How to Pick a DV Camera

By Greg Pak

 
With a variety of manufacturers making digital video camcorders ranging between $600 and $9000 dollars, it’s easy to get confused about what kind of camera for low-budget filmmaking. Here are a few pointers for your consideration.

 
1. Make sure the camera has manual focus and manual exposure controls

 
Many inexpensive camcorders are almost entirely automatic, with no manual controls for determining focus and exposure. This may be handy for the casual home movie shooter, but it’s unacceptable for anyone needing creative control for serious shooting.
    
You need manual focus so you can focus on exactly what you intend to see sharply and can quickly adjust as needed. Automatic focus mechanisms have a tendency to surge back and forth a bit as the frame changes — a distracting and nasty-looking effect.
    
Similarly, you need manual exposure control to control the images you record. Some auto exposure mechanisms will make a character’s face too dark if the character is standing in front of a brighter background. Or the reverse can happen — in one common, ugly glitch with auto-exposure, a close up of a pale character will look fine — but if the camera tracks backwards, the character’s face will begin to blow out as the camera tries to expose for a darker background.

 
2. Be certain the camera has a jack for an external microphone and a jack for headphones

 
Some of the cheapest consumer camcorders don’t have a jack for an external microphone. This means that you’re stuck with the sound from the built-in microphone on the camera. These microphones are notoriously substandard — again, they’re fine for home movies, but if you’re making a fiction film in which you need to have your camera across the room while your characters whisper to each other in bed, you need to be able to get a microphone on a boom near those actors. If your camera has no audio input jack, you’ll have to record sound separately on a DAT player, for example, which opens a whole new can of worms we won’t go into here.
    
A headphone jack is also essential for monitoring your sound. Without a headphone jack, you’re not certain what kind of sound you’re recording until you play the tape back through a television set or monitor. And you don’t want to get back from a weekend of location shooting in Alaska to discover your sound is screwed up.
    
Also, an XLR sound jack is superior to a mini sound jack. But very few of the affordable cameras will have the XLR option – the Sony PD 150 comes to mind.

 
3. Ideally, get a camera with manual control of audio levels

 
This is a tough requirement — very few of the cheaper cameras have any manual control of audio levels. The cameras set audio levels automatically as they record. For documentary shooting, this is often preferable. But for fiction shooting, you have a better idea of your characters’ volume and would benefit from being able to preset sound levels. The disadvantage of letting the camera set the levels automatically is that when characters fall silent, you’ll hear the room tone surge as the camera tries to find sounds to record. It’s an unpleasant sound which you can deal with when you’re editing, but it’s a pain that you could avoid if you have a camera which lets you preset sound levels. Also, if you have a camera that lets you preset sound levels, you can use an external mixer for even more precise control of sound levels.

 
4. One chip versus three chip

 
The sensitivity of cameras is gauged by the size and number of computer chips they contain. The bigger the chips and the more chips you have, the better your image quality. Generally cameras are one chip or three chip. Three chip cameras are preferable. One chip cameras can generate great images — particularly under good lighting conditions. But three chip cameras hold up better in low-light situations. Three chip cameras tend to be considerably more expensive than the cheapest one chip cameras.

 
5. MiniDV versus DVCAM

 
I’ve been told different things about these different formats. MiniDV and DVCAM cameras use the exact same tapes, so there’s no difference in tape quality. But DVCAM cameras use more feet of tape to record the same amount of material — a tape that runs for 60 minutes with a MiniDV camera may only run 45 minutes or so with a DVCAM camera. The impression this gives is that DVCAM cameras are recording more information and hence have a better image quality. I do not know what the clear answer is here. I do know that material I’ve seen from a Sony DSR 300 DVCAM is much sharper and cleaner than images recorded under the same conditions on a Sony VX-1000 Mini DV camcorder. But that may have as much to do with chip size and lenses as tape format.

 
6. NTSC versus PAL

 
If you’re producing solely for television or the web, the NTSC versus PAL issue isn’t important for you — you should get a normal American NTSC camcorder and not worry about it. But if you’re hoping to transfer your video to 35mm film for theatrical projection, you should seriously consider getting a PAL rather than an NTSC camera.
    
NTSC is the American and Japanese video standard. PAL is the video standard used throughout Europe. PAL has about 100 more lines of resolution that NTSC, meaning it’s about 20 percent sharper and cleaner. In demos of video to film transfers from lab like DuArt and SwissEffects, PAL footage always transfers much better than NTSC footage.
    
The disadvantage is that PAL records at 25 frames per second. Film runs at 24 frames per second. So when labs transfer PAL video to film, they do it frame for frame, which means the program slows down by 4 percent. (When transferred to 24 fps film, every second of 25 fps PAL footage has an extra frame. All those extra frames add up…) I haven’t gone through the process with one of my own films, so I haven’t had to experience and deal with this slow-down. But I’m concerned about it — in particular, if I were making a comedy, I’d wonder seriously about the effect this slow-down would have on the timing of the gags.
    
I’ve heard that filmmakers can prepare for these effects by slowing the footage down 4 percent when they’re editing — this allows them to preview the exact timing of the final film print. But this still means the footage is 4 percent slower than it actually was when it occurred on the set. I haven’t yet heard of filmmakers being outrageously disturbed by these effects. But it’s something I’m considering as I think about how to shoot my next films.

 
7. Lenses

 
The quality of the lens can make a big difference in image quality. I’ve been very happy with my Sony VX-1000 for the DV shorts and documentaries I’ve made. But some filmmakers prefer the Canon XL-1 over the Sony VX-1000 because different lenses can be used with the Canon camera body. And the gorgeous lens of the larger format Sony DSR 300 DVCAM camera, for example, blows the VX-1000 lens out of the water. In general, I’d advise prospective buyers to test different cameras by shooting and comparing footage. People have different opinions about the looks from different cameras — your best bet is to test some cameras and develop your own opinions.

 
8. Filters

 
If you plan to use filters with your DV camera, it’s a good idea to confirm that filters are available which will fit the size of the lens on the camera you’re buying. I know that Tiffen makes many filters which will fit the Sony TRV 900 and the VX-1000, for example. But I don’t know if it makes filters which will fit the lenses of the many smaller camcorders from different manufacturers. You can always create work-arounds, taping filters to lenses, for example, but it’s always nice to be able to get the exact right filter for your camera.

 
9. Various other features

 
Different cameras provide various nifty features which, while unessential, may be very attractive to certain filmmakers. In this category, I’d list fold out viewfinder windows, flash memory card slots for still photos, titling options, and various digital effects.
    
Another subjective preference issue is whether you prefer a black and white or color viewfinder. Many of the larger, professional cameras only have black and white viewfinders. B&W viewfinders tend to be sharper than color viewfinders, allowing more precise focus control. Some cameras, like the PD 150, have a B&W viewfinder and a color LCD fold-out panel, giving shooters both options.

 

Staging a Screenplay Reading

By Greg Pak

 
Last month I held a reading of my new screenplay “Robot Stories” at the Asian American Writers Workshop. I was very happy with the event — here are a few pointers based on the experience.

 
Why do this reading?

 
Step number one is to decide why you’re doing the reading. This will determine your schedule, presentation, and target audience. I wanted to do a reading of “Robot Stories” primarily for workshop/script revision purposes. The film is a feature consisting of three shorts — I wanted an audience to absorb the material in one sitting so I could see how well the shorts work together as a feature.
    Finding a producer or financier willing to back the picture would have been an added bonus, but that wasn’t my primary purpose for holding the reading. So I didn’t go hog-wild trying to get industry presence at the event. I sent emails to people on my mailing lists, but I largely left the publicizing of the event up to the Asian American Writers Workshop, the fine organization which was hosting the reading.
    It’s worth noting that if you want maximum industry turnout, you should avoid holidays. The reading took place on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, which a few folks mentioned as a reason for not making the event.

 
Casting, rehearsal

 
For the most part, I cast actors I knew in parts I knew they could nail. But I had no intention of doing the reading cold — I wanted the screenplay to come alive for the audience, which meant rehearsal. Since it was a just a reading, without blocking or memorization, we were able to be very efficient with rehearsal time, meeting the day before the reading for four intense hours.
    In casting the piece, I had everyone read multiple roles. This avoided the boredom an actor feels when he or she has a two page scene in the middle of the screenplay and never appears again. And it kept the number of people involved in the event smaller, which meant less logistical complication and fewer mouths to feed.

 
Food

 
I provided three meals. First, an informal dinner at my place a few nights before the event, for whoever wanted to come over and hobnob. Two actors came, and since they were playing a husband and a wife in the piece, we were able to talk about the script and their characters and do a little reading. Entirely helpful and made the subsequent formal rehearsal more efficient.
    Second, I treated the cast to brunch right before the big rehearsal. The meal let people get to know each other, which is always good. And it ensured that everyone was well fed and jolly as we began to work, which was outstanding. A four hour rehearsal can be grueling if people have skipped breakfast.
    Finally, I took everyone to dinner after the actual reading. Since the reading was over, this clearly didn’t affect its outcome. But it was fun. And an entirely appropriate thank you, since I wasn’t able to pay anyone for participating in the reading.

 
Staging

 
I told the actors not to act out any of the characters’ movements physically. We treated it a little like radio or voiceover work. We set chairs in a half circle on stage. When an actor was in a scene, he or she would stand up, script in hand, to deliver lines. The actors would look at each other, working off of each other emotionally. But they did not march through any blocking.
    I brought in a few clamp lights, two light stands, and a dimmer. This allowed us to have a few light cues, fading up and down when the script dictated. A nice touch which helped the audience settle into the piece.

 
Two people reading narration

 
Having been to readings before, I knew that the most important and hardest-to-execute part of the production are the stage directions or narration. Without anything to see, the audience can quickly zone out during these descriptions. In order to enliven the narration, I always had two actors trading lines — every time there was a carriage return in the screenplay, a new voice took over. I paired men and women for this narration. So the actors could play off of each other a little, building a little scene as they read the narration. And the audience’s interest was maintained by a variety of voices telling them a single story.

 
Music

 
In the biggest coup of the evening, my friend Rick Knutsen provided improvised accompaniment on the piano to the reading. We spent about an hour right before the reading going through the screenplay, talking about and practicing a few different music cues. We rehearsed many of the transitions with actors, music, and light cues.
    The music was minimal, but it helped enormously. It gave the actors something more to work with. And it helped bring the narration to life. I was extremely happy with the music in the last two pieces, less thrilled with the music in the first piece. This was my own fault as a director, though. And, actually, making a mistake like this was exactly the point of doing the reading — better to do it now than when I’m actually shooting the film.
   To be specific, the first piece in the screenplay is something of a tear jerker, and the music was very sentimental. So the piece became much too gooey. To make the piece work, I’ll need both the music and the performances to run counter to the sentimental tendencies of the story — then the emotional impact at the end will be much stronger. An excellent thing to learn at this early stage in the development of the picture.

 
Customized Comment Sheet

 
I made a one-page sheet which I asked audience members to fill out after the event. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What moments did you like the most? What did you like the least?
  2. What, if anything, did you find confusing?
  3. Do the three stories hold together as a single feature for you? Would you like to see this as a feature film or as a series of half-hour television programs?
  4. The title “Robot Stories” may be taken… Any suggestions for an alternate title?
  5. Please list three of your favorite movies
  6. Any other thoughts/ideas/suggestions? Things that could be cut, things that are missing, things that you just loved or hated so much you need to rant about ’em? Don’t be shy! (Please use the back of this page if you need more space).

I found the responses very interesting and helpful — although no one did have a good alternative title suggestion. I asked people to list some of their favorite movies just to get a little hint of their preferences and taste — helpful in determining how to take certain comments.

 
Conclusions

 
That’s all I can think of for now. After I’ve revised the screenplay, I’m hoping to do another reading or two, this time perhaps in hopes of getting some industry interest. I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

Sundance Pointers

By Greg Pak
So I finagled my way to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival this year by snagging a job as a videographer for one of the festival sponsors. No pay, but they hooked me up with a plane ticket and accomodations. I’ve just returned and I’m chock full of practical hints.

 
Cold weather clothing

 
I wore long johns and sweaters every day, and my knit cap was essential (although I managed to lose it before the week was out). However, I did not need the eight pound insulated snow boots I hauled out to Utah. My leather Redwing hiking boots served me just fine, worn with heavy wool socks and liners.
    Some folks dressed up for some of the parties, but cold weather casual ruled the days and nights.

 
Self promotion

 
The festival is aggressively flyer-unfriendly. Park City actually has an ordinance prohibiting people from handing out flyers on the streets and annoyingly officious Sundance volunteers quickly throw out any publicity materials unrelated to festival films which are left on tables or posted on kiosks. So much for the scrappy independent film spirit.

 
Transportation and Lodging

 
Shuttles to and from the Salt Lake City airport cost about $25. The company I used was Park City Transportation, 1-800-637-3803. The airport is about half an hour from Park City, without traffic.
    The festival venues are spread out widely — unlike Telluride, where almost all the theaters are within walking distance of each other. But Sundance runs an efficient shuttle bus service which trucks filmgoers from theater to theater. I never had to wait more than fifteen minutes for a bus.
    But be careful where you stay — not all of the surrounding condos are on the shuttle circuit. I stayed in several different places, with my level of convenience and luxury decreasing as the week wore on.
    First I was at the Lodges at Deer Valley, a pretty nice ski lodge which has its own shuttle to and from Main Street. It’s also on the Park City shuttle circuit. Very convenient, but expensive. My tab was picked up by my employers — I think it was around $250 a night.
    Then I stayed a night at the Best Western, which was 6 miles out of town. Only (!) $169 a night, but considerably less convenient. The hotel ran an hourly shuttle to Main Street, but it stopped running around midnight. After that, I had to catch cabs ($12).
    I spent the last few days in a shared condo with friends of friends. A mere $100 a night, but there were no convenient shuttles. I ended up taking cabs in and out of town, at $8 a pop.

 
Food

 
The Japanese restaurant on Main Street is terrible — congealed rice, sugary udon broth, tempura vegetables cut too thick. Ugh.
    The Thai and Vietnamese restaurants were pretty good, but wildly overpriced. One of the best little meals I found was the soup special at Burgies — tasty and good for cold weather.
    Warning — the condos and lodges don’t have adjoining restaurants. To get food, you’ll have to shuttle or drive into Main Street. For general provisions, take the shuttle to the Holiday Village Cinemas — there’s an Albertsons supermarket a few doors down.

 
Swag

 
If you get into any parties, grab the free stuff early. I was working plenty of swanky parties, shooting video, but invariably I’d forget to make my way to the swag tables until it was too late. Missed out on some nice stuff, too — people were walking away with free pagers and backpacks and whatnot. Ah well. We all have enough junk anyway, right?
 
Video equipment

 
I brought my camera along as back up and then had to use it for my gig when my employer’s camera turned out to be broken. So at the last minute, I had to scramble to find a video light on a Saturday morning. I ended up going to Salt Lake City — I found a camera store called Inkleys which helped me out. 127 S. Main Street, 801-328-0561.
    For extra batteries, try the Radio Shack next to the Holiday Village Cinemas. The theater shuttle will take you right there.

 
Schmoozing

 
I didn’t have a film in the festival, so I wasn’t there in maximum self-promotion mode. But the streets are full of Los Angeles and New York film industry people fairly itching to toss their business cards your way. If you’re even marginally friendly, you should be able to meet producers or managers or agents or fellow filmmakers — they’re sitting beside you in the theaters, sharing taxis, and standing next to you in line. Bring business cards.

 
Getting screened

 
When I found out I was going to Sundance on a videography gig, I promptly submitted “Asian Pride Porn” to TromaDance, one of Park City’s supplemental festivals. There are a slew of alternative festival screenings going on — and although no one’s offered me a three picture deal on the basis of my TromaDance screening, it was nice being able to tell people I had a film showing during the week.
    I met another TromaDance filmmaker who was even more savvy about getting his work shown — upon arriving in Park City, he talked to the organizers of NoDance and got himself a screening in their festival as well.

 
Seeing films

 
I got very lucky with tickets — a friend hooked me up with a number of comps and I was able to get into a few press screenings in my capacity as the editor of AsianAmericanFilm.com. If you don’t have an inside angle and don’t want to pony up the bucks ahead of time, I’d recommend going to the matinees rather than the evening screenings. Almost every evening show I attended was sold out. The matinees were very well attended as well. But screenings begin as early as 8:30 a.m. — if you’re willing to get up early, you oughta be able to see something on short notice.

 

Tip of the Day: A nifty trick for enlivening Q&As

By Greg Pak
I caught a clever trick at the Sundance screening of the Korean film “The Isle” last week. To encourage a lively Q&A session, the producers handed out free CDs of the film’s soundtrack to everyone who asked a question. Clearly, this could get expensive if you did it every time your film screened. But for critical screenings where press and distributors may be present, this kind of gimmick might be worthwhile… After all, the more questions people ask you about your film, the more favorable an impression you may be able to make about the film and yourself.

Final Cut Pro Sound Remix

By Greg Pak

 
fg poster
Challenge: I needed to remix parts of my 16mm film “Fighting Grandpa” in order to replace some music for which I couldn’t afford to pay licensing fees.
 
Discoveries: I couldn’t afford the prices charged by sound mixing studios to remix the film from the original 16mm mags. But I found a way to achieve the same effect using my Final Cut Pro digital editing system.
 
Upshot: For remixing small parts of my 16mm film, Final Cut Pro was the best solution.

 
The Gory Details
When my short film “Fighting Grandpa” played on Cinemax in 1999, I paid about a thousand dollars for sync rights to two church songs which I’d used on the film’s soundtrack.
    Now my contract with HBO/Cinemax is expiring and I’m beginning to license the film to other television venues. But I can’t afford to pay the licensing fees which would be required to get the rights to the original songs in perpetuity. Even for these obscure church songs, I would have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars.
    So I needed to replace the music with original music from my brilliant composer, Rick Knutsen.
    The problem was that I’d built all of my original sound tracks using 16mm analog mag, the standard at the time. But most of the more affordable mix houses in New York can’t handle mag at all. I’d have to transfer all of my mag sound tracks to DAT or BetaSP in order to mix from them.
    After considerable calling around, I finally located an affordable place to transfer my 16mm mag to DAT. They did a fine job transferring six mag tracks to DAT for under a hundred bucks. A great bargain. Check ’em out:
 
    Trackwise
    123 W. 18th St. 7th Floor, NYC
    212-627-7700
    Contact: Fran
 
    Once I had the transferred DAT in hand, I realized I could probably do the remixing work myself on FCP. I transferred the DAT to MiniDV using my old, reliable Teac DAT player and my Sony GVD-900 MiniDV deck. Then I input each track into my Final Cut Pro system from the MiniDV. I already had a MiniDV copy of “Fighting Grandpa.” So I loaded in the picture from that tape. And I began editing.
    First, I sunk all of my original tracks and the original mix to the picture. Then I cut out all of the sections of the original mix which didn’t run beneath the music I needed to replace. Then I created a new track with the replacement music and cut out the parts of the original mix which overlapped the new music. Then I fine tuned, setting levels and using FCP’s 5 band equalizer audio filter.
    When I was happy with the way everything sounded, I exported the entire program as an AIFF file. This gave me a mono soundtrack, which I then imported into the project as a sound clip. I copied the project, stuck in that mono track in tracks 1 and 2, eliminated all the other tracks, and checked levels.
    Then, my friends, I exported to MiniDV and had a dub house make my BetaSP copies to send to television stations.
    If I had paid a sound mixing studio to do the work for me, I probably would have a marginally finer final product — their mixers have more experience and better machines, after all. But I’m fairly picky about sound, and I’m very happy with the result of my do-it-yourself job.
    And it saved me from having to spend several thousand dollars which I didn’t have…

 

Shoot those Stills

By Greg Pak
Everyone will tell you this, and it’s so true: Make sure you get good 35mm publicity photos (a.k.a. “production stills”) during the shoot.
Ideally, you should shoot both color slides and black-and-white. In practice, I’ve mostly shot black-and-white and had nary a festival complain. But if you have excellent color stills, you’ll no doubt have them used more and in better venues — some magazines, for example, will run someone else’s mediocre color photo before your excellent black-and-white.
Even if you’re making a MiniDV short, shoot those stills on film.
I’ve just made this mistake myself — in the scramble to shoot “The Penny Marshall Project” (a Blair Witch spoof from the Pollyannas) in a single day, I let the shooting of 35mm stills slip by. For publicity, I’ve made do with frame grabs from the video.
Penny Marshall Project stillThe photo on the right depicts Lisa Jolley in “The Penny Marshall Project.” This is a frame grab from a video image displayed in a Final Cut Pro window on my computer — not a 35mm still. Online, it looks okay. Blown up for a festival program, newspaper, or magazine, it’s a little less than ideal. I’ve gotten away with it, but 35mm stills would give better results.
With certain productions, you can shoot stills after the fact — I’m fairly confident, for example, that I can get a few good stills for “The Penny Marshall Project” if I can get an actor or two in costume in a dark corner of Central Park. But for most projects, if you don’t shoot the stills that day, you’ll never get ’em (’cause the actor’s moved to L.A., the costume’s gone back to the rental shop, and the location is now a parking lot, etcetera).
Regarding the content and composition of stills, avoid wide shots of ten people — those will seldom get reproduced. Go for simple but striking images of one or two actors.
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mouse still
Seung-Hwan Han in “Mouse”

My most successful still is the image at the right for my short film “Mouse.” Almost every festival that ran “Mouse” included this photo in its program. “Mouse” may not have been the best film in a given program of shorts, but it had the most striking photo and as a result got the most graphical attention.

Writer of over 500 comic books, including PLANET HULK, MECH CADET YU, FIREFLY, and DARTH VADER