TV Shows Trading Celluloid for Pixels


As the production crew on the documentary “Seven Wonders of Egypt” prepared for filming in the Sahara in August, it received an unexpected call from its employers at Discovery Networks: Send back the celluloid and pick up high-definition digital cameras.

The crew in Egypt wasn’t the only one given the mandate. After reviewing its fall lineup, the cable network ordered 50 crews to switch from film to digital cameras--a trend that’s sweeping the television industry.

This fall, the major networks have 37 programs--or nearly 30% of their prime-time lineup--shot in high-definition, with more on the way at midseason. Last year only three shows were shot this way.

Simple economics drives the change. Digital cameras are alluring to networks and production companies struggling with burgeoning expenses. Shooting in digital can trim 2% or more from the cost of a show without reducing quality, studio executives say.


The first to feel the effect are cinematographers, technical artists responsible for bringing a director’s vision to life. Although some are enthusiastic about the new tools, others say they’re being forced to use equipment that’s inferior.

“It’s like sitting on an airplane and getting a plastic knife. You accept it as something that is being forced upon you,” said cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who worked on “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Thin Blue Line.”

“You don’t really feel like it was as good as it was when you had a metal knife.”

For TV producers, what matters is keeping within the budget--a sum dictated largely by the fees a network agrees to pay producers in order to broadcast a show.


With expenses climbing 20% in the last three years, production of hourlong dramas can cost $2 million and half-hour sitcoms can cost $1 million per episode.

“It comes down to, financially, how is this all going to work and what’s the bottom line,” said Gail Patterson, senior vice president of production for Spelling Television. Although Patterson says film is her first choice, Spelling is shooting its first series with high-definition cameras this fall, a midseason replacement for CBS.

Shooting a show with high-definition cameras doesn’t guarantee that it will be broadcast in high definition for reception on the new generation of television sets. CBS and ABC broadcast much of their prime-time lineups in high definition. NBC and the WB transmit only a few programs in HDTV. Fox doesn’t do any.

Some proponents of digital cameras say the television audience can’t see the difference--a point even some critics of the high-def cameras concede. Besides, they say, the quality of the story is what matters most, not the number of pixels on the screen.


“We think, when it’s correctly done, it produces an image every bit as lovely as film,” said Martin D. Franks, executive vice president at CBS and an advocate of high-definition cameras. “I’m sure to a finely trained eye there are distinctions [between high-def and film], just as an expert winemaker can find distinctions between various years of wine. The mass audience seems fairly happy with the [current] vintage.”

Savings Stack Up

Film costs can be as much as 50 cents a foot, and processing adds as much as 13 cents a foot, said Ed Nassour, senior vice president of TV post-production at 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Digital cameras, by contrast, use inexpensive videotapes or feed directly to computer hard drives.

Then there’s the cost of transferring film to a digital format for editing on computer equipment.


Ed Lammi, executive vice president of production at Columbia TriStar Domestic Television, said the savings from the use of digital cameras amounted to $30,000 to $40,000 per episode of a one-hour drama and $20,000 to $25,000 for a sitcom. That may not seem like much for a show with a budget of $1 million or more, but it can make a critical difference for a production trying to shave every penny.

“It’s a very viable, aesthetically acceptable tool, certainly for television,” said Lammi, whose studio is owned by Sony Corp., maker of the most widely used high-definition cameras.

Columbia TriStar is using those cameras on the science-fiction drama “Odyssey 5" for Showtime. “The economics are always daunting in television,” Lammi said. “Cable television, they’re even more daunting.”

On the other hand, the current high-definition cameras are bulkier and capture less detail than 35mm film cameras. They also present a new set of creative and technical challenges--for example, they have trouble handling sunlight streaming through windows--and they tend to deliver a harsher look than film, cinematographers say.


Economics vs. Aesthetics

Lammi said his studio weighs both economics and aesthetics when choosing cameras, but “the key to making it work is the excitement, the interest and the cooperation of the director of photography. If you don’t have that, you’re going to have some problems.”

In fact, sometimes the situation is reversed: The director of photography wants to shoot in digital but hits a wall--even at the studio owned by Sony.

That’s what happened to Roy H. Wagner, a veteran cinematographer who was tapped by Columbia TriStar for the now-defunct show “Pasadena.” Wagner said the studio dictated that, for economic reasons, the show would be shot on Super 16mm film, a format he did not like.


Curious about the buzz over high-definition digital cameras, Wagner suggested to the studio that he use digital equipment. Much to his surprise, the studio said no.

He presented his proposal to a group of studio executives, who grilled him on the reported deficiencies of digital cameras. When he remained firm--"It’s not the machinery that makes the picture look good; it’s the person behind the machinery"--they gave him what they thought was a no-brainer choice. They said he could use 35mm film or shoot in digital.

He opted for high-definition cameras.

“High-definition is not anywhere near the dynamic range of film,” he said. Still, “I want to embrace all technologies and move the ball forward as much as we can. It’s only going to make us better storytellers.”