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The cost-effective HD feature film: Part 1 – Pre-production & production

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So you want to make a feature film. But you haven’t got the budget of, say, Royston Tan’s 881. You haven’t even got the budget of Eric Khoo’s My Magic. How can you, a budget-conscious filmmaker with passion but little means, use technology to make a cost-effective film? Fortunately, advances in technology have brought powerful tools into the hands of the middle-class filmmaker.

We will cover cost-effective filmmaking in 3 articles:

  • This 1st part will deal with pre-production and production considerations, including how to achieve a cinematic image with HD camcorders.
  • The 2nd part will be a discussion of the various low- to mid-priced HD camcorders available for sale/rental.
  • The 3rd part will talk about your options in post-production.

Remember one thing, though – filmmaking is a craft, and all the technology in the world can’t help you if you don’t have a good tale to tell. =)

ian1.jpgContent is king

First things first – please do not try to make Indiana Jones as your first low-budget feature. It’s gonna be hard to do on a shoe-string budget. Rather, look at the genres or stories you can do without spending too much money. Tell stories that minimise locations. Good examples are Saw, The Brothers McMullen, Pieces of April, Twelve Angry Men and the Wachowski Brothers’ first feature, Bound.

All the above are films that relied on one or two main locations, but told riveting stories. Focus on developing a great, captivating script grounded in human interaction/emotion, and the rest will fall into place. Without a strong script you can believe in, don’t start. Regardless of how low-budget it is, there’s no point making a film if it doesn’t connect, and doesn’t travel.

Also try to minimise your shooting days. This will also cut cost, since your rentals and manpower costs will reduce substantially. Eric Khoo is trying to do shorter and shorter shoots now, so why not you?

Do plenty of rehearsals beforehand, and storyboard with your Director of Photography if possible. Dress the sets ahead of time. All these reduce the amount of decision-making and discussion during the shoot, making the production move at a good, steady pace.


Unavoidable cost

Please make sure you budget accurately. There are some costs you probably can’t avoid. Below are some items to consider:

  • Cast and Crew. Even if you can’t afford to pay your crew and cast full rate, at least pay them each a reasonable token sum (or hong bao) for help rendered. Making a film requires a ton of energy, so the friend who helps you make one is a friend indeed.
  • Food. Everyone needs to be fed, and fed well. Please set aside a reasonable amount for meals each day, and count each member of your group. Most of the time, crews will eat packet food, but still make the effort to buy decent food – it’s the least you can do for their welfare.

  • Camera, Sound and Lighting gear. Most of the rental companies are quite sympathetic, so if you sit down with them, they can work out a good package deal. Don’t just call in and ask for quotations, or rely purely on the rate card. If you have crew members (especially your Director of Photography) who rent from a particular rental house often, ask them to sit in at the meeting with you. Personal connections are important in this business. Make friends in the process – this isn’t going to be the only film you’re going to be making in your lifetime.
  • Production Design – Locations, Art Direction and Props. This being a low-budget indie feature, it’s unlikely you’re going to build a lot of sets on sound stages. Unless, of course, it saves you money, and your entire film can be shot there, like with Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Most indie films will use real locations, and then augment. Negotiate your location cost (to zero, if possible). So set aside money for props and art direction. Buying wallpaper and furniture from Ikea can add up quickly, so don’t underestimate this.
  • Tape stock, if you’re shooting on tape. Hard disks, if you’re shooting tapelessly. Consider your shooting ratio – how much footage you will require to reach your finished product. For example, if you think you’ll have a 10:1 shooting ratio for your 90-minute feature, then you’ll have to prepare to shoot 900 minutes of footage. How much tape or hard disk space would that require? Do your math beforehand.
  • Post-production. Tape stock for dump-outs. Additional hard disks for editing. Paying the post-production house for your online, including colour-grading – if you want a finer finish.
  • Festival submissions. You’ll need money to make more copies, send the film overseas, and pay festival fees. Remember that if you get into a festival, you might need to attend it. When that happens, look to government funding for flight and hotel costs if need be.

These are just some of the things you need to consider. You should find out the cost of film-out, but don’t factor it into your production budget yet. Because I encourage you to succeed in the festival circuit before putting it into local theatres. You don’t want to spend money doing film-out on a feature that few will be interested to watch. Of course, this is just my point of view, and you can feel free to disagree with me.

Some festivals require a 35mm print, so when that happens, you have a good reason to convince the Singapore Film Commission and/or private investors to fund the film-out. Especially if it’s a very prestigious festival like the Cannes Film Festival.

Regardless, once you’re sure that the film has garnered attention and will have an audience, you’ll need to do film-out, theatrical prints, subtitling, and marketing. Find out those costs ahead of time, so you won’t get a nasty shock.

If you’re a first-time filmmaker with little experience, please consider pairing up with a more experienced Producer. He/she can help fill in the gaps in your knowledge, tell you where to go, and help you put things together.

That’s all I’m gonna say about the logistics of filmmaking for now, because I’m not the subject matter expert on this. I’ll leave it to someone more relevant and experienced like Juan Foo. We’ll move on to technology.

What makes a cinematic HD image

How do you shoot something that will transfer well to film and digital cinema? There are a few characteristics to watch out for.

1. Resolution

There are 2 main formats of HD for cinema right now – 720p, and 1080p.
720p refers to a 1280 x 720 frame, while 1080p refers to a 1920 x 1080 frame. Both HD formats are absolutely fine for film transfer. Just stay away from Standard Definition (SD).

So does larger translate to better? Depends on who you speak to. Most, if not all, of the Singaporean HD files over the last few years have been 720p. Gone Shopping, 881, Be With Me, and I Not Stupid 2 are all shot at 720p on the Varicam. If you couldn’t tell the difference between what you saw in those features and what is originated on film, then 720p is enough for you.

On the other hand, Star Wars Episode 2 & 3, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Miami Vice, Click, Apocalypto, Speed Racer and Zodiac and a whole lot of Hollywood fare are all 1080p films, shot on a variety of cameras, including the F900 CineAlta, the F950 CineAlta, the Panavision Genesis, the F23 CineAlta and the Thomson Viper.

There are 2 new acquisition formats emerging now – 2K (2048 x 1152) and 4K (4096 x 2304). Traditionally these were out of reach for the lower-budget filmmakers, but we’ll discuss in Part 2 how this has dramatically changed in recent times.

2. Progressive Scan

You have to shoot progressive if you want to shoot for cinematic release. Period. Whether you achieve this via some sort of Frame mode (as on the XL-H1) or by actually acquiring progressive frames from the sensors is up to you. But putting interlaced footage on the big screen is definitely a no-no. It’s a dead giveaway that it was acquired digitally.

What is progressive scan? Traditionally, video was shot interlaced. A frame was recorded in 2 fields – one for odd lines, one for even lines. This was to facilitate easier transmission, since this meant that the data sent over to consumers could be smaller.

With progressive scan, the whole frame is scanned by the sensor from top to bottom at one go. So the progressive is an accurate representation of 1 moment in time, not 2 halves of 2 moments slapped together.

Why is this important? Because celluloid film is always progressive. So in order to emulate the look of film, you have to follow suit. If not, the audience might detect something is amiss.

720p is always progressive, but 1080 can be shot either interlaced (i) or progressive (p), so it’s important to set your 1080 camcorder beforehand.

3. Frame Rate

There are 2 schools of thought on this. Some people are puritans, and believe you should shoot 24 fps to match the frame rate of celluloid film. Some people are practical, and shoot 25 fps, which matches the frequency of power in Singapore.

Neither is wrong. If you want to shoot 24 fps, by all means. But make sure you set your camcorder to 23.98 fps, to reduce headaches in post-production. And Mmake sure your sound recordist sets the timecode for his sound recording device correctly – either to 23.98 NDF or 29.97 NDF. And wWatch out for flickering light sources, especially when you change your shutter speed, or when working with practical lights (lights that are actually built into the scene).

If you shoot 25 fps, you’re pretty much guaranteed that no lights will flicker. At least, not if you’re shooting in Singapore. Because we run on 50 Hz power, 25 fps is the best base frame rate to use. And it makes for easy offline editing, since you can down-rez to PAL for your offline cutting.

The only thing to watch out for happens when transferring to film later on. Because of the 1-frame difference between 25 fps and 24 fps, your audio will slow down by 4%, which will make the audio sound lower. Solution? Pitch-shift the audio 4% higher beforehand. We’ll talk about this more in another post-oriented article about transferring to 35mm film.

If you’re shooting slow-motion or fast-motion, always watch out for flickering lights. You can compensate by adjusting your shutter speed. More details below.

4. Shutter Angle / Shutter Speed

Film uses a 180-degree shutter, so in order to emulate the movement of objects recorded on celluloid film, you have to do the same. Some HD camcorders like the Panasonic HDX900, the Panasonic Varicam, the F900R CineAlta and the HVX202 allow you to see the shutter in angles, but some don’t.

Is all hope lost then? Of course not. You just use the following formula to derive the shutter speed from your frame rate:

iw1.jpg

E.g., if your frame rate is 25 fps, your shutter speed is 1/50. If it’s 23.98 fps (or 24 fps), it’s 1/48. If you’re shooting slow-motion at 50 fps, it’s 1/100. Simple.

But what happens when flickering occurs during slow-motion or fast-motion? You either use only flicker-free lights, or you round off to the nearest compatible number. For our 50 Hz power cycle, these are the numbers you can use: 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200, 1/400, etc. Doubling each time.

5. Depth-of-Field (DOF)

Depth-of-field is basically the area in front of the lens that appears sharp in the image.

The bigger the sensor, the less depth-of-field you have for the same aperture size. That’s why 35mm film has shallower depth-of-field than 2/3″ camcorders.

You can either get hold of a camera with a 35mm imaging sensor, or you can use a depth-of-field adapter, like those made by Red Rock Micro, Cinevate, Letus35, and P+S Technik. The adapters allow you to use 35mm PL mount or 35mm photographic lenses on HD camcorders.

The adapters basically project the lens image onto a moving 35mm screen, which is then recorded by the camcorder’s own lens. It results in light loss and image softness, but gives you the same DOF you would achieve shooting 35mm.

Another simpler way to achieve this is how 16mm shooters do it. Just use longer lenses (aka longer focal lengths). If you’re using a ENG lens, zoom in to the larger focal lengths. This will reduce the DOF immediately. For your information, 2/3″ sensors are quite close to the size of 16mm film.

Also shoot at wider apertures. This also results in shallower DOF. While 35mm film has optimal light transmission at a T-4 or T-5.6, 2/3″ sensors are best at T2, which can help you reduce DOF.

A note about 2/3″ B4-mount lenses – according to some experts from the states, there is very little performance difference between a good ENG HD lens, and a HD lens from the same manufacturer that’s built for cinematic use. The main difference lies in the lens markings and barrel size. The latter is easier to rack focus on. But ENG HD lenses are much cheaper to rent or buy than their Cine counterparts, so this can help you cut cost. ENG HD lenses usually come standard with a HD camera rental.

However, if you’re looking for the best B4 mount lenses for 2/3″ camcorders, your best bet is probably the Zeiss DigiPrimes. And Zeiss doesn’t manufacture ENG lenses.

6. Latitude and Gamma

Latitude is the range of darkness to brightness that a camera can display before falling to completely darkness or blowing out completely to pure white. It’s usually measured in stops.

This is pretty determined by what camcorder you choose, although you can tweak them a little to optimise their performance.

As a benchmark, film has an average latitude of 12 to 13 stops of light. Maybe even more, with the latest Vision3 film stocks. So you’ll probably want to get as close to this as you can. And find a good DP who knows how to light in order to overcome the limitations of the camcorder.

Most professional HD camcorders like the Varicam and F900R CineAlta can handle a maximum of 9 stops of light when tweaked, while the prosumer ones can handle anywhere between 7 to 8.5 stops. The best HD cameras in the world (Viper, F23, etc.) average 11 stops.

Most HD camcorders come with some sort of ‘Cine’ gamma you can turn on. This helps, to an extent.

However, if you’re using a professional camcorder, and have access to Black Gamma, Gamma, and Knee controls, find someone who knows how to use them. They can be tremendously useful for stretching latitude in various situations.

Don’t be afraid to use lens filters either. Film shooters use neutral density grads and polarisers to their advantage, so why shouldn’t you?

Regardless, your objective should be to avoid letting highlights blow out completely, since that’s usually a sign of HD’s limitations. Film has a gentler roll-off when it comes to highlights.

7. Detail Level

Detail refers to the artificial sharpening that all video and HD cameras have built-in.

You’ll want to turn this sharpening off, as it draws a line around the objects in your scene, making them look ‘video-like’. This sharpening will become very obvious and ugly once you get it to the big screen, and is a giveaway that you shot digitally instead of on celluloid..

Once it’s off, though, you’ll need a good focus-puller, because it’ll be a lot harder to tell what’s in focus, and what’s not.

In professional HD camcorders like the Panasonic Varicam, the Panasonic HDX900, and the F900R CineAlta, Detail is a control you can turn on and off easily. In prosumer camcorders though, it’s defined as numerical value.

Keep in mind that the value ‘0’ doesn’t mean Detail is turned off. Sometimes the manufacturers will place ‘off’ somewhere else, like ‘-7’, or some other number. It’s best to search the internet to find out the specific ‘off’ point for your chosen camcorder.

That’s all we’re gonna cover for now. In the next part, we’ll go over the various low- to mid-priced HD camcorders available for sale/rental in Singapore, and discuss their pros and cons.

Ian Wee is a Director of international programmes, including work for the National Geographic Channel, and the Discovery Channel. He also trains professionals in HD & broadcast technologies, including advanced camera handling. Ian is also a Post-Production Supervisor in Widescreen Revolutions LLP, which specialises in HD offline, online & colour-grading services for the broadcast and feature film markets.

More in this series:
Part 2: Production Camera Options

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