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About DV Camcorders (written approx 2004)

(NOTE: written for New Zealand conditions:  prices are in $NZ, divide by 2 to get approx $US equivalent.  NZ gets DV-PAL with images of 0.42 Megapixels.  DV-NTSC as used in the Americas and Japan is 0.35 Megapixels.)

There is a lot of "buzz" that DV cameras represent a great leap forward in making independent alternative film-making possible.  But how viable is big-screen projection of DV video?  I saw the DV feature "Woodenhead" in Auckland 's Academy Cinema and in scenes with large flat areas eg sky, I could count the pixels.  This is not meant to be a negative comment on the "Woodenhead" project which I personally found effective and successful, especially with its experimental approach to the soundtrack.  But from this and other DV-watching, I am developing the opinion that the DV medium, with its less than Half-a-Megapixel, is simply not good enough to carry the kind of 100 min movie which would depend largely on its photography to make its statement.  HDV is coming and that does promise to deliver a more effective big screen result.  In the meantime I suggest we recognise the DV limitations and use it in ways where we play to its strengths eg freedom of operation, great editing, accessible digital effects.  This means short films.  If we need the format of longer films, go with personal experience themes which work well with most shots in close-up.  Think also of making DV films for venues other than commercial cinemas.

 

Here comes that IAFILM Super-8 and Hi-8 experience.  We wise old heads have lived through this before with Super-8mm in the 1980s as documented elsewhere on this site.  We struggled when we went head-on at Cinema of Illusion a la Hollywood . (eg "Brave Love", "Breaking out of Pattern")  Where it worked better was outrageous parody (eg "Space Ace and the Rain of Death", "Tailspin"), extreme experimentation (eg " Walled City ") and the actor-centered close-up (eg "The SNAG's Guide to Love" (Hi-8)).  Note that Super-8 is slightly superior to DV in resolution and Hi-8 slightly below.

 

The big DV advance is in the opening up of post-production to common level PC Computers.  Video projectors have improved and become more common.  This is very exciting but not quite exciting enough to justify trying to make commercial-release movies with it as some hopefuls are doing. 

 

What is HDV?  A new technology using the same tape but more compression to store higher resolution images.  
The first 2 cameras have appeared and HDV will probably become common and affordable in 2 years.  I am not one to sit and wait, and I have been researching the question as to what makes sense as "DV for the meantime."

 

In my opinion, number 1 deep thought is don't invest too much in DV.  A $1000 camera and a $10000 camera both deliver 0.42 Megapixels of resolution.   The $1000 camera is not quite good enough to do full-on cinema.  The $10000 camera is a little better, usually in colour rendering, but it is still not quite good enough to do full-on cinema.  HDV is going to make both of them very obsolete very suddenly and quite soon so I am going for the modest end of DV, with, as detailed below, the level one-up from the basic models at about $1400 making the most sense for my needs.

 

New or Secondhand?   In 1985-1995, we saw Super-8 silent cameras made obsolete by Super-8 sound cameras, then all Super-8 made obsolete by Camcorders.  Excellent secondhand Super-8 equipment was going at nominal cost and this fed a worldwide wave of creative experimentation.  I predict that HDV will roll DV and start a DV creative wave.   But in the meantime, my experience of looking to buy a secondhand DV camera was very disappointing for many months until the right online auction happened.  The NZ "Trademe" on line auction site has many NTSC cameras bought overseas that mismatch our PAL system here.  Most other offerings have unrealistically high prices on them and I observe that very few camcorder auctions ever complete to a successful sale..

I have tried working with old analogue Sony Handicam standard 8mm camcorders.   I found the digitisation card (an add-on for my computer) gave disappointing results.  Borrowing a recent Sony Digital-8 camera to digitise the analogue tapes worked much better, which leads me to suggest that schools could do well to buy up old Handicams at $100 each for accessible student use, then keep a teacher-only Digital-8 as post-production kit.   I may go that way with some of my Technical Institute teaching but for my own filming, I have found the shoot-analogue/edit-digital approach to be clumsy and unsatisfying.  I need to be shooting Digital.

 

Borrow or Hire?  That is an option for me and I have begun getting to know DV cameras this way.  But I often run film-making teams where I want to hand the camera to others to operate while I concentrate on directing.   Other experimentation eg animation has me wanting to film over a long period flexibly fitted into a busy life.   So I need to own one.

 

Survey on what's out there.

This is based on some limited testing with borrowed camcorders, but mostly on published specifications and reading of tests by others: mainly from
www.camcorderinfo.com and www.dvspot.com. 
I suggest check reviews on these sites at the minimum before buying any camcorder: new or 2ndhand.
Models are changing almost monthly, this is written in October 2004 and revised in January 2005

 

Level 1 - Basic Cameras. ($900)

These have a single 0.8 Megapixel  CCD imager, but only 0.42 Megapixel is used for video, the rest provides "wiggle room" for image stabilisation.  They deliver a full-resolution black and white image, with colours worked out over groups of 4 pixels.  So this is something like the old 1930s craft of hand-painting colours on to black and white photos.  Or you can think of it as being like the painting technique of "colour wash".   These camcorders therefore deliver a 0.42 M mono image with a 0.11 M colour overlay.

Must-haves:

  • Ext mic socket.  Even good on-camera microphones are simply in the wrong place.
  • Manual control of exposure, white balance.

Latest designs from Sony, JVC and Canon have removed the "Ext Mic" socket.
Therefore it is easy to declare a "best basic camcorder" as there seems to be only one qualifying model available in NZ at present, the Panasonic NV-GS11

 

 

Level 1A - 0.8 M basic cameras with card for stills photos. ($1100)

These can take still images in a way similar to a digital stills camera.   But the stills resolution is only 640 x 480 (0.3 Megapixel) which is too low for my uses, in particular I would like to use such a capability for animation of physical objects, eg plasticene animation like "Wallace and Grommit" and "Chicken Run", but I need to go up a level for better resolution stills.

Not of interest to me.

 

 

Level 2 - 1.1 to 1.3 Megapixel   (approx $1400)

Here is where my (incomplete) research indicates the best value may lie:  These feature:

  • Higher resolution stills of around 1280 x 960 = 1 Megapixel.or better.  Some writers comment that this is still too low for doubling-up as a general purpose stills camera ,   but I like it because it can take my animation at least to high definition in video terms.
  • 0.84 Megapixels used for Video.  The end result is the same 0.42 Megapixels but the extra in-camera pixels give a better "colour wash" of 0.21 Megapixels rather than the 0.11 M of the basic models.
  • Ext Mic and Vision Manual controls as above.

Some cameras following this design pattern are:

  • Canon MVX250i  (its  USA name, relevant to finding reviews, is "Canon Elura 70")
  • Sony HC40
  • JVC GR-DV500

My impression (and I have not had a chance to test any of these) is that the Sony HC40 would be good for on the fly filming eg documentaries while the Canon MVX250i would be good for controlled film-making eg drama and animation.
Note, these are extremely small, especially the Canon MVX250i, and this may cause problems with some filming situations if you want to create a high status impression.  This is not the kind of game I play, but it can be important in some situations, eg filming a wedding commercially and needing to impress the clientele.  Alternatively, having high tech moviemaking looking so innocent could be useful for improvised drama in actual locations.

 

 

Level 3A - Big CCD for almost-True-Color (approx $1900)

Similar to "Level 2" above but with:

  • Even Higher resolution stills of around 1600 x 1200 or better. 
  • 1.26 or 1.68 Megapixels used for Video.  This is "True Colour" obtained by using groups of 3 or 4 pixels to deliver each 1 pixel of the 0.42 Megapixel end result.
  • Ext Mic and Vision Manual controls as above.

Current Cameras following this "3A" design pattern include:

  • Canon MVX25i (its USA name, relevant for finding reviews, is "Canon Optura 40")
    This camera provides the advanced option of manual control of sound recording levels.
    I have been able to borrow one of these and I have had excellent results from it for both videos and stills.
    On testing line resolution I get a horizontal reading of 620 lines which is very high for DV technology of this kind.  Most DV cameras deliver 500 to 540.

 

 

Level 3B - 3CCD Basic (approx $1900)
These get a "true colour" effect = no "colour wash" compromises, by the complex arrangement of splitting the light into 3 beams, filtering them Red, Green, Blue, and giving each beam its own 0.8 M CCD chip.  Many reviewers have high praise for these designs.  I am less enthusiastic about them because:

  1. In my opinion, the space for the beam splitter forces compromises in the lens design which explains less lens capability, eg zoom range, than provided by some lower level designs.
  2. They do not offer improved-resolution widescreen, see note below as to what that means.
    In my opinion, with the current state and trends in DV, "true widescreen" is worth more than "true colour".
  3. To my eye, the colour improvement over Level 2 is nothing much to rave about
  4. In my opinion, these are getting too expensive for what the DV medium is worth

This is a Panasonic design approach as seen in model GS200

 

 

Level 4, 3CCD (or triple-size single CCD)  with True Widescreen and Manual Audio Control (approx $3000)
If you have $3000 and can get enough use out of one of these in 2 years to justify the likely short life before HDV hits,

Or you need to professionally present yourself as running the DV medium at its best (like impressing the peasants when doing those Wedding jobs) then these may be of interest.

  • Panasonic GS400  (3CCD)
  • Canon MVX3i (big single CCD of 2.2 Megapixels for stills and 1.3 Megapixels for Video)
 
 
About "Widescreen" aka "16:9"
In my opinion, "Widescreen" also known as "16:9" will soon become the standard movie format so I suggest it is important to shoot with it as much as possible to get to know it, and to future-proof current productions. 
Some cameras give a choice between "squeeze" and "letterbox" methods.  If you have that choice then I suggest "letterbox" is the best all-rounder giving you the most options later from video editing.  Some film festivals will only accept "letterbox" and reject "squeeze".
If you camera has neither, I suggest taping strips of black paper at the top and bottom of your LCD, then later, in video editing, "crop" the image to that same degree.  If your camera has squeeze-only with high-resolution 16:9, then produce a letterbox copy from your video editor.  ULead can do this with its "moving path" settings.  If you camera has squeeze-only with no resolution enhancement, then I suggest ignore it and run normally with the strips of black paper as above.
 
What is "True Widescreen" or "High Resolution Widescreen"?
With DV cameras, "16:9" really means "Short Screen", meaning cutting off the top and bottom 12.5% of the image.  Therefore shooting in "16:9" means losing vertical resolution although you do maintain the same horizontal resolution.  In our PAL system, we go from 720x576 standard to 720x432 for Widescreen 16:9.
Some cameras, eg Sony HC40, Canon MVX250i, Canon MVX25i, offer a better widescreen setting.  This gives you the option of sacrificing the digital stabilisation to give you a bigger chip area.  My measurements on a borrowed Canon MVX 25i suggest a boost to 816 x 489 pixels.  The tape can only handle 720 pixels horizontally so the 816 gets sampled back down to 720, but the payoff is that increase in effective vertical pixels from 432 to 489.  This is still less that the theoretical best of 576, but about a 13% improvement over what other DV cameras deliver.

 
About my own camera:
I have recently bought a basic secondhand DV camera which cost me $270 in an on-line auction.  This JVC GR-DVL800, dating from 2000, is missing the feature I tell everyone is a "must", the external mic socket.  I therefore need to return to one of my fine old film traditions and use a separate sound recorder.  I train my groups to operate an iconic device, a clapper board, to mark which video clip belongs to which sound recording.  Clumsy, although less so than in the classic days, but my groups do seem to enjoy maintaining this fine old tradition. 
On the plus side, this JVC is strong on picture manual control.  Some reviews of new designs suggest that older units like this JVC have good low light performance because of their physically larger chips.  My low-light results so far seem good, but I have nothing to compare it with.