FESTIVALS: NAB '99 -- "High Definition of Ultra-low budget filmmaking"
by Tara Veneruso
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention takes place once a year in scenic “Luck Be a Lady” Las Vegas. It is the place where the broadcasting industry checks out the newest cameras, editing stations, posting systems, and other high-end wares. As a part of Team Next Wave (Peter Broderick, Mark Stolaroff, and myself), I travel each year to see the latest e-filmmaking tools available to help make movies at a lower cost. The formation of AGENDA 2000, Next Wave Films’ new initiative to produce and finance digital video features, gave us another reason to cover as much territory on the digital front as possible.
At every corner, the words “digital” and “HD” (high definition) were flung about. An even more familiar phrase was “Lucas is shooting with this!” and “Lucas is using these!” On the higher-priced end of filmmaking, Lucas’ presence as a pioneer of the digital frontier seems to be ensuring that high-tech companies are continuing to spend research and development money. It is giving a financial reason to investigate the possibilities. Actually, Lucas used some HD footage in “Phantom Menace” (albeit under 5 minutes worth) which will also help persuade the tech-heads to keep researching the use of video as a viable shooting format. Lucas is rumored to have said, “go find it” when asked where the HD footage was used. This sounds like a technological challenge for the anti-video heads.
Although Lucas’ projects are being made on higher-end equipment, DV is quickly becoming low budget filmmakers format of choice. In last year’s article I mentioned that Collin Brown of Kodak in London said, “all the new technologies available will give filmmakers the freedom to be as creative as they dare imagine.” The following product overview focuses on what guerilla filmmakers can now utilize. An important note before filmmakers purchase any new tech products is to do as much research as possible on the equipment you are interested in purchasing. Often, competitor companies can give you valuable information to supplement what you get from the manufacturer. Manufacturers often only give you part of the information that you need about the equipment.
Highlights: “Pocket Producer,” from PLAY, was winning awards left and right during NAB. This portable logging system for the Palm Pilot, connects directly to a deck or camera, and unbelievably can input or output an EDL to Avid, Media 100, CMX, etc. Filmmaker and writer, David Leitner, turned us on to Play, a company formed by the crew that worked on NewTek‘s Lightwave. The Studio Version (approx. $495) reads time code, is hardwired to the Pilot for quick buttons, can create logs during or after shooting, and creates an EDL. Play was one of the most innovative companies at NAB, making products with low budget filmmakers in mind. The Play “Holoset” also showed off chroma keying technology at an ultra-low budget. This funky ring goes on a film or video camera to give the filmmaker blue or green screen on the fly (approx. $1,000). I could have used this in last week’s project; go to http://www.play.com.
DV Cameras: Our first order of business was tracking down cameras. The “suit” demonstrating the Panasonic EZ30 laughed when I mentioned feature films were being made on this and said, “I don’t know about that, I shoot my baby flinging food around with this thing.” Because such magazines as RES and DV include in-depth DV camera reviews, I will mention only a few things. It had been rumored that Sony would be coming out with a VX2000, but Larry Thorpe (Sony Corp., V.P., Acquisitions Business and Professional Group) dispelled this, jokingly suggesting that I may have made up a new camera name. Sony displayed the DSR-PD100 (approx. $3,000), which is an impressive camera in its price range, but was the most argued-about model. Sony introduced a new line of digi-beta cameras, but I will leave it to the camera pros to determine the pros and cons of each. With HD cameras now on the market, Sony added more models and dropped the price of their digi-beta cameras. The newly introduced DVW 707 starts at $37k without lenses, but there are no plans for a 24P-digibeta camera unless a demand arises. Thorpe says that the high quality of digi-beta is equal to Super 16mm when both are transferred to 35mm.
HD Cameras: The older HD cameras were cumbersome and expensive ($350,000 for the camera/$350,000 for the deck), while the current Sony HDC-750 camera was used to shoot under 10 minutes in “Phantom Menace.” Lucas will actually be shooting the 2nd prequel to Star Wars on the upcoming Sony 24P-HD camera, which will be ready for Lucas to test in October 1999 for a February 2000 shooting date. Panavision is working with Lucas and Sony to develop high performance lenses for the camera and to tailor the camera for moviemaking. A Sony spokesperson mentioned that one reason Lucas wants to shoot on HD is to save time and money, and increase the quality of effects shots by eliminating the need to scan 35mm film into a computer. The current HD camera runs at $95,000 with the lens.
Now, all you editors out there may resist this reality – but as David Leitner states “why online when you have a perfect digital transfer from the DV system? It’s the same as when it went in!” I admit my utter resistance to the notion that I don’t need to waste gobs of money in an online suite if I shoot DV. The native DV option is an important one when choosing the right system for you. At NAB, the phrase at every editing software company was “ours is more robust.” Although Discreet Logic‘s “edit*” (Windows NT-based, real-time, non-linear edit system) is impressive for the mid-budget editor, Apple was “it” for the low budget filmmaker with their new “Final Cut” ($1,000 software only) for the blue and white G3. “Final Cut” will need some refinements to make it comparable to higher end systems – it’s not real time yet (neither is Premiere for Mac) nor is it debugged to use PA — but this native DV system visually kicks butt. After developing Adobe‘s Premiere editing software, it’s designers moved to Apple to create “Final Cut”. Apple also showed off the new QuickTime 4.0 with the “Phantom Menace” trailer. QT 4.0 is now streamable, and another company is caught in Lucas fever.
Other edit systems included Avid’s first DV effort with a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port that requires transcoding to motion-JPEG with the “Showbiz Producer” line (complete system for $10,000). It’s designed for Windows NT and initially it will not have a 16:9 option. Additionally, it is not available until the fall 1999, with no Mac plans slated — as Avid says it is going the way of the NT world. The Media 100 (16:9 option is inherent) also has a DV edit system with an extra $3,000 card for DV transcoding to and from motion-JPEG. (Note: admittedly this edit overview comes from a Mac point of view – as I have been on the Apple since the Apple II in the 80’s).
And talk about drive space! RES magazine reported in their last issue on the VST Blaze FireWire drive (approx. $100 a GB/4GB – 16GB) which looked mighty slim – but in person was even smaller than expected. It’s an editor’s dream to use this as a backup storage device (for files – not media). You can daisy chain FireWire so other types of devices can be attached.
Other anticipated products included the FilmLook 24P camera, which was damaged en route to NAB. It is a video camera that was designed for the broadcast industry to achieve the film look without actually shooting film. The image was designed for this video output and should not be transferred to film. The sleek new Arri Laser recorder for video-to-film transfers looked mighty fancy. As I admired its physical appearance, I thought of Patrick Lindenmaier of Swiss Effects who said the most important information I picked up at NAB, “research before you shoot and do tests on different cameras and transfer systems.” A CRT recorder (like the one at Swiss Effects), an Electronic Beam Recorder (like at Sony HD Center), and the Arri Laser Recorder (coming to Duart), each will give somewhat different results with the same footage. I was able to see some video-to-film transfer tests at NAB given by the Sony HD Center. Upholding the honor of film, Kodak had the most innovative posters stating “High Definition, 1. See film.” And another “24fps progressive capture”.
E-Cinema was also an NAB catch phrase. Thorpe told Team Next Wave that Lucas was helping to ignite the future of electronic cinema with his screenings in June of “Phantom Menace” in Los Angeles and New York City. However, Thorpe noted that at the current time the infrastructure was not there to support an immediate change. He mentioned that the theater owners, distributors, video projection manufacturers, and satellite companies need to begin working now to make e-cinema happen. Major issues include data encryption for the movies and the development of an automated video projection system for theaters. Tom Stites of Hughes/JVC (electronic/analog projector) reiterated the need for automated projectors. Even with today’s “low-tech film projector”, projector quality problems still suffer from bad sound, bad framing, and film breakage. You can see the challenge ahead for automating digital projectors. With this road ahead, Thorpe does however feel the image display has arrived and is ready for large screen cinema display. In fact, Hughes/JVC demonstrated their projectors on several nights during NAB by electronically projecting Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love.” Miramax had previously shown the film on a digital video projector from Digital Projections, Inc. They utilize the Texas Instruments DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) chip-based technology. In addition, Mark Stolaroff spoke with Chuck Collins of Digital Projections who said the industry was 2 years away from creating a mass-producible unit based on the current prototypes. According to Stites, Miramax is looking at the different projectors because they are very interested saving print costs with the new technology.
NAB99 proved that going digital is not a passing craze. It showed that the technological and financial barriers are coming down for e-filmmaking. The future of cinema is here today, as it should be, at the end of the decade, century, and millennium.
[Mark Stolaroff contributed to this article.]
[Filmmaker Tara Veneruso is the Director of Film Evaluation & Outreach for Next Wave Films. She has written for indieWIRE, Sight &Sound, and FILMMAKER Magazine with Next Wave. An NYU Film Grad, Veneruso directed the feature documentary “Janis Joplin Slept Here“. She has produced, directed, and edited many music videos, documentaries, and shorts. Tara also co-organizes CONDUIT Digital and Gaming Festival, showcasing digitally produced shorts, docs, and features. Additionally, Veneruso directs a web series for InterneTV.com, including “Chemical Generation” shot on the VX1000. E-mail her at:
[For more information about DV production visit the Next Wave site at: