Emmy Watch: Crafts

The switch to digital has been a learning curve behind  the scenes, but ultimately makes for a seamless workflow

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Add film to the list of casualties of the recent SAG/AMPTP stalemate before the new SAG TV/theatrical contract was approved June 9.

"We are being forced to change from film to digital by the position that the actors took with the producers," says Fox's "24" director of photography Rodney Charters. "Film has been essentially shut out of the market because of the producers' insistence on going with AFTRA. The AFTRA contract is for electronic cinematography. So automatically, when you enter into an AFTRA agreement, you have to use a digital camera."

"We've seen a huge migration over to digital cameras," says Art Directors Guild president Thomas Walsh. "All it took was one unresolved shadow strike."

Still, this transition actually started in 2000 as producers tried new creative tools and sought ways to save money.

"The digital cameras are a little bit cheaper," says Nelson Cragg, director of photography on CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." "In a couple of years, all television will be digital -- that's the reality of it."

Says Charters: "The reality is some of those costs are shifting from occurring in production to occurring in postproduction. There has to be very careful analysis as to what your mastering format is and how you are archiving -- a lot of the studios are not comfortable putting anything on the shelf but film.

"Film is still a superior system. I still believe it has a wider, more satisfying dynamic range and it's kinder to actors," Charters adds. "There are advantages to shooting digital -- like the longer running time and real-time playback on set."

Today, sitcoms are typically lensed in a digital form, while dramas are still a mix of film and digital. Film-based dramas include such series as AMC's "Mad Men" and ABC's "Lost."
"24" is also shot on 35mm film and will begin its next season on film. But Charters reports that he is testing four digital cinematography cameras and will likely be making a switch during the next season. "It's a horse race," he says, noting that digital cameras are advancing.
From technical to aesthetic reasons, the new cameras are impacting other crafts in TV production.

Harry B. Miller III, an editor on this past season of Fox's "Dollhouse" who is now working on Sci Fi's dramedy "Warehouse 13," finds that digital cameras generally equate to more dailies -- typically two to three times as much as a filmed series. "With digital, directors are a little more free in how much they can shoot, so they can leave the camera rolling."

Miller reports that the filmed episodes of "Dollhouse" typically resulted in 15-60 minutes of dailies per day. "Warehouse 13" in contrast used three digital cameras and at one point lensed nearly five hours of material in a single day.

He points out that with various types of digital cameras, "it's becoming a wild, wild west of formats." Digital formats can help streamline postproduction, but Miller says that the industry has not yet fully embraced workflow advantages. "We are moving to HD rapidly. I think everyone has to realize that, and make the leap from an offline postproduction to an online postproduction where editors are working with full-res HD in the cutting room. Whether shooting with film or tape, productions are wasting so much time and effort and they are degrading the images to get it to the postproduction stage," he says.

"Lost" is shot on film but the show's director of photography John Bartley says that this past season the show adopted a tapeless workflow, something the industry is slowly gravitating toward. "Before we went to tape. Now it's tapeless post-hard drives," says Bartley, adding that as a result, he is finding time savings in the color timing.

Makeup artists, meanwhile, are carefully watching the images that new cameras can produce. "Digital, in its raw form, can show more imperfections than film," says ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" makeup artist Norman Leavitt. "It's so sharp that you will see bags and wrinkles on people's faces."

In approaching makeup for shows that are lensed digitally, often less is more. "Heavy makeup could be a problem if it isn't blended well or the colors are not right," Leavitt says.
He points out that there are, of course, a lot of ways in production and post for a skilled cinematographer to control the camera imagery.

Digital FX tools, meanwhile, are used more frequently for effects makeup like for some wounds on patients at "Grey's" Seattle Grace Hospital. "It used to be very expensive, but as it gets cheaper, series are able to use digital makeup," Leavitt says.

Art directors are also paying attention to the impact of the digital format. "It's very sharp," Walsh says. "HD magnifies things like table surfaces, and things can look very cheap."

With VFX becoming more affordable for TV productions, they are also used more frequently to alter sets, says Dan Bishop, production designer on "Mad Men." "I work on a lot of period shows, and if we were shooting a street scene, we would typically have to go and physically make changes: removing parking meters, signs, including things up in the air. In the past we spent a lot of time making alterations that never made it to the final cut. With visual effects, you can take things out in post."