I plan on filming many museum interiors where I'll shoot artifacts, bones, some exterior shots and some of the owners discribing the artifact as they hold it both indoors and outside. Some sync sound, most not. Can 16mm still be viable or is it best to shoot dramatic films on this format and leave the vvideo for the docs? One last ask before I sink $5000 for a HDV camera.
One man's opinion, but I think 16mm is a great medium for documentary, depending on the subject, of course. For reference, you might want to watch "March of the Penguins," which is in theatres now in the US. Most of it looks like Super 16, but there are some video sections. It's worth watching on many levels, but the comparison is useful. On the way home, my 8-year-old asked "Dad, what was wrong with the shots where the penguins were underwater?" To which I replied "Son, remember this conversation, because one day film will be history, and people will accept video as the standard." "That's too bad." He said.
There are all sorts of documentaries, just like there are all sorts of narrative features. Some benefit more from the beauty of film -- such as a nature documentary -- whereas a talking head interview documentary such as "Outfoxed" (about the Fox Channel) or "The Control Room" wouldn't really benefit from that texture, and considering the huge volumes of interviews to be shot plus the incorporation of a lot of video archive footage, there is a better argument for shooting video in the first place.
But something visual about landscapes or architecture, etc. benefits from higher-quality formats.
It's also possible to mix formats in a documentary, especially if a digital post is planned anyway. I remember the Ken Burn's documentary of Thomas Jefferson, all shot in 16mm, but mixing grainy b&w "art" shots of Monticello with the color footage. I think Kevin Macdonald mixed formats in "One Day in September" and "Touching the Void."
David's post is very much along my lines of thinking on documentaries. I agree with all of the points he makes. That being said, I think that those stale, boring interviews all shot in the same place are indicative of all that is wrong with some of the documentaries today. Sure they are the easiest ways to conduct an interview without worries about lighting etc, but it seems that that sort of inteview has become almost formulaic. I really enjoy the docs where they interview people amongst a background that is alive, moving, and somehow interrelated to the reason that they are being inteviewed in the first place. In other words, I am saying that if you feel your doc is OK on video because of the formulaic settings and lighting setups and backgrounds, you probably aren't truly putting enough creativity and thought into shooting the thing. Documentaries I like the most aren't shot in sterile, controlled interview rooms, but rather in the sort of available-light, cinema-verite style that gives you the feeling of actually being in the same world, same plane of the person being interviewed.
I agree that the talking head documentary is one of the more unimaginative types out there, as opposed to the observational "verite" ones that show, not tell -- but sometimes a talking head is sort of the point of much of a documentary. For example, an interview with an old survivor of the Holocaust, or the interviews in Errol Morris' documentaries such as "Fog of War." The face of the speaker becomes part of the meaning or mood of the work. And if you are going to shoot hundreds of hours of interviews, digital becomes a financial necessity for some even if film would look nicer.
In a documentary, content is king, although for some, the visuals are the content more than others. But ultimately, the content overrides everything.
I once was on a panel discussion of video moviemaking at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and we looked at clips from documentaries and narrative shorts and features, all shot in a huge variety of formats from Mini-DV to Digital Betacam to HDCAM. We projected the footage digitally on the big screen. The lowest-budgeted piece was by a young woman who made her documentary for a few hundred dollars on a single-chip consumer DV camera -- technically crude and visually unmemorable, it was about the female roller derby queens of the 1960's, and she had this amazing old tatooed, foul-mouthed, tough-talking women as her main subject. Out of ALL the clips shown, some from fairly slick and well-funded projects, hers -- the cheapest and worst-looking -- was the ONLY one that the audience wanted to keep watching! Because the subject was so intriguing.
There have been some documentaries on UK TV recently that have been superb in 16mm. Michael Pailn's Himalya series looked beautiful, and also, I believe, Dan Cruickshank's Around the World in 80 Treasures about various ancient treasures and sites of the world.
And I am about to have my wedding shot on 16mm!
I think that if you want to flatter people or objects, or show a more true to life image, film is a lot more reliable.
I think that also for, many documentaries, it is a lot easier to achieve a beautiful look with virtually no lighting, of zero lighting, especially with the latest emulsions. (although your documentary sounds like it might be quite staged with time to prepare)
I am constantly watchiong documentaries on TV which have been video originated where there is no detail in the sky and other highlights and people have horrible skin tones.
So then are we talking super 16 or can or should one get by with standard 16mm. For the buck which super 16 camera for a documentarian is a good choise? What type of emulsions are the standard for Docs. For a run and gun is the Canon with internal exposure control a good choise?
You'd need a sync-sound camera that is fairly handholdable -- I'd look into Super-16 if you can afford it since more and more delivery if 16x9 for TV and theatrical is all widescreen as well. A used Aaton or Arri-SR package maybe.
Once you throw in a decent zoom lens and accessories, not to mention the costs of shooting on film, it isn't cheap. Hence why so many documentarians are shooting on video. A super-16 documentarian might have to wait for funding to start shooting a lot of footage (or just have a lot of personal cash on hand.)
Ultimately, shoot whatever you can afford to shoot rather than not shoot at all. Some successful Oscar-winning documentaries have been shot on consumer DV cameras afterall, so don't let people convince you that video is not "legitimate" for docs.
Standard emulsions depend on the subject, but most would either use something like Vision-2 500t (7218) for everything, and use a lot of ND's outdoors, or carry a second, slower-speed stock for exteriors, especially if the majority of the project will be outdoors. For example, a nature camera person shooting only in daylight may choose slow 7245 (EXR 50D) for beauty landscape shots and the faster 7205 (Vision-2 250D) for everything else (high-speed, telephoto, low-light, etc.)