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Wednesday, 06 November 2013 07:52

Cinematographers Embrace High-End Digital Cinema

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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SonyIt would be naïve to think that all of the hype about 4K and Ultra HD cameras at every media trade show wouldn’t have an impact on expectations, especially at the high end of the digital production food chain. “This year, many clients are asking for 4K, some because it’s popular, but others do want shelf life,” says Bobby Holbrook, a cinematographer and co-owner of Holbrook Multimedia. “But, if they don’t really need 4K, I’ll suggest 2K or even 1080p, because the data load is so much easier to manage.” But for clients who do need 4K, Holbrook is ready to deliver: “We’ve been shooting a lot of projects in 4K this year with the [RED] EPIC, the [Sony] F65 and F55.”

While Holbrook prefers certain cameras, he lets the project dictate his choice. “If I’m shooting in a studio or have to move the image around a lot in post [for CG and effects], I prefer the F65 with its 8K sensor,” he explains. “I love the buttery smooth and delicious color images that it captures so brilliantly, especially with the Master Primes. I [also] love its mechanical shutter, which enables the old-school cinematic look.” But the large sensor of Sony’s F65 comes at a price: everything about it is supersized, so the lenses, rails, cage and batteries can add a few pounds. “The F65 package is fairly heavy and will wear you down after a long day moving it around,” says Holbrook. “That’s why I prefer the F55 for running and gunning. At barely five pounds, it’s much easier on Steadicams, dollies, cranes and just handholding. If the F65 was closer to the F55 [in size and weight], it would always be my first choice.” Working with most of the Ultra-HD cameras on the market has led Holbrook to a Sony bias. “There is something about the way Sony adjusts contrast [and] renders color and blacks,” he notes. “Every camera maker has their distinctive style of signal processing. I’ve always loved the Sony look, which is even more impressive in 4K and in 2K than in HD.”

Cinematographer Ezequiel Casares also favors Sony, as he loves the flexibility of the F55. “I love its global shutter and its versatility,” he explains. “You can shoot a dramatic feature in 4K or a doc in 2K, or shoot TV and corporate projects in HD. You can capture up to 240fps in 2K RAW and up to 60fps in 4K RAW.” With the F55, it appears that Sony has adopted the RED’s model of increasing camera capabilities over time with periodic firmware updates (and these similarities have triggered a nasty lawsuit). The F55’s most recent version 1.3 was released this month to add substantial 2K options, including 2K RAW at up to 240fps, plus XAVC 2K 4:2:2. The RAW 4:2:2 had a lot of firepower when it first came out too. More XAVC formats will be added in 4K along with a wider range of frame rates in 4K RAW and in 2K, with frame rates from 1–240fps (2K) and 1–60fps in 4K RAW. “The F55 is much [more] than just a new film stock,” notes Casares. “It’s a whole new workflow with many new options, which will continue expanding over time. At nearly 14 stops, its dynamic latitude is comparable to the original [ARRI] ALEXA, the gold standard of digital cine cameras.”

For those on a tighter budget, there’s the Sony F5 camera, which is a lite version of the F55. While it lacks a global shutter, it does Sony PMW-F55support multiple formats and codecs, but with many technical benchmarks stopping just a bit shy of the F55’s offerings. For example, the F5’s maximum frame rate in all 2K and HD formats is 120fps and 60fps in 4K RAW vs. 240fps and 120fps respectively for the F55. Videographer Doc Ajay Johnson finds the F5 ideal for his mixed bag of documentary, fashion, corporate and commercial work. “With the F5’s sensitivity, I use less lighting yet maintain a clean ambient look for fashion and for docs,” says Johnson. “It’s also light enough so I can keep using my favorite [DSLR] dollies and sliders, and it has a comfortable viewfinder. I can shoot in HD, 2K or 4K with pretty much the same range of formats and codecs as the F55.”

While priorities may vary, every cinematographer wants a camera capable of capturing great imagery along with tools that will push its capabilities even further. Ideally, it should also be easy to use on various support platforms, from tripods to jibs. By those standards, the ARRI ALEXA is not yet 4K (2.8K max) but is rated highly by many DPs. Bill Bennett, ASC (aka “the car guy”) typically uses the ALEXA Plus 4:3, which he often mounts on the outside of a fast-moving vehicle. “I love ALEXAs for many reasons, including that they’re virtually ‘bullet-proof,’” reports Bennett. “One time our stunt car crashed into the camera car [and] right into the camera and mount. It demolished the lens and gouged the camera’s exterior, but the ALEXA kept filming the whole time.” For Bennett, when circumstances like this occur, the ultimate proof is in the final picture. “The ALEXA’s latitude is even better than film’s, which is part of its secret sauce,” he explains. “It sees far into the shadows and into the highlights and doesn’t get that ‘digital look’ in the ‘transition zone’ like other digital cameras do.” Equally important is how the ALEXA handles flesh tones. “With many cameras, you can adjust the skin tone on one or maybe two faces but not several different ones at the same time, and especially not if [the actors are] different ethnicities,” says Bennett. “Only the ALEXA can do that. With its 4:3 sensor, it’s the only camera that lets you use the full height of the sensor with anamorphic lenses.”

The ALEXA is currently in high demand within the film and TV industry, so there’s only so many to go around, but Bennett isn’t concerned. “Skyfall, Prometheus and other blockbusters have been shot with ALEXAs at 2.6–2.8K, and they look fantastic on the big screen,” he says. “ARRI is working on a 4K camera, but in the meantime the classic ALEXAs have plenty of resolution.” Luckily, it doesn’t necessarily take tens of thousands of dollars to own a really good digital cine camera these days. Thanks to Blackmagic Design, the world is ready for the first full-sensor cine camera for under $5K. The company’s first camera, the 2.5K Cinema Camera, listed for around $3K and is now priced at only $2K — and this includes Da Vinci Resolve software. This price break has enabled many DPs to own a high-quality digital cine camera instead of paying to rent one.

Cinematographer Gavin Fisher recently bought the latest version of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with a micro-4/3-inch mount, as well as its little cousin, the Pocket Cinema Camera. “I can use all of my 35mm still film lenses with either camera, so I don’t have to invest in new glass, which saves a lot!” Fisher enthuses. This begs the question: Can you get more than $2K’s worth with a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera? “I can’t believe the price of Blackmagic cameras, as they compare well with cameras costing much, much more,” says Fisher. “They handle skin tones and color almost as well as an ALEXA. If I could shoot slow motion and time lapse with them, I probably wouldn’t bother to rent the ALEXAs much more. [Blackmagic’s] new Pocket Cine Cam does virtually the same job but is small enough to place almost anywhere, much like a GoPro. Plus, they’re so inexpensive that you can use them as hazard cams for car crashes, etc. It doesn’t make sense to spend $20K to $30K for a camera that will be dated in a few years when you can get so much for so little from Blackmagic.”

Canon has also been pushing the Ultra-HD benchmark with two new cameras: the EOS C500 and its top-of-the-line DSLR the EOS-1D C. Cinematographer CanonShane Hurlbut, ASC (Act of Valor) recently tested both models alongside the ALEXA on DreamWorks’ Need for Speed, an action drama about car racing starring Aaron Paul. According to Hurlbut, 80 percent of the film was shot with Canon’s C500 and 1D C, and 20 percent was captured with an ARRI ALEXA. “I fell more in love with the C500 [on this shoot],” says the DP. “If you compare the new [digital cine] cameras to film stock, Canon is Kodak, and Kodak is my favorite film stock. Its color rendition, skin tones and the unique ability to find very subtle colors are really impressive. The C500 sees them like film sees with really subtle colors. [And] with DaVinci Resolve, it was easy to get C500 footage to look exactly how I wanted, [and it was] even easier than with the ALEXA.

“I used the ALEXA for all of the daytime driving shots, because I worried about having only 12 stops of latitude with the C500,” Hurlbut continues, “but now that I understand the color space of the C500, I have no problem using this camera under any conditions. [On Need for Speed] we used the C500 a ton for high-speed shooting and it looked really great. With the new firmware update, you won’t need to capture in half RAW anymore. Also, thanks to its compact size, we were able to embed the C500 in unique places in the super cars, putting the viewer in the race and behind the wheel.” For the shoot, the Canon EOS-1D C was used for the driver POV camera shots and the OTS camera shots in the super cars. “The compactness of this 3.25-pound camera enabled us to rig it over engines, behind heads, and as crash cams, etc.,” says Hurlbut.
RED-DRAGON-Carbon-FiberDespite the popularity of these ARRI, Sony and Canon cameras, shooters should consider the RED EPIC as a first-class digital cine camera, particularly with its new DRAGON sensor. As with the prior EPIC model, the EPIC DRAGON’s aluminum alloy “brain” weighs only 5 pounds, so ounce per ounce it delivers more resolution and processing power than any other digital cine camera today. Its specs include capture of 1–100fps in 6K and 1–300fps in 2K, with many acquisition formats from 6K RAW (2:1, 2.4:1) to 720p RGB (16:9). It also offers compression ratios from 18:1 to 3:1. This latest EPIC model is so new to market that it was tough to track down someone who had used it enough to go on the record about its performance. I finally found Director Mark Toia, who’s the owner of several RED EPIC-M and Mysterium-X cameras, and has a DRAGON on order. In his camera tests, Toia focused on contrast and ISO. “The DRAGON has three stops more than before, one in the highlights, which rolls off wonderfully, and two solid stops in the darks, and maybe three once the color science is perfected.”
Filmmakers who are still resistant to transition from film stock to digital workflows will like shooting with the RED EPIC DRAGON. “There is still some noise, but, silly as it sounds, it looks more like film grain than noise,” says Toia. “It has the best highlight falloff I have ever seen from any digital camera, beating film. After shooting film and pushing it around telecine chains for more than a decade, I can categorically say that the DRAGON has better [dynamic] range than film ever had.” Toia was even dazzled by the frame grabs shot at high compression ratios at 100fps. “Still frames compared to, if not bettered, top-of-the-line pro 35mm digital stills,” he enthuses. “If you’re a pro photographer, you are mad if you don’t have this camera in your toolbox, as you’ll never miss a single shot with it.”
While this may be just one cinematographer’s opinion, I’ve found similar comments on user blogs suggesting that, with RED EPIC DRAGON, digital cine video has finally transcended the 35mm film gold standard on many key benchmarks, including latitude, resolution, contrast and, most importantly, capturing what the naked eye can see.

 

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