Subject: Re: Is DV to 35mm a fantasy?

Danny Livingston
(dl at dvscotland com)
October 25, 2000

I think most of us fantasize about seeing our work in 35mm, and the transition from DV to cinema print has been done successfully, at least from the point of view of those storytellers who are reaching a new audience, and nothing will stop an audience watching something they enjoy.

I like the freedom the DV and FCP route offers me to work as I please for myself, and it's certainly changing the TV business, but I think no matter how long any 35mm DV release list gets it will never be more than a tiny proportion of the number of DV cameras sold round the world, because they represent totally different economic planets.

When I work for paying customers I have to see equipment as a business cost and justify it to the clients, hence my aversion to running up large production budgets but skimping on the cost of the most important part - the camera.

Much of my work involves shooting low budget commercial spots($5k-$25k) using Digital Betacam, and we have an associate company which occasionally transfers these to 35mm for the cinema market when the client wants that exposure. The results are great, the clients are happy, but it isn't film, not when it's shown in the same theatre as the work of real, gifted DOPs shooting 35mm film. Same for super 16mm blowups - good, but not without problems,and who shoots 8mm these days?

Many colleagues with much more talent than me have moved away from super16/35mm production into digital cinematography because market forces have taken a good deal of TV drama production there. They appreciate what Digital Betacam does,they make it look great, but it isn't film.

Two technical arguments to consider:

35mm film stock is capable of recording images in a range that CCD arrays can only dream of. You can over expose, under expose,color correct and change the entire look in the lab. Even on my worst days I've taken 16mm Neg to a good telecine colorist and brought back results that amaze me. When I shoot video I have to be much more careful with exposure and color balance - once something is 100 percent white that detail has gone forever, and if the contrast ratios are challenging in the subject then the latitude for correction just isn't as reassuring. Video is actually much harder to make look good.

Lenses are the key to the look of any well made production, and my argument here is not about lines of resoulution, but depth of field. Here's the science bit:

A 35mm standard lens like you would have on an SLR camera is 50mm focal length. Set at F2 the depth of field is really small for close subjects like a mid shot of an actor 12 feet away.This gives the shoot a particular feel if the depth of field is kept reasonably consistant to defocus backgrounds and concentrate attention on the talent. It also keeps highly skilled focus pullers in big demand, because keeping the picture sharp without the audience realising that focus is moving is one of the great secrets of the film look.

When you move to super 16mm the lens focal lengths change, and the same shot might be acheived on a 20 or 25 mm lens, which of course has a bigger depth of field, making the background sharp, and the focus pullers job easier. A good DOP will reduce the depth of field by inserting ND filters to stop the lens down to F1.4 if he wants to acheive the same focus isolation effect. In both of these cases the camera will probably have a good quality prime lens, which will not produce image shift when focusing.

Image shift brings us down the food chain to the type of lens most of us have on broadcast cameras.I have a wonderfully sharp Canon zoom lens which was designed for Digital Betacam. When I pull focus on this lens the effect on the picture is that it appears to zoom in or out slightly, depending on which way I focus. This is a real nuisance when covering a complex scene with any amount of camera movement, and it's an unavoidable part of the laws of optics as applied to zoom lenses, and Canon arguably make the best lenses on the planet. They have now developed a set of 'digital cinematography' prime lenses which avoid this phenomena, so the outlook for Digital Betacam, 24p and the rest of the 2/3 inch video formats is getting better.

Image shift and excessive depth of field become a bigger problem as your CCD chip gets smaller. We use 1/2 inch DVCpro cameras and a couple of 1/2 inch Betacams for news, all with Canon lenses. The image shift on focus is very distracting and the depth of field increases as the relative focal length for a given shot is shorter, but we can't change the laws of physics and these cameras have been great in their areas of use. Big problems, however, when you start working with the 1/3" cameras like the XL1.The Canon wide angle lens has a focal length so short that it renders everything in focus from the dust on the lens to infinity at any exposure above F4, and the standard lens looks like you are focussing and zooming at the same time if you try even a short focus pull.

I have an Optex/Fujinon manual lens for the XL1 and it really makes the camera easy for me to operate more like a Betacam. It's wonderfully sharp and the pictures look entirely different from the standard lens (miss that stabiliser though!), but even when used wide open I can't get the background out of focus enough for good portraiture. I constantly use the end of the zoom and have to move back, but then that's what I have to do to get a decent flimic look on 2/3 chip cameras too.

I like the DV formats when the work requires the kind of involvement that you can only achieve with a light mobile camera which doesn't need that narrow focus look to work. I think that where to concentrate for now with DV production, because when a satisfactory way arrives of transferring a medium as inexpensive as DV to film in a way that works every time you wont be able to find rooom on the bandwagon for the entire film production industry jumping on it. Lets just concentrate on revolutionising television this week!


Danny Livingston

(this article was posted at, and is reprinted by permission of the author)

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