Half-color Fashion: Why Project: Runway looks “thin”

Wherein I discuss the differences between DVCPro25 and DVCPro50 with my toaster

Today I had an interesting conversation about bit depth with my toaster.

“So, tell me,” said Harold the Civil Toaster (not civil as in kind, but because he spent some time in civil service), “why the color palette of Project Runway looks familiar without my being able to place where I’ve seen it before.”

Naturally, my jaw dropped in surprise. My toaster almost never asks me cinematography-related questions. Mostly he just complains about life and politics. He’s a crusty old fellow.

“I thought the same thing. The colors looked familiar, but also not–almost as if they were too thin or something.”

“Exactly,” said Harry. (He’s very informal as appliances go.) “The colors have the subtlety that I’m used to seeing in footage shot on Panasonic cameras, like the SDX-900 or the Varicam, with accurate secondary colors–something that’s hard for most video cameras to do, although Panasonic does it quite well.”

“I worked with a sound person the other day who’d done some time on Project Runway.” I took a tray of real butter out of the refrigerator. Harry frowns on margarines and all fats that are solid at room temperature. “He confirmed that the show was shot on SDX-900’s, but at 25 megabits per second (DVCPro25) instead of 50 megabits (DVCPro50). I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the information that’s not being recorded in DVCPro25 is color information.”

“That’s strange for a fashion show, isn’t it? You’d think they’d want to emphasize the colors more.” As toasters go, Harry is more thoughtful than most. “Is it really just about economics?”

“I s’pose. You get twice as much tape time, but yes–the colors drop off dramatically. DVCPro25 is essentially the same as DVCAM, and neither of us like how that reproduces colors.”

“I can’t tell the difference between wheat and rye on DVCAM,” said Harry. “I suppose that’s okay if you’re shooting sports, but it would be a sad choice if you’re shooting a cooking show.”

“I think they do the same thing on Top Chef. They use the right cameras but at the wrong setting. It allows them to shoot for longer periods of time, but the image could be a lot richer.” I really love the way Panasonic cameras handle color. In DVCPro50 or DVCProHD formats the color depth is complex enough to resemble film, although it’s not deep enough to create as much separation as one would see with film. My experience is that color film is much easier to light as the subtlety of color and shading helps separate subjects from backgrounds without a lot of effort. 8-bit HD and video require a lot more backlight and edgelight to pop objects away from backgrounds; even in HD it’s very easy for scenes to turn to mush if there’s not enough done to separate objects from planes.

Uncompressed and higher bit depth formats show less of this “mush” effect. The Thomson Viper, for example, reacts very much the way film does, thanks to its ability to capture a much wider range of color and tonality–although if one were recording the footage to HDCAM or DVCProHD (both 8-bit formats) instead of HDCAM SR that mushiness would quickly return.

I find that the SDX-900 and Varicam, right out of the box, are a little too subtle for my taste. I do like desaturated images if there’s enough color depth to support them, but neither of those cameras look good when the color saturation is reduced. People tend to look dead, which is great for zombie flicks but not spots or corporate projects. (Well… it’s appropriate for -some- corporate. The dead flesh tone occasionally matches the liveliness of the content.) My tendency is to go into both the color correction menus (primaries and secondaries, also known as “Color Correction 1” and “Color Correction 2”), and turn the saturation for each color up to +20. Unlike Sony, whose steps tend to be very dramatic, +20 is only a slight change and adds just a little more chromaticity. If I’m not working with a paintbox I’ll also go into the white balance preset (I believe it’s found under the Operations menu) and change it from 3200k to 3300k, just to add a tiny bit of warmth.

I’ve had great luck creating a “bleach bypass” look with the Sony F900, reducing the saturation by dialing -50 into all the colors in the multi-matrix and using a black net behind the lens. Sony colors pop quite a lot, which makes it easy to dial them back for a more subdued look. The additional resolution of the 1080 image makes color separation slightly less important. 480p and 720p Panasonic cameras fall apart very quickly when desaturated or diffused, but the palette is so soft and lovely that I never find the need to do either of those things.

“I guess money trumps quality, at least when it comes to that last 20% of quality that we’re always trying to sneak into our art,” said Harry. “Speaking of which…”

From the thick toast slot he ejects a single piece of sourdough, wearing a small tuxedo with a lavender bow tie and spats.

“What the hell is that?

“If you have to know,” Harry says smugly, “He’s the Toast of the Town.”

I’m no slave to fashion. I ate him.

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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