Digital debate: Video vs. film

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The digital revolution has dramatically altered the TV commercial landscape, giving producers more cost-effective ways to edit and add graphics, conduct casting and location scouting using digital cameras, and even shoot entire commercials on digital video.

However, while some producers are embracing this move toward digital, most agree film is still king.

"The analog guys still love their film," says Gene Lofaro, senior VP and executive producer at Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide in New York, which still shoots 100% in film.

Producers at BBDO, as at most other agencies, often convert film to tape in order to add special effects. "Tape is so liberating. If you can envision it, then you can do it. In the past you would have needed days and days and tons and tons of money, and you still couldn't do what we do with computer graphics," Mr. Lofaro says.

For a Duracell Ultra commercial in October 1999, BBDO used digital to add special effects to a shot of a train going into a tunnel, which then turns into a Duracell battery. To create the image, BBDO first shot a sequence of a bullet train going into a tunnel, then sent the footage to Industrial Light & Magic, based in San Rafael, Calif., to add computer graphics.

Cost is one factor driving the move toward digital. A 35 mm camera costs more than $200,000, while a high-quality video camera is half that. And 35 mm film is between $1 and $1.50 per foot, while video runs from pennies to $80 for a high-end, two-hour cartridge. Video is also much more versatile in a high-definition, Web-based world, say producers.

Larry Thorpe, VP-acquisition systems at Sony Corp., a leading manufacturer of digital video cameras, says, "Two years ago, directors and producers wouldn't even talk to us. Now we get a lot of interest. Two things are driving it. The folks love to be empowered, and they can be more creative with video. And for some, the cost advantages can be compelling-particularly in terms of managing cash flow. You don't have the very large upfront cash outlay that you need with film and film processing."

But most producers agree the quality of film is far superior to digital, giving commercials rich texture, better contrast, more exposure latitude and better color definition. Also, industry veterans have been working with film for so long, many are loath to give it up, not to mention the huge investment agencies have made in film equipment.

Mike Sheehan, president and chief creative officer for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, seconds Mr. Lofaro's assessment. "Video has taken its place at the table, but there is no substitute for film. Film looks better because of grain, depth of field and emotion that video doesn't have. Probably at some point, there will be a convergence of the two technologies, but not yet."

Even in smaller markets where money can be a bigger factor, film still holds sway, although video is making inroads. Gary W. Jones, founder of Jones Productions in Little Rock, Ark., says it's not the cost that is driving him toward shooting more video-he can do a spot in either format for about $35,000-as long as he doesn't burn up a ton of film. What is pushing him in the video direction is advertisers' recognition of the inevitability of high-definition television.

"We're firmly astride the fence-in the best advertising tradition," says Mr. Jones. "We have a long-standing film reputation. Our biggest investment is in that technology and that's where our heart is. But we're putting more and more of our pocketbooks into HDTV, because that's what the clients want." And shooting on video in that world makes sense because it gives viewers all of the advantages of the clean, crisp picture HDTV offers, he adds.

Filmmaker George Lucas may have pushed some people toward the conclusion that film's days are numbered when he used a Sony HD 24P camera to photograph the forthcoming "Star Wars: Episode II." Lucas, in a news release from last year's Cannes Film Festival, says, "This has convinced me that the familiar look and feel of motion picture film are fully present in this digital 24p system and that the two are indistinguishable on the large screen."

Flexibility is what persuaded Rob Kirk, president of Digital Ranch, a Los Angeles-based production company, to use video to shoot "Basic Training," a reality-based TV campaign and Web series for the U.S. Army's "An Army of One" campaign, developed by the Army's agency of record, Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA in Chicago.

Leo Burnett developed the TV campaign and Web site, and Digital Ranch shot the footage for "Basic Training," which broke in February.

Digital Ranch crews followed six recruits through nine weeks of basic combat training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C.

The 500 hours of footage from the 87 production days was used to create 15 reality-based ads that documents the young recruits' transformation from civilians to soldiers. All of the spots are unscripted, and there is no controlling or directing the action of the soldiers. Digital Ranch's footage will also be featured in 70 Web episodes on the Army's Web site (

Most of the job was shot on wide-screen, digital beta. "What we're doing would be impossible to do with film," Mr. Kirk says. For instance, the soldiers were running a half-mile long obstacle course, and the crew wanted to get every bit of it, so they positioned cameras on skateboards in order to get low angles.

To get the film look when he thinks it's called for, Mr. Kirk adds grain with digital post-production tools, such as a Silicon Graphics workstation. If it's done well, he says, "You can't tell the difference between film and video."

Other agencies are using digital in new ways to create the look they want for campaigns.

For Fidelity Investments' 401(k) rollover campaign that broke in November, with a tagline of "See Yourself Succeeding," agency Hill Holliday shot first on digital video and then transferred the video to film. This created a more realistic look, much like a documentary, says Tom Foley, senior producer at Hill Holliday.

The agency shot the series of seven TV commercials in digital video using the European PAL 25-frame system. "We went to great lengths to create a fairly subtle look," Mr. Foley says.

In most of the spots, the screen is split, a technique that was achieved by turning the cameras vertically, which allowed the agency to put 100% of the image on half the screen.

In one spot, called "Taxi," one passenger solicits investment advice from a Fidelity adviser in the back seat of a cab.

"Video is a wonderful tool if you use it well, and there are businesspeople who think it should be a substitute for film, but it's not," says Mr. Foley. "It's an adjunct that you can use to capture images, but you should only do it for a reason."

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