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Alan Caso Shoots HD


By Henry Turner
If you want to get an idea of the quality of HD 24p cinematography, do what producer Dean Devlin did: put an HD camera into the hands of a veteran DP. He recently hired Six Feet Under cinematographer Alan Caso, ASC to shoot TNT’s The Librarian, directed by longtime Devlin associate Peter Winther. A visual-effects-laden adventure tale shot in Mexico, this project gave Caso his first total immersion in the technology. What were his reactions?
“HD is as high-quality as film but it’s an entirely different medium,” says Caso. “The image has a different quality, a silky texture that is unlike film, and it should be marketed that way and expounded that way.”
He disagrees with those who say that HD 24p is—or should be—just like film. Nor does he think that the new medium is much cheaper or significantly quicker.
“It’s a little cheaper because you don’t have the cost of stock and development, but in everything else there are no savings,” he says. “It takes as long if not longer on the production side. It’s a little quicker and a little better in low light situations, but not that much quicker or better.”
Caso sees two main problems with HD: viewfinder optics and durability. He acknowledges that immediately seeing what you shoot is a huge benefit to a cinematographer, but adds that the-in camera viewfinder is worthless as a creative tool.
“They need to get an HD color viewfinder inside the eyepiece, because right now you’re looking at this crummy little black and white thing that’s just like the image in your home video camera.”
The fragility of the equipment is also a problem. “The cameras that are available now are not field-proof; they are designed for studio situations and they’re not durable and not accomplished yet as a filmmaking device,” he says.
Caso points out that over the years 35mm cameras developed to an amazing degree, becoming fast, light, quiet and mobile. He calls them trim, lean, fighting machines. The transition to HD has thrown things back to an awkward age. “It’s all gotten really clunky again. You’ve got a camera that is an incredible hi-tech thing, but you’ve got a gazillion cables coming off of it, and you need a large 24-inch monitor if you want a really good idea of what you’re getting.”
A video village must be set up on location, adding time and complexity to production. On location in a Mexican jungle, Caso’s crew used blacked-out easy-up tents to house the monitors in a controlled environment. “It was just a big circus, [we were] running back and forth from where we had the monitors.”
He also notes that video villages create the potential risk of creative interference. “You’ve got the director/cameraman monitors, and the producer’s monitors. Your end product is on that 24-inch monitor and anybody can take a look, which becomes a whole new politic—now you’ve got everybody with their comments, and that is something that must work itself out.”
Caso says that the size of the crew is essentially the same as on film shoots, except there is a bigger camera crew, and an HD technician who is absolutely essential for smooth operation. The immense amount of equipment makes things more task-burdened for the grip crew. “But as far as the way the camera handles and how that relates to gaffers it’s really all the same: you need as big of a crew, and you do as much lighting.”
In terms of exterior daylight, he found HD to be less pliable than film, and if shot improperly, vulnerable to video-type burnout. To balance the exterior lighting he used more artificial light than he regularly does with film. “Normally I don’t do any lighting on exteriors, I usually manipulate the sunlight with reflectors, white cards, and I use a lot of negative space. But as far as interior night/day or night exterior it was really the same.” And he emphasizes the benefit that HD allows cinematographers to control and change contrast in color in the camera during shooting.
What about cranes, dollies, Steadicams? “Camera movement is tougher,” says Caso. “With film cameras you had nothing coming off them, no cables. Of course, you can run the HD camera off a battery pack and have no cords, but nobody is seeing the true image. I keep going back to that; that’s the lynchpin—that there is no reference except what the cameraman sees through the black and white eyepiece.” Hence he eagerly awaits the next generation of cameras.
Devlin’s choice to shoot The Librarian in HD was based on a threefold decision: as a television release it was not necessary to finish on film; HD also simplified creating the over 250 planned CGI shots, and saved steps with digital intermediates. Caso says Devlin entered into the project with spirit of discovery and adventure, knowing that it was a first for everyone.
Caso chose to shoot the show just as if he was shooting film, and let HD stand or fall on its own. “We had scenes outside where I just let the streaks of hot sunlight come crashing in, and I repeated that on a lot of my lit sets. I knew that when I got into post I could window any problem areas.”
To achieve a more cinematic effect, Caso desaturated the color. “The electronic image saturates color very quickly, so it was always a fight of desaturation. At one point we had like 48-percent desaturation, and even more in a couple places. And you can do it in the camera; it’s not like film where everything’s subtracted and added in the photochemical process.
“The end result is that everybody was thrilled with the look of the show, and that had to do with the fact that we never let ourselves be hemmed in by imagined restrictions—we said, let’s redefine what the technicians say, and create a new look.”
Despite the few technical difficulties, he is extremely satisfied with HD as an expressive tool. He perceives the quality as equal to film, though warns against it being misrepresented as having similar qualities.
“There may come a time when it will look more like film, but that will be all artificially done,” says Caso. “Frankly I don’t understand the reason why people would do that; they’d only do it out of nostalgia, because I think the HD image will ultimately exceed what film can do.”

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