Shooting Videotape Film Style – ASC magazine article in American Cinematographer May 1982

This article is reprinted here with permission from the American Society of Cinematographers. There are scanned copies of the photos from the original American Cinematographer magazine article at the end of this transcript.

Background/Article transcript follows these comments:

This article is my first published piece of writing. I was teaching at USC School of Cinema/Television at the time and liked mixing my teaching with my production work. I initiated this article while we were in production on THE DREAM OF DON GUADALUPE and came up with the idea of a discussion with the three key technical crew members. I wanted the article to create a sense of how we solved the problems and also wanted to provide many technical and creative details which I, as the director/co-producer, would normally get from my colleagues. I asked H.J. Brown, the program’s cinematographer, and Matt Brown, the video technical supervisor, to write up several comments about various scenes and then I edited the final article into the following piece, which was published the month this program was broadcast on national PBS.

The article captures an interesting period in film and video production, just when video technology first provided the capability to photograph a broad light range. At that time, there was a distinct difference in quality from film and video productions, and video was mainly used for studio programs such as the news and variety shows where the shooting stage could be filled with bright lighting. Only a few video programs showed any visual subtlety and design as was common in film productions. Now, looking back at that period, I note that it was a time when electronic equipment was going through a significant change. I think it was the effects of Moore’s Law: Intel cofounder Gordon Moore’s posited the idea in 1968 that computer chip density would double every 18 months while costs would remain flat, which has happened continuously through the present. Moore’s Law has brought a variety of useful tools to market. Within two years after this article was written, the personal computer arrived in the marketplace with the IBM PC and the Macintosh.

In 1982, I probably learned about the newer video cameras from a demonstration at USC or at a trade show. I do remember there was – to my mind – an artificial division between film and video at the time, which was primarily based on how final programs looked. It was as much about how much light video needed for effective exposure as anything else. One of things that was likely happening at the time was that very few skilled lighting Directors of Photography had applied their skills to video. I had just recently met cinematographer H.J. Brown and was knocked out by the exquisite lighting in all of his film work. We both wanted to see if we could apply our interest in making beautiful pictures to videotape. The following article captures our first adventure in using this technology.

Transcript: Shooting Videotape Film Style in American Cinematographer magazine published by the American Society of Cinematographers, May 1982  This article is copyright by the ACS Holding Company 1982 and reprinted by permission of the publisher.

By Ben Shedd, H.J. Brown and Matt Adams

“I believe there are no real aesthetic differences between film and tape-just attitude differences. It’s all really just pictures and sound-and working to capture the images we see in our minds. We approached ‘The Dream of Don Guadalupe’ with this attitude and it worked.” – Ben Shedd

“The Dream of Don Guadalupe” is part of the public television series CALIFORNIA DREAMS. This particular segment features actor Alejandro Rey at actual historic locations in Northern California and combines archive graphics and stills from the life of Don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo as Rey recaptures California’s history from 1770 to 1890. “The Dream of Don Guadalupe” will be shown on PBS May 18 (1982) nationally.

In the half-hour telecast, budgeted at $80,000, Patrick Griffin, writer and executive producer, called for voiceovers of excerpts taken from Vallejo’s own five-volume history of the period. The series was made possible by a grant from First Interstate Bank of California Foundation. CALIFORNIA DREAMS and producing station KOCE-TV had committed to shot and edit the series on videotape when Ben Shedd, an Academy Award winning filmmaker, joined the production. The script called for lots of locations, quick setups by a small crew, and lighting situations normally associated with the latitude of 7247 (16mm color) film (ASA 100).

H.J. Brown, Director of Photography, recommended film be used, but the hard and fast decision had been made. Brown was cinematographer on the award-winning PBS 13-hour (Carl Sagan) series COSMOS. The filmmakers accepted the challenge with eagerness and went to work. Following is a discussion by Shedd, Brown and Matt Adams, video technical supervisor.

BEN SHEDD: Because I supervised all aspects of location production, almost immediately I joined Patrick Griffin and another CALIFORNIA DREAMS production crew to shoot aerials of the sweeping countryside before the summer browning (of the California hillsides) occurred. It also made good budget sense, as the other crew was already planning helicopter shots of San Francisco.

I’ve done over thirty hours of aerial photography from helicopters, but this was the first time I’d had a TV monitor in my lap to watch. I was able to reposition images as we went along, spotting upcoming terrain, comparing it with the monitor image and giving cameraman Tom Tucker and Spirit Airways pilot Ken Chase more of my ideas to constantly improve the shots.

We used a tall grove of eucalyptus trees across the road from the adobe house to fly over and tilt up from, wiping the image of the house into the frame. However, just outside the Adobe House State Park grounds are a highway, and next to the grounds are a mass of telephone and power lines which I didn’t want in the shot. By watching the monitor and giving Tom and Ken update instructions as we flew and taped, I was able to coax a high spinning shot of the old adobe so that it seemed to be sitting in a huge filed with no sign of modern civilization around. With the monitor I saw what we had, “printed it,” and went on to the next location.

Following this one-day shoot in Northern California, and having only seen three of the seven locations in person, I set about storyboarding all the sequences from ideas in my head. The location shoot was scheduled to be five days long with a travel day at each end. A long middle Wednesday was planned for the crew to travel three hours from Carmel north to Sonoma after taping in the morning.

H.J Brown and I flew to Northern California three days before the shoot for a practical look at all the locations.

H.J. BROWN: We planned the precise shooting schedule around the sun and how it would affect each of the six locales at a particular time of day. The California State Parks locations were going to be open to the public and we had to include that fact in our schedule planning. The crew consisted of key people only. Gaffer (and SuperGrip inventor) Ken Phelps, Grip Jeff Bains, Assistant Camera Paul Sherwood, Videotape recorder Operator Al Lugo, Production Manager Bill O’Neill of KOCE-TV, Sound Person David Dobkin, Associate Producer Barbara Hiestand, Production Assistant Christine Denny, and one of Ben’s University of Southern California Cinema/Television Doctoral students, Don Schroeder, who took most of the production stills. We soon added Video Technical Supervisor Matt Adams of Video by Design

BEN SHEDD: We started at the Old Mission in Carmel, Calif., Vallejo’s birthplace. Each sequence was designed with everything moving, the actor against the background, the camera in concert with or in opposition to the actions, always expanding, always growing, revealing new images as the story content moved us ahead. As often as possible, I planned to do long takes covering whole paragraphs of dialogue, with no coverage or safety in or out points.

The first few setups were fine, but when we put Alejandro Rey under the eaves of a Mission corridor (an easy shot with color negative), we saw streaking and “comet tailing” in the playback. I had H.J. shoot this sequence outdoors as a static close-up of Alejandro Rey, which still looked terrible on video.

After a frustrating 14-hour first day with great delays because of the streaking and other technical problems, I wanted to do the rest of the shoot on film and transfer the negative, without workprinting, directly to tape for editing. H.J reminded me that we had decided on videotape, and that it had to be possible to shoot what we had in mind or the whole “tape explosion” was junk. Production manager Bill O’Neill fond an available alternative video camera in the San Francisco with a Tech, Matt Adams of Video by Design, who arrived the second morning.

H.J. BROWN: The first of shooting was with a video camera designed and built 6 years ago. The second day was with a IKEGAMI HL 70 built in late 1979 or early 1980. Along with the IKEGAMI came technical advisor Matt Adams, who was priceless. Let it suffice to say that the six-year-old camera was unable to perform to the standards of Video: 1981. It was never seen again.

MATT ADAMS: When I arrived in Monterey to help an ailing video crew (because of a less than acceptable shooting day), I sensed that Ben and H.J. would gladly have traded in the video gear for a film camera. With this level of negative energy I probably should have turned around and gone home, but I just couldn’t resist the challenge, or rather, opportunity. The crew wanted to make high quality images and this was an opportunity to prove that there are more complex uses for video than shooting clips for the six o’clock news. The IKEGAMI HL 79 color video camera was the only piece of equipment which I substituted in the already existing one-inch video package.

As we began to set up the first shot. I was relieved and excited to sense that careful attention was being given to lighting, composition, exposure, and picture image. In film shoots these important components are given time and attention, but often neglected in video, the instant gratification medium. This neglect is the primary reason video fails to look as good as film. H. J. Brown was treating this location shoot as if there were film in the camera.

BEN SHEDD: The new camera captured the images we were trying to create. The foggy, pre-grey sky looked wonderful over the ocean. In the early afternoon, the fog and crew raced each other to a Carmel Valley ranch location. I needed the fog in the morning and now I wanted sun for the opening shot. The sun, with a steamy mist, held throughout the shooting, just as we’d planned. Sometimes you can’t beat using the gaffer in the sky.

H.J. BROWN: The Ikegami functioned without fail. However, operating a video camera is somewhat different than operating a film camera. You are looking through, or at, a tiny black-and-white video monitor in the eyepiece which would be suitable for framing if the lines within it were at all accurate. I drew my own in with a Magic Marker. The eyepiece is not very sharp and is otherwise worthless for seeing lighting setups. It does work as a light meter, but I found that very distracting. Our attention was therefore drawn to the larger and more colorful Sony Monitor which was with the other video electronics in the gray KOCE-TV shipping case. What you see it what you get. I grew accustomed to looking at the monitor on set-left or set-right while operating the camera.

MATT ADAMS: Concerns about the video camera’s reliability slowly faded as the Ikegami camera consistently produced excellent pictures. I sensed H.J. was looking for some guidance on the rules of shooting video and this need helped to expedite a good working relationship between us.

BEN SHEDD: H.J. and Matt immediately began what became a constant conversation between them as H.J. lit the shots, and Matt, sitting at the monitor, tweaked the exposure while watching the waveform monitor and the picture.

MATT ADAMS: The color monitor provides the key image on the set. What you see (on the monitor) is what you get. There is no need to bracket exposures or change filter packs. Color correction can happen in real-time. The image is immediately available for instant feedback and freer, more efficient experimentation.

To give H.J. the best possible “view-finder” image on the monitor we had Ken Phelps fabricate a wide-angle sunshade out of black showcard. It was affixed to the monitor, completely cutting out extraneous reflections, and was used throughout the production.

BEN SHEDD: We returned to the Mission to reshoot the first days “impossible in video” under-the-walkway shot, partly because it’s what I wanted, and partly out of stubbornness and determination to believe that videotape could do this shot just like film could, and it did.

We found a wonderful room inside the mission to redo an interior shot, which on videotape (with the old video camera) had made Alejandro Rey look like a TV variety show host. With the new camera and H.J.’s lighting, the scene worked as Alejandro became part of the environment. We used original pages from Father Junperio Serra’s diary from the 1700’s as props, probably worth $10,000 a page.

H.J. BROWN: The historic homes were an art director’s dream, completely propped with antiques from the period. However, the rooms were small and we couldn’t move many of the furnishings. There were no fly-away walls either, just doorways and halls.

“The Dream of Don Guadalupe” was shot entirely with a #1 fog filter, with two exceptions. Once, the combination of other filters made the #1 unnecessary, and the second exception was when a net or nets were used. The nets I use are homemade in black, beige, and white. They were used to add more of a period look to the Vallejo dialogue point-of-view shots. The nets gave a pleasing sort of half-star effect along with a general softening of the image. A lot of candles were used burning in the shots as they were the natural light source of the period.

BEN SHEDD: From our pre-shooting research, H.J. planned to shoot the Petaluma adobe house in the very early morning to pump sunlight under the eaves, and also to match the helicopter material. On the scheduled morning it was all fogged in. We shot the adobe interiors, while waiting for the sun. The lighting made these rooms look like it was a gorgeous sunny day outside. When the sun did come out t was too high in the sky for the overhanging porches (they were designed over 100 years ago to keep the sun and heat out of the building) and Ken Phelps, the gaffer, needed every reflector in the grip truck to fill in the deep shadows.

H.J BROWN: The exteriors consisted of daylight, fog, dusk, and firelight. If the day was overcast, some kickers were added for punch because a too flat image is really too flat on video. If the situation was close-up bright sunlight, large silks were used for the actor’s eyes, and a cutter was used to take the board reflection (too strong for video) off the actor’s chest. Exterior day, long shots needed some rather interesting filter combinations. I used a combination of polar screens and one or more NBRA (Natural balanced ratio attenuators) – I just call them neutral density graduates. I was mostly using a one-or-two-stop NRBA to cut the overly bright areas and even out the video gain. Sometimes it took all three NBRA filers to achieve the desired effect.

MATT ADAMS: It is a given that the contrast ratio in video is nowhere near the contrast ratio in film.  The idea is to light in such a way that you fool people into thinking video has a better contrast ratio than it does. You must make video appear to be holding more shadow detail than it can actually hold. On “The Dream of Don Guadalupe” we were continually looking for ways to compress the contrast ratio, especially with filters on portions of the image, to keep the final image what Ben and H.J. had in their minds.

H.J. BROWN: The dusk sequences were lit with single fay key light through soft frost, a western exposure sky light fill (one minute after sunset) and 1-Ks and 2-Ks for the windows of the house in the background. With video you just keep cranking up the gain as the day or scene gets darker. This didn’t seem to change the quality of the image for the first couple of stops, but after that it becomes noticeable and finally a definite effect appears.

BEN SHEDD: We did the sequence in the Vallejo vineyard just after sunset and it looked like color negative-not pushed.

MATT ADAMS: H.J. shot the videotape with low light levels throughout the production. Low level light can turn into muddy video very quickly. I was extremely conscious of maintaining critical exposure in the camera to avoid this possibility, riding the edge most of the time. The Ikegami camera was carefully set up at the beginning of the shoot as was the color monitor.

H.J BROWN: The interior lighting environments were the Mission, Fort Sutter jail, Benicia State capital, Vallejo’s Sonoma dining room, and the adobe house’s dirt floor kitchen. Because of our schedule one of the interiors was shot at night, but lit as though it was fully day outside. This was done by tissue papering the windows and using 2-K’s and fays outside. The interiors were lit by bouncing 2-K’s and 9-lights off foam core and adding hard cross lights and kickers where necessary.

I found that colors which were close together did not separate from one another very well in video so using hard rims and kickers were crucial for modeling and creating the look of the shot. Sometimes we balanced the interior to exterior in color temperature and density, and sometimes we didn’t. At times we put tungsten lights outside windows we could see through, and other times we used reflectors outside to pump daylight into the interiors. It was just a matter of considering the look we wanted and the sources available. Last year I did a documentary on the police department night work and I lit the whole show with two large flashlights.

BEN SHEDD: We lit all the candles in the Benicia State Capitol building, even though it was day. The room was filled with beaver top hats and quill pens, and reeked of the historical period. Alejandro Rey’s outfit was such a perfect color blend with the room’s wall that H.J. had to add a heavy cross light, motivated by the sun through the windows, to create good separation from the background.

MATT ADAMS: I changed the color balance of the camera only a few times during the production. Once, when the script called for a period warm feel to the image, I white balanced the camera for daylight and then we shot the scene with an 85 filter on the lens.

H. J. BROWN: I didn’t need a light meter at any time on the entire show. I had three or four other meters instead. One meter readout appears in the video camera’s black and white viewfinder and is distracting as hell. It registers as a series of moving diagonal lines in the image highlights or hot sky, and it sort of changes to a negative image as well-and that’s when the light reading is correct! Another readout was the green scale near the monitor and recorder in the gray box. The third meter was Matt Adams. Matt and I kept a steady discussion going on between us regarding exposure, trying to find ways to make the video accept the image we gave it, but never compromising the look of the image. The video techs will tell you every time you need to open up or stop down.

The most frustrating thing I found about shooting one-inch video was the inability to resolve subtleties the way film does. It doesn’t see subtle changes in color, texture, or lighting. Correcting for this usually means adding one more kicker or eye light, doubling the gel color, or spotting or flooding a unit much more that I would have expected.

MATT ADAMS: The waveform monitor was my absolute light meter. There is no way to tell how the image looks (from an artistic viewpoint) from the waveform monitor, but it gives the output of the video camera in absolute terms.

The evolution of video took a giant step forward two years ago with the introduction of second generation self-contained video cameras. These high performance cameras allow video to be shot without aesthetic constraints and technical limitations. Combined with portable one-inch video recorders, video now has great location flexibility. If the scene requires very low light levels, it can be recorded without concern for noisy video or banding. Remember, the color monitor is your reference. It must be set up correctly or it can be very deceiving. Video, like all other tools, requires skilled people to operate it.

BEN SHEDD: By the third day, the crew was working very effectively, wasting little time with each set up. Crew movement and job coordination are slightly different on a video crew than on a film crew, especially in the assistant camera department. The video monitor needs a power supply. At each setup the white balance on the camera was set and the crew quickly checked the camera registration. This camera prep needs to be organized into the rhythm of prepping a shot or it can create downtime, especially for the actor.

H.J. BROWN: I think it currently takes a little longer to shot videotape than film on this kind of production. From my perspective, shooting videotape took about five to ten minutes longer per major shot to move, setup, light, cable, and shoot than film setup takes to ready.

Ben’s storyboard called for a period point-of-view shot for Vallejo with me riding horseback.

I climbed up on the horse. The crew handed me the video camera with 50 feet of coaxial cable attached to the one-inch recorder. Well, the horse didn’t care much more for the whole arrangement than I did and it bolted. It suddenly occurred to me that this wasn’t such a terrific idea. If I and the $45,000 electronic camera were to hit the ground we’d all be going home. We tried, but I shot this sequence with a 100 foot load of 7247 in my Beaulieu (16mm film camera).

By the time we arrived at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento on the last day, one of the fort sequences had been eliminated. Sutter’s Fort is large and carefully preserved, and Ben wanted to see as much of it as possible in one shot. I plotted a diagonal dolly move, pushing forward to reveal Alejandro Rey while showing the western courtyard, and then panning and following him back along the dolly track showing the eastern courtyard. We saw the “printed” take as we shot it and didn’t even watch the playback.

BEN SHEDD: I wanted to do firelight shot at night to add drama. This kind of shot was certainly possible on film. We could have done the whole show like this against a stage cyc in a studio, but how dull.

H.J. BROWN: Video responds just fine to fire. I put a 1-K with some spun and M2 gel under a portable barbecue with a wood fire. A tree branch being swept up through the 1-K light added the flicker. The flames acted quite natural on video and the faint skyline silhouette was crystal clear.

MATT ADAMS: Video technology can now deal with imagery like the night fire scene we shot. Older cameras would have produced comet tails or lagging, or electronic noise which never looks good. Sometimes film grain is ok because it moves about randomly. However video grain is not random and appears redundantly in the same place and always the same size. We had no noise or comet tailing from the fire. It looked great!

BEN SHEDD: As we started the post production we had all the stills and graphics left to put on tape. Videotape editor Barbro Semmingsen and I shot sample stills for the rough-cut with a cheapo black and white video camera directly on 3/4-inch cassettes.

We couldn’t find a video camera animation stand to shot pre-programmed stand moves (from point A to point B in a specified time). I didn’t want to use a video camera on a tripod because the barrel rotation on the zoom lens is too short for slow starts and stops. We decided to shoot the stills on film.

H.J. BROWN: For the stills I shot with an ACL (Eclair 16mm film camera) with 10-50mm Angénieux zoom lens equipped with an A. Chrosziel Munchen fluid zoom ring. I shot material of every size and shape, from slides, photocopies, prints, paintings, old books, and artwork to historic maps on loan from the library. There were over 150 different pieces of art, all shot on 16m 7247 film and then the negative was transferred directly to one-inch tape on Compact Video’s Rank Cintel flying spot scanner. Camera moves were timed and counted in our heads during filming. Many moves were designed to be combined and dissolved together during the on-line videotape editing session. In the final program they look like stand-animated sequences.

MATT ADAMS: In no way do I see video in its present form replacing film. However I do see video as a solid alternative to 16mm color negative, especially if the final distribution medium is television.

BEN SHEDD: A note to our old film friends: Don’t worry, H.J. and I haven’t by any means abandoned film. I found working with videotape was very much part of the whole business we work in, and not a second class part of it. It’s just one of the tools, like film.

H.J. BROWN: Each medium in which I’ve worked, be it 35mm wide-screen, 16mm, or videotape has its assets, limitation, and restrictions. Each medium can be made to look very good if it is presented in the format for which it was shot. There is no good or bad film or video, only the necessity to see and understand the capabilities of each, and work with those capabilities. it’s still just sound and pictures, light and shapes. It’s just a matter of seeing.

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