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Tuesday, 06 July 2010 21:01

DPs' POV on Film

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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While it may just be a matter of time before digital cameras take over from film completely, that day hasn’t arrived yet, and feature films made for theatrical release are still largely shot on 35mm film. Television, by contrast, has quickly embraced the digital format – especially in the past year, and many DPs now accept that the transition to digital in television is a done deal.

 “The truth is, on most TV sets you can’t even see the difference between film and digital,” says famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. “My daughter Emily’s on a show, 'Bones,' where it was always shot on film, but now they’re shooting digital, like nearly every other show.” cam_feat_des_compressed.jpg

The transition to digital is gradually happening in the world of films, but at a far slower rate. “And it’s not nearly so clear-cut as in television,” says cinematographer Curtis Clark, chairman of The American Society of Cinematographers’ (ACS) technical committee. “I think that’s because as digital penetrates more and more, there’s a very strong concern among a lot of filmmakers to retain the virtues of the film “look and feel,” which is such an intrinsic part of our film culture. Don’t forget, film is very familiar to most of us and doesn’t need any new learning curve and working methods. Film is more established and predictable.” Clark, whose credits include The Draughtsman’s Contract, Dominick and Eugene and Alamo Bay, goes on to note that the  industry has been scanning film and using DI’s “a lot longer than we’ve been using digital cameras.” But he also adds the caveat that, “The latest generation of digital cameras is now able to replicate the look of traditional film.”

Deschanel, who started making images with the Brownie Hawkeye camera he got for his 11th birthday, and who has been shooting film all his life. “The fact is, the film camera movement and technology hasn’t really changed in decades, but I love film,” he says. During his career he’s earned five Acadamy Award nominations - for The Right Stuff, The Natural, Fly Away Home, The Patriot and The Passion of the Christ. His eclectic body of work includes “The Black Stallion,” “Being There” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” and it’s telling that for him, “Digital isn’t there yet, and I happen to like film and the certain irregularity to it.” Deschanel shot his new film called “Dreamhouse,” directed by Jim Sheridan, on location in Toronto using a Panaflex package – “the old-fashioned way” – and he points out that “the biggest advances have been in new stocks, such as Kodak’s 5219, and the new generation of lenses.”    

Clark and other DPs agree that film camera technology and basic functionality has hardly changed over the years. “It’s just gone through a lot of refinements, and a lot of it has to do with ergonomics and other factors,” adds Clark, who was the first DP to use Aaton’s first 35mm handheld camera back in 1989, on Triumph of the Spirit. “It was a huge innovation back then, and the camera still exists as The Penelope, the latest generation of it.” Clark also singles out the ARRI 235 as another true innovation in terms of non-sync sound cameras. “Ergonomically, it’s suggestive of the Aaton Penelope, because its form factor was so fantastic and it’s very easy to use – and great for handheld as it’s so lightweight and so user-friendly.”

 Handheld was the approach acclaimed DP Barry Ackroyd used to shoot the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, and to capture its ripped-from-the-headlines setting yet timeless themes. Ackroyd was hired after Bigelow had seen his jittery, tension-filled work on United 93, “and the kind of immediacy that could be achieved,” he says. “That was what the film required. So from our very first conversations it was clear that it would be visceral and physical.” To bring the relentless ever-present danger “into sharp relief,” Ackroyd shot Super 16mm. “We used Aaton XTR cameras, plus the Aaton Minima - this is a small camera body that takes 200 ft cassettes,” he reports, “keeping a genuine documentary approach. We chose realistic locations to allow the filming to be as physical and intense as we could and to create a complete environment for our action. We used up to 4 cameras on the scenes, giving maximum flexibility and allowing multiple perspectives. This gives the film an intimacy, whilst creating a tension between our subjects and their hostile surroundings, giving the editor maximum freedom to manipulate time and space within the story.”
 
 Many DPs report that Super 16 is undergoing a renaissance these days, partly as a reaction to the unforgiving clarity of HD cameras. As DP Steven Gainer, whose credits include “Bully,” “The Punisher: War Zone” and “Super,” notes, “There are certain HD issues that haven’t been quite resolved yet, and the most noticeable one is how digital cameras – and I speak from my own experience, specifically with the RED camera – render the female face with such staggering detail that it becomes a huge challenge to deliver complimentary images.” Gainer is a big fan of the ARRIFLEX 416 Plus HS. “It’s a super lightweight sound camera with all the technical innovations that ARRI has put into their big studio cameras, [like] the ARRICAM, which were lacking in the last version of SR3 Super 16 camera,” he reports. “And it’ll run 1 to 150 fps.”

Many DPs still view the ARRI 435 as a workhorse essential among non-sync 35mm cameras. “It’s got the variable frame rate, is extremely reliable, and has pretty much become the standard for non-sync shooting, whether it’s from Panavision or ARRI,” notes Clark. On the sync side, the ARRICAM is considered to be state-of-the-art, along with the latest versions of the Panavision Millennium. “All these cameras are very proven and very reliable,” says Clark. “And the reliability of film cameras has, naturally, a far longer track record than that of most digital cameras.” Gainer also loves the Panavision XL2 35mm camera, “which runs from 3 to 50 fps, in 1/10th fps increments, so you can really get very precise about frame rate. It’s also significantly lighter than the past cameras.”

Another big plus? The XL2 has completely redesigned motors which allow it to run at 50 fps and to operate in very cold weather. As Gainer - and other DPs point out, “Another flaw of digital cameras is that they really hate super-cold and super-hot weather. You have to wrap them up like babies to protect them from any extremes, whereas the XL2 will take pretty much anything you can throw at it. And the body itself only weighs 11. 8 lbs., which is amazing for a 35mm sync sound camera.”

  While Gainer shot “Super” on the RED, he’s shooting his new film “30 Year Old” on the ARRI 416, and it’s very telling when he says, “Given the choice, and comparing the two images side-by-side, I’d always go with the 416 any day – just based on the way it treats actors’ faces. In terms of beauty shots, there’s just no contest. Film is forgiving, simply based on the fact of the grain in the emulsion. Rather than dealing with pixels, you’re dealing with silver highlights. It’s far a more flattering image.”
 Of course, like many DPs, Gainer is quick to point out that he’s not saying that beautiful images can’t be captured in HD. “Lots of people have done that recently,” he adds. “But right now, especially in my world – the independent feature world – where we don’t have months and months of time, or the budget, to do digital clean up on faces in post, film blows away HD in terms of beauty shots.”

  eric_steelberg2comp.jpgWhile older, more established DPs might be expected to champion film over digital, it’s telling that many younger, up-and-coming DPs also favor film cameras if given a choice. Cinematographers as disparate as American Eric Steelberg, (Up in the Air, Juno)  Brazilian Adriano Goldman (Sin nombre), Israeli Jonathan Sela (Law Abiding Citizen), Swiss Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter), and Germans Petra Korner (The Informers, The Wackness) and Sebastian Edschmid  (The Last Station) all say they’d choose film over digital. With a great eye for landscapes that perfectly underscore the human drama being played out in the foreground, Edschmid shot The Last Station on Panavision equipment for American writer-director Michael Hoffman (Restoration) with “a huge patchwork” of various German locations subbing for Russia. The drama, starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife, details the last intrigue-filled year of the literary giant’s life, and showcases Edschmid’s gift for shooting period pieces. “I love shooting film, and it has the richness you need for creating a whole world like this around the characters,” he says. “I’ve shot digital projects – and it’s all digital now for TV, but for a movie it’s still got to be film for me.” Another young DP, Spaniard Eduard Grau, went so far as to shoot the acclaimed A Single Man with discontinued stock  Kodak 5279 Vision 500T, which gave the film a saturated grain and the look of a period piece from the 1960s. And rising star Korner, Women in Film's Vision Award-winner for 2009, doesn't see digital as a true substitute. “I love the work of DPs like Roger Deakins and Dariusz Wolski and their use of film, and the depth it gives," says Korner, whose latest film is Wes Craven's My Soul to Take. "I don’t think you can duplicate that with digital – not yet, anyway. That’s why I love film.”

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