Wigs and High Definition Video

Update: December 7th, 2009

Wigs and High Definition Video

by Cynthia L. McCourt

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Wigs are by default a necessary evil on High Definition Video. Because hair, in general, tends to frame the face it is the most vulnerable visual element in the Vanity Arts. These are going to be the reoccurring issues, hair and wig wise in HD work:

1. Low vs. high tech is a cheaper and more effective “fix” for most HD vanity art challenges.
2. Theatrical devices adapted for film work are dated and should be discarded.
3. To “cheat the camera” think textural vs. painterly
4. Artists with experience are worth the investment
5. Pre-production investments save money in post-production.

Wigs will work on HD if wig designers re-think their approach to actualizing their concepts. Hair is one of the hardest area to correct in post production. Every hair is dimensional and reflective. Post production may over-correct an image into an artifice that may compete with a sharp HD environment. The correction may only serve to draw focus to the challenge area.

Old tricks that may have served us in 35 mm rarely transfer to effective production support when shooting High Definition Video. In the television industry there seems to be a consistent lack of attention paid to hair and wig continuity in general. I’m constantly amazed at the glaring lack of quality area of wig making. What is worse, is seeing beautiful wigs poorly applied. Saving your production money by scrimping on good hair quality is not worth it. If what frames the characters face is so distracting and false it steals focus from an otherwise believable scene, the short term savings may result in long term cost.

There seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the reason for using a wig in the first place. Nothing can destroy a viewer’s “willing suspension of disbelief” quicker than an unfortunate wig choices. It makes sense not to make that choice if any other option is available. It would be wise to re-thinking how and when we choose to use full wigs on camera.

Always try to use pieces, incorporated with the actors own hair, preferably off the hairline. Pieces are much cheaper than hand-tied wigs on film lace. If you are using a hairpiece the hair must be ordered to match the color of the actor’s hair. A full head of hair has at least seven different colors of hair. The hairpiece must have the exact same color blend. Because pieces are so much more economical you will be able to afford duplicates so that the speed of restoration is greatly supported.

Here are some helpful do’s and don’t for HD hair goods:

1. Avoid synthetic hair – the fiber’s refraction index is too high
2. When using a wig pay special attention to the transition areas of the hairline around the face-cut back the lace
3. Avoid adhesives that are high gloss
4. Pay special attention to the need for a snug wig fit in the nape area

When you are shooting a full “period” project, all hair on camera will need nearly the same attention to detail as your lead actors hair, due to the unforgiving nature of HD. This would be very intimidating to undertake if it was to happen within the confines of the existing production formula. Renewed support for a substantial pre-production process is crucial if detailed quality is desired. Having properly constructed custom full wigs and pieces in advance will cut your daily initial call time in half. This will give you much needed ease for turnaround. I would suggest that a second shift of wig workers supporting the Key Hair and Wig Master prepping the next day’s wigs on a night shift.

Not everyone is going to make the transition from film to HD. Few individuals will do so smoothly. Be wary of Department Heads who fail to appreciate and anticipate the challenges of High Definition. Try to seek artisan answers to depth of field challenges vs. relying on a “fix it in post” answer. In the future successful wigs on camera should be custom built. What may be required is an HD specific wig mastery techniques. This new standard of wig work will ensure the quality control of all HD hair goods. This may re-introduce artisan quality workmanship. Other technical areas that are primarily visually oriented may also benefit from a reawakening of the milliners, cobblers, engravers and sculptors, etc. of our artistic communities. Artisans, who make themselves available to support higher production quality, will help maintain the new HD status quo while insisting on creative growth.

High Definition, as a visual medium, can be a brutal mistress. Yes, it is the best eye candy we have ever played with, but it is painfully unforgiving. HD will should cause you to rethink, is not reverse the notion of what should shine and what shouldn’t. High Definition will defy any half hearted attempts to cheat the eye. But High Def is also taking us to a new place of storytelling potential. However, if you are not prepared to dive into the swamp of your creative soul this would be a good time to reconsider law school.

Cynthia L. McCourt is a twenty-year veteran of the film and video production industry. Her concepts have been quoted in The London Telegraph, The First Post and the Broadcast Education Association’s publications. Her most recent HD project was Nanna’s Cottage, a children’s TV show now airing Saturday mornings on Trinity Broadcast Network. Currently she is traveling and teaching classes in high definition make-up and hair treatments, along with the care and feeding of wigs. Right now she is working for individual PBS affiliates. She is available for consultations and teaching engagements and can be reached at: permasmudge@yahoo.com . Cynthia also plans to publish a guide and textbook focused specifically on high definition techniques early 2008. When she is not on the road Cynthia lives with her son, Franklin and her cats in Eugene, Oregon.

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