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Why Shoot in Film?

by Mario Orazio for TV Technology
Also related: Why Shoot in 24P?

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE NOTICED that Kodak has not yet followed Enron into the bowels of corporate near-nonexistence. There is a very good reason for that. People buy film. And there's one whole heck of a good reason why people buy film. It works.

Hey - I ain't going to rant this lunar cycle about digital versus film cameras for tourists. Let them decide whether 'tis nobler to wander the Gobi Desert searching for lithium batteries or to suffer the slings and arrows of airport x-ray machines.

No, what I'm struggling to grok is shooting 24P. And it ain't that I've got anything against using 24P. Heck - I think it's absolutely brilliant.

I mean, since before World War II, we've been showing 24 fps movies on TV by introducing the dreaded 3/2 pulldown (Boo! Hiss!). That indicates one out of every five fields has been a repeat, which means wasting 20 percent of tape and transmission capacity.

But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I mean, how wide is a truck? About eight feet, eh? But lanes on streets are about 14 feet - maybe wider. The extra space ain't exactly wasted because there ain't any way in heck that two trucks are going to zip down the highway at 55 mph in adjacent eight-foot-wide lanes. No, thank you very much!


OFF INTO THE SUNSET

From about the Stone Age until approximately last year, give or take a bit, 24 fps film on TV was in the same boat (or truck, or lane). Yeah, there was 20 percent redundancy, but there wasn't much you could do about it. Even if you could transmit 24 fps instead of 30, it'd flicker like a sunset viewed through passing trucks on a highway.

Then came digital bit-rate reduction, aka compression - a lot of forms of which include a frame memory in the decompressor. As long as you've got a memory in the decompressor, who the heck cares how many times it squirts out an image? So, instead of doing 3/2 pulldown at the telecine, you can do 2/2 in the telecine and insert the 3/2 at the set-top box.

That is one whole heck of a good idea. You get 20 percent more bits to improve the picture quality and it's also easier to process progressive-scan images (that's sort of what 2/2 is) than 3/2 or interlace.

Do the same thing in a recorder and you get 20 percent more capacity. Stick that recorder in an edit suite and you don't have to worry about messing up the 3/2 sequence in editing. All effects can be done in the progressive domain. Conversion to 25 fps video just involves a 4-percent speed-up. Most primetime programming and commercials are already shot on 24 fps film. Everything works. Life is good.


CHAIN OF EVENTS

So I ain't got any ranting to do about 24P from that end. Heck, methinks Kodak even won an Emmy for it last year. I probably wasn't the only one surprised that Kodak had anything more to do with 24P than making sprocketed movie film, but what do I know? Anyhow, the chain works great: Shoot film, transfer to 24P, insert 3/2 at the last possible second, the end.

Well, anyhow, one end. Stuff has been happening at the other end, too.

John Q. Sony, or one of his cohorts, decided that HDTV doesn't really look like film. Correct! J.Q. decided that video shot at 24P looks more like film than video shot at 30I. Correct again! So Mr. Sony came out with a 24P camera.

Hey - there's nothing wrong with that. Sony has come out with a whole mess of strange cameras in the past.

Remember all the hue and cry (or should that be "phase and cry?") when someone discovered that some of Sony's consumer cameras with extended infrared sensitivity could "see through" clothes? That's called serving a market niche, the adolescent-male-and-other-voyeur market. OK, so maybe it's not such a small niche (and it helps the lead-underwear marketers, too).

Sony has sold a handful of Super Slo-Mo cameras too that run at 90 fps instead of 30. Methinks the company has offered progressive-scan cameras for the medical market for years.

So I ain't going to blame the Sony folks for coming out with a 24P camera. Heck, they could have used the extra 20 percent to improve compression or increase pixel density or something, too. If they didn't, that's still okay. They were just providing something to see what the market would do with it.

The market, I am sorry to say, went nuts - macadamias at the very least. There are camera-rental places that carry 30I HD stuff that they can barely give away these days. Meanwhile, 24P stuff is flying out the door (good thing Sony added wings). Geez!

Ask any of those 24P shooters why they're shooting 24P and you get this response: "Because it looks more like film." Ayup, no doubt about it; 24P looks more like film than 30I does. Who could argue about that?


AGE-OLD TRADITION

But guess what! There's something that looks even more like film than 24P! And it's been used in the TV biz for ages!

"Mario, what is it?"

It's film. Nothing looks more like film than film. So, if the goal of shooting 24P is to make video look like film, it's a dumb goal. Film already looks more like film than 24P does.

From what I've heard, Sidney Lumet, the creative force behind 100 Centre Street wanted something that looked sort of like video (he wanted a newsy kind of reality edge) and sort of like film (it was, after all, a TV drama). OK. I can buy that.

Anytime a director has a vision, it's our job to try to help out. Repeat after me: Engineers work for directors. Engineers work for directors. Engineers work for directors. It ain't the other way around.

If you accidentally drop a camera, and the lens cracks, and the director shouts, "That's it! That's what I'm looking for!" The correct thing to do is to say, "Glad I could help." It's not "You're nuts! I'm not going to let you shoot until I fix that lens you made me drop!" Engineers work for directors.

Naturally, if a director tells you to switch from a Leader to a Tektronix waveform monitor or to install a frequency monitor on your power line, you have my permission to suggest the autodriving of a tapered, threaded fastener into the director's body. Unless the director happens to be highly-technically astute, technical stuff is your department. If it ain't going to affect the look or sound of something, it ain't the director's business.

That's why, Sidney Lumet's filmish/videoish vision aside, the current craze for shooting 24P has driven me to this rant. 24P does not look like film. Film looks like film. A director who wants something to look like film should be shooting film.


OUT OF THIS WORLD

"But, Mario, what about all the money that can be saved shooting video?"

Ooh! The steam is coming out of my ears!

Yes, dear, we've always had the classic triangle: economy, quality and speed. Pick any two. There ain't anything that 24P does to affect that triangle.

"But, Mario, what about George Lucas?"

Star Wars? Are you asking about Star Wars? How much does a Star Wars movie cost? A hundred million pistoolahs? How much of that was for film and processing costs?

"But, Mario, what about the director being able to see stuff as it's being shot?"

Hello? How many dozens of years have there been video viewfinder taps on film cameras?

But the worst thing about associating 24P shooting with economy is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe 24P will be cheaper, then you will make sure 24P is cheaper, and I do mean cheaper, not just less expensive.

Alfred Hitchcock used to shoot movies on film and TV shows on film. The movies cost more. You can't blame the processing and stock.

One day, he decided to use his TV crew to shoot a movie, just to see what the result would be. He hated it. The TV crew used quick and conventional TV setups.

Okay, so he liked it after the music got added. Okay, so it turned out to be Psycho, one of his biggest hits. Somewhere in there, there's a point and, if I had a meticulous film crew looking for it, they'd probably find it, too.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Cheap. Pretending 24P is film is being cheap, not economical.

"But, Mario, 24P cameras are expensive!"

Some are; some ain't. Sony's 24P camera uses 1920x1080 chips. Panasonic's hottest 24P camera, the VariCam, uses 1280x720 chips. And Panasonic's coming out with a new 24P camcorder. It's a 4:3-aspect-ratio, 480-line, MiniDV camcorder. But it's 24P. Oooooh! I don't know what the price is supposed to be, but I'd be really surprised if it'll be something I'd call expensive.

"But, Mario, doesn't the VariCam offer undercranking and overcranking?"

Heck, yes - and a whole lot more. If you need a video-look camera that does really interesting temporal effects, it's great! Heck, even the new MiniDV camera that shoots 24P could be just the ticket if you want a 4:3 video-camera look with longer exposures than you'd normally get on a video camera.

Like those cheapo jets the Air Force uses in stage one or two of pilot training, the 24P MiniDV camcorder is probably a good, inexpensive way to train camera folks in how to shoot 24P. It surely ain't the same as shooting 60-field video. If you think I'm kidding, try panning a 24P camera. But it ain't film.

Now then, film ain't video, either. If a director of a live show wants to get as close as possible to the look of film, I figure you've got three choices: You could do what they did in the 1936 Olympics - shoot film, develop it, and run it though a telecine all in one continuous motion. You could also shoot normally and run everything through one of those processors that are supposed to make video look like film. Or you could shoot 24P.

In that case, I'd say film is probably not the best idea. I don't know which of the other two I'd use. If it were a 22-camera sports spectacular, I'd go with the processor, because I don't know anyone who can rig up a 22-camera 24P truck.

A pal of mine once told me an interesting story about one of those processors. It seems there was a director who was told to shoot 30 fps, 35mm film for the highest quality. Then he was told to transfer the negative directly to video for the best results.

He looked at what came out and freaked; it looked like video. So he took the video and ran it through one of those processors to make it look more like film again. Ayup, something shot on film had to be processed to make it appear to be shot on film.

Save yourself the trouble. If it absolutely, positively has to look like film, shoot film.


Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. Send your questions or comments to him c/o TV Technology. Or drop him a note on e-mail at Mario_Orazio@imaspub.com.