“I try to be like the Switzerland of high definition,” says Randall Dark, the president of HD Vision Studios. By that, he doesn’t mean he uses untraceable bank transactions to budget his productions, or makes chocolate on the side, but rather, is neutral in terms of proselytizing for which kind of HD gear is “definitive,” or “the best.”Each piece of equipment has its place. Cameras like the Grass Valley Viper, Dalsa Origin or Panavision Genesis, which capture, in Dark’s word, a lot of megadata, are perfect when you’re “shooting heavily into greenscreen.”But when it came to producing the indie film Closing Escrow, Dark had a different camera in mind: Sony’s reliable F-900 high-def workhorse. “For the indie filmmaker, it’s the camera of choice,” he opines, citing Robert Rodriguez’s use of the same camera for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. (It should be noted, however, that megadata fan George Lucas used F900’s for Star Wars as well.)The indie filmmaker in question, in this instance, was writer-director Armen Kaprelian, who’d seen the popularity of real estate-themed entertainment as a producer on HGTV’s House Hunters. So, working with co-director/writer Kent G. Llewellyn—another HGTV alum – he proceeded to go about raising money ‘round the country for his mortgage-driven laugher from—would you believe?—real estate agents!They may have been impressed by the “fast escrow” of the film’s shooting schedule – 57 digitally captured hours done in 14 days – but mostly they wanted to know, true to form, if there’d be a return on investment. And that included keeping production costs manageable.Part of that was the recognition, Kaprelian says, that “independent features don’t have the luxury of millions of dollars for finishing a project,” so working with HD Vision provided a start-to-finish solution for the production chain – both equipment house and post house—rolled into one. On set, Kaprelian used an SDI cable out of the F900, going into a Miranda box, which converted the digital signals into a fireWire-ready output, which, in turn, went into an on-set Apple Powerbook, through which the director was able to monitor takes, shots, lighting, color, and all other parameters.But besides the immediacy, Kaprelian wanted his actors to work in an Altman-like improv environment, while “keeping the beats” of the scene, and the F900’s, spooling on Maxell tape and not celluloid – allowed him to keep the cameras whirring, up to a total of 212 gigs of information for the whole movie. The total amount is also a result of outputting in 4:2:2 rather than the 4:4:4 digital density that the Vipers of the world are known for.Cinematographer Scott Billups took Dark’s observation to heart, that “just because it’s high def doesn’t mean you’re going to make great pictures. Beautiful lighting,” he avers, “is beautiful lighting,” and Kaprelian concedes that “in terms of crew and man-hours,” digital was “pretty similar” to shooting on film.Kaprelian liked the HD experience so much he remains committed to it for other features down the road. He also likes the format’s utility on the publicity front, where material can be ported through other pipelines, like cell phones and broadband. This, Dark notes, helps “create a buzz for the feature,” though ultimately, Dark also recognizes that the finished project will “end up being in 35mm as well as digital.” As for hi-def’s future in general, Dark notes that there are “now over 40 shows in HD – versus four a couple years ago.” The pool of crew members versed in working in a digital, HD environment is “getting bigger by the moment.” As for what goes in front of the camera, or who writes the words, well, some things can’t be digitized after all. “Talent,” Dark says, “is talent.” And increasingly, that talent will be captured not by gelatin strips, but by ones and zeros.
Written by Mark London Williams