Screening ‘Over My Dead Body’

David St-Pierre, Choreographer

David St-Pierre, Choreographer

I recently saw a documentary which I consider to be one of the best I’ve ever seen, OVER MY DEAD BODY (trailer). It follows renowned Quebec choreographer Dave St. Pierre during the several year period when he waits for a lung transplant – the only way to save his life from cystic fibrosis. The filmmaker is St. Pierre’s friend and creative partner Brigitte Poupart, and this is her first film.

Brigitte Poupart, Actress, Dancer, Filmmaker

Brigitte Poupart, Actress, Dancer & Filmmaker

Several things make this film exceptional. St. Pierre is totally vulnerable.  We follow him through the trials and tribulations of the high-risk operation, several times cancelled as the deadline for survival by surgery draws nearer.  Poupart’s commentary is personal, intimate and honest. Her creative vision is remarkably layered and textured, drawing on footage of St. Pierre’s work as well as his health predicament. One has the impression Poupart is a seasoned documentarian who has developed a visual signature over a period of a few decades. But no – she is a performance artist, involved in theatre and dance shows. To top it all off, this film was made on a very small budget, with the support mainly of the Quebec Arts Council and an artist’s centre called PRIM.

Ten years ago I ran a series of screenings called the Lundis du Doc/Docu-Mondays. It was in collaboration with the Quebec Director’s Association (ARRQ), the French program of the NFB and the Rencontres du Documentaire. It was a lot of work, and I stopped doing it in 2005 at the same time as I started this blog. Now, a group of filmmaker friends want to pick up where I left off. My health doesn’t allow me to continue, but I wish them the best of luck. They gave me a carte blanche for the first evening, that’s why we’ll be screening Poupart’s film. For those of you who live in Montreal, it’s at the ARRQ, MONDAY AUG 6TH, 19 HRS, 5154 ST.HUBERT.

Thank you to Sally Rylett for help with this blog post.

HD for Dummies

Philippe Lavallette - les réfugiés de la planète bleue
DOP Philippe Lavallette at work with an HD camera on Les réfugiés de la planète bleue.

These days, most documentaries are shot in HD, high definition. Seems to make sense, doesn’t it, since you can buy a high definition camera for just a thousand dollars! But does this mean that all HD is one and the same thing, and that you get as good an image with a thousand-dollar camera as with one that costs 50 times more? You guessed it, you don’t.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of taking a course in HD workflow at PRIM, in Montreal, a resource centre for artists and filmmakers. (I am a member, we did the post-production for my most recent films there.) It was an opportunity to get an answer to my most pressing question: what does HD really mean, how do you know what quality you are really getting, and can you combine different kinds of HD formats without noticeable quality differences ?

So, in case you were asking the same question, here’s a short summary answer. The quality of a digital image is partly, but only partly, defined by the resolution, measured in lines of pixels. Standard Definition (SD) has 480 horizontal lines. The most common HD resolution is 1080 (horizontal) x 1920 (vertical) lines for a 16:9 image, but can be lower (720 for the vertical count is common) or higher (up to 4000 for a camera like the RED).

However, the actual quality of the image doesn’t depend only on the resolution. It also is a direct function of the compression, the size and nature of the image sensor, and the quality of the lens.

Compression is a way to encode the information to save space on whatever support the image is recorded on. It is expressed in three-part a formula as in 4:4:4 (uncompressed) or 4:2:2 (a $5,000 prosumer camera like the EX-1 which I use.) The inevitable cost of compression is a loss of definition and detail, and reduced margins for colour correction and visual effects in post production.

And the sensor. The smaller the sensor, the less detail you will get, and– counter-intuitively– the more depth of field you will get. More depth of field might sound like a good thing to the neophyte, but actually film makers tend to want the opposite, to achieve more of a ‘film look.’ (Main subject in focus, background out of focus, for ex.) Both Sony and Panasonic are just coming out with cameras that will make it possible to shoot video with a very limited depth of field, that will be another small revolution in video production.

With the help of PRIM’s excellent staff, we did some tests with the different cameras I use. To summarize the conclusion: the small and cheap HD cameras give a surprisingly good result, but you don’t get the same quality image as with a more expensive one. If you want to combine to two, the smaller/cheaper cameras should be used in good lighting conditions.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for help with this post.