Gimme That Ole-Time Production

A short time ago we were invited to attend an HDTV workshop at one of the New York area's up-and-coming rental houses. It's a great shop - the kind of place where everything works right out of the box and where you're likely to do business directly with one of the owners - so the labyrinthine route through Staten Island to the shop is a welcome adventure.

My partner Dave and I attended primarily because these folks rent - and sell - Panasonic's VariCam, a high-def camera with a variable frame rate (variable, but most beloved at 24 fps, the rate at which HD "looks like film"). We've used the camera several times, and it's a superb device with enormous possibilities over time.

The workshop was quite interesting, with comparisons of cameras, tape formats, frame rates and all sorts of other information. The most profound revelation of the afternoon, however, came when the audience first started asking questions.


One veteran film cameraman broke the ice: "How do you know how far you can push the exposure with these cameras?" The response, from another film cameraman turned HD expert, was telling. "Well, I just look at the monitor, and if it looks good, well that's basically it." Puzzled looks and mouths agape.

The queries followed quickly now, with questions about contrast, ƒ-stops and lighting. And the answers sounded pretty much the same: Unlike film, what you see is what you get. One asked, "Do you always have to bring an engineer with you?" - implying that the extra salary would be a burden. He was told to reallocate the cost of a clapper-loader - no film magazines to be reloaded in HD.

Before long, I was feeling pretty good about the way we all were trained. We understand the interplay of exposures and contrast in electronic imaging, and that slavish devotion to the waveform monitor has given us an arbitrary standard to fall back on when we're not sure if the monitor is lying to us. It just may be that our old-line skills have delivered us to a better place than those more respected folks, the film camera operators and DPs.


There are plenty of similar examples in the more traditional video production and editing skills. For instance, if you've ever programmed moves on an Ampex ADO or Abekas DVE, you already have a good, solid grounding in the nature of keyframes in animation. Building graphics on a no-frills broadcast character generator teaches certain essentials that come in handy later once you're faced with a thousand variable parameters and effects in a software-based CG application. And traditional production techniques require capturing pure, clean, big-signal audio, a factor that hasn't changed over time.

Thanks to this gap between old-line video and newer technologies, hiring free-lance nonlinear editors becomes tricky business at times. Can he/she read the waveform well enough to set up the VTR? And what about +7 IRE pedestals for analog versus digital signals? Forget about blanking widths and h-phase - those are terms that only draw blank stares.


As I write this, I'm waiting for a client to arrive to finish editing a DV project. She's a talented, veteran professional raised with waveforms and vectorscopes and Plumbicon-tube cameras, so it's not as though she doesn't know any better. But she was seduced by DV, by the tiny cameras, by the cost-savings, by the prospect of shooting one-man-band on a small project. No more three-person crews; no more elaborate setups.

The results are somewhat predictable. The autofocus seeks and acquires new targets throughout the interviews; one subject is heavily backlit against an overcast sky; the audio, sampled at bargain-basement 32 kHz, pumps and distorts periodically. The camera is also badly out of interchange, but the proposed $300 repair is a decision to be anguished over.

What's an editor to do? That, in fact, is the question of the hour: How can we, who know better, encourage our less sophisticated peers, clients and students to become more disciplined? Our newest - and best - technologies aren't nearly as liberating as they seem if the results are unusable, or need to be repaired and tinkered with to meet minimum standards.

In a perfect world, perhaps we'd have a better exchange of ideas and skills. There's plenty I can teach a film cameraman if he'll show me some of the secrets he knows about the nature of light and texture. I'd gladly tutor a hotshot DV addict, in exchange for some insight into the irreverence and spontaneity of the small-format style.

What do you have to offer? Plenty, I'll bet.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at