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HD on the Rise: Mixing Formats

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Mixing Formats in Dust To Glory
While some productions follow the direct path of using one format, such as 35mm film or high-definition video, others mix formats to take advantage of specific benefits. The filmmakers who brought us Step Into Liquid, the 2003 feature documentary about the world of surfing, had such success mixing 35mm and 16mm film along with HD video that they went a few steps further with their most recent production, Dust To Glory, which documents the 2003 SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico.
According to executive producer C. Rich Wilson, the motivation for mixing formats was simple: “We wanted rich, beautiful cinematography, intimate storytelling, and high-impact action.” But as producer/editor Scott Waugh adds, “You can’t always get the quality you want because you can’t get a certain type of camera to a specific location.” And yet, “People want to be dazzled,” says Dana Brown, director, editor, and writer of both films. “People don’t want to see a shaky, hand-held camera for the entire film.”
To help bridge the two worlds of content and quality for Dust To Glory, Wilson, Waugh, and Brown brought on board Kevin Ward as the director of photography. Kevin was himself an off-road racer who won the SCORE Baja 1000 race in 2001. While director Brown concentrated on the interviews and story line, he gave Ward creative reign over the action.
Ward talks about the challenge of the event. “The race itself covered 1,000 miles over 32–36 hours. I oversaw 70 camera operators/cinematographers and used more than 40 cameras to cover the racing action. I wanted to give each camera operator as much information as possible since we were spread out over such a wide area.”
Ward spent several days scouting camera locations along the 1,000 mile terrain. “I took digital stills at each location of what I wanted the camera operators to shoot. Then I created books with GPS coordinates so they could find the locations on their own.”
Ward put together “ground units” which consisted of two or three camera operators working together as a team.
Producer/editor Waugh breaks down the camera numbers and types: “We used nine Sony HDW-F900 HD cameras, three Arriflex 35mm cameras, 13 super-16mm SR3s, 15 Panasonic AG-DVX 100 “mini” HD cameras, and about eight Toshiba 3-chip “ice-cube” cameras” that recorded DVCAM at 29.97. The DVX 100 and HD video cameras were run at exactly 24p to match the film frame rate of 24 frames per second.”
The decision as to what each format should cover was relatively straightforward for the production team because of specific camera benefits. For the interviews, HD was Brown’s format choice. “Shooting a 40-minute HD tape allowed me time to get the answers I needed from my subjects, gave me a lot more continuity, and was much faster than shooting 10 four-minute rolls of 35mm film.”
HD was also used on one of the four helicopters for the shoot. Says Brown, “We had a special camera mount on one of the helicopters so we could use HD and shoot continuously, just change tapes when needed.”
Ward clarifies the purpose and benefit of the other formats: “16mm was the only way to go for the ground units because the cameras were so light. Some camera operators were hiking to get to the vantage point. Also, we could roll 150 frames to overcrank the action and just slap on the 16mm mags. It’s really durable gear. We used 35mm in three of the helicopters to get the best image possible. We also used a 35mm camera on the ground on a specifically designed off road buggy.”
A DVX 100 “mini” HD camera was placed alongside each 16mm camera and rolled when the film camera rolled.
Says Ward, “We used the sound from the DVX with the 16mm film. It was a great marriage for the conditions. The DVX had a good quality image so we used it for hand held, run-and-gun situations as well. A guy on a bike had an ice-cube camera attached to his helmet which was being recorded on a portable DVCAM deck in his backpack. We used about eight of the ice-cube cameras.”
Ward says that out of necessity, “literally everyone on the shoot had a camera in their hand, even the executive producer.”
With about 20,000 feet of 35mm, 30,000 feet of Super 16, more than 120 hours of F900 HD, 74 hours of DVX-100 HD, and more than 15 hours of DVCAM, postproduction began. Says Brown, now with his editor’s cap on, “Other mediums have special dos and don’ts. But HD is the common denominator, everything can go to it.”
For Step Into Liquid, Brown downconverted all the HD and film footage to Beta SP and cut an offline version of the show on an Avid film composer. Once an offline edit was complete, and he and co-editor Waugh knew what film selects they wanted to use, they went back to film and transferred those selects to HD. “We downconverted those HD shots to Beta SP, dropped them into the offline cut so the numbers would match back to the HD source, and output an EDL for online finishing.” They’re following a very similar process with Dust To Glory.
“I really enjoy the possibilities of using multiple formats,” says Waugh. “In Step Into Liquid, we tried to get all the formats to look the same. But in Dust To Glory, since we had certain cameras in specific places, we want to allow each format to have its own look and style to create different textures.”
Says Brown, “You have to look at your needs before deciding on formats. For us, incorporating HD made everything more accessible and allowed us to dream a little more, Hey, I can do that.”
Dust To Glory will be released in September.

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