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  • Who’s Shooting With What – And Why

    Posted on July 5th, 2010 Mike 2 comments

    As another television production season begins (most network shows begin shooting shortly after the 4th of July holiday), the question of whether to shoot on film or digital formats has become almost an anachronism in 2010. The fact is that the SAG actions a year ago solidified and accelerated a now unstoppable march towards use of digital formats for all but some legacy shows that are still shot on film. New shows are almost universally choosing (some might say being compelled by the studio, but I digress…) to put the cast under AFTRA contracts and shoot with digital cameras of various types. Under the umbrella of “digital formats,” there are numerous choices available: compressed and uncompressed, videotape based and file based, HD formats and higher resolution formats, large format and small format, and price ranges for equipment ranging from ridiculously cheap (the Canon DSLR’s) to if-you-don’t-have-a-network-level-budget-you-probably-can’t-afford-it (F35, Panavision Genesis, etc.). This season, you will find network shows shot on equipment from Arri, Panavision, Red, Panasonic, Sony, and possibly some others as the primary, or “A” camera, but on the same sets on any given day you might very well find cameras from companies like Canon, Iconix, Woodman Labs (the Go Pro line), and even Apple’s iPhone being used, sometimes on the same scene. If it all sounds like a bit of a free for all, well, to some degree it is. On the down side, the presence of all of these devices, each one seemingly with its own specific file format, has made life much more difficult for post production, both in editorial and in final finishing. On the up side, the viability of all of them for specific purposes has given production more tools than they’ve ever had to explore visual creativity. Every show must ultimately decide what to use as the “A” camera, regardless of what other tools they might bring to the set on any given day. And the reasons behind those decisions are not always what people outside the mainstream television industry seem to think they are.

    The emergence of the Red has opened a lot of peoples’ eyes, but it’s also led to what I would refer to as “rampant fanboyism,” a rather debilitating condition under which all logic and reason is thrown out the window in favor of a rather cultish devotion to a single player, and one in which one’s personal investment must seemingly be continually justified by pointing to “real” industry players and noting each and every time the product one has invested in is used by them. The fact is that each show makes its decision based on a number of factors. There is no denying that Red, with its second generation sensor in most of the Red One bodies being used by high end productions, is producing a compelling product that can compete very successfully against more expensive devices on a number of projects. But there are a number of other players with products that are sometimes either more effective, more familiar, or better supported when the production is a network television series. Sometimes the decision comes down to the director of photography’s personal preference, which is often based on prior experience with a particular product, and thus a degree of trust and familiarity that has already been established. A director of photography will often make different choices depending upon the style and likely production circumstances of a particular project, choosing the most appropriate device for the job. Producers, particularly those involved more with post production, will sometimes weigh in with an opinion based on likely post paths for the particular show, including turnaround requirements, likely footage counts, required daily and final deliverables, and capabilities of a particular post facility that they might want to work with. Studios will often ¬†chime in based on archival capabilities of a particular format, and sometimes overall cost. All of these factors weigh heavily on the choice of primary camera system, but contrary to a very popular belief, cost of the camera is usually not a primary determining factor. This may seem a bit counterintuitive to those who have made personal purchases of camera equipment, especially those who are new to the market primarily because of the sudden affordability of equipment capable of high quality images, such as Red. To those working in tightly budgeted music videos, local commercials, or low budget independent features, the lost cost of the equipment is very attractive. But in the world of network television, the average budget for a typical one hour drama is usually upwards of $2 million, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to the cost of the camera equipment. Clearly, there are other reasons for the choices being made. In some cases, as I previously mentioned, it’s often related to the director of photography’s personal preference. But more often than not, it also has to do with specific production or post production needs. If a show is going to be shot in a “run and gun” style – as a lot of fast paced cop dramas are these days – a camera with a form factor that is conducive to that style is very desirable. For some, this would mean an ENG type of form factor, exemplified by things like the Sony XDCam series or the Panasonic 3000 line. For others, a slightly smaller, lighter weight version of that ¬†might be in order, so they might look at the new Arri Alexa. Some shows might involve a lot of dark sets and/or night work, so a lack of low end noise and an ability to see into the shadows a bit better might be a specific need. For those shows, something like the F35 or the M/X based Red would seem to be a good choice. Some DP’s are looking for a more “filmic” look in terms of motion rendition and flesh tones, for them, the Arri D21 has a lot to recommend it. If a show anticipates a lot of day exterior work, or happens to be shooting in a location with unpredictable and rapidly changing weather patterns, the Arri Alexa’s purported ability to handle very hot highlights more gracefully might be an advantage. A show with a tight turnaround might be interested in a camera that lends itself to more rapid ingest into the editing system and a quicker conform at the finishing end, allowing for a faster delivery. For that type of situation, the Arri Alexa’s ability to record directly to ProRes files might be an advantage, or perhaps the XDCam’s ability to quickly deliver proxy files for editing. In some cases, an SR videotape might be the best way to ensure both archivability and nearly universal facility support, allowing for a program to either change facilities or utilize multiple facilities easily. And in still other cases, the ability to use a higher resolution original image, even if it’s highly compressed, allows for more flexibility in terms of framing adjustments in a project that will involve a lot of blowups and repositions. For those, Red clearly has some serious advantages.

    All of the players that I’ve mentioned are offering products that can do the job very, very well. The notion that there is a “winner” and a “loser” among them is a rather simplistic one that is driven far more by emotion than by common sense. The choices made by network television productions are not knee jerk decisions. They are based on what is best for that particular production, and those needs differ. There has been some talk over the last few days in the RedUser forum about the new show “Undercovers” having chosen to go with Red as the “A” camera on the series. But there has been no mention of the fact that at least one other show whose pilot was shot primarily on Red (“Detroit 187”) has chosen to go with the Panasonic 3000 for the series. Both made their choices based on the creative needs of the respective productions, not because one thought Red was “cool” and one didn’t. The time will ultimately come when Red and its users don’t have to be so seemingly insecure about their place in the scheme of things. Red is a solid company with a solid product, and will continue to be a player at multiple levels in our industry. It will be chosen for some projects, and not chosen for others, a situation that also applies to the entries from Arri, Sony, Panasonic, Panavision, and who-knows-who-else. And that kind of competition is a very healthy thing for all concerned.

    One more thing: The Production Formats page on Postworld is now a bit out of date. I will be revising it over the next few weeks to reflect the new fall season, as well as any continuing series. Sorry for the delay…


    2 responses to “Who’s Shooting With What – And Why” RSS icon

    • Interesting post, thanks!

      The odd thing is that I’ve recently been witnessing “rampant fanboyism” toward film – where given the option people are choosing to short 35mm even when something else (like RED) would be more suitable. They usually quote something about the ’emotion’ of the piece requiring film, but I personally call BS on that…

      I’m sure we’ll all settle down again in a year or two once the market has stabilised a bit – we’ll still get all excited for new products, but with a little less one-eyed decision making hopefully.

    • Really Mike I love your blog, and I think it’d be cool to make it more readable.
      No intention to offend you, it’s just that it’s sometimes hard to read it after a hard day at work and english not-being my mother tongue.
      I think a little work on fragmenting and titling parts, adding a few images would be great.
      Anyway your articles are really interesting and I hope more and more people ill read it !

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