Monday, July 20, 2009

The Perils of HD

A few years ago I had a job shooting self-help lectures on digital video for a sort of EST-like cult group. It was a pretty good gig. The pay was very good and the calls were fairly steady— one long weekend every month or so. The head of the organization was both the producer and the talking head I photographed for these video courses. After about a year of shooting these things, she wanted to know how we could improve on the production value of what we were doing. She had no problem with the sets or my lighting or anything like that. She liked how she looked in these things and that’s what kept her calling me back for more.

Anyway, in an effort to address her production value concerns, I suggested something that I actually knew very little about. I suggested that we shoot these sessions in HD. She’d seen HDTV at Circuit City and she liked the idea. The organization she had built up over the years was pretty well off now and they owned all of their studio equipment. I was dispatched to B and H the following Monday to buy two cameras and some monitors. Cash.

There were a few weeks left before the next shoot and I used the time to learn all I could about the cameras. When I got the call, I drove up north of Albany where the cult was based and once there proceeded to prepare the set, light her stand-in, and set the cameras up. Everything went smoothly, she stepped in, and as she started speaking off her cue cards the director and I turned to each other with horror in our eyes. Every pore and wrinkle we had never noticed was magnified in living HD color. The separation between each individual hair along the sharp edge of her forehead made it look as if she were balding. Between takes I was frantically looking in the manual for anything that would knock the damned cameras out of focus without them looking like they were out of focus, and finding these controls buried in the menus I set them all the way to 10. It hardly helped.

As was her customary way of working, she proceeded through the 30-minute session without looking at anything in playback. She trusted me and her director. As we approached the end of the first section, it began to dawn on me that this would be my last day at this job. When she saw herself in playback, the producer-owner-spokesperson was very mellow. She noticed what she looked like and the line of her polite questioning indicated to me that she did not like what she was looking at. We continued shooting. I was desperate. At one point, the black stockings I requested from a CVS arrived— stretched across the back end of the lenses, they didn’t help much either.

We finished up the day, struck the set and boxed up all the lights and cameras and I left for the long, depressing drive home. They never called again. When I ran into the director a few months later he told me that they figured they could do it all in-house now with the interns I hadn’t realized I’d been training, and that they’d gone back to shooting on regular DV.

In this month’s Esquire I ran across this quote in a Larry David interview: “You know, the show’s in high-definition now and I said to the producer, ‘Listen, this is crazy. I look like I’m 75 years old [he’s sixty-one]. Nobody wants to watch an old man being funny. That’s just a fact. No one wants to see this old man on TV.' ”

I’m sure it isn’t as bad as the age of talkies ending scores of careers for actors who had funny-sounding voices, but I wonder what the consequences of this heightened definition have been and what's going on in make-up rooms and soft-lit sets across the country?

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