On the Set of the First HDTV Feature Film

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It isn't normal on the set of a Hollywood production for visitors to spend more time staring at the camera than at the actors. But, Nicolas is not a normal film production.

First, it's not a film, it's a movie. At least, that's the noun of choice for everybody connected with it. Because Nicolas is the first American feature film (there's that word again) to be produced on HDTV (High-Definition TV).

"We are making The Jazz Singer of High-Def," jokes Pete Shaner, who is directing his own script. "I've said that to the crew to get them motivated because God knows, we're not paying them enough."

Nicolas has a budget of less than $500,000. It's being made with an innovative system built to George Lucas's specifications for his next Star Wars film, but which is getting its shakedown photographing real-live people.

Traditionally, film is shot and projected at 24 frames per second (fps). In North America, video -- whether network, cable, home video, or HDTV -- is recorded and played at 30 fps. When film is transferred to tape, every fourth frame is printed twice to convert 24 fps into 30 fps; when video is transferred to film, every fifth frame is skipped in order to bring 30 fps down to 24 fps.

That's what makes the Sony camera being used to shoot Nicolas a breakthrough. It shoots video at 24 fps, making this video camera produce film-style output. The camera uses a Panavision Primo Digital lens with an 11:1 zoom -- an item that, like the camera, was built to specifications provided by George Lucas.

Once the curiosity about the process itself subsides, of course, Nicolas must live or die as its own achievement. It's a supernatural romance about a woman whose past includes a tragedy that keeps haunting her until she faces the truth of it and is able to let go. The movie stars Gretchen Egolf, Marcus Graham, Jason Connery, Dawnn Lewis, John de Lancie, and Max Gail.

Yet those connected with it know that they are a part of history. The clarity of the HDTV image, plus the versatility of its 24-fps format, could help HDTV become the missing link that pulls Hollywood into the digital age and grants opportunities to independent (read: low-budget) production. But for now, every day brings a new challenge, and the filmmakers' decisions will last forever.

For one thing, this new format means that video and film can be mixed without fear of jarring differences in quality or frame-rate. "The images that it creates are incredible to the point where it can become seamless when you're shooting both film and video," says Director of Photography S. Douglas Smith.

That's a good thing, because there are some techniques that the new camera doesn't address. "The capabilities are limiting when you're going to slow motion," says Smith. "Any high-speed stuff, you have to go get a film camera. I think it's a technology that will survive and will eventually take over film, but not for a long time."

In the wake of The Jazz Singer , silent screen stars were dragged in front of microphones to test their voices against the demands of talkies. Those who passed were celebrated as "Okay for sound." HDTV poses a similar barrier -- not for actors' voices, but for their faces.

"When you move into close-ups, you see every little hair and pore that you can't see on film," notes Assistant Cameraman Jeff Clark. "It's like walking up to somebody and staring at them from two feet away."

Associate Producer Lisa Kanovsky discovered this on the first day of shooting. "Film is forgiving and High-Definition isn't," she says.

Does this mean that anybody over the age of Reese Witherspoon or Ryan Phillippe are out of luck? "No," says Kanovsky coyly. "It just means that certain people are going to be playing their age."

Another side-effect of the digital recording process is at the "video tap," a monitor the director uses to view what the camera sees as a scene is being shot.

"There's no guesswork," says Shaner. "Especially with this 21-inch HDTV color monitor, I'm seeing it exactly as it's going to be seen."

Gretchen Egolf, who plays the pivotal role of Laura, also appreciates the economy of shooting on 40-minute tapes instead of 10-minute film magazines. "You can get things done a lot faster and create a sense of momentum; you don't have to stop and get all out of character and then back in. You don't feel like you're wasting film, so you can relax and do your work better."

The contents of those tapes are being put together by editor Michael Alberts, who uses the industry-standard Avid nonlinear (Mac-based) system.

"This is a merging of film and video," Alberts says, pointing out that shooting on tape eliminates the need to digitize film for editing. However, there is one obstacle: storage space. The Avid's present 170GB capacity can't really fit full-quality HDTV video. Instead, footage is digitized at a lower resolution and then later re-edited from the camera cassettes themselves. Someday, editing systems will be able to hold full-quality video data, allowing editors to send the finished work directly onto whatever presentation medium is needed.

Back at the set, director Shaner acknowledges that one of the pitfalls of being a pioneer is the potential of looking dated at some time in the future.

"There are probably things in this movie that, 60 years from now, people will look at and be horrified because we crossed some line that hasn't even been drawn yet," Shaner says.

Adds Kanovsky, "We hope we have a compelling story that everyone wants to watch, as well, even though we joke on the set that the camera is the star of the movie. I assure you, we have more pictures of the camera than we do probably of any of the cast members."

As for the performers, actor John de Lancie (best known as the playful "Q" on various Star Trek shows) finds artistic advantages in this experimental venture. "Perhaps the new technology bodes well," he says, "in that it was one of the most enjoyable, friendly, civilized shoots that I've ever been on."

"Every now and then somebody will say, 'We're shooting a film,'" Shaner recalls. "And then somebody else will say, 'Correction: we're making a movie!'"

NAT SEGALOFF is a writer-producer in Los Angeles. He is also the author of The Everything Trivia Book and the forthcoming The Everything Myth, Hoax and Scam Book.

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