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Digital vs. Film: Some Post Production Complexities

“Digital vs. Film: Some Post Production Complexities” by Kulwant Rajwans
Last week I had a meeting at a post-production studio to discuss my options for my next film which is to be shot this summer. I figured that since the fast rise of HD has penetrated much of the market, particularly the home camcorder market, making my film with a prosumer HD camera would prove to less complicated (and maybe less expensive) than the more traditional methods. As it turns out, this may not be necessarily true.

The main issues when it comes to considering the complexity and cost of post-production are what type of processes the film must go through to have the desired look, and where the film will be exhibited. At the outset of a project, it would be beneficial for filmmakers to decide what format he or she will be exhibiting his or her movie. For example, if you plan to release your film in Theatrical (35mm), Theatrical HD, DVD, or television, then there are options that are worth considering.

As an independent filmmaker, you are likely to exhibit your movie at festivals on DVD and on television. Take note that today there is a large growth in the amount of digital projection systems at festivals; however, there are so many digital films that that there is growing competition for screenings.

If you are shooting digital, often the rational presented is that the tapes are cheap and there is no added cost for processing the film stock. For the past couple of years, camera manufacturers began launching low priced prosumer digital cameras which attempt to provide the qualities of HD, including offering an HD look, but cost only a fraction of the price! Also, professional editing software is now affordable and capable of operating on a home computer system so the financial risk of making a movie is perceived to be minimal. To better understand if this rational makes sense, let’s look at the way professional post production is done and if it is in fact less complicated to shoot your project in film.35mm & 16mm film

Let’s begin with the scenario that you’re shooting your project in film. You’ve made arrangements with the post-production studio and given details about your project. Let’s look at a very general overview of what goes on.

Here’s an example:

Production dates
Type of project
Format to be shot on
Formats to be output on
Sound Completion requests
Special requests (FX/Sound/Colour/Titles)
Project due date

Presume that you film each day and send the film and sound to the lab for the dailies to be processed and the sound to be synced and transferred to a format that you can have your editor begin capturing and cutting. It is at this time that the film goes through a process known as the ‘3:2 pulldown’ to be converted to a digital tape. The 3:2 pulldown is where 24fps (film) is converted to 30fps (film). Although NTSC is said to run at 30fps, it actually runs at 29.97fps with 2 fields per frame.

Essentially, one is transferring 4 frames of film to 5 frames of video. This means that it is running 0.1% slower than 30 fps, so to have the transfer lined up properly the film must be slowed down by 0.1% during the transfer and the fields transferred accordingly. The end result is not really noticeable to the eye.

3:2 Pulldown. 4 frames of film are transferred to 5 frames of video.
Once the film is completed and you have finished editing your process you export a list known as an EDL (edit decision list). This list is used to perform an online edit of your film at a Post Production Studio where they will also do a final colour correction of the movie. Once that is all done then the project is outputed onto the different formats that you have requested. If you have shot on 16mm there will be an additional cost to blow up your film onto 35mm, and take note that 16mm has a grainier feel.

Shooting HD-24p

Now, let’s look at the situation where you’re shooting your project on HD-24p (High Definition) and want to output it on 35mm. Although I feel that film still looks better I believe that HD is going to play a more prominent role in film and television productions, and understanding HD’s format is going to be beneficial. When it comes to the post-production process it is very similar to film post-process but HD has the added benefit, among others, of the flexibility to colour correct while shooting during production, and the film shooting process does not allow for this during production.

However, in the case of HD, having a film print made requires another technology which generally means added costs. To output a digital project on film, a scanner is used to burn each frame onto film. This added complexity can be very expensive and the price has generally not decreased over the past couple of years. Note that once you choose this route, post production houses usually charge by the minute, and it would be prudent to investigate the rates.

Shooting Prosumer 24p & SD (Standard Definition)

The process that many independent filmmakers are using today is shooting on what is commonly referred to as a prosumer HD or a SD (Standard Definition) camera with the idea of converting it to film just like the HD-24p scenario. What most people do not know is that prosumer cameras are generally a capture-only format. This means that when you want to convert to film you now have the added cost of capturing/converting it into HD and then another expense to have the project burned onto film.

To understand better, SD has a 4:3 aspect ratio and captures at 29.97fps NTSC while standard 35mm film has a ratio of 1.85:1 and operates at 24 fps

Frame Sizes / Aspect ratios

Having provided a brief sketch the differences of post-production process between film and digital, I would suggest to filmmakers that they should consider the type of venue in which their film will be exhibited, and to learn more about the details involved in the post-production process prior to commencing their shoot. Keep in mind that film projectors are still the dominant projection system in theatres today and that shooting on digital may not always seem to be the easier way at the end of the day.

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Kulwant Rajwans graduated in Film Studies from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He formed his own production company and has directed numerous short films and TV Commercials. He is currently in pre-production on his next film expected to be completed fall 2006. Kulwant can be contacted at: krajwans@rogers.com
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