ESPN Documentarians Take Sony EX1s Out of the Box, Onto the High School Court
By Carolyn Braff
Attempting to decipher the actions of high school boys is an ambiguous exercise at best, but using Sony XDCAM PMW-EX1 cameras, an upcoming documentary on Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School’s boys’ basketball team will ensure that the picture, at least, will be perfectly clear.
Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, co-directors of the documentary that will air as an ESPN Signature special this winter, followed the boys’ varsity basketball team from Boys and Girls High throughout the 2007-08 season, beginning with their first practice and culminating in the championship game against archrival Abraham Lincoln High. Because the EX1 was unavailable when the co-directors began the project, the first half of the season is captured on Sony HVR-Z1U cameras, setting the stage for a remarkable increase in visual quality when the EX1s take over.
How best to characterize the difference between the Z1U and the EX1? “I want to say it’s the difference between a Model T and a Shelby Mustang,” Alpert says.
“When we’re looking at the footage on our HD monitors when we’re editing, it looks like the difference between HD and SD,” O’Neill adds. “The EX1 has the richness that you expect from top quality HD programming.”
The best differential between the two comes in the film’s numerous low-light scenes.
“It’s literally night and day as far as low-light situations go,” Alpert adds. “We were looking at a scene I shot at Kennedy airport at just 9db of gain, and it sees better at night than I do.”
Over the course of the season, Alpert and O’Neill shot more than 250 hours of 1080i footage (although the film will air in 720p). The cinematographers went to practices, attended road trips and spent months getting to know the athletes and their rhythms. Each EX1 is equipped with two solid state SxS memory cards, each of which can accommodate an hour of footage, so Alpert and O’Neill could capture entire games without having to disrupt their rhythm by resetting the equipment.
“For sports programming, this camera is the perfect tool,” Alpert says. “You can carry it the way you carry any small-format camera and get the visual result of any large format camera without having to go to the chiropractor.”
At a base weight of slightly more than 5 pounds, the portability of the EX1 is a boon for directors who have been in the business for many years – and carried hundreds of pounds worth of equipment.
“The advantage here is not only the ultra-portability of the camera, but the ultra-portability of everything that’s associated with it,” Alpert explains, noting that the SxS cards can fit in a shirt pocket along with an extra battery, which lasts 270 minutes with a full charge.
While digitizing footage from the Z1U must be done in real time, the EX1 requires only four minutes to digitize an hour of footage. Although the hundreds of man hours saved with the new system were immediately obvious, making the switch to a tapeless workflow was not a jump these directors were ready to take lightly.
“As people who have worked in tape all their lives, there was a leap of faith because we did not have the money and the equipment to backup the material,” Alpert explains. “Once we shot something and we digitized it, we erased the original material. It scared the daylights out of me the first time we did it.”
Backup is now being completed during post-production, although Alpert and O’Neill do not recommend their digitize-first, backup-later approach.
Despite spending nearly a year surrounded by high school boys, the aspect of the EX1 that most pleased Alpert was the freedom the camera allowed him to keep his wardrobe from looking like that of his subjects.
“You used to have to have your tape stock in your pants pocket, and as you worked during the day, your pants would begin to get baggy on you,” Alpert explains. “Around 3:00 in the afternoon you had one hand on the camera and the other one on your pants trying to hold them up. Now with 15 pounds of equipment, we’re good for a week. That’s probably the thing I’m most grateful for: my pants stay up.”