What's all the fuss about 24p? It's been called the "Lingua Franca of the HD World," but it's also generated quite a bit of buzz in the SD world—and even the MiniDV world—since the premiere of Panasonic's AGP-DVX100, the first prosumer camcorder to boast 24p capability, which was a significant leap given the high-level circles where it got its start.
The technique has been controversial among some videographers since its onset, but when you come down to it, 24p is just another creative choice that shares the same frame rate as film, giving video a similar visceral feel. So why the debate?
Perhaps purists simply can't stand the move from chemical film to digital in much the same way that jazz aficionados still prefer their original Blue Note vinyl albums to the clear, crisp, pop-free CD sound. They may point to a loss of fidelity, a sonic richness that can't be reproduced digitally. Similarly, with 24p you can create the same feel, but you lose something tangible with the move to digital, and there are those that argue no matter how much you play around with frame rates, interlacing, and filters, film and digital are and will always remain things apart. Sure, you can add the grain and the dust to make it feel like film, but critics point out that you can't make the camera something it's not, whether you're talking about a $2000 MiniDV model like Panasonic's DVX100 or a Sony CineAlta HD camcorder at the very high-end.
Same goes for the forthcoming 24p-capable JVC HDV camcorder, a $20,000 model that will strike some as the same sort of bundle of contradictions as the DVX100. No matter how sophisticated your implementation of 24p's digital mimicry may be, naysayers say, you can't reproduce the film camera's depth of field.
The JVC camcorder—demo'd in April at NAB 2004—presents a tantalizing array of temptations for videographers in that it offers state-of-the-art approximations of two unattainable "looks," 24p for digitally simulated film and HDV for highly compressed high-definition video. It certainly represents a possible point of entry to both arenas for video producers who have previously found both out of reach (although at $20,000, many will wait for the price to come down first).
Some people believe that digital in general and 24p in particular lower the cost of entry into the filmmaking field, making it easier for just about anyone to get into the game, which (the argument goes) in turn waters down the filmmaking profession. Others brush this criticism aside as an ongoing phenomenon of modern technology development, no different from the evolution of software non-linear editors like Premiere and Final Cut Pro—both of which have recently added 24p support. These tools brought video editing to the masses but didn't make everyone good at it.
People used to working with film point out that what 24p adds to their art is, in the main, instant gratification, and wonder if that's really a move forward. No longer do you have to hand over your precious film and wait for the development process. Instead, you have instant access to your work from the moment you get your shot, and what's more you can produce a DVD at any time. Is that tension of waiting for the film to come back an integral part of the process—and part of what makes it so great—or is it simply a vestige of a bygone era that some people can't let go? Or is the value of the film process inherent in the result, which no digital technology can match? And what does this mean to videographers with deadlines to meet, work to distinguish from their peers', and clients' expectations to satisfy that are determined by popular entertainment, be it television or film itself? Does the mere suggestion of film—without necessarily the technique and craft that makes good film resonate—elevate event video with hints of celluloid artistry? The answer depends on who you ask.
24p production is certainly cheaper than film, and for some that means the difference between producing a film or not. Yet it's not completely fair or accurate to say that 24p (at least for those who plan to distribute a film, rather than produce an event video) is really cheaper. Ultimately, according to the experts, it just delays the costs, but for a young and hungry artist, that delay may make it possible to complete the project. So the controversy continues.
This article explores some of these issues through the eyes of several professional videographers/filmmakers. It's not meant to be comprehensive overview of 24p, so much as a meaningful discussion from the perspective of professionals who have been working in the field for a long time, and an exploration of the place of 24p in commercial videography today.
A Creative Choice and Nothing More
24p is really just a color in your artistic palette, much like the myriad other choices you make in your job.
Michael Phillips is an Avid employee who developed the Avid Film Composer, has worked as film editor, and has cowritten the book Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art Form of Making Movies published by Focal Press. Phillips identifies four processes in filmmaking: frame rate, aspect ratio, progressive or interlace, and resolution.
"Resolution is an easier choice—higher resolution produces a better picture. This choice falls under budget. Aspect ratio falls in the creative bucket. Progressive vs. interlace is about picture quality with progressive generating better quality. Frame rate is a creative choice," Phillips says.
Kevin Weyl, who owns Atlantic Video in Amherst, Massachusetts and specializes in corporate videography, agrees, but wonders if it's such a good choice. "Part of the craft is understanding the intricacies of the process. Working in film requires a different understanding of lighting and depth of field. People who know how to use film, know how to make movies. Others let the technology do it for them, which is too bad because it diminishes the craft," Weyl says.
Award-winning event videographer David Robin of Boulevard Video Productions in Los Angeles says he likes 24p, but in measured doses. "The bottom line is it's another tool in the arsenal. It's great, but I don't want to overuse it. I wouldn't want to shoot the entire thing in 24p," Robin says.
Marya Read is creative director for People Productions in Boulder, Colorado, a video production company that produces commercials, training, and corporate video. She also sees 24p as one choice among many. "For our purposes, in certain situations, I think it's awesome. The key is thinking it through and using it where it is appropriate. If you think how you use a tool based on budget, I think it's a great addition to the toolbox of film and video makers, but it's not everything. It's not panacea," Read says.
Michael Kolowich, president of DigiNovations of Concord, Massachusetts, a firm that works about 75 percent in corporate videos with the remainder wedding, family histories, school events, and the like, thinks it's all about the perception of the viewer and how we have been conditioned to watch film and video. "I think it is an artistic choice between two ways that human beings have been conditioned over a long period of time to look at the medium of television and how they look at the medium of film," Kolowich says. "We all have positive and powerful associations with experiencing things in the film medium and those associations tend to be more associated with the right side of brain, about emotions and stimulating fantasy and storytelling and the like."
Money Changes Everything
Film is certainly expensive, at least on the front-end. Shooting on film requires more up-front capital to get a working print. With 24p, you can produce a DVD at any time in the process, and if you don't intend to make a film, like most event videographers, then it is a cheaper option. Whether you save money or not depends on your final output. "It could be true or not" that 24p is cheaper, says Michael Phillips. "If your ultimate goal is about playing in a movie theater, you get to delay costs until you have something to show."
Noah Kadner, president of High Road Productions, a film company that works in 24p, sometimes says it can make a huge difference for him, especially in terms of up-front savings. "The nice part about 24p is that all those costs are back-loaded as opposed to front-loaded. If I want to have a copy of my film to show on DVD, I have to go from start to finish. With 24p, I can pop a DVD any time I want and not spend a dime. If I do want to go out to film and have a real release, somebody else can pay for that like a distributor. For a modest up-front investment, I get a finished product with something to show. Those expenses still come, but it's a matter of where they come in the process and who pays for them," Kadner says.
Watering Down the Medium?
The real debate is whether 24p waters down the medium and on this question, the professionals interviewed for this article had strong opinions. Most felt, however, that in the long run, regardless of the tool you use, you still need to understand the craft to be a good filmmaker.
Kevin Weyl thinks it lessens the medium, and suggests that using a digital video technology that presents a poor approximation of film may end up selling both media short. "The people who have created the technology are geniuses," he says, "but people who use it aren't, and the culture suffers from the automatic nature of the process. I don't think it's as good. If you can provide a process for video that approximates film, that will diminish people's desire to use film and all of the requisite ability that goes with it."
People Productions' Marya Read says that you still have to practice the art and earn your stripes regardless of how you go about shooting your project. "Every hack out there may pick up a camera, but it doesn't make them good," she says. "It's a lot like desktop publishing in the eighties. Just because you could work Quark didn't make you a good graphic designer. You still have to practice your scales to be good at your craft, regardless of the tools available. If they don't know how to do it," Read concludes, the final product "is not going to be any good."
In the end, David Robin believes that it takes a great business acumen as well as an artistic one to succeed; simply having access to equipment—like a 24p-capable camcorder—that gives you an ostensible leg up on the competition is not going to make it any easier to break into the event video field. "[Having a 24p camera] wouldn't put you in the game sooner. Getting in the game for a newbie in this climate would be pretty tough. It's not just based on what equipment you own, but how a good a schmoozer and networker you are, how creative you are. It's not just the quality of your work. You don't need just a great product, you also need people skills," Robin says.
Marya Read says the pendulum is shifting back from ease of use to skill and creativity. "It's starting to shift it back to creative talent, knowing how to use the tools and being a powerful storyteller both visually and verbally, rather than just access to a tool," Read says.
Deciding to Take the Plunge
Michael Kolowich of DigiNovations hasn't made the plunge into 24p yet, but he plans to do so in the next 18 months or so. He's hoping to cut the cost of new equipment by waiting for a good HD camera that includes 24p capability (JVC displayed a three-CCD HDV model at NAB that had 24p capability, but the camcorder may list for as much as $20,000 when it's released). Kolowich's NLE of choice, Premiere Pro, only added support for 24p in its most recent version (1.5), and he's willing to wait for it to shake out a bit more.
"I would not call the demand for it from client side overwhelming. And generally the things we want to achieve with a 24p camera can be achieved in a large measure in post production right now for our market. That may change in 18 months, and the prices may come down. There'll be more devices to choose from and a lot of stuff will change, and chances are at that point we'll buy one. The first ones are creeping onto market, but I want to see more options and more capability before I jump in," Kolowich says.
For now, Kolowich is content to add 24p-like effects in post-production. "I've had videos, particularly in the wedding market, where I've changed effective rate to 24 frames per second, added grain, and added film glow to make it look more like film. As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out on whether that is better done in the camera or in post.
"We can get a good part of the way there towards creating the impression that something was shot on film or triggering the same kind of recognition in post-production with tools such as FilmFX and the like. We have, on occasion, taken our traditionally shot video at 30fps and made it look like film by changing the effect of the frame rate—the perceived rate—by introducing film grain and color timing such as one would see in film. But we don't have the call for that often enough to go out and invest in a 24p camera," Kolowich says.
Atlantic Video's Kevin Weyl is more of a purist. In an age when most videographers are shooting digital, Weyl continues to shoot the majority of his projects using Betacam. Weyl is certainly open to new techniques and technologies, but he feels that film, when properly shot, results in better quality than digital video.
Weyl says he is not against 24p or any new technology, but, like Kolowich, he wants to see the technology mature a bit before he takes the 24p plunge.
"I'm always interested in learning new stuff. Would I go out and buy equipment to satisfy that, or would I hire somebody who knows the camera? Absolutely, but I want to see what it can do before I make an investment. You could get it on the job, and it doesn't do it or it takes so long that it just isn't cost effective," he continues. "I want to make sure I'm not working on the first or second version, to make sure it's almost bullet proof."
Weyl remembers a time when everyone was screaming about Betamax. "If I had invested in a Betamax package I would be dead right now," Weyl says.
24p at Work
Marya Read used 24p as part of a recent project she completed for the Boulder Community Hospital. Being a small community hospital, the client only had a limited budget for a pair of commercials. They wanted to shoot in film and include patient testimonials and a lot of healthy living footage. Read knew from the get-go that shooting interviews on film would be prohibitively expensive for her client, so she decided to shoot the lifestyle footage in film and the interviews in 24p, then mix the two in post production.
"We shot the man running at sun rise or the woman in the antique store on film, but we were able to shoot 30, 40-minute interviews with ‘real people'—rather than actors—cost-effectively in 24p. We wouldn't have been able to shoot those at all had we been required to shoot on film," Read says.
Further, Read says they did a lot of pre-production homework to make sure that the 24p material and the film integrated well together when they got to post-production. "We didn't just shoot willy-nilly and say, ‘Cool, it looks like film.' We looked at how 24p integrated with film and did pre-production homework with our colorist. We went in with a well thought-out plan," Read says.
She adds that the final result was stunning. When you saw the mixed film and 24p video, you could not tell the difference beyond the absence of grain. "When we edited it together, other than that there wasn't a presence of grain, you couldn't tell the difference, and when you saw it on air, it looked seamless," Read says.
So the debate goes on, but in the end it seems that 24p is going to be with us for awhile, and the convergence of faux film and compressed HD around 24p and HDV will enhance its accessibility—and likely its appeal—for those in the videography space.
Noah Kadner says at some point digital quality will exceed 35mm film and at that point, the balance will shift. "I know that these things take forever to change. It's going to require another generation of cameras. The one thing about film is that it is totally fixed as a medium—35mm is what you get. With digital, the sky is really the limit. Eventually, digital quality will exceed film. Then the studios will ask, ‘What's the point?' It's better quality and it's cheaper," Kadner says.
For now, videographers may debate the merits of digital video and 24p, but like it or not, it's here to stay. In the end, it's up the videographers and filmmakers to make sure that the artistry and creativity remain firmly fixed even while filmmaking technology moves forward.
companies mentioned in this article
Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
High Road Productions, www.highroadproductions.com
Apple Computer, www.apple.com
JVC Company of America, www.jvc.com
Atlantic Video Productions, www.atlanticvideo.com
Boulevard Video Productions, Inc., www.boulevardvideo.com
People Productions Media Services, www.peopleproductions.com
DigiNovations, Inc. www.diginovations.com