The pros and cons of DV production

Programs such as “The Big Story” in the mid-1990s first used DV cameras for secret filming and had to obtain an exemption from the broadcasters to be able to use a small amount of such footage. Having a small camera that could be hidden easily was essential in making an undercover-type program.

Then there were reality programs such as “Global E-missions” being shot entirely on Sony DSR-PD150 camcorders by the contestants themselves. This interactive show required three teams, which were sent globe-trotting on assignments around the world, to send weekly rushes back to base in order for the program to be put together. The show won the broadcast award for Best Use of New Media in 2001, beating others such as “Big Brother,” the BBC’s epic nature series “Blue Planet” and the groundbreaking “Wimbledon Interactive” coverage of the tennis championships. Again, without such lightweight and easy-to-use equipment, the practicalities of making such a program would have been an impossible task.

As with everything, there is always a downside. Because DV stock is a lot cheaper than Digital Betacam tapes, and the fact that you can record for longer, there is a tendency to leave the camera rolling in fear of missing something. For a recent series called “Little Friends” for Channel 4 offshoot E4, there was almost 500 hours of footage recorded for eight half-hour programs. Once again, having cameras in bags and other hidden locations was essential to the making of the program. Unfortunately, all of this footage then needs to be either loaded onto hard disk or watched to filter out the bad bits before the edit. No matter which way you look at it, this costs time and money.

The effect of DV on business

Until a few years ago, DV cameras were used to make pilot programs for an eventual commission from the broadcasters. Now we have programs shot entirely on DV, edited in the DV domain, mastered onto DV and then finally sent to broadcasters on Digital Betacam as a delivery format.

The gap between the broadcast and consumer markets has never been closer, and it looks set to get closer still. Weddings, birthdays and other social events are being shot on the same cameras that are used by production companies. Price, affordability and quality are key players in this, but the ever-reducing budgets offered by broadcasters will probably mean that DV is here to stay, and may become the de facto delivery standard of programs in the future. From a facilities point of view, our future could be said to look bleak as more and more production companies invest not only in their own equipment, but employ a new breed of multi-skilled person who is willing to shoot, produce, direct and edit. With popular and enduring programs such as “You’ve Been Framed” being put together using clips sent in by the public, how far away are we from a high-quality program shot on DV being sent by the viewer direct to the broadcaster to be aired?

Nonetheless, while NLEs such as Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress DV are making the right noises, clients shooting on DV are still using Avid Media Composer 1000s and the Avid Symphony to edit, thanks mainly to demand by editors for proven and trusted cutting machines. The increase in commercial pressure, however, cannot be ignored.

DV production

Many users are trying to push DVCAM to where no DVCAM has been before, for a huge range of uses and conditions. Sometimes they fail, but more often than not they succeed. DV picture quality used in the correct way and the right conditions gives Digital Betacam a run for its money. Digital Betacam uses a 4:2:2 video sampling ratio with 2:1 compression, whereas DVCPRO, for example, uses a 4:1:1 video sampling ratio with 5:1 compression, and DVCAM for PAL uses 4:2:0. When it comes to the math, this is quite a difference, but to the naked eye it can be marginal. When it comes to cameras, we usually supply many clients with Sony DSR-PD170P camera kits, which work well in their own right. But for that something extra, we recommend a higher-grade camera such as the Sony DSR-PD570, which is true 16:9 to 4:3 switchable.

DV recording/playback

Our hire fleet consists of several DVCAM VTRs from the lowest model, the Sony DSR-11 compact DVCAM/DV player/recorder, to the Rolls Royce of them, the Sony DSR-2000 studio edit player/recorder with DV/DVCAM/DVCPRO playback. We prefer the client to have the DSR-2000 due to its full range of facilities. It supports DVCAM long-play playback, and it also offers SDI video input and output, AES/EBU audio input and output, and an i-Link interface for direct digital transfer.

DV post-production

As the number of readily-available DV NLEs increases, the i-Link (the Sony implementation of IEEE-1394) is a must-have on our DSR decks. It proves its weight in gold for the low-end cutting users since the i-Link interface can control the VTR as well as send and receive video and audio data. The introduction this year of the Sony J-30 compact video player opens things up further for DV nonlinear edit systems. The J-30 provides all of the features required for viewing, logging and feeding material to a nonlinear editing system, and can replay Digital Betacam, MPEG IMX, Betacam SX, Betacam SP and Betacam tapes. The SDI version has i-Link, SDI, analog composite, S-VHS and analog audio outputs.

With cameras being operated by producers and directors rather than trained professionals, inevitably some footage will be badly shot. Add to this the fact that scenes may not have been lit properly, the camera may not have been setup correctly, and a mixture of formats may have be used on a multicamera shoot, the amount of fixing required in post can be considerable. Problems can include camera shake, glare, burnt out whites and poor headroom. While shaky shots can be stabilized and poor color shots can be corrected, this all takes time and money. So potentially, you could use all of the remainder of your budget on repairs instead of using a format or professional that would have yielded better results in the first place.

The DV future

Will DV be around in 10 years? Well, that was the question bout VHS 20 years ago! At the other end of the scale, there is high-definition, which has been around for the past 15 years or so, but is only now becoming a buzzword. Digital Betacam will still be set in stone for the next few years because it is such good quality and is so reliable. After all, why change something if it works? Nonetheless, DV performs well, provided that it is not used as a false economy. Sensible usage can give great results.

Balvinder Singh Sanghera is the managing director of facilities house Run VT Limited and hire company Alias Smith & Singh. Mike Smith is joint managing director of Alias Smith & Singh.