Issue: March 1, 2002

24p takes on short films

NEW YORK - The Museum of Modern Art set the stage for Sony's push for the hearts and minds of the TV commercials production market. The night's program, called "Dreams," which was conducted in Los Angeles as well as NYC, featured a big screen showing of eight highly imaginative short films shot by highly regarded commercial directors. The eight talents, who included veteran Bob Giraldi and graphics specialist Simon Blake, worked without film and without pay to create innovative, highly conceptual pieces under four minutes in length.

They were asked to see what they could do with Sony's new CineAlta 24p HD camera system, and the answer was: plenty. Sony contributed only the tape stock, Sony marketing VP Alec Shapiro says, and local rental houses provided the cameras. Many of the directors shot big-budget style, with the support of their production companies - while some worked with a skeleton crew. Serious post time was donated by shops on both coasts, notably Rhinoceros and Tape House in New York. Rhinoceros editors, technicians and colorist John Binninger worked on many of the shorts and conformed all into one program.

The shorts, including work by five LA-based directors and three from the New York area, present a kaleidoscope of imagery and themes. Many are imbued with a dreamlike quality. With its sly references to classical mythology, Simon Blake's Minotaur shows a man (almost) alone in Grand Central Station in the wee hours. The short had a relatively small crew and used an old standby - petroleum jelly smeared around the perimeter of the lens - to evoke a dreamlike state. Binninger color corrected Minotaur and a number of other pieces. LA-based director Peggy Sirota's [drem] is probably the most post-intensive work and artfully strives to define "dreaming" with quick cuts - courtesy of Harley's House - showing a large cast of people in unusual, dreamlike settings. Frank Todaro's Devotion elicited the most laughs from the audience. Using a small crew, the short plays like a typical drawing-room drama except that the hilarious male lead says and does the things that a master-obsessed dog would do if he could speak. Todaro edited his piece with Evan Schectman at NYC's Outpost Digital and posted at Rhinoceros.

AICP president Matt Miller views things through the eyes of his constituents, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, and he could see the sales and marketing angle in Sony's participation in the program. "What Sony was doing was very smart. This was about two things: one, getting some really high-level directors to actually play with their equipment, and two, creating some really interesting demonstrations of the capabilities of their camera." Miller credits Y&R with making the program possible by helping to corral acclaimed directors.

Still, he says, "From a technology standpoint, I thought it was fascinating and it's really come a long way. I was very impressed. Seven years ago, those [Sony] cameras were a different world compared to this. This had some warmth, some depth, a lot of really great things." 24p "could" make a big change in the way directors make commercials, but Miller does not believe that the potential savings that HD promises will force a trend away from film, especially with high-profile campaigns. "It's always going to be driven by the look that the director wants to achieve."

The film that shocked the audience of New Yorkers into a brief silence, followed by waves of cathartic applause was Bob Giraldi's The Routine. Here's a film, Giraldi contends, that doesn't know it's 24p video. Giraldi conducted himself as if he were doing any typical New York film shoot, including the size of his crew and his use of strong talent in all phases of the production. Veteran cinematographer Allen Daviau was behind the CineAlta camera and the piece had an original score by Robert Miller of Amber Music, was edited by Vito Desario and posted at Rhinoceros.

The Routine follows the lives of a young mom and her daughter through their day - except something is obviously amiss. We glean from the mother's playing of a preserved phone message that her husband had walked to work on a recent morning and has yet to return. With background emergency sirens a continual reminder, the hints build until the film's riveting payoff -the mom and daughter walk to Ground Zero at night to bid goodnight to dad, lost in the rubble that was the World Trade Center. It's part of their routine.

The Routine is not Giraldi's first foray into high def, but, outside of taking pains to extract the best lighting he can for each shot, he insists there's virtually no change in the way he shoots 24p. "I would not know the difference, just that the camera happens to be high def," he told me recently. "I approached it the exact same way - I worked quickly and with feeling, and there's absolutely no difference. But the real difference is in the technicians' having to understand the range of light and exposure and what the tape will take."

Giraldi credits Daviau with getting the most out of 24p. Calling him "a wonderful film man with an incredible history of films, Allen Daviau has embraced this new medium and loves to shoot it because he understands it very well. I let him get through all the technical problems. I can obviously see what I'm getting and, if I don't like it, I can understand why - I haven't got enough light here, I have too much light there..."

Yes, HD, being video, does allow you to monitor your work while the actors and crew are still on the set, but Giraldi brushes aside any notion that the medium is markedly faster to work with than film. He also pooh-poohs the belief held by some that high-def is less able to convey emotion than film. Conveying emotion on HD tape "has never been a problem for me," he says. "I hadn't shot a lot of tape before this, and when I did it wasn't very emotional stuff, it was more immediate stuff. The story [of Routine] obviously has more emotion built into it than a television commercial usually has, but I wasn't out to prove anything. The medium didn't control me, I controlled the medium.

"There is one thing I could not have done," Giraldi says. "I could not have shot my exposures at night that I shot with the high def camera. You do not go down to Ground Zero and bring lights." Giraldi sees 24p as a "child" of film and video - it is in fact super-video with film's 24 fps frame rate. And he says the child will grow into maturity as new lenses are developed for it and difficulties such as shooting high speed are smoothed out. "I think the blacks are gorgeous. I got the same pop and contrast out of HD as I've ever gotten out of film."

He stresses that any real barriers to getting the most out of high-def are in the minds of audiences and talent using 24p, not inherent in the tape. "We're in the process right now of recommending it for certain jobs I'm involved in. People have seen [The Routine] recently and have said, 'Wow, I want my next project to be in high def.' That's incorrect, as if the next piece will have that kind of emotion - it's not about the technique! Form follows function."

To Sony's - and CineAlta's - credit, the program's conceptual films do indeed look like film shorts and the directors all seemed quite happy with their work in this new (to them) medium. The presentation was projected across the MoMA theater by a new Sony HD DLP projector (with Texas Instruments technology inside) and the effect was akin to that of a traditional film presentation. The theater was filled - and the vocal majority included over two hundred employees of ad agency Young & Rubicam (agency for Sony). Y&R's director of broadcast production, Ken Yagoda, helped spearhead the project.

Yagoda acknowledged the use of 24p in the upcoming installment of Star Wars as well as TV programming and sports coverage, adding, "but it's rarely used in advertising. We were curious and we wanted to explore why. With the new 24p technology everything has changed. We think high-def can be a powerful new tool for commercial filmmaking." So, in effect, the "Dreams" project became a test kitchen for 24p in the hands of some highly talented directors - and their highly talented cinematographers.