Why HDTV production is making film shoots a thing of the past
By Bob Burnett and Dan Bailes
Bob Burnett: I used to always shoot public service announcements and TV spots on film. Sometimes, marketing and advocacy programs too.
After spending 90+% of my time working in video it was great to have projects where shooting film was possible. By its very nature film offered a different perspective to approaching a shoot and a "look" that made the captured images seem very special and different.
Of course film shoots offered moments where the magic would be momentarily interrupted, like the time the assistant camera person was changing mags, dropped the just-shot one which popped open (he also forgot to tape the mag closed) exposing the previous four hours of set-ups and shots.
Never mind those moments—in fact, forget them—because they aren’t going to happen again. Given how the landscape of work has changed I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to justify using film again. The new generation of video cameras (High Definition as well as DV) has put a serious crimp in my ability to rationalize using film on shoots. And I’m not alone. I see so many things on TV that were once shot on film now being shot on video.
Screenshot from GVI's production "Great Schools By Design" for the American Architectural Foundation
But what about those wonderfully unique qualities only possible when shooting film that in the past made video look a far distant second place?
Let’s review a few basic points of where we are today:
Aspect ratio? Not a problem, video now shoots flawlessly be it 16:9 or 4:3. All it takes is a quick, menu driven adjustment to make a change.
Shutter? Got it. Video has an adjustable shutter making 24p frame rates somewhat replicable.
Video’s electronic image replication versus the deep, lovely irreplaceable nuance of film’s image exposure? Well…yeah…we all know about that but depth-of-field adjustments, inclusion of "grain," color correction and pulldown "filmlook" manipulation are all basic "drag and drop" tools in editing now. Just think what Photoshop is capable of doing in still photography (be it film or digital) and the same broad range of possibility is happening in video editing and color correction.
Screenshot from GVI's production "Stop the Aerial Hunting of Wolves in Alaska" for Defenders of Wildlife
Dan Bailes: I grew up with film—first as an assistant cameraman (circa 1970) and later as an editor. I learned all about 16mm ECO reversal film (ASA 16)—if you didn’t know how to light back then you’d end up with a shiny figure surrounded by darkness. Then came the faster reversals—but with all that grain. Man, when Kodak rolled out 16mm negative it created a revolution. Finally "Big Yellow" had created something to rival the ever-growing incursion of video. Or so we thought at the time.
I loved editing film—namely hour-long documentaries or political spots. For me it was the perfect medium. I learned how to develop a deep memory to keep all those shots in my head. I devised little tricks to make sure my tracks stayed in synch to the picture and developed a complex filing system using film bins, vault boxes and hundreds of two- and three-inch cores for all those trims and outs.
I learned how to pre-visualize effects like fades and dissolves and mark the film with grease pencil so the negative matcher would set up the a and b rolls correctly. (Those days, after you were done with the creative editing, you had to match the negative to the original and send it to the lab for timing to get the contrast and color balance just so. Then you’d review the first answer print, call up the lab with changes and hope the second or third answer print would get it right.)
I devised workflow systems for my assistants (I almost always had at least one assistant) so I could spend my time on the creative side while they managed the mechanics and filing. And it was a great way for them to learn editing. But the best part was it was all very physical, as I’d get into a rhythm: view, judge, stop, pull down the roll, mark, cut, splice, and push on to the next. I got so I could work as fast as I could think. Pure heaven.
Of course, as we all know, nothing lasts forever. Video soon took over and made editing a nightmare. Wonderful non-linear film editing became locked into linear and ugly video. And God help you if you wanted to lose a shot half way through the edit. You had to go down a generation until pretty soon you could barely read the window-burned timecode on the smeary VHS dubs. Staying calm and developing the patience of Job became just as important as lining up great shots to tell a story.
Thankfully, all the visual sense I developed as a film editor helped. And I often worked with footage shot on film and "dumped" (great word, that) to tape. Then along came the next innovation, non-linear computer-based editing, and with it the death of film editing.
My first experiences working with (computer-based) Avid’s Media Composer were mixed. With computers, if you don’t carefully label and file your work, you’re lost. And you have to spend all that time logging and importing the picture and sound elements. I’ve worked on projects where more time was spent on capturing/digitizing the media than on the creative process. Back in the days of film editing, three to four months was standard for editing an hour-long television documentary. Now, for a lot of cable TV projects, three weeks or less is more the rule. So instead of presenting polished, thoughtful work, the first draft effort is typically what goes on the air.
In the old days, the path to becoming a film editor required years of working as someone’s assistant. You had to know so much about the entire process to do your job right—often the editor would direct the lab finishing process as well as the audio mix. Now editors often do their own Avid-based digital color correction and audio mix.
I must admit, editing today is truly amazing. The programs developed by Avid and Apple allow you to do just about anything you can imagine.
But the biggest downside to all this innovation is that we’ve lost the training ground that went with film editing. As a newbie, you’d typically work with ten or twenty editors over the course of several years before you developed the expertise to call yourself an editor. What a great way to learn. There’s nothing like that today.
It seems like every technological advance is constructive and destructive at the same time. Yes, some things are easier and the barriers to entry are constantly lowered. And the tension between innovation vs. the expertise that comes from experience will probably always be with us.
But for me, what is most important is the content. Understanding what you are trying to say and deciding how you want to say it. Then, it’s just a matter of using the available tools to get the job done. Whether its art or artifice, all this technology is just a means to an end. Making the pictures tell a story is still the most important thing. So for me, I’ve learned to keep my eyes and ears open and to look for inspiration where ever I can find it.
Bob Burnett: Our aim here isn’t to be depressing or to wallow in some great, lost era of film—it’s just to present our small slice of how we’ve seen things change. Instead of bemoaning the changes, Dan and I are excited to be producing videos for use on DVD as well as on the web—where image quality is vastly improving and in many cases our stories are reaching a wider audience and having greater impact than in the past.
Bob Burnett (Creative Director) and Dan Bailes (Senior Editor) work together at GVI in Washington, D.C.