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Doc Shooters Leap Into Solid State

Jon Alpert and Matthew O“Neill are creating magic in an old Victorian firehouse in New York City“s Chinatown. Alpert and O“Neill are making a feature-length documentary of a boy“s high school basketball team in Brooklyn, the only male team in the public school athletic league coached by a female.

One scene in the untitled feature involved a student“s return from a college visit where he has been offered a full scholarship. His mother, homeless for four years, waits in her car at Kennedy Airport“s satellite parking lot at midnight, bathed in the orange glow of sodium vapor lighting, knowing her son is the first in her family to attend college. A perfect shot? Most would say, “too dark.”

(L to R) Matthew O’Neill and Jon Alpert, co-director of the Downtown Community Television Center in New York, are collaborating on a documentary about a Brooklyn-based boys basketball team.

But using the 9 dB setting on Sony“s PMW EX-1, Matthew O“Neill, codirector of the project said, “the camera saw it better than I did, and it looked like a scene that was lit to look like night.” O“Neill and Alpert, who“s directing and producing the doc, used the EX-1 for the bulk of the production.


A natural upgrade from their Panasonic DVX-100 and Sony HVR-Z1U, they selected the EX-1 because the capacity of P2 cards at the time was less than the comparable record time offered by the $6,500 EX-1.

Alpert also recalled an incident in New Orleans where someone had a P2 camera shooting people breaking into public housing that the government had declared unworthy of habitation“a very exciting confrontation.

“Suddenly the guy with the P2 stopped shooting because he had to download his P2 card into their computer to clean it off before they could shoot again,” he said. (Since that incident, Panasonic has steadily increased the capacity of P2 cards.)

Knowing that sort of limitation wasn“t for him, Alpert decided to waiting on the sidelines of tapeless recording until Sony“s camera came along with its two hours of on-board shooting capacity.

That the design was similar to the familiar Z1U was a bonus. The real leap of faith, however, was trusting the solid-state media, “because it was not a tangible copy of the media that you could hold in your hand or something you could put on the shelf. We had to trust that the media would not be corrupted,” Alpert said.

Shooting in 1080i, they were pleased with the quality of the image in low light and the extreme portability of the unit.


Being a run-and-gun production, most shots are handheld with very little zooming. Alpert and O“Neill tried to get in the middle of what“s going on--if they need to get close, they move the camera in. Their postproduction team was dubious about using solid-state media in editing, but when comparing the early images shot with the Z1U, the differences were night and day.

Posted natively in 1080i on Apple“s Final Cut Pro, O“Neill recommends having a “trained person who is doing all of your conversion of the media“or do it yourself and keep hyper-organized. Once you get the hang of it, there are no mistakes.”

Set for completion in December and for delivery in 720p to a major sports network, the management said the unnamed feature was of “astonishing quality.”

Chuck Gloman is program director of the TV/Film Department and a member of the faculty of DeSales University.