HD Vs Film Crewing Levels
It is a misconception that one can work with a smaller crew if shooting with HD than one can with
film. Historically, video shoots have used smaller crews because they have been conceived from their
beginnings as low-budget productions. With lower quality design input, the daily minutes of screen time
shot, very high, and the crew so small, it is virtually impossible to produce a high quality product no matter
what you are recording on. Badly shot and lit 16mm film can look every bit as bad as badly shot Digi Beta.
With HD’s higher resolution and imaging characteristics, it is the picture quality that is the key technical
contributor to the crewing decisions. As the quality can be nearly as high as 35mm film, all crewing, both
in terms of numbers and experience should relate to 35mm production.
Professional broadcast HD cameras are almost all both heavier and larger than their 16mm film
counterparts, indeed the top end HD cameras are similar in size and weight to 35mm cameras – some are
even larger and heavier. With the number of boxes to move, and pieces of equipment to assemble being
greater than in film, skimping on the number and experience of your crew will cost your production dearly.
Compared to the cost of re-engaging lead actors, extending studio and equipment hire and location fees,
camera crew are remarkably good value.
The Operator – If you want to make use of the ‘What you see is what you get’ benefits of shooting in HD,
having an expensive 20” HD monitor isn’t the end of the story. You need someone competent to watch it
as well. This will almost always be the DoP. With the DoP running between video village and the set, you
will therefore require an operator. All the other usual benefits of an operator on a film set translate to HD
and as the on-set workload on the DoP increases, the operator becomes ever more essential.
The Focus Puller / 1st AC is every bit as important as with film. These cameras can’t focus themselves;
indeed there isn’t a focusing system in the world that knows when to pull focus from an actor speaking to
an actor listening. This requires great skill; in addition, the top end HD cameras exhibit the same narrow
depth of field (how much is sharp in front of and behind the actual point of focus) as 35mm film, and so
require the same level of experience. HD cameras are considerably more complex to set up and maintain
than film cameras, and in the USA a new crew member, _ the DIT (digital Imaging Technician) has been
created to handle the workload (this is in addition to the normal film crewing level).
It may surprise you, but with many cameras, especially with single chip cameras such as the Genesis and
the D‑20, you still have to check the gate! Not for hairs or scratches, but for spots of dust and debris that
may have stuck to the sensor. Checking the gate now involves pointing the camera at a clean bright white
light or card and closing the iris down to see if any spots are present. If they are, very careful cleaning is
carried out – you don’t want to know what the bill for a cracked sensor would be – another reason for
hiring experienced crew.
Whilst on the subject of unwanted artefacts, many digital cameras suffer to a greater or lesser extent from
‘stuck’ or ‘hot’ pixels. These are not recalcitrant or sexy! They are visible as bright green, blue, red or
white static dots on the screen and are caused by a faulty pixel in the sensor. You can also get these on
LCD screens, which can be a problem if using an HD LCD monitor as it’s hard to tell if it’s the camera or
the monitor at fault. Stuck/hot pixels are not usually fixed, but can be ‘mapped out’ (hidden) so that the
camera no longer sees them. They can often be removed in post in a similar manner to dust and dirt
removal on film. Increasingly, cameras are able to fix stuck pixels themselves.
The Clapper Loader / 2nd AC –Yes, you do need one! Tapes still have to be changed and labelled and
report sheets prepared for the cutting room. Some new cameras record to Flash Mags or hard drives which
need to be downloaded to HDCam tape or a back up drive. This is often done in real time, so a 10 minute
flash mag takes 10 minutes to download to tape, plus time to check it has copied successfully, the flash
mag is then wiped (do you really want a trainee to do this?) before being returned to set. Other cameras
record direct to hard drives, which require a similar workflow to flash mags. Cabling has also become far
more complex, and if a remote record deck is used, the 2nd Ac is responsible for its set-up and maintenance
as well as switching it in and out of record. Just as checking the gate has transferred over to HD, so has the
use of the clapperboard. It is quite extraordinary that with all this new technology, absolutely the best and
most reliable method of keeping sound in sync is to bang two bits of wood together! The clapperboard is
also useful for identifying time code errors that can occur from time to time. Talk to any editor or post
house and they will invariably ask for a fully marked up slate even if you are using time code. The slate is
also the best place to put additional information about the shot such as lens height, focal length and
inclination for special effects work.
The Camera Trainee - With all the additional equipment to set up and boxes to move, an intelligent
trainee is an incredibly cost effective addition to any set. In addition to all the good arguments for having a
trainee, just where do you think your future crew will come from?
Video Assist – When shooting in HD it seems every benefit brings an associated cost. The benefit of being
able to effectively view your ‘rushes’ live in terms of quality control (you can tell if there is a focus
problem and potentially strike sets earlier than you can with film) is somewhat offset by the fact that
setting up Video Village is now a time consuming and complex business that can not be left to a trainee;
you will need a properly trained Video assist technician and often a Video assist assistant.
Gaffer and Sparks – There is another popularly held misconception that HD cameras require less light.
This is a fallacy. Most HD cameras have an equivalent film speed or sensitivity to light as 320ASA film
stock, sometimes a little more, sometimes less. The DoP will frequently be lighting to balance with
existing sources such as daylight or practical lamps within the sets and consequently, exactly the same
amount of light is required no matter how you photograph the image. The number of electricians required
is more likely to be dictated by the script and schedule than by what you are recording the image on. This
goes for the quantity of lights required as well.