by Pat Lamb
Shooting 24p in Angola, Guatemala, Tonga and the San Juan Islands
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Young recently worked with Abel Cine Tech to put the Panasonic SDX900 through its paces. Young was so impressed with the 24p DVCPRO camcorder, as well as the DVX100 as a B camera, that he went on to employ them in a number of extreme locations for his National Geographic Specials projects.
Distinguished filmmaker Andrew Young, whose documentaries have been honored with Emmy Awards, an Academy Award nomination and top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, recently took Panasonic’s SDX900 DVCPRO 24p/30p/60i camcorder on several exotic locations to shoot three upcoming specials for National Geographic. Abel Cine Tech was the source for the camera rentals for projects that took documentarian Young to the jungles of Guatemala, underwater in the Pacific Ocean enveloping Tonga, and on boats tracking Orca whales throughout the San Juan Islands.
Through his production company Archipelago Films, Young and his filmmaker partner/wife Susan Todd are producing a documentary about monarchies in the modern world for National Geographic. For the other two specials, one on whales, the second on early Mayan civilization, Young is serving as Director of Photography. All the documentaries will air as PBS National Geographic specials in 2004.
Until recently, Young shot primarily on film (Super 16mm & 35mm), and as a longtime Aaton owner was in contact with Abel Cine, the exclusive U.S. agent for Aaton motion picture cameras.
Abel president Pete Abel said, “We’ve worked with Andy for more years than I can remember. He’s the consummate documentarian. When Andy determines his acquisition format and camera for a particular project, he tries to strike a balance between his creative goals, the equipment’s portability and, of course, his budget.”
“Obviously, the realities of lean production budgets have been with us for some time, suggesting a switch to DV shooting,” Young said. “However, I’d shot a television drama with the Canon XL-1, and been frustrated with the results, what I would describe as a cheap video look. I was similarly unimpressed with DVCAM.
“Last year, PBS asked me to shoot a show in Angola for its ‘Wide Angle’ series. It was a tight budget, and the expectation was that I’d shoot DV. I’d been reading about Panasonic’s DVX100 mini-DV 24p camcorder, so I borrowed a camera and shot a test for DuArt of my son, a box turtle and a remote-controlled jeep. It was the first DV I’d seen that had a pleasing look—the difference between interlace and progressive is huge, with the highlights looking so much better. It was very liberating—I bought the camcorder, shot with it for a month in Angola, and we did the edit ourselves in Final Cut Pro. (The hour-long special was called ‘AIDS Warriors.’) The reaction from the PBS on-line editor was that it was the best looking DV he’d ever seen.”
Young added, “Fast forward to my hearing a buzz about the SDX900, and its positioning for that segment of the production market that couldn’t afford HD—or film, for that matter. I was excited that, not only did it shoot 24p, it was also native 16:9, double the bandwidth of DV, and you could change the lenses. I visited Pete and Rich Abel, played with the camera, and was impressed enough to talk producer Bruce Norfleet into using it when he contacted me last summer and asked me to DP his special about whales.
“Shortly thereafter, we went on location in the Pacific Northwest to shoot a profile of Ken Balcomb, a leading environmentalist who has done seminal research about the killing effects of sonar on the whale population. We visited Ken over the July 4th weekend, and were out on his porch overlooking the ocean, where he can view the Orca whales feeding or passing by. Suddenly, a pod of whales appeared. I grabbed the camera and began shooting Ken identifying the whales. My subject—Ken—was in full shadow, but the Orcas were in full sun. I thought for sure the results would be ugly because of the high contrast. When we looked at the footage later, we were amazed at how well the details held in both the highlights and the shadow.
“One of the most exciting features on the SDX900 was the pre-record board, a fantastic innovation, the most significant advance since digital NLE systems, to my mind. The camera’s image buffer is constantly capturing video—and audio–before you shoot, so you always have 15 seconds in the buffer. I can’t overstate what a huge advantage this is in shooting documentaries, which is all about capturing the ephemeral moment, particularly with natural history. Shooting the Orcas, I hit the pre-record the second we saw the splash, and got beautiful images. Contrast that with a previous shoot I’d done in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where I had to shoot 400-feet of film waiting for a whale to surface.
“I’ve used the pre-record function on subsequent shoots with the SDX900. It allows you to shoot amazing time-lapse, which I did in the Pacific Northwest and Guatemala. Most of my time I shot in 24p with the camera, but for aerial work and other subjects that may need to be slowed down in post I chose 30-fps. Effectively, the SDX900 is like film in it allows you to be painterly, abstract, not ‘too real’ like typical video.”
For the whales special, Young and Todd accompanied Norfleet on a three-week location shoot in Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, where he shot underwater with the SDX900. Tonga not only presents a pristine locale for swimming with whales, it has a controversial interest in commercial whaling. And because Tonga is a hereditary constitutional monarchy, Young was able to spend a week with the Tongan royals, interviewing the islands’ king and princess for his own National Geographic special on modern monarchies.
Producer/director Norfleet said, “The SDX900 far exceeds the image quality of any other video camera we used on the shoot. It should have a great place in documentary filmmaking, eliminating the chore of constantly changing mags—with the attendant risk of missing an unrepeatable shot. The pre-record function represents a terrific advance in natural history cinematography, particularly when your objective is capture the unpredictable behaviors of wildlife. On future shoots, I’d be very comfortable using the SDX900 as my primary camera.”
Late this summer, Young took the SDX900 on a grueling 12-day shoot in a remote location in the jungles of Guatemala. DP Young sold producer/director Graham Townsley on using the camera, who in turn convinced the National Geographic hierarchy, who stipulate the highest production values. This special will highlight recent discoveries about the earliest-known period of Mayan civilization.
“Just imagine the surroundings, “Young recounted, “The jungle was hot and humid, and we were scampering up and down tall temples. Underground, we worked in dry, dusty tunnels, smaller that mine shafts, looking for tombs. Sections of the tunnels were overwhelmingly hot, again humid, and full of lime dust. Some of the tunnels were so tight, that I took the smaller DVX100 down and worked with an anamorphic lens and a wireless mic on the main character.”
He continued, “I brought lighting to Guatemala, but I didn’t use it. I used mining lights in the tunnels. For one scene in a tomb with a huge flight of stairs, I used a reflector to send light from a flashlight back on the principal’s face. With the camera’s Syncho Scan, I was able to drop the shutter speed and get a whole extra stop of exposure without using any gain. It was like free exposure, with no compromise to the image.”
Producer/director Townsley commented, “The SDX900 footage is vastly superior in every way to the DVCAM footage we’d previous shot. It has a real film look, very close to HD—you don’t at all feel like you’re in a tape world. Andy shot the ruins of Palenque, and the landscape looked gorgeous. And we shot in very low light down in the tombs, to beautiful effect.”
Young said, “All told, I’ve been really impressed with the dynamic range and color rendition of the camera. Typically with video, you need to white balance with a monitor, and hauling a monitor around is totally impractical for the kinds of shoots I do. With the SDX900 I shot almost exclusively with the camera’s white balance pre-sets, and I was totally happy. Essentially, I set the camera and shot it the same way I would a film camera, and had total confidence that we could color correct in telecine and that the color information was there.
“Working with the DVX100 and especially the SDX900, I feel for the first time I can embrace digital filmmaking for our kind of work. When I shoot with these 24p cameras, I don’t think about the format. Nothing is tainted with the look of a particular video format. Ultimately, with the SDX900 I’m not making compromises when I leave the film gear at home.”
He concluded, “Even though I own a film camera, Susan and I are likely to take the SDX900 when we shoot our last monarchy in November, the Middle Eastern kingdom of Qatar. We’re at the end of the show, we don’t have a lot of budget left, and there are so many practical considerations where digital is more appropriate. You don’t have to bet on film stock choices in advance. You realize more days on location and more time in the editing suite. You don’t have to worry about the technical aspects of film, and you eliminate flipping mags and quick reloading. There’s no syncing up of dailies and audio. Above all, I’ve been assured through experience that what’s on the screen will look format-independent and intrinsically beautiful.”
A bit more on the AJ-SDX900: Panasonic positions the SDX900 dual-mode DVCPRO Cinema camcorder as offering video professionals the ultimate in acquisition flexibility, expressed in the operator-controllable selection of EFP-quality 4:2:2 sampled DVCPRO50 or classic 4:1:1 sampled DVCPRO recording, and native 16:9 wide-screen or 4:3 aspect ratios. The SDX900 is also the first broadcast-grade standard definition camcorder to offer film-like 24 frames per second progressive scan (480/24p) acquisition, in addition to 30 frames per second progressive (480/30p) and 60-fields-per-second interlace scan (480/60i) capture. The SDX900 combines the “look and feel” of electronic film, while being economically priced for low-cost NTSC compatible news and high-performance 525-line field production modes.
To learn more about Archipelago Films, visit www.archipelagofilms.com.
Abel Cine Tech Inc, established in 1989, is a Value Added Reseller for Panasonic Broadcast’s DVCPRO HD and DVCPRO50 product lines. Abel Cine is also the exclusive U.S. agent for Aaton motion picture cameras, Canon cine lenses and Heden motors.