TV: A matter of life and def

As series go digital, even skeptics like the shift

Digital video, once dismissed by some creatives as inferior to film, is ready for its star turn in primetime.

An unprecedented number of the new scripted series for the 2009-10 season will be shot in high-definition video. A confluence of forces — from the cost-cutting crusades at the networks and studios to the turmoil surrounding SAG’s contract standoff — has pushed the majors to embrace the money-saving benefits of digital production like never before.

Of the 31 new scripted series ordered by the broadcast nets, 25 will be shot in high-def digital video, including 16 of the 20 frosh dramas. Even the two new entries from Jerry Bruckheimer Television (ABC’s “The Forgotten” and CBS’ “Miami Trauma”), a shop known for the stylish cinematic look and feel of its shows, are going digital. Also making the leap from sprockets to zeroes-and-ones are established series such as NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” CBS’ “CSI: Miami,” “Numbers” and “Criminal Minds.”

Two years ago, director Todd Holland rejected the proposal that he shoot his single-camera ABC comedy “Miss Guided” on high-definition DV. For Holland, it wasn’t an option. He was a film guy through and through.

But last year, when he was working out the budget for the short film “Wig,” the helmer had an epiphany. Shooting his labor of love on film would have been prohibitively expensive. But digital video was very doable.

“When I was shooting with my own checkbook, I suddenly said, ‘I get why (film) isn’t a good deal for studios any more,’ ” Holland says.

So during pilot season, Holland didn’t balk at 20th Century Fox TV’s decision that the Fox comedy “Sons of Tucson” would be a DV production. Holland’s satisfying experience of shooting, editing and doing post-production on “Wig” piqued his interest in learning to work with a new set of digital tools.

Holland is hardly alone in making the transition. The accelerated shift under way for the upcoming season has big implications for the creative community, as different skill sets are required of key production staffers, while studios hope it will help put the brakes on ever-rising budgets for episodic series.

Digital vid offers immediate savings because film stock is much more expensive than high-def vid tape, and vid eliminates the cost and time needed to process the film.

“That’s the important thing — cutting out the purchasing of the film,” says Jim Sharp, exec veep of production at 20th Century Fox TV. “But it’s not only the money you’re saving.Time is the money that everyone’s looking at in these times of financial pressure. These new technologies save time and money. That’s why people are going digital.”

The savings can be as much as $20,000 per episode on an hourlong drama. The vidtape master required for digital production costs just hundreds of dollars per episode, compared with tens of thousands of dollars for the 100,000 or so feet of film shot for a typical hourlong episode.

The potential for saving time in the breakneck pace of series production is also a huge selling point to showrunners and directors. Helmers and d.p.’s generally have an easier time evaluating footage captured on the spot on digital vid. Video playback can be done immediately on the set, and it’s a much truer representation of what the footage looks like than what can be eyeballed on monitors during a film shoot.

Directors also have the freedom to keep the camera rolling more than most would in working on film because they can afford to. There’s no pressure to conserve pricey 35mm or 16mm film stock.

“You get a lot of good stuff that way,” says Ed Lammi, exec veep of production at Sony Pictures Television. “You get a lot more material on camera in the course of your day because you don’t have to turn off the camera as much.”

The flexibility to keep rolling is a benefit in sequences that require heavy coverage, such as a lengthy dialogue scene. The downside is that editors then have to wade through more hours of footage to cull the best bits.

But there’s also no waiting 12 to 24 hours for the film to come back from the processing lab before editing so other post-production can begin. (And from an environmental perspective, cutting out the “soup” of photochemicals required to process film is a good thing, too.)

The process of sound editing, adding visual effects and other sweeteners can be sped up, in some cases, because the raw material starts in a digital format.

The other major factor that influenced decisionmaking this pilot season was the turmoil that SAG and its prolonged film and TV contract negotiations with the majors engendered — a 12-month drama that ended earlier this month.

Because rival union AFTRA completed a new contract with the majors last summer, TV studios had every incentive to take the strike-proof step of doing pilots under AFTRA-governed contracts rather than SAG. (The two unions have about 44,000 dual members.)

But because SAG has exclusive jurisdiction over TV series shot on film, studios had to embrace digital production in order to sign AFTRA contracts. SAG and AFTRA share jurisdiction on TV shows shot electronically.

Of the majors, 20th Century Fox TV, ABC Studios, Sony Pictures TV and Universal Media Studios opted for AFTRA contracts on their entire pilot slates. CBS Television Studios did all but one of its 13 pilots under AFTRA; Warner Bros. TV did 11 of its 14 pilots on digital.

The timing of the internal feuding that paralyzed SAG last fall and winter was unfortunate for the guild because it dovetailed with the start of the January-April pilot season. The union affiliation for a show is set at the time that production on the pilot begins. Under union rules, producers cannot change a show’s affiliation unless the production format changes from film to video or vice versa.

As much as SAG politics and unpredictable factors like the belt-tightening spurred by the recession weigh into the switchover, production execs emphasize that the move was made possible by the improvements in the aesthetics offered by DV.

When some of the major TV shops began working in digital earlier this decade, the format was handicapped by its many limitations as compared with film when it came to depth of field and other essential filmmaking touches. Digital vid offered far less flexibility for manipulating raw footage in post-production — doing color correction, adjusting brightness, boosting or lessening light in a given scene.

But the pace and scale of upgrades to high-def vid during the past few years has been dizzying, exec say. To the average viewer, there’s no obvious difference between film and the HD vid that will be rolled out this season. The growing use of digital in feature films, such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Public Enemies,” has also helped assuage producers’ concerns.

“We always look at the aesthetic first and foremost, and we’ve found that the reproductive qualities of film vs. video are virtually imperceptible,” says Barry Jossen, exec veep of creative and production for ABC Entertainment Group. “Certainly the trained professional eye can detect some nuances. But to viewers, what they’re seeing is a television show.”

ABC Studios’ big-budget bet for fall, fantasy-thriller “Flash Forward,” is a DV production, as are the studio’s mystery drama “Happy Town” and Courteney Cox comedy “Cougar Town.”

“We’re way beyond the tipping point (with DV) where you can deliver the same high-caliber product” as with film, says David W. Zucker, prexy of TV for Tony and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Prods. Scott Free is producing its Julianna Margulies drama for CBS, “The Good Wife,” in digital and is making the film-to-vid leap with “Numbers.”

Scott Free became comfortable with digital as a film alternative three years ago when it shot the TNT miniseries “The Company” in that format. Director Mikael Salomon and Scott Free execs did exhaustive research and tests before committing to a digital shoot for “Company.” When CBS made it a mandate to shoot “Good Wife” on vid, “we didn’t question it at all,” Zucker says.

“You still may get a little more range to play with in film,” he adds. “With video, it’s like using a slightly different language but expressing the same thing.”

The level of investment and R&D that companies like Panavision and Sony are putting in HD vid has made all the difference. Like Sony Pictures TV, Twentieth was among the first major shops to use DV back in 2001 on the Fox comedy “The Bernie Mac Show.”

The look and feel of that show compared with “Sons of Tucson” or CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” which has been shot digitally since its inception in 2005, vividly shows the range of improvement. The refinement is continuous, Sharp says.

“Every day that we are working with video, if you come up with a little glitch or a little problem, you know that there are already people working on it,” 20th’s Sharp says. “Pretty soon those problems become last season’s problems, not this season’s problems. It’s incredible.”

Among the biggest disadvantages to digital is that the cameras are bigger and bulkier than their film counterparts, which is a handicap when helmers want to do handheld work. Also, lighting, makeup and set construction and decoration needs are more exacting because HD vid captures so many fine details without the grain that film incorporates into image capture.

“You can have smudgy paint on your set walls with film. You can’t with video,” Jossen says.

For Holland, the biggest adjustment in lensing the “Sons of Tucson” pilot was getting used to the fact that his cinematographer was no longer right by him on the set. Instead, d.p. Joaquin Sedillo primarily stayed in a pup-tent styled as a darkroom with a digital imaging technician. Both had their eyes glued to a monitor to make sure that Holland was getting what he wanted and that there were no un-fixable issues with light, natural and otherwise.

The digital imaging technician is, of course, a vital new production team member for digital shoots. And now that the TV biz has been working with digital to varying degrees for nearly 10 years, there’s a growing workforce with relevant experience attending to all the tech and craft details.

“It’s not really about the car you’re driving, it’s about the driver,” Sony’s Lammi says. “The person behind the camera has to know what they’re doing. It starts there.”

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