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The 24-frame-per-second high-definition digital video cameras used to shoot big-budget features such as 2006’s “Apocalypto” and “Superman Returns,” as well as recent offerings such as Paramount’s “Next” and “Zodiac,” are being employed with increasing frequency on small-screen projects, from the recently canceled ABC dramedy “What About Brian” to TNT’s upcoming CIA miniseries “The Company.” According to cinematographer Thomas Burstyn, who’s shooting the upcoming Sci Fi Channel miniseries “Tin Man” using the Arriflex D-20, the reason is simple economics.
“Producers wouldn’t want to use it if it wasn’t cheaper,” Burstyn says. “Even though this is a big-budget miniseries, the savings are enormous — $200,000-$300,000 — which is mostly from money that would’ve been spent on film stock and processing.”
But the savings don’t come without a price for cinematographers, especially if the producers ask them to make the switch from film to digital in the middle of a show’s run, as director of photography John Newby was asked to do for the fifth season of NBC’s “Las Vegas,” which began production earlier this month.
“I have a 30,000-square-foot casino and hotel set, and the neon, the fluorescents and the slot machines were all designed with 500 ASA 35mm film stock in mind and with a certain brightness and gray-scale range in mind as well,” says Newby, who is using Sony HDW-F900s for the show. “Certain reflective surfaces are now problematic that never were before. There are even issues with little reflections under eyes or on makeup that will really glow.”
Not only does the digital format have different characteristics than 35mm, the individual systems often vary wildly, depending on the way the CMOS or CCD sensors in the cameras respond to light.
Burstyn shot the first season of the USA Network show “The 4400” with the Thomson Viper, which is capable of shooting in extremely low light. For “Tin Man,” he’s using the Arriflex D-20, which he describes as “a very light-hungry camera.”
“It’s rated about 100 ASA, so we’re using huge amounts of electricity and very large lights to achieve what in 35 or what with another digital camera might’ve been a much smaller demand,” Burstyn says. “But, like an expensive woman, if you feed it all she wants and pander to her every need, she gives you beautiful pictures. So, it’s worth the work.”
But the move to switch to digital is not based purely on the desire to save a buck or two on today’s TV shows. It also positions studios to be able to take advantage of coming technological developments that will open new creative vistas for the shows of tomorrow, as well as save them even more time and money.
“We’re working very closely with Arri and a lot of people, and we’ve developed our own optical and encoded motion-tracking systems so that all of the elements track in real time,” Stargate Films founder and CEO Sam Nicholson says. “So, you can completely redesign your workflow and your thinking to take advantage of the fact that you have an instantaneous product in your hands.”
Indeed, while die-hard film fans might take issue with the visual qualities of digital cameras, the advantages of being able to see what one’s getting on the set are hard to deny.
“With film, I don’t see the image the way it will be rendered finally; I don’t see the same colors or the way filters work, etc.,” says Emmy-winning director of photography Robert Primes, who’s shot several shows digitally, including the pilot for Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell.” “And it’s not that I don’t know how to estimate what film will look like. It’s just that with digital, I see it extremely accurately. Plus, the director and I can see the same things, so communication is very good. So, that’s why I’ve become a fan of digital.”
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