen becomes more prevalent, but the big challenge right now is looking at whether the footage you’re shooting will need a shelf life of more than a few years. If it does, then you need to consider the wider aspect ratio, because if 16:9 becomes more of a standard, you may have to convert it in a few years.

HDV

Until recently, the only videographers who had access to HD (high-definition) video were professionals with big budgets. In 2003, Canon, Sony, Sharp and JVC brought HD to the consumer world with the HDV format, which allows the recording of HD video onto DV tape. While it’s true that you need an HDTV monitor to experience the full glory of HDV, those who do have access to such equipment will be able to produce video that’s quite stunning.

The HDV format (fully explained in Videomaker’s November 2004 issue) offers a much higher resolution picture than the DV format can produce. The DV format, for example, has a fixed resolution of 720×480; with HDV, on the other hand, you can choose between 1280×720 (720p) and 1440×1080 (1080i) resolutions.

Though the HDV format is still in its early stages, it offers much promise for the future, especially as the broadcast world is beginning to sort out some of the difficulties of the consumer HDTV marketplace.


HDTV: 720p vs. 1080i

Note the two resolutions we discussed in the HDV section above. Do those two final numbers–720 and 1080–look familiar? They correspond to the two main HDTV formats: 720p, a progressive scan format with 720 vertical lines of resolution, and 1080i, an interlaced format with 1080 lines. The debate as to which is superior is on with no clear winner (well, each manufacturer will tell you the format they have settled on is king, of course).

Now we’re seeing HDV consumer camcorders enter the market with Sony’s HDR-HC1. For a few thousand extra bucks Panasonic, JVC and Sony make prosumer models in either 720p or 1080i. We expect the market to flood in the next two years as whispers of a Canon contestant as well as HDV cameras from the other manufacturers can be heard everywhere.

Though standard definition is stronger than ever today, that is scheduled to change soon, as federal regulations, and plain old advancements in video are pushing broadcast, cable and satellite networks to provide more widespread programming in the high definition spectrum.

Light it Right

Now, even with all these fancy advances in video technology, it still comes down to lighting it right, and shooting with the best quality acquisition format that your budget will allow. Whether you’re shooting regular DV, DV50, D9, Digital Betacam or HD, the basic rule still holds. You have to light it right, or it will be flat video.

If you look at the film November, which was shot 24p DV on a Panasonic AG-DVX100, or The Anniversary Party, which was shot interlaced on Sony full-sized professional DVCAM, you see that it’s the lighting that makes the difference, not the acquisition format.

You also have to look at the amount and type of compression, how it fits into your overall workflow, and a lot of other factors. This is where knowing with whom you’re going to do final post up front makes a huge difference. If you’re working with top-notch post people, they’ll be able to tell you the problems they’re seeing with the final products in each of the formats, so you can make an informed decision for your individual project.

If you’re doing it all in house, you need to look at your own cost/benefit issues. What really matters is what your final master looks like, and whether you meet your client’s standards.

James DeRuvo is producer and editor for a broadcast production company.

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