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HD or SD for a history documentary


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#1 Brian Rose

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Posted 22 August 2007 - 11:55 AM

I?m really conflicted on shooting SD versus HD, and if anyone could offer some advice, I?d really appreciate it. To begin, I am a student at SIU Carbondale, studying for my MFA. I am beginning my second year, and next summer I will start shooting my thesis film?a biography of James Polk (11th U.S. President). It will be lengthy, likely between 2 and 3 hours. It would be part travelogue, part Ken Burns, if that helps. Primarily, I envision it as a product for the television market, like PBS, something that would be shown in two parts. That said, I would still like to submit to some festivals. I?m trying to keep all doors open at this point.

Obviously, I want to make it look as good as possible. My budget is 15K (not including possible grant money), which (I think) precludes 16mm. Thus, I plan to shoot digital, but I am torn between SD and HD. Several professors I have spoken with have been encouraging me to try HD, but I worry about the baggage that comes with it. Although my school is well equipped for work in SD, but only recently begun to equip for HD. There is only one suite for HD work, but it is necessary to downconvert the footage for editing. We have a number of SD cameras, like XL1S, and a DSR 250. Not the newest stuff, so I?d likely get something newer, something that can do 24P, like a DVX or XL2. In terms of HD, the school just recently purchased a single HD camera (sorry, I don?t know the make, but I will try to find out). I?d love to use it, but I?m always worried about using equipment that is scarce. I worry about starting a project in one format, and being forced to shoot in another because what I was using has suddenly become unavailable, or is being used by someone else. If I were to shoot HD, I?d buy my own camera as a failsafe?possible a Sony V1-U, or Panasonic HVX200.

Even so, I?m scared by all the technological demands of HD. My shoot would involve a lot of location work, on historic sites around the country and in Mexico (battlefields mainly, for the Mexican American War sequence)?not exactly the best conditions to be lugging around a lot of extra equipment to handle the HD workflow. Then there are so many post production issues that I worry might get in the way of finishing my project. There are so many questions of format, how to upload my footage, edit it real time, down converting, etc, etc. I am most definitely a novice in this department. If I stuck with SD, I?d be more comfortable. I can find a lot of reasons why HD would not be best for me at this time, but I keep returning to the fact that HD is the future, and if my piece is in HD, it will have a better chance in the marketplace than an SD project? Or am I mistaken on this point? I also wonder, is it worth it at this point to invest in an SD camera like a DVX or an XL2, or should I get an HD camera like the HVX200, and shoot MiniDV? Is it a better investment to buy HD?

HD is the future. I fully accept that. I would love to shoot HD, because I want my project to look as good as possible. Obviously, quality won?t matter if the film is ?shite.? Obviously, I want to focus on telling a good story, first and foremost. That said, do I risk getting distracted with the new technological baggage that comes with HD? Should I instead try to draw upon my knowledge of lighting and cinematography to produce the best production value that SD can offer, even if that means sacrificing the detail and clarity of HD. As a student, should I focus on saving my money, and trying to get the best I can out of the equipment I currently have (i.e. SD), or should I gamble on HD, knowing that it would be better positioned as a saleable product to potential distributors in an increasingly HD marketplace? Should I play it safe to ensure I get the project done, or take leap of faith and gamble on HD? I?d really love any thoughts you all can offer. Thanks!
Best,
Brian Rose
PS: I wasn?t sure which forum to post this in, SD or HD, so I thought I?d do both, to get a mix of opinions. Thanks!
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#2 Michael Nash

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Posted 22 August 2007 - 06:05 PM

"In 1844, the Dem- ocrats- were split..." :P



If you're serious about selling the end product to an outfit like PBS, you'd be wise to avoid prosumer SD equipment (MiniDV) for the bulk of your production. Mini DV is pretty much the bottom of what networks find acceptable for "broadcast quality" (whatever that means these days). For SD you're better off with a more professional format and camera.

For HD there are of course lots of choices. You'll have to work out for yourself which format and codec you can work with in post, and then find a camera that allows you the quality you need with that format. For HDV I'd consider the JVC HD100/200 line.

But the reality of a long-form documentary like this is that you'll likely end up with various source material in all kinds of formats. You may not always be able to use the same camera for everything, and you may receive external footage in other formats. SD miniDV material may sneak its way in there anyway. I would try to edit the project in the best HD codec you can manage, and upres or scale all other material to that.
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#3 Brian Rose

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Posted 23 August 2007 - 08:52 AM

Thanks Mike for the feedback. You raise some great points. Fortunately, I don't start shooting until summer, so I've got a fair amount of time to figure out my options, and try to put together the best setup I can. Your tips really help. Thanks again!
Best,
Brian R.
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