Among the network shows recently asked to consider switching from film to digital acquisition (see "Format Wars") was CBS'' Ghost Whisperer. Producers and the show''s cinematographer, James Chressanthis, pondered the request, but eventually declined. At press time, Ghost Whisperer was launching production on its new season shooting, as it always has, on 3-perf, 35mm film, while finding other ways to trim the budget.
“There is certainly attention being paid to costs, and hence, the idea that digital could possibly be done less expensively than film came up, and the network made that suggestion,” says Executive Producer Ian Sander. “We felt 3-perf, 35mm film is a superior format to anything else available, and so our hesitancy about going digital was not about an aversion to ever capturing images on a digital format. It had to do with the fact that we have a hit TV series going for four years that does shoot and process film, and the machine has been working. We didn''t want to change what has been working. Instead, we''ve been able to make new business arrangements with [film] suppliers and labs and transfer companies, and those new arrangements have allowed us to significantly lower our costs from what they were a year ago, competing with the cost of digital.”
The digital trend, however, ignited a passion in Chressanthis to urge an industry discussion of cost-effective film alternatives for episodic TV. He says he has a firm belief that Super 16, frequently banned by networks from episodic television, is a viable alternative, along with 35mm 2-perf film stock. In fact, Chressanthis recently partnered with Kodak on a 3-perf/2-perf side-by-side comparison test that is currently making the rounds in Hollywood.
“I felt, when it comes to network TV, quality of the image is important to the audience, but at the same time, we are under all these economic pressures, so what to do?” Chressanthis says. “A few years ago, I saw a rerelease in a theater of [Sergio Leone''s] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on modern print stock. It was gorgeous, but I didn''t realize it was shot 2-perf. Not anamorphica widescreen film shot 2-perf. The same reason [cinematographer] Tonino Delli Colli shot 2-perf [on that film] applies today: economic conditions. I also read about [famed cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro advocating 2-perf for acquisition for widescreen presentation, and I realized they are doing this in Europe and that we already have the cameras and lens systems. Plus, today, we have [Kodak] Vision3 stocks that are far superior. With that stock, I can shoot more intuitively and fasterall the detail holds. So I first did a Ghost Whisperer test, and that inspired me to do the [2-perf] test [with Kodak].”
Chressanthis'' test involved simultaneously shooting daylight and night imagery of a young couple outside on 3-perf and 2-perf Kodak Vision3 (5207 and 5219) stock, processing both negatives at Laser Pacific, Hollywood, and transferring both on a DFT Spirit DataCine to HDCAM SR tape in 4:2:2 RGB color space at 23.976fps. Both were edited as ProRes 422 HQ files in Apple Final Cut Pro and onlined at LaserPacific back to HDCAM SR tape for tape-to-tape color correction on a Da Vinci Systems 4K system to create the master that was screened around Hollywood.
The resulting quality of the imagery, he says, is more than acceptable for broadcast television and, in his view, surpasses similar digitally acquired material. He also insists it''s cost-effective.
“We ran lots of numbers, and 2-perf is definitely equivalent or cheaper than shooting on the digital systems we have now,” he says. “Sure, if you shoot a music video with no DIT and a small crew, that might be cheaper. But for quality dramatic television, this compares just fine.”
Chressanthis also lobbies for a re-evaluation of Super 16, insisting the format has “a bad rap” because the basis of the concern about Super 16 are older tests and poorly shot programs. Today, he says, more sophisticated cameras, optics, and the availability of the Spirit DataCine and HDCAM SR tape for transfers of Super 16 material makes the format more viable.
“The problem isn''t Super 16the problem is what you telecine it to,” he says. “Super 16 is a tiny negative, and some networks made a decision based on what was delivered [many years ago] when Super 16 was delivered on [early HDCAM] tape. That''s a bad format to view it, because it inherently has a lot of compression and noise associated with it. Super 16''s grain, especially before Vision3 stocks, was exaggerated by the HDCAM tape format, because of the compression. That same film on D5 or HDCAM SR tape does not have the same problems.”
Chressanthis insists that digital acquisition, whether to tape or hard drive, requires tape or data tape backup anyway, and heavy manpower and time spent on data management and archival work. Thus, he questions how much cheaper it would really be on a grueling TV production schedule when options such as 2-perf and Super 16 might compete.
“HBO shoots some digital but still prefers film,” he says. “They are concerned about the whole soup-to-nuts process. The big problem with [TV shows shot on tape or hard drives] is that the people archiving the material are not the people making the decisions on the front end. So cheap decisions are sometimes made up front, and sometimes, that is the wrong decision and the studio pays for it later. Poor decisions are often made under the pressure of budget in the short term, which have long-term consequences. And that leaves aside the issue of aesthetics.”
Author Michael Goldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.