Digital video democratises documentaries

Traditional film still has a place in Kiwi productions

The fourth DocNZ film festival will begin touring New Zealand this month, showcasing nine New Zealand films among a total of 52 documentaries, including some from heavyweight international directors.

The fact New Zealand can contribute nine films, is in no small part thanks to the arrival of low-cost digital video equipment and software that has dramatically cut the cost of production — and opened doors for new filmmakers.

But while all the local directors Computerworld spoke to about their use of digital video extolled its virtues, it is still not a slam-dunk choice. Aesthetic considerations — and even technical superiority — can still prompt directors to opt for traditional film.

Stuart Page is pretty well known in the music business, as both a member of The Axemen and as a producer of music videos, including the memorable 1987 ‘AFFCO’ video for 1980s band The Skeptics. Page is represented in the festival with his film Shustak, about Larence Shustak, the founder of the photography department at the University of Canterbury’s art school Ilam.

Page started out in filmmaking using a 16mm Bolex, and he is still using one on his latest shoot alongside digital video.

Digital video makes filmmaking “totally affordable”, Page says.

“It means you can do it all yourself and own the equipment.”

That said, he insists there is “no comparison” between the quality of digital and traditional film.

“It’s pretty good, but nothing compares with film,” he says.

Page says film also produces better compressed video when digitised, possibly because it has less noise and no digital artefacts to begin with.

For his latest shoot, about Marlborough winemakers, Page is using a Sony XDCAM EX1, which he describes as “lovely” as well as his Bolex. In some respects the two are alike, he says: the Bolex is similarly small and portable.

Despite his love of film, Page isn’t shooting anywhere near as much of it as digital video. Shustak was shot on a small 16:9 Sony DVCam (PDX-10 model), which cost about $3,500.

“I edited it on my Apple G4 Powerbook, which cost about $4,500 in 2003, and a 1TB firewire drive. The advent of that technology fully made it possible for me to make my film Shustak,” he says.

Editing was completed on a Mac using Apple’s Final Cut Pro.

“I’ve been using Final Cut Pro since V1.0, an NTSC version that we had to hack to get it going in PAL,” he says. “I now use Final Cut Studio 2 constantly.”

Shustak trailer

Like Page, Susan Potter used a mix of digital video and stills along with a small amount of film to create her documentary, An Ordinary Person. She used a Panasonic P2 HPX202 mounted with a Nikon zoom lens to shorten the depth of field and produce a filmic look.

Reenactment segments were shot as still images on a Nikon D2 except for one small segment that was shot on 35mm film stock using a Bell & Howell Eyemo camera — first manufactured in 1925. She says aesthetics drove the choice to use 35mm for that segment, in which the camera was attached to an actor.

Bell & Howell Eyemo mod

Potter says high definition digital video is great for managing workflow from the camera to the editing suite, once again Final Cut Pro on a Mac. It also delivers “quite a good high-end look for less money”.

For Alastair Jamieson, filming Whetu Rere — The Sea Lion and the Comet was a first experience of high definition video, which was used exclusively on the project.

“Kat Baulu and I made our sea lion documentary on HDV digital video. We edited it entirely on Mac computers, while on the Postgraduate Diploma in Natural History Filmmaking course at Otago University,” he says.

Whetu Rere — The Sea Lion and the Comet

Jamieson says he is what would be called a “mature student”, having graduated in 1990 and worked as an ecologist. He has been involved in film-making before on contract to Natural History New Zealand in the mid-1990s and on other projects.

Jamieson says the arrival of HD video has made a crucial difference, allowing directors to make “professional, quality video on gear that doesn’t cost a fortune”.

He says broadcast quality video can be shot on equipment that costs $5,000 rather than $20,000 plus. Similarly, the Mac and Final Cut Pro make editing accessible at home, replacing editing suites that could cost up to $100,000.

Digital production also facilitated the creation of music for the film. Composer Claire Cowan was in Auckland while Jamieson and Baulu were in Dunedin. They only met once ahead of her composing the music.

“We were able to send low-res video files over the internet for Claire to compose to. She just emailed the finished digital music files back to us, that we could import directly into our video project.”

Cowan produced most of the music for the film with Apple’s Logic software, along with some live recordings.

Shooting wildlife also brought the light, compact HDV gear into its own.

“Our Sony HVR Z1 is small, compact and portable. If it rains you can just throw a plastic bag over it,” Jamieson says.

The ability to shoot in traditional style from a tripod or by hand, moving gear around quickly allows “really dynamic shooting”, he says.

So, can you also take more risks with the equipment?

“Yeah. The university wouldn’t like to hear that, though,” he says.

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