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DSLR video production

In the February 2010 edition of Broadcast Engineering, I wrote a column about nontraditional tools for use in broadcast and production applications. One such tool I mentioned was the DSLR with HD video capture capability.

For those program directors and directors of photography who have been experimenting with this form of video capture, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II seems to be the current tool of choice. It offers 1080p video capture and uses a sensor whose size rivals traditional high-resolution film capture devices. The pixel area for HD video capture of the 5D Mark II's sensor, for example, is equivalent to the formerly used feature film and special effects format VistaVision. As the camera has been seeing wider usage in video production applications, Canon has been quick to respond by expanding its capabilities with additional video features. Most recently, a 25fps mode was added for PAL along with a 24fps (actually 23.976fps) capture mode and the modifying of the 30fps mode to 29.97fps.

At the beginning of this past TV season, a groundbreaking approach was utilized when this camera was used exclusively to shoot the opening sequence for NBC's long-running weekend hit, “Saturday Night Live.”

As the TV season progressed, the groundbreaking continued when the Fox network hit show “House” shot its entire season-ending episode exclusively with three 5D Mark II DSLRs. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall, director of photography for “House,” described “the incredible look for out-of-focus imagery” that the DSLR can deliver. With oversized sensors and fast, large aperture lenses, DSLRs can deliver extremely shallow depths of field with selective focus. Another unique feature of certain DSLR lenses is the ability to provide pleasing out-of-focus areas. Photographers call this characteristic bokeh. Being visually subjective, good bokeh defies measurement. But like Justice Potter Stewart's famous reference to obscenity, you'll know it when you see it.

The story line for this season's finale of “House” provided the perfect setting to exploit the unique imagery that DSLR video capture can deliver. With the principle dramatic sequences incorporating a woman trapped in a small crevasse under a collapsed building, director Greg Yaitanes and Tattersall delivered compelling footage that immeasurably enhanced the storytelling.

Storytelling is what it is all about as I learned over lunch one day many years ago. In my then role as a Sony senior vice president, after waxing poetically about our latest technology strategy, one of my luncheon partners, then ABC Network executive vice president Alex Wallau, said, “We're not in the business of buying technology; we're really in the business of storytelling. So, tell me how this technology will enhance my ability to tell stories.” It's not about the technology; it's about the storytelling — a simple truism I have never forgotten.

But back to “House.” For dramatic impact, sometimes the director wanted to sharply isolate the central characters — at times from one another, at times from the background and at times from reality. Through the creative use of sharp focus and extremely narrow depth of field, Tattersall captured some amazingly dramatic sequences. When discussing it with him afterward, he was so inspired he said, “We were able to create images never seen on television before.”

Not all was perfect. Tattersall explained that one necessary adjustment was eliminating the initial few frames of a scene due to “Jello” shutter. This is an effect whereby distortion is created initially as the camera settles on the scene. It's the result of the shutter rolling across the image area to expose the scene as opposed to exposing the scene in a single capture.

But there were benefits aplenty. For example, the shooting rig is so compact it afforded the opportunity for a rover or Ninja cameraman who was free to roam and shoot, and in the final edit, almost one-fifth of the footage was from the Ninja camera.

Technology to enhance storytelling — Alex, you must be a happy storyteller.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

Send questions and comments to: anthony.gargano@penton.com