The Myth of Mini-DV Widescreen
an article by The Watchdog
The Watchdog notes: I wrote an abridged version of this article which first appeared in RES Magazine, vol. 2 no. 3.
Today’s new breed of independent digital filmmakers are now using affordable tools for video production such as the Canon XL1, Sony VX-1000 and TRV-900, and others. Several models in this amazing generation of comparatively low-cost camcorders seemingly place Hollywood-style features into the hands of the proletariat, enabling the budding bohemian and the aspiring avant-garde to produce what appears to be almost the same level of production values as your favorite David Lean epic.
One such feature offered by these camcorders is the much sought-after and intriguing “wide screen” mode which allows you to shoot in a 16x9 aspect ratio, that is, a rectangular frame which is 16 units of measure wide by nine units of measure high. That’s a significant increase in screen space over the “normal” television aspect ratio of 4x3. However, once you learn how these surprisingly affordable digital camcorders produce a wide screen image, you may not be so eager to use it for your next independent feature… because, like everything else in this world, such luxury comes with a costly trade-off.
The digital camcorder’s CCD’s (charge-coupled devices, each with a matrix of light-sensitive pixels onto which images are received), are almost square shaped to conform to the normal 4x3 aspect ratio of ordinary video monitors and televisions. In digital video, this screen resolution is 720x480. In order to deliver the rectangular 16x9 aspect ratio of “wide creen,” since the actual width of the CCD can’t be increased, vertical resolution is reduced instead to 720x360… producing an equivalent rectangular 16x9 frame which doesn’t use the full image-gathering capacity of the CCD’s.
This trade-off of vertical resolution (of which there is not a whole lot to begin with) is the price you'll pay if you shoot in “wide screen” mode with these prosumer camcorders. The pixels are then vertically stretched back to 720x480 for recording and the image will appear elongated in a normal 4x3 monitor or properly dimensioned in a 16x9 monitor. The loss of resolution may not be readily apparent in close-ups, but wide-angle shots will be rendered somewhat soft and fuzzy no matter how sharp the focus is.
A significant disadvantage when using the “wide screen” mode on the Canon XL1 is that the resulting image in the viewfinder itself will appear “squished,” or vertically stretched, as if you’re looking at a funhouse mirror. Unless you can train yourself to properly compose shots in this unorthodox manner, you’ll have to pass the video signal out to an external 16x9 monitor or through a digital VTR with WIDE-ID detection (such as the Sony DSR-30, which will “squash” the elongated image back to its true dimensions and add letterboxing to boot). Either solution is expensive and adds bulky equipment to your location set-ups.
For a “true” widescreen 16x9 aspect ratio, that is, without the inherent loss of vertical resolution which we’ve been discussing, one must employ the much more expensive higher-end cameras which have rectangular-shaped CCD’s specifically designed for this purpose. Two such cameras are the Panasonic AJ-D900W (DVC-Pro 50 format), and the Sony DVW-700WS (Digital Betacam), each costing several thousand dollars more than their non-widescreen counterparts, which are themselves more than ten times the price of prosumer camcorders such as the VX-1000 and the XL1. Currently, the most affordable digital video camera equipped with real 16x9 CCD's is the Sony DSR-500, a professional DVCAM unit costing around $US15,000.
Does this mean that lossless 16x9 widescreen is still currently unachievable for those filmmakers confined by more spartan ecomomic means? Perhaps not. One possible solution is to shoot in the normal 4x3 mode, but compose your shots in such a way that the most important visual elements lie within the middle third of the frame. Later on in post, you can add letterbox masking and convert the aspect ratio to widescreen; at any rate your source tapes will have preserved the full-frame full-resolution image.
It’s probably safe to assume that the vast majority of your potential audience will be viewing your masterpiece on regular 4x3 television sets for about another ten years, despite the hype of HDTV (Highly Delayed Television). It will undoubtedly take that long for 16x9 monitors to become inexpensive enough to finally proliferate the average consumer’s home entertainment centers. For now, the widescreen “gimmick” found on today’s XL1 and other digital handycams offers an opportunity to experiment, and a glimpse of things to come in the near future.
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Thrown together by Chris Hurd