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Format Wars

Sep 9, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

The end of film for TV production?

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Leverage Executive Producer/Writer/Director Dean Devlin produces the show exclusively with an all-digital, tapeless workflow built on the foundation of the Red Digital Cinema Red One camera recording to hard drives. Image courtesy TNT.

Leverage Executive Producer/Writer/Director Dean Devlin produces the show exclusively with an all-digital, tapeless workflow built on the foundation of the Red Digital Cinema Red One camera recording to hard drives.

To Dean Devlin, it’s all straightforward: Episodic TV production not only should move toward all-digital production and acquisition, it must and it shall. From his perch as executive producer/writer/ director on TNT’s Leverage, Devlin is doing all he can to promote the notion that film—and if he has his way, videotape—should depart the TV production scene permanently. Now in its second season, Leverage is among the first hour-long dramas on American TV to be produced exclusively with an all-digital, tapeless workflow built on the foundation of the Red Digital Cinema Red One camera recording to hard drives, and it’s the first to maintain an entire postproduction infrastructure inhouse, adjacent to its stage.

“For me, it started around 2004, when Panavision introduced the Genesis camera,” Devlin says. “Suddenly, we weren’t dealing with a medium trying to look as good as film—we were moving into a medium that was able to surpass film in a sense. That’s when the whole world changed. Suddenly, we could produce image quality with the familiar look of film, but with more flexibility. For instance, with film, we had maybe a three-stop difference in post. Suddenly, we had a five-stop difference. In film, we could blow up our image maybe 10 percent before it would start to degrade. Suddenly, we could blow up our image 250 percent before it was degrading. It was a real game-changer. And now, with the Red workflow, we have a new pattern of working, where we don’t have to wait to lock picture to start working on sound, or lock picture to start on color correction. We can work on things as we feel a need to creatively, and that is a big difference.”

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Devlin reports extensive cost savings for the adventure drama over how the show would otherwise have to be made (see below), insists there have been very few technical hiccups, and claims the look and quality of the resulting imagery is very high-end. Many across the industry, of course, have other ideas. Some passionately oppose the idea that Devlin promulgates: that film’s days are numbered as a primary acquisition format for all episodic TV.

They likewise disagree with him on the look and efficiency of digitally acquired imagery in an episodic TV workflow. They subscribe to the view of James Chressanthis, ASC, cinematographer for CBS’ Ghost Whisperer. “Nobody has ever asked me to shoot digital because it looks better than film,” he says. In fact, Chressanthis helped fend off suggestions from CBS this year that Ghost Whisperer should switch to digital acquisition (see "2-perf Option").

Other DPs insist their shows have maintained their traditional, film-style look just fine while going digital. There are conflicting opinions on the subject across the industry. But caution about the transition to digital won’t prevent it, according to Devlin.

“There is an expression: ‘The Titanic hit the iceberg not because it didn’t see it coming, but because it takes a long time to turn around a really big boat,’” Devlin says. “We have a big industry and a lot of vested interests, and it takes a long time to adapt, but the boat is turning. I don’t think we will be doing much of anything on film very soon; most of the things that used to be the advantages of film are gone.”

That is a provocative position, but one that lies at the heart of a sensitive debate in the industry. There is no question more shows than ever before are being made with digital cameras. Most pilots and, over the past year, a significant number of well-established, hit shows captured traditionally on film stock have transitioned to digital acquisition. Even the shows that haven’t switched at least examined the proposition, primarily at the request—some would say insistence—of TV networks and production companies desperate to cut costs. It’s a trend built around the idea that digital is both cheaper and ready for primetime.

While producers on some shows contacted by millimeter deny that switching to digital was mandated, they do concede that digital acquisition is being suggested as part of the general cost-cutting discussion. Like Ghost Whisperer, CBS’ original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fox’s 24 recently researched transitioning to digital camera systems for the upcoming season, but eventually opted to return as 35mm-acquired shows. The other two CSI programs (CSI: Miami and CSI: NY), however, have already switched—as have many Fox shows, with more on the way. The vast majority of new shows greenlit for the coming season by major broadcast or cable networks are starting life with digital cameras. A prominent exception, however, is HBO, which continues to prefer film acquisition for its programming.

Still, the adoption of digital camera systems such as Panavision’s Genesis, Sony’s F35 and F23 systems, Arri’s Arriflex D-21, and the Red One system into the production of dramatic network television shows has become such an important issue that millimeter recently decided to survey a few television producers and cinematographers about their experiences on these matters. As you will see, there is a general feeling that the industry is moving inexorably toward all-digital acquisition.

“This is really the season that will flesh it all out,” says Marshall Adams, a cinematographer (along with Feliks Parnell) on CSI: NY. “It all depends on how things go this year with shows like ours, about whether or not producers of up-and-coming shows will lean toward digital acquisition going forward or fight to stay with film.”

Following are excerpts from conversations with producers and DPs on shows directly affected by this trend—newer shows born digitally (TNT’s Leverage and Syfy’s Warehouse 13), and longtime hits currently starting their new digital workflow (Fox’s Bones, CBS’ Medium, and CBS’ CSI: NY).

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