March 16, 2004
By Laurie K. Gilbert, s.o.c.
As the video imagery on our domestic television sets evolves closer in quality and format to cinema screens, so directors, producers and cinematographers rise to meet the challenges of shooting even more dynamic imagery in distant locations.
In 2001 I travelled around the world with director Corinna Sager and a Digibetacam team to shoot container ships arriving in foreign destinations for a global shipping company. From my aerial operating position behind a helicopter Tyler mount, I tried to compose mammoth ships with an aspect ratio of 20:1 within the restrictions of a regular 4:3 television screen – an exercise that left empty space everywhere no matter which way I framed it. 18 months later, I repeated the exercise with a 16:9 aspect shooting ratio, which was much more suitable for the Italian luxury ocean liners and the high speed hydrofoils Corinna was offering me this time.
As the recording formats progress and change, so do the challenges for the Director of Photography. In the Autumn of 2003, Baltimore-based Pennant Productions conceived and presented a concept for a documentary series to a new HDTV network in the USA. They were commissioned to shoot two one-hour pilot programmes to illustrate the potential of the idea. As the series was to be shot outside the USA, I was contacted in Singapore by owner/producer Will Schwarz and invited to join the team as DOP, supported by USA HD cameraman Peter Kent.
What to Take
This time we had graduated from the 16:9 Digibetacam of the Italian aerial shoot, to a pair of 16:9 Sony Cinealta F900 High Definition cameras supplied by Chesapeake Cameras, equipped with two of the most beautiful Canon video lenses I had ever used. We were travelling in road warrior mode as a lightweight, high-production-value crew, which meant two cameramen, a Hollywood Microdolly, the legendary Cinesaddle, minimum documentary lighting kit and more importantly – no camera assistants and no HD engineers.
Shooting High Definition is a different world to all other video formats and I honestly believe that a solid foundation in motion picture film production techniques, especially 35mm, is the best grounding a camera team can have for operating in this format, including for documentaries. Experience in lighting and exposing for reversal emulsions is particularly important because the way HD responds to highlights is more like positive film rather than negative film.
An HD camera may visually resemble a conventional Betacam, but in reality the HD format requires enormous discipline and professional experience if the material shot on location is going to match the technical requirements of the big screen. There are innumerable horror stories of “video-trained ” crews around the world who thought their images were sharp and well exposed who then discovered the flaws in their practices exposed by the amazing resolving power of the HD format.
On a conventional feature film set, the variables the DOP uses to control the look of the final film on the screen, include lens filtration, exposure, camera speed, lighting ratios and then variations in processing, printing and grading once the film leaves the set. On a high budget production shot on HD, the process is so much more electronic that it is normal practice for the DOP to have the input of a dedicated camera engineer to facilitate creative aspects of the camera settings.
With all high-end HD production cameras, there is an infinite range of exposure variables defined on the internal menus that can be manipulated from external camera control devices. The complexity of these settings can extend well beyond normal cinematography practices, which is why the DOP has the support of a specialist engineer. However, unlike film, what you would see on a precise HD monitor on location is exactly what you get on the final master tape.
Before our two Cinealtas left Chesapeake Cameras in the USA, I requested that they were both matched electronically to controlled settings. Because we were not shooting a drama with different looks in different sequences, we actually had no reason to change most of these predetermined settings throughout the shoot.
We also had with us the very excellent Astro WM-3001, a small, switchable, waveform monitor that allowed us to assess and control all the relevant electronic exposure elements of the digital image offered by the camera and make any necessary adjustments. For stationary interviews or stadium locations, this monitor was actually physically mounted on top of the camera.
Our colour viewfinder came with not one, but two Zebra settings and by having one of these indicators at 110%, we were able to judge the critical highlight exposure of locations quickly and accurately in fast moving documentary situations, even without the Astro. At the end of each day we could review the electronic waveform interpretation of these images on the Astro and assess our increasingly accurate, exposure decisions.
Three Weeks, Four Countries
Our documentary project began in bright sunshine at the South East Asian (S.E.A.) Games in Hanoi and finished three weeks later on Christmas Day in thick fog beside the historic Taj Mahal. We were making two one-hour films on the historical Asian sports of Sepak Takraw and Kabaddi and our shoot would take us from the glossy venues of international competition to the rural villages of each sport’s heritage. Over three weeks we would travel through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and India – all countries that I operate in virtually on a daily basis.
In both Vietnam and Malaysia, our official accreditation would literally allow us to place our cameras at the sidelines of the court in each venue. We had the privilege of filming some of the best athletes in the world in their chosen sport, with some of the best cameras and lenses available. The 16:9 aspect ration of the HD cameras allowed us to include both sides of the court in the same frame and the format allowed us to tell the story of fast moving competitions without fast distracting pans and the necessity of rapid cutting.
Sepak Takraw looks similar to volley ball, except the ball is traditionally made of wicker and players can only touch it with their heads and feet, rather than their hands and arms. Players will literally summersault upside down to kick a wicker ball that is 3 feet above their heads, with lethal velocity. It is aerial ballet with a sting and the slow motion images in the final film will truly astonish the American viewing audience.
The Thai players are the undisputed world champions and our shoot took us from the Gold Medal Award ceremonies of the S.E.A. Games in Hanoi to the rural villages, temples and rice fields of Thailand where the game has its historical foundation. As the project progressed, we found we could rely more and more on our experience with the double zebra facility, reliable production tripods and the Cinesaddle to give us the critical technical foundation for well exposed, high resolution, stable images.
The sport of Kabaddi is more than 4000 years old. It has been played by more than 75 million people in the currentpopulation of India, its country of origin and the tactics of the sport are the foundation of modern guerilla warfare. Visually it looks like a blend of rugby, wrestling and dancing and both men and women compete at international level throughout central Asia. In rural villages it is played anywhere where a rough Kabaddi field can be marked with powdered chalk in the soft dirt or sand – at international level players compete on padded rubber floors in well-lit stadiums. Two seven-person teams face each other and alternately send out Raiders into their opponents’ territory. The Raider must try and touch either an opponent or a well-guarded back-line and immediately escape back to the safety of his team. Once the touch has been made, the other team may tackle him physically and prevent him escaping – thus costing him the point he had just earned. The Raider repeats the word Kabaddi all the time he is in opponents’ territory, because he must enter and leave within the same breath. Both men and women play this dramatic, full-contact sport without helmets or external padding.
In the town of Perlis, Malaysia we filmed teams who came from India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Korea, Thailand and Iran to compete for the gold at international competition level before flying to India to document the history and heritage of the sport.
In the town of Faridabad, south of the Indian capital of New Delhi, we were given the official “VIP Reception” before we could watch the school Kabaddi matches they had organised for us to shoot. Sporting garlands of flowers and pursued by crowds of spectators, we tried to work undistracted as barefoot dancers interpreted bangara rhythms on an earthy stage.
Shooting dynamic images of exotic dancing girls on wide-screen format, with stunning lenses – documentary cinematography doesn’t get any better that this! On the final day of shooting, the team climbed into a cavalcade of vehicles for the five-hour drive to Agra and the legendary Taj Mahal. Unfortunately the early morning fog still hadn’t dispersed by mid-day and all the Cinealta could see was a misty suggestion of this magnificent monument to love and dedication.
So we shook our heads, turned around and everyone literally headed for home.
The wrap party on Christmas Day for this three-week, four-country, sixty-tape, HD, two-camera shoot, was an ice-cold beer, home made Christmas cake and a well earned pee, all at the side of a public road in India. …but then what a memorable way to finish such a memorable shoot!
Kabaddi – The Challenge and Sepak Takraw (working titles) will hopefully be shown later this year as part of an international sports documentary series coming to an HDTV Channel near you!
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L’Image Cinematography: www.limage.tv
Chesapeake Cameras: www.chescam.com
Astro Waveform Monitor: www.lemac.com.au/sales/HWARE/monitors/ASTRO/ASTRO.html
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Laurie K. Gilbert, s.o.c., of L’Image Cinematography operates as a global DOP from his central base in S.E. Asia. He shoots motion picture material for feature films, commercials, documentaries, and television productions. He is fully accredited in Hollywood as a helicopter aerial and offshore marine expert, but enjoys shooting challenging subjects on dry land as well!
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©Laurie K. Gilbert, s.o.c. All rights reserved. Jan 22, 2004.