HD, But Not TV

It's fairly well known that next May's Star Wars installment is being shot with high-definition cameras and will be projected digitally in certain theatres. Probably less well known is the fact that George Lucas' latest space extravaganza will be at least the third feature film photographed with Sony 24P HD cameras to show up in theatres. This month Michael Polish's Jackpot and Brad Anderson's Session 9 will beat it to the punch. Neither, of course, can approach the scale or the budget of a Star Wars, but a milestone is a milestone.

Both movies' cinematographers came to the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 camera system after considering standard mini-DV shoots. "They had always conceived of it being shot in video," says Jackpot DP M. David Mullen of Polish and his co-writer, co-producer brother Mark. The story of a traveling soap salesman (Jon Gries) who dreams of country-western singing stardom, Jackpot demanded a more "rough and immediate" look than the team's last movie, Twin Falls Idaho. Mullen says the filmmakers also wanted to shoot it quickly, with a small crew.

Jackpot photo by Jo Strettell/Sony Pictures Classics.

"They were considering using a consumer camcorder," the DP continues. "I told them the consumer mini-DV format is very well suited to handheld shooting, but not for the kind of static composed frames that they like to do. We also needed a camera with more professional controls over the black and sharpness levels. Jackpot is a road film involving a black actor (Garrett Morris) and a white actor traveling together in a car in the daytime, and I really needed a camera that had some control over brightness and contrast." At the time Mullen was testing various formats, the 24P camera which mimics the 24 frame-per-second flicker of a film camera was coming on the market. "I knew the Polish brothers would prefer the look of the 24P once they saw it."

Session 9 DP Uta Briesewitz tells a similar story. The film, starring Peter Mullan and David Caruso, is a horror tale set in the abandoned Danvers Mental Hospital, an imposing Victorian Gothic structure in Massachusetts. "When Brad first approached me," says Briesewitz, who also shot Next Stop Wonderland for the director, "it was a mini-DV shoot, very Dogma style just run in there with the camera and shoot it. But the location is like a character: You think of playing those big rooms in wide shots. And that's when mini-DV doesn't hold up. You lose a lot of your detail. It didn't feel right for this film."

Session 9 photo ©2001 Claire Folger/USA Films.

After seeing a test, Anderson agreed that the 24P HD did feel right. For one thing, directors (as well as gaffers) tend to love the process because it gives them a sharp color image on the set monitor a much more accurate view of how the final result is going to look than the black-and-white video tap on film cameras. It also offers the option, which Mullen accepted, of framing for the Cinemascope-style 1:2.35 aspect ratio, with no extra cost in the transfer to film. "There's also something about framing for 2.35 that takes your eye off any video aspects to the image," says Mullen.

Neither DP draws a substantial distinction between lighting for high-definition and film. "I had a very small lighting package, mostly Kino Flos," says Mullen. "My big lights were the 1,200W HMI PARs that can be plugged into a household socket. We had one night exterior with a 6k HMI on a tower, the only way I could light the field, and we had a generator with that. In terms of the size of your crew and lighting package, that has more to do with the types of scenes you're shooting. The sensitivity of the camera is about 320 ASA, so it's not that different from film stocks." Since Jackpot, Mullen has photographed two more features with HDW-F900 cameras; on one, he shot in LA's Union Station using 18k HMIs.

Session 9's setting also required some big lights. "I had some setups where we would fire up at least 10 lights, to keep it consistent," says Briesewitz, who had previously shot a high-definition feature on the older 30i cameras. "Toward the end of the shoot, we had all these scenes in the kitchen, and in a big empty white room, and those were actually the darkest days on our schedule. We had to light these big halls. We used HMIs, Maxi Brutes, Kino Flos, xenons the whole range. The big misconception is that if you're shooting on HD, you're not lighting. The first HD film I did, the producer was even suggesting that I didn't need a focus puller."