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Pixels Per Second

An interview with professional Lighting Cameraman Franz Pagot

franz pagotDVuser asked professional Lighting Cameraman Franz Pagot AIC (Association of Italian Cinematographers) a few questions about how digital formats are transforming the film industry.

DVuser: You have a film background, from the trenches of the celluloid fields, how have you adapted to the digital revolution?

Franz: Funny that you have used military terms to describe what’s happening in the business right now, quite appropriate considering there will be casualties (laugh). I have always been interested and fascinated by technology, but I am more in love with the lighting side of things, and all images, whether captured on celluloid or CCD chips, require light. The shooting format is not the real issue, any tool that allows the cinematographer or cameraman to transfer an image onto whatever medium is fine as long as it serves its purpose. Thinking of shooting ‘The Last Emperor’ on mini-DV is silly, and you are not going to have a filter or menu setting that can change that and give you that look on the Mini-DV format. On the other hand ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was shot using a DV camera that will constantly make you realize it’s a personal and scary video diary. It's not the paintbrush but the painter that makes the art. When people ask me what is good lighting or what makes a good picture, I always give the same answer, the one that serves the story.

DVuser: But surely there must be some cameras that are better than others?

Franz: franz pagotSure, an ARRICAM is better than a PD150, but it’s like saying a Ferrari is better than a FIAT 500; a pointless comparison. It would be more appropriate to consider cameras for what they are designed for, for the same reason why a Landcruiser is better off road than a Lotus for example. Of course I would prefer to have the choice all the time of how much I want to treat the image, meaning starting with the highest quality image. ‘Minority Report’ was shot with very expensive film cameras and a big budget, still Kaminsky, the DoP, treated the image in a way that visible grain, contrast and lighting, as well as composition, confer better what the script was about. I have heard more than one person confidently saying it was obviously shot on DV; which is was not. Cameras of any type are just tools. A director I once worked with specifically requested Panavision cameras, that I have always liked, but there were none available at the time we were shooting. He got really upset even if I explained that cameras are just black boxes, the real difference is made by the lens. Eventually we stuck a Panavision logo on the camera. He was happy when he arrived on set and to this date he is still convinced the production was shot on a Panavision.

DVuser: If cameras are just black boxes why do they cost so much?

Franz: Well, how long do you have? Let me just say that normally I ask my 1st Assistant what cameras he/she prefers for the shoot, because, with obvious exceptions (more or less silent, possible high frames rate, handheld or steadicam configuration, size, etc) the camera specs are there to make the job easier, meaning faster or more accurate.

franz pagot

DVuser: And when it comes to digital cameras?

Franz: Same principle, I choose what is right for the job. Let’s take HD for example; the best approach in choosing the right camera is to think of F950, Viper, Dalsa or others as different filmstocks.

DVuser: Even DV cameras?

Franz: By all means. The Canon Xl2 has a different ‘look’ to a Sony PD170 or Z1, and I am not just talking about the lens, manufacturers tend to build their cameras using settings or specs that end up giving a different feeling visually. You can happily talk of a Sony personality, a Panasonic feel or a JVC look, to name a few.

DVuser: What do you prefer?

Franz: All of them if they are right for the job. Ask me for a specific story or look and I’ll answer with a brand. I use almost all of them depending on the shoot.

DVuser: Do you change settings and play around with the menu settings, or shoot straight out of the box and make corrections later in post?

Franz: It depends, I do like to achieve a look ‘in-camera’, the look I am after or what the director wants, and you are forgetting that there is a very important setting at your disposal when it comes to image manipulation.

DVuser: And that would be?

Franz: A good set of good filters, you can modify your image to great lengths even before it strikes the chip. Menu settings are not enough to make images special, and asking "what is the best filter" as if there was a ‘Laurence of Arabia’ 6x6 Tiffen filter is pointless. There are too many variables you can play with to modify images, not forgetting that ‘composition’ is probably one of the most easily forgotten and one of the most important factors in achieving good images.

DVuser: What would you recommend to someone who wants to ‘step up’ quality shooting digitally?

Franz: franz pagotThink ‘film’, shoot against the light, control and use flares, compose images in a different way, and watch as many films as you can. A screenwriter once said to me “if you want to improve your writing read as much as you can”. But mostly test, test and test again, experiment, be brave, know all the rules and be creative by breaking them if you feel it will improve the shot.

DVuser: Would you mind if we get technical and speak of specific cameras?

Franz: Oh, trust me, I can bore you to death with that. I have always been fascinated by technology, being careful not to become a technician but knowing enough so a technician would not tell me it cannot be done when in fact it could. One particular camera that produces incredible images at the moment is the new Panasonic AG-HVX200 HD camera, some say that it is as good as Super16 film. Bear in mind that we are still talking about a camera with a built-in zoom lens, maximum wide angle is 4.2mm, not bad but somewhat limiting. A lot of Digital images look good if you stay on a long lens, but fall apart when you go wide. The chip is still too small to retain all that information. But they are getting better all the time. The Canon XL1/XL2 (sorry, I am not following a particular order) is a good piece of kit with a 1/3” chip allowing plenty of depth of field. It’s configured more like a pro camcorder than most DV cameras on the market. Canon also make some of the best lenses. Controlling focus is still a bit of a pain due to the servo system, but much better than most competitors. Then we have the Sony Z1 where we are processing images in the HDV1080i format. I have heard though that the new Canon XL H1 HDV1080i camcorder is not compatible with Sony’s, and there are problems in post if you are mixing the two acquisitions together. I have used the Sony Z1 a lot, and I quite like certain features, but the lens is very limiting and when shooting in SD mode, it is not as good as some of the others such as the JVC GY-HD101E and Canon XL H1. All very subjective, mind you.

franz pagot

DVuser: Do you think that HDV is the new format to watch out for? Setting some sort of new semi-professional industry standard?

Franz: franz pagotOuch, this is a tricky subject: video formats. The success of video relies partly on its global compatibility. I can take a roll of film and load any camera of any type anywhere in the world (very few exceptions if you want to be pedantic). Video always suffered from an incapacity of the different manufacturers agreeing on one standard (just look at the PAL, SECAM, NTSC mess) and we have seen plenty of truly appalling formats from a quality point of view (VHS for instance) becoming popular just because the company behind it had better marketing muscles. In the past couple of years the consumer market has been inundated by ‘prosumer’ (horrible word) products that are trying to combine semi-professional features with cheap components, to allow easy access to the pro world. But we are still miles away from a standard that will satisfy broadcasters as well as being truly compatible across the board with globally compatibility. We are getting there, unless of course the grey suits invent another set of Emperor’s clothes. I remember Hi8 being heralded as the new broadcast format, and I have to say it was brilliant. Years ago I shot video in war zones using a Sony V5000E and got fantastic footage that intercut seamlessly with Beta originated material.

DVuser: Do you still find it difficult to find one particular format satisfying in terms of quality?

Franz: Hmmm, as I mentioned before, each camera and format has its own pros and cons, there’s no such thing as an absolute tool, apart from film perhaps, that can cover everything. But we are getting there and to fellow DoPs that complain of the good old days, I always say that video, in its broadest sense, has made more progress in the past few years than film did since its conception a hundred years ago. What concerns me most at present is the content of what’s on show and how it is deteriorating; fast, and no menu setting on any camera can change that.

About Franz Pagot
franz pagotBorn near Venice, Italy. Educated in the classics. 1983 marks his first major exposure to airtime (as a paratrooper in the army). Spent five years in Milan, assisting on films, commercials and documentaries. Moved to London in 1990, where he started lighting and refines his operating skills. He is a qualified underwater cameraman and has won many awards including the New York Film Festival with a commercial for Adidas, and a commercial for Orangina that was screened on The Late Show (BBC). He was made AIC (Association of Italian Cinematographers) in 2004. He’s a member of BAFTA, GBCT, IAWF, DGGB, AoP and there are a number of articles written about his work, all available. Oh, his wife left him because of his celluloid addiction.

Date: 23-06-2006

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