Business Models: The cost of digital - Part 1

The cost of digital - Part 1

Why shoot digital? Producers and directors are discovering persuasive reasons, including new creative options, better suitability for digital effects, greater fluidity in shooting and instant “dailies.” But time and again, it can all come down to cost.

Table 1. Considering the cost of stock, processing and dailies, DVCAM tape and Digital Betacam media are about 97 percent less expensive and HDCAM 24p is about 98 percent less expensive than the corresponding film formats. Sources: Kodak, B&H Photo, and DuArt Film and Video.

In a perfect world, shooting digital can save money through lower costs for shooting stock, processing and dailies. But in the real world, the savings are often “spent” in other ways.

Of course, trading off cost against other considerations is nothing new. Film has always offered the producer a hierarchy of quality vs. cost, with the ultimate choice made largely based on aesthetic aspirations vs. budget limitations.

Digital and film formats are so fundamentally different that head-to-head comparisons can be misleading. But producers are coming to consider specific digital formats as potential alternatives to specific film formats. In that vein, we can look at the hierarchy of film formats, and compare them up with corresponding digital formats.

Digital corollaries of film

For example, 16mm film clearly contends with DV-based 4:1:1 digital formats. DV, Sony DVCAM and Panasonic DVCPRO25 all share a few common technical attributes. To squeeze all that digital information onto quarter-inch tape, all these formats use digital subsampling and 5:1 compression. Together, these techniques reduce the number of bits to be recorded by 85 percent. To minimize the real estate for each recorded bit, these formats use metal tape technology. The result is 40 or more minutes of digital acquisition on a tape you can slip into a shirt pocket.

Cost comparisons (see Table 1) make at least two digital advantages clear. Based on street prices in New York, DVCAM tape with IC Memory is 97 percent less expensive than 16mm stock, developing and dailies. Tape without IC memory is less expensive still. Digital practically eliminates stock and developing costs.

According to Bamboozled director of photography, Ellen Kuras, ASC, the choice of DV was dictated by director Spike Lee’s desire to shoot affordably and quickly, covering each take from multiple angles. “We used up to fifteen simultaneous cameras for the performance scenes,” says Ellen Kuras. Of these, 11 were DV and four were 16mm film. An innovative but expensive shooting technique was made affordable by using digital media.

The next step up in quality, Super 16mm, is roughly paralleled by such higher-quality standard-definition 4:2:2 digital formats as Sony’s Digital Betacam, JVC’s D-9 and Panasonic’s DVCPRO50. Also in contention is Panasonic’s DVCPRO 720p. Compared to the earlier set of DV variants, the 4:2:2 standard-definition formats feature higher recorder bit rates and increased color resolution with little or no digital pre-filtering and milder compression.

While the quality of these digital formats is technically higher, their stock cost advantage is comparable. As just one example, Digital Betacam cassettes are about 97 percent less expensive than Super 16mm stock, developing and dailies.

Digital point of comparison for 35 mm film

With its full 1920x1080 CCD sampling combined with progressive scanning at the film rate of 24 fps, Sony HDCAM 24p is the digital point of comparison for 35 mm film. While the captured image quality for HDCAM 24p is significantly ahead of our previous contenders, the economics for media are essentially the same. The cost for stock, developing and dailies is cut this time by about 98 percent.

In addition to effects-driven science fiction productions, the HDCAM 24p system is beginning to find its way into the indie scene and some mainstream theatrical features. Director of photography Steven Douglas Smith has shot three features with the Sony/Panavision 24p camera and estimates that in one production he saved $1 million on potential film processing and scanning fees by shooting in 24p.

After 100 years of film, creativity and cost remain in contention on almost every production. Digital cinematography is already proving a powerful tool in managing this tradeoff.

Glenn Estersohn is a writer who follows digital cinema, digital television and digital audio from his home in Scarsdale, NY.

Editors note: We will continue our discussion of the cost of digital in next month’s Production Clips column by comparing camera rental costs and examining other cost benefits of digital acquisition.