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HD (Changing Roles)


Changing Roles in HD Production
By Diana Weynand

HD production is on the rise and below the line roles are changing. Video monitors and their cables are now being seen more frequently on film sets shooting HD. But the impact of HD production goes far beyond hooking up video cables. While some guilds have already created new job positions to help facilitate this change, others are taking a closer look at how HD production impacts their members’ current and future jobs.

The area most impacted by HD production, of course, is the camera crew. To respond to their needs, the Cinematographer’s Guild created a new technical position called a Digital Imaging Technician, or DIT. This position assumes a greater technical knowledge about video than what is typically expected of a first or second camera assistant.

DITs are attached to several HD television shows, but there is overlap with other unions. Jerry Kramer, a Local 695 member and maintenance engineer on the HD production of The Bernie Mac Show, says, “This is what we have done for years. It’s just a different video format with new products from different manufacturers.”

Some HD shows, however, require a different type of technical support. The Reba show, for example, is a four-camera sitcom. The cables of all four cameras lead back to a video truck just outside the studio. Inside the truck is video engineer, John O’Brien, who makes sure the cameras are operating properly. In addition, an engineer from the truck rental company is present to add further HD technical support.

One major concern is how to preserve the film crew unit while embracing the new HD technology. This was successfully accomplished on Robert Altman’s recent film, “The Company.” Altman wanted to shoot HD but use his own film crew. So producer David Levy brought in Ryan Sheridan to consult on HD technology. Sheridan’s primary goal was to allow the film crew to do what they do normally, but with HD gear. Sheridan thinks of himself as a Digital Cinematography Tech, but likens his role to that of the DIT. Says Sheridan, “After about a two or three week transition, the regular film crew was humming along and you couldn’t tell whether we were shooting film or video.”

While some jobs are being added to the camera crew and support area, others are being taken away. Since HD is a video format, it falls under the jurisdiction of a videotape shoot. And video crews are typically paid less than film crews. As a result, many camera operators and assistants are feeling the pinch. And there are fewer positions allocated to handle the video equipment. The multi-cam studio shoots typical to television sitcoms use HD pedestal cameras with zoom and focus controls on the operator’s handle. Moving and focusing the camera used to include an assistant or dolly grip, or both. In HD production, this has become primarily a one-person job.

Maria Varnie, who has worked as a camera assistant on 35mm studio feature films, has seen how getting by with less can compromise the quality of a production, “It’s all a learning curve. But as jobs are being taken away, producers are saying, ‘Wait a minute – we just wasted a lot of footage because the camera guy couldn’t zoom, dolly and point at the same time. Before long,” Varnie adds, “Even the DIT position will be shared between different studio shows.”

Clearly another area of change is post production. Steve J. Cohen, ACE, is a motion picture editor, Avid pioneer, and publisher of the Motion Picture Editors’ Guild Magazine. “I don’t see big changes this year, but there’s a real potential for structural change in the next few years,” says Cohen.
“There will probably be a reduction in the film work that feature assistants
will have to do, but there will be a concomitant increase in HD tasks
assigned to them. Assistants will have to become even more highly skilled to
do their jobs effectively.”

Gavin Koon, Executive Director of Contract Services, sees a broader picture. “Imperfections are magnified on HD. Make-up has to be better, artists and set painters have to produce at a higher quality because what worked on standard definition video doesn’t cut it with the higher resolution of HD. There’s a tighter standard and it takes more time on the production end to get things right.”

In future columns, we will focus on specific areas of production and how they are responding to the opportunities and challenges that come with HD.

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