The cost of digital - Part 1
By Glenn Estersohn
Editor’s Note: Last month’s Business Models article discussed some of the advantages associated with shooting digital and offered cost comparisons between corresponding film formats. This month’s article continues that discussion.
In addition to eliminating the cost of stock, processing and dailies, using digital formats in some cases reduce the cost of camera rental. For instance, the cost of DVCAM camera rentals runs roughly 60 percent to 80 percent less than 16mm rentals. Digital Betacam camera rentals are less expensive than Super 16mm by a narrower margin – about 26 percent. The HDCAM 24p, however, runs neck and neck with 35mm film. On average, 35mm film cameras cost nine percent less to rent.
Letting it roll
One of the most important advantages of shooting digital may also be one of the most mundane. Tape cassettes hold more than three times as many minutes as film canisters. For example, an $80 HDCAM small cassette can roll uninterrupted for 50 minutes (24p mode). Compare this with 11 minutes for a 1000-foot reel of 35mm film. Long loads and inexpensive media offer a special cost advantage for underwater shoots, ultra-remote locations, wildlife and natural history. Digital media also transforms the economics of extracting minutes of images from countless hours of necessary capture.
The cost advantages, if any, of digital post production depend largely on what you need to do. For example, if the production includes heavy effects sequences, if you’re performing a digital online edit or considering digital release formats, then the savings tilt toward digital.
Digital can also mean lower color correction time and costs – especially if different film stocks would have been required in the same shoot. Many productions shoot slow and fast stocks for daylight and nighttime, for example, which then need to be matched in post production. Some high-end digital cameras have built-in high-speed and slow-speed capabilities. For example, the Sony HDW-F900 digital 24p camcorder can range from 150 ASA to 1200 ASA with low “grain” (electronic noise).
If a digital production is intended for digital release or digital broadcasting, the savings can be substantial. However, producers may need to balance potential digital savings against the need to blow up digital productions for theatrical release on film – a process that alone can cost $500 per minute (Arri laser recorder; silent, timed print). According to Ellen Kuras, who shot Bamboozled, using DV required added care and expense in the digital-to-film process.
Digital enables you to reduce shooting ratios, or digital means higher ratios. Digital lets you shoot faster, or digital is just the same. It all depends on the creative demands of the director and cinematographer. Digital enables a pervasive rethinking of life on the set, but only if that’s what you want. For example, seeing the instant playback obviates the need to wait 24 hours to see dailies, enabling you to strike sets faster. But ultimately the speed you achieve in digital production depends on you.
For independent filmmakers, perhaps the biggest economic advantage to digital is not how much productions cost, but rather when those costs are incurred. By nearly eliminating a big up-front cost, digital helps producers manage their cash flow. They can shoot and edit in digital, and project the edited digital master when they shop the feature around to potential distributors. Only after they secure a distributor do they need to spend the money for transfer to 35mm film.
The bottom line
Shooting with digital cinematography doesn’t reinvent the cost structure of filmed entertainment. You still need actors, sets, lighting and crew. You still must house and feed them on location. However, digital does eliminate 97 percent (or more) of the cost of film stock, developing and dailies. And digital can lower camera rental costs. Many producers are using these savings to lower the overall cost of production; to get more coverage, as in the multi-camera techniques that Spike Lee and Ellen Kuras used to create Bamboozled; or to achieve a new intimacy with the talent (permitted by smaller, more mobile cameras and longer recording times).
Glenn Estersohn is a writer who follows digital cinema, digital television and digital audio from his home in Scarsdale, NY.
Do you have a comment about this article? To tell us your thoughts, click here.