San Diego Undersea Film Expo goes 'high-def'

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Posted by on October 07, 2005 at 10:49:39:

Those who obsess over capturing digital video images of life underwater now have a new holy grail - high-definition DV.

Once the province of professionals whose work could afford the high cost of such specialized equipment, like their DV predecessors, relatively low-cost HDV cameras are beginning to reach the market.

Eager to exploit consumers' lust for "more, better, faster," the four major digital video camera makers agreed on an HDV compression standard in 2003 that would enable this format to be recorded and played back on standard DV tapes. With this standard in place, manufacturers could greatly enlarge the amount of information that can be captured on DV. (Think of it as the difference between a standard definition TV set and the 16-by-9 plasma screens set up at your favorite sports bar).

This year's edition of the San Diego Undersea Film Exhibition, Oct. 14 and 15 at the Museum of Natural History Theater in Balboa Park, features just such a work.

Shot in Tonga by Bay Area videographers Rob Barrel and Fred Heiman, the compressed excerpt featuring humpback whales presented here doesn't quite do it justice. For his part, Heiman is more interested in publicizing the plight of the endangered species (only 25,000 exist worldwide) than in crowing over any technical wizardry.

Heiman was captivated by the whales' verbal stylings.

"The humpback whale is not the largest whale - that's the blue whale," Heiman said. "Nor is it the most familiar whale - that's the sperm whale. Nor is it the most popular whale - that's the killer whale. What sets the humpback whale apart is the fact that it sings.

"All the whales in the same migrating group sing the same song . . . and the song changes every year. Amazingly, all the whales seem to learn the new version annually, suggesting a highly developed form of communication."

Heiman points to research by noted biologist Roger Payne, which shows whales do more than just parrot the same tired tune. They create as they swim, adding new elements.

"We are aware of no other animal besides man in which this strange and complicated behavior occurs," Payne says. "If you listen to songs from two different years, they are as different as Beethoven and the Beatles."

The HDV film is scheduled to close both nights.

Twenty-four other works are featured, including Heiman's digital film on tiger sharks, shot in the Bahamas.

"Along with the great white and bull shark, tiger sharks are one of the three main species to attack humans and are responsible for most of the shark attacks in Hawaii," Heiman said. "As you will see from our interaction with them, they can be gentle, playful and somewhat shy."

We'll take Heiman's word for it.

Small creatures are also featured.

John F. Williams of Still Hope Productions in Suquamish, Wash., contributed an excerpt of a 27-minute movie called "Return of the Plankton." An educational DVD is scheduled for release soon.

"The DVD also contains study aids including over 150 photographs from the video that identify plants and animals by common and scientific names with a click of the menu button," Williams said. "For classroom use, a printable summary of the marine food web, a sample quiz, and a bibliography are also on the DVD."

Unlike many film festivals, the event is less a labor of finance than of love. A small group of organizers meets throughout the year, recruits knowledgeable judges (this year, they include Emmy nominee and local professional Lance Milbrand) and solicit contributors from around the world.

It is non-revenue generating activity. Organizers only hope to cover costs with the $10 price of admission.

"The quality of the submissions, for subject as well as editing techniques, improves each year," said Arthur "Mick" Hutchins. "We seem to raise the bar each time."

The films themselves are limited to five minutes each, ensuring a fast-paced program.

As anyone who has had the misfortune of viewing a bad prime-time TV program (or web video) can attest, just because the tools of video production are more readily available to more people doesn't necessarily mean they're all worthwhile. Another organizer, Mary Lynn Price, notes that those submitting works for review are becoming better storytellers as well.

"More and more filmmakers are thinking about the art of shooting, editing and telling a story," she said, "rather than just cutting together underwater travelogues."

Read what other participants have to say about the 2005 S.D. UnderSea Film Exhibition.


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