There is a lot of excitement in video production circles these days about the wonders of shooting digital cinema feature films with 24-frames-per-second high-definition video, thanks to Sony’s new CineAlta camera. But another recording format is starting to ride the digital storm and is increasingly becoming of interest to independent E-Cinema producers who can’t afford a full high-def budget. It’s called 480p and is being brought into the widening digital production circus by Panasonic’s DVCPRO50 progressive camcorders and VTRs.
The 480p format records 60 progressively scanned images per second, producing high-resolution, if not high-definition, images that appear more like film than standard video’s conventional interlaced recordings.
Because Panasonic’s AJ-PD950 DVCPRO50 multistandard studio VTR with progressive scan recording and playback offers a digital video data rate of 50 Mbps with a mild 5:1 DV-based compression, 4:2:0 signal processing and four 16-bit 48 kHz sampled channels of uncompressed digital audio (and is also compatible with the company’s cost-efficient 25 Mbps DVCPRO tapes), this 480p deck provides an ideal source to feed Panasonic’s AJ-UFC1800 Universal Format Converter to up-res DVCPRO50P recordings to all popular HD formats and also insert or remove the 3:2 pulldown needed to transfer to film for theatrical distribution.
"With 60 complete frames per second, 480p delivers sports and fast-moving action with far greater clarity than 24 fps film or 30 fps video," said Doug Leighton, product marketing manager for Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems. "We also feel it’s the perfect format for upconverting and intercutting with HDTV formats for both DTV broadcast and digital cinema applications."
What makes 480p production especially appealing is the rental cost of Panasonic’s AJ-PD900WA DVCPRO Progressive camcorder, which features three 2/3-inch M-FIT CCDs. As a list rate comparison (although nobody really pays list), Hollywood’s Plus8Video will rent a widescreen 24p CineAlta camera for $1,750 per day. A 16:9 DigiBeta camera goes for $1,000/day.
HARD TO BEAT
But you can get Panasonic’s DVCPRO50P camera for just $800/day. Having seen how beautiful 16:9 images in 480p look when transferred to film, that’s a cost/performance ratio hard to beat.
Michael Caporale, owner of Caporale Studios in Cincinnati, was so enamored of the AJ-PD900WA progressive camcorder that he purchased his own for both theatrical feature production and general video assignments ranging from national commercials to video news releases. With it, he has recently completed principal production on a new feature "film" in 480p called "Ball of Wax," shot entirely in 16:9 with the AJ-PD900WA.
"Ball of Wax" is a darkly satiric look at American culture through a baseball motif – that is, if baseball were played as a blood sport. It follows a team called the Carolina Devils that turns to injecting escalating violence into baseball games to improve ticket sales.
‘BALL OF WAX’
By using the DVCPRO50P camcorder, and deferring everyone’s payments, they were able to complete the shoot on a production budget of just $3,500 – an investment rivaling "The Blair Witch Project."
Shot in Wilmington, N.C., "Ball of Wax" was directed by Daniel Kraus and produced by Allen Serkin, Jason Davis and Damian Lahey. Michael Caporale was the director of photography and will be the online editor. The fact that no edit systems are currently capable of actually editing 480p, however, presented some challenges we will examine shortly.
Even without a distributor signed up as yet, Caporale is determined to take the production to film. "I’m a film guy that is shooting video," he laughs. "With 480p I can get the cinematic look I want with cost-savings and improvements in production techniques to actually achieve some things we couldn’t do with film equipment."
For example, in one scene the lead character Brett Packard, played by Mark Mench, expresses his frustration in the locker room by taking a practical camcorder and throwing it up in the air. Director Kraus wanted to maintain the video quality of 480p for the effect so he eschewed the option of giving the actor a throwaway replacement camcorder for the stunt. They would not have risked that gag with a conventional 35mm camera.
Luckily, the actor safely caught the AJ-PD900WA camera and Caporale could continue with the shooting schedule. But once the story was in the can, how were they going to edit it?
With no edit systems that handle native 480p, and no switchers that can blend its signal, they could have opted for just linking two DVCPRO50P decks together and resigning themselves to an A-roll limited cuts-only post of their feature. That would be pretty disappointing for a project they looked forward to seeing on the big screen.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
Some ingenuity was required, but then postproduction is always about problem-solving. They downconverted the 480p material to mini-DV, using a Panasonic AJ-HD150 DVCPRO HD studio VTR, so director Kraus could offline the feature on his Apple G4 computer, using Final Cut Pro editing software.
Then they had to deal with the fact that the composite interface to their mini-DV recorder would not carry SMPTE timecode with the video. That meant that even though they could load the material onto the G4 through FireWire, there would be no reference for the offline edits.
The solution? Burn the visible timecode into the picture. The downside? Someone would have to manually write down the "in" and "out" points of each edit and feed them into the online system.
WORTH THE COST
With the offline completed, Michael Caporale will call upon Caporale Studios’ Accom Affinity digital nonlinear edit system to create the online master. "We’ll type the written EDL into the Affinity," he explained, "then put the 480p tapes into the AJ-HD150 DVCPRO HD studio VTR to downconvert them into a 480 interlaced signal and load the 480i via serial digital interface into the Affinity. Once the production has been conformed in 480i on Betacam SP, we will have a high-quality master we can submit to festivals, show to distributors and use to raise funds to make our final transfer to 35mm film."
Caporale figures they could get an acceptable film release coming from 480i if necessary, but once the EDL is refined and the picture is permanently locked, they will re-import the list into Final Cut Pro and put a Pinnacle HD board into the Mac G4 that can accept a true high-definition signal in 720p.
Then they’ll call once again upon the AJ-HD150 DVCPRO HD studio VTR to upresolve the 480p tapes to 720p and re-assemble "Ball of Wax" in full HDTV. This, finally, will give Caporale a pristine video source for filming out to 35mm with no compromises.
"I’ve never had a single problem with the AJ-PD900WA camcorder or the 480p format," Caporale said. "The object of this exercise with ‘Ball of Wax’ was to shoot it as much like film as we could. I think when you see the result the cinematic impact will be impressive."
480p production is so new that support equipment is just coming onto the market. Optibase Ltd., previously Viewgraphics, actually shipped a 480p native video input/output board in February 2000. Called the VideoPump D-1, it could capture uncompressed QuickTime movies in this progressive format and, by using the VideoPump HD card from Optibase, output them in any flavor of HDTV.
"Since Viewgraphics was purchased by Optibase just at the end of last year," Blake Homan, director of technical support at Optibase said, "we are just beginning to ramp up our marketing of the VideoPump D-1 card. We think there is a great future for the 480p format in high-resolution video production."