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Monday, 12 January 2009 17:02

Digital Cinematography: Film’s Protégé

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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Way back in 1982, Coppola pioneered the concept of shooting and editing a film electronically with One From the Heart. We've certainly come a long way...

Let's take a moment to credit (or blame) Francis Ford Coppola. Way back in 1982, Coppola pioneered the concept of shooting and editing a film electronically with One From the Heart. We've certainly come a long way in the close to three decades since that film was produced, but the objective of most electronic/digital cinematography remains the same — to create as film-like an appearance and visceral experience for the audience as possible.

Even the most ardent advocates of digital cinematography I spoke with concede that there is something unique about the look of film which digital has yet to match, in spite of the tremendous advances over the years. “It's getting closer,” they tell me, but digital has not yet completely mimicked the look of film, or matched its latitude or longevity as an archival medium.

The question is: is digital cinematography “ready for prime-time” as a permanent replacement for film? In getting real-world experiences from DPs, I learned that many of the widely acknowledged advantages of digital are often canceled out by its unique quality and logistical issues.

Producer/director Kevin Shulman and cinematographer Robert Royds have worked together on dozens of music videos, commercials and a pair of award-winning shorts. As a team, they have used both digital and film cameras on their various projects, including the Panasonic VariCam, the X3, Phantom and the Red. At the time I spoke with them, they were prepping Sara's Cell, an indie horror film that will be their first feature.

Royds, who recently shot a commercial on the Phantom, speaks highly about that camera. “I like that it's a RAW-format camera. It gives you tons of information for post, which is where I would prefer to do image manipulation versus in-camera. And the footage looked terrific.”

Royds has also had good experiences with the Panasonic VariCam, but he observes that the VariCam and others in its class are mid- to low-level cameras more suited to ENG types of projects than digital cinema because of the limitations of shooting in a digital format other than RAW.

“There's lots of in-camera painting that you can do with these lower-end cameras, which is great if you don't have the workflow for it later. I'd rather have my final say on the image in post. For example, I may be raising certain levels so they're really hot, or levels are not right. I'm doing it so I can stretch it all out later. But if a person doesn't look at my notes, the end result may turn out completely different from what I intended since I'm not shooting for what they're manipulating. That's where a lot of problems arise.”

As both a producer and director, Shulman says he constantly has to maintain a balance between quality and budgetary restraints. On the surface, shooting digital would appear to provide considerable savings over film, but Shulman claims this isn’t necessarily so. In fact, he says there often isn't a significant price difference between film and digital for many of the types of projects he shoots.

For example, just in terms of the prices quoted online, I was able to find an ARRI 35BL that could be rented for as little as $375 a day, including a Zeiss 50mm prime lens from Du-All Camera in New York City, while a comparable package for the 4K Dalsa Origin II rents for $3,000 a day. And Royd says that because of the growing competition from digital cameras, vendors will often cut great deals.

Shulman says he can dramatically control costs by limiting his shooting ratio to no more than 5:1 and closer to 3:1 whenever possible. Keeping down the shooting ratio enables him to save huge amounts of time and money in post since there's less footage to process and edit.

For Shulman, the most important reason to shoot film over digital is the visceral experience that film provides for an audience. And some of the newer film stocks, like Kodak's Vision3, sweeten the pot by offering DPs even more latitude combined with a finer grain than older stocks. “The believability of a performance is really enhanced by film,” Shulman says. “It's something that's captured on a negative that's missing in digital. And it has nothing to do with what is physically captured on it, but rather the audience's interpretation of what they're looking at.”

Veteran cinematographer James Mathers agrees that when it comes to picture quality, imaging flexibility and archiving, “Film is the gold standard.” Even so, it won't be long before digital becomes the standard for feature film and television production. “The tipping point is coming, and probably within the next five years,” says Mathers.

Mathers, who is a former child actor and younger brother of Leave It to Beaver star Jerry Mathers, is the co-founder and president of the Digital Cinema Society (DCS), which puts him in a great position –– not only does he get firsthand experience with all the latest digital cameras, he also gets plenty of feedback from the close to 4,000 cinematographers, editors and other filmmakers who have become members of the DCS.

As a working DP for over 20 years, Mathers has a vast filmography that includes television series, MOWs and feature films, including Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and the documentary The U.S. Versus John Lennon. Most recently, he shot the indie feature Montana Amazon (starring Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis and Haley Joel Osment) using the 4K Red One camera system.

As for lighting and composing, Mathers says that he shot Montana Amazon pretty much in the same way he would use a 35mm camera like a Panaflex or ARRI. However, all of the DPs I spoke with encountered new challenges and tasks in managing the massive amount of data generated by the Red One in terms of the image files and other records — beginning with the need to generate much more extensive logs documenting the technical details of what they've captured digitally. 

For Montana Amazon, Mathers called on cinematographer Conrad Hunziker to help him efficiently deal with all the data. Hunziker wrote a program called R3D Manager that's designed to keep track of and follow the R3D files generated by the Red One wherever they go, and ensure that each copy is valid. It provides accountability at each step and validity to each copy –– and it’s designed to generate perfect copies end-to-end, both from Red Media and standard hard drives or LTO tape.  R3D Manager has become a very popular program that automates the download and backup process on set for the Red. It's one of a growing number of third-party programs being created to support the Red.

While the basics of a Red One system are fairly easy to learn, Red is always changing and adding new higher-resolution formats. Mathers says all the different standards may create confusion in the post industry, while the ever-advancing sensor technologies yield higher and higher resolutions, as with Red's Epic 617 camera due out in spring 2010 –– the 617 boasts a gargantuan 186mm x 55mm, 261 megapixel, 28K sensor. 

While these high-reaching resolution systems may be overkill for theatrical features, Mathers reminded me that operating at higher resolutions and down-resing always improves your final image quality. And if you're working at higher resolutions, you're also doing more to future proof your product. “But for the kind of work that I do, I'd say that 28K is way beyond the point of diminishing returns,” says Mathers.

Many people forget that archival capabilities represent another key factor in the film-versus-digital debate. However, with the rapidly changing collection of digital formats, both Mathers and Shulman pointed out that no digital format to date has the longevity of motion picture film in terms of both long-term protection and a universally embraced standard that can easily access stored content. 

Any discussion about digital cinematography has to include the Red One system, which has dramatically changed the technology landscape, thanks to its relatively low cost and modular design intended to fend off obsolescence, including a steady stream of firmware upgrades (as of press time, #18 is about to be released with more on the way). 

According to Red spokesman Ted Schilowitz, the vision of the Red One is to give filmmakers the most film-like experience possible with a camera system designed from the ground up to work and think like a film camera. The key is Red's adoption of the RAW format, which Schilowitz likens to a digital version of film. It gives the DP the ability to set color choices on set by using the user interface on the camera to create a very simple color look and color matrix. 

While Schilowitz acknowledges that film has more overall latitude and can tend to hold the highlights slightly better, he says that when DPs learn where their exposure index is in Red, which is slightly different than when shooting negative, they're able to get a massive amount of resolution beyond what they can get with any traditional video-type video camera — even the high-end, digital cinema-type video cameras. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of Hollywood features are being shot either in part or in their entirety on Red One cameras, including Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming film The Informant, Peter Jackson's Crossing the Line, and effects elements for G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra and The Da Vinci Code prequel Angels & Demons.

Peter Hyams is one of a rare breed of directors that work as DPs on their own films. A cinematographer since his 1984 production of 2010, Hyams shot his most recent movie, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, with the Red One. He chose the Red One because it was the only 4K camera on the market that was light and compact enough to use with a Steadicam. Once Hyams learned the parameters of what the Red One can do, he put it through its paces, adamant about not doing anything differently in terms of lighting or composing than he would do if he were shooting film.

Looking to the future, Red's Scarlet system (due out in late summer/early fall 2009) brings the cost of 3K shooting down to a low $10,000, pro-summer price point with an entry-level camera body, or “brains” as the official material calls it, that will sell for a projected $2,500 with accessories (like storage, a view finder, batteries, rails and a decent lens), bringing the total cost to a projected $7,000 to $8,000, depending on the specific configuration.

For those with bigger budgets and an appetite for higher-resolution cameras, there will also be 5K and 6K versions of the Scarlet, followed by the introduction of the aptly named Epic line in late 2009, which will feature 5K, 6K and 9K sensors, plus up to a 100 fps frame rate.   

             Mathers anticipates that these higher-resolution cameras will be embraced by the effects community since, like 65mm and refurbished VistaVision cameras, they offer a much bigger canvas on which to create their screen magic. If and when principal photography will ever be shot on a 9K system, much less something like the 28K Epic, remains to be seen. Mathers commented that for him, “28K is way beyond the point of diminishing returns.”

In regards to postproduction, color correction can be crucial. da Vinci Systems collaborated with 3cP (Cinematographer’s Color Correction Process) developer Gamma & Density Co. to ensure that 3cP is fully interoperable with the company’s Resolve and 2K Plus systems, giving cinematographers the power for on-set color correction and calibration.

The 3cP system, which is packaged as a laptop computer loaded with 3cP software, has settings that can be passed on to the dailies timer and to the colorist directly involved with postproduction. Everyone in the postproduction environment has a precise preview of color decisions for dailies, pre-post, matching special effects and Digital Intermediate (DI) final color-grading. The 3cP system has been used on Iron Man, The Tudors, The Kite Runner and 10,000 BC, among other productions.

“3cP’s tight integration with the Resolve and 2K systems makes it an even more useful tool to solve the problem of color consistency in today’s post-production environment, particularly when it comes to DI work,” said Yuri Neyman, DP and CEO of Gamma & Density. “There is often a disconnect between what a cinematographer expects and what actually occurs during the final color-correction process, a problem our two companies have worked on together to eliminate.”

The system works with film, DI, video (NTSC/PAL) and HD productions to perform on-set color correction with live settings. These settings are then saved to a USB memory stick as ASC CDL XML files, which are easily transferred to the Resolve suite for finishing.

Back to the original question: is digital ready for prime time? The answer is a qualified “yes.”  Digital's logistical advantages –– especially in terms of editorial turnaround time and the flexibility that digital affords in post to modify (and fix) images –– give it an edge over film. But, just as with the analog-versus-digital debate that took place in the music world back in the ‘80s (with the introduction of the compact disc), there are purists out there who will argue that film would still yield the best possible image and therefore visceral experience for audiences. And, unlike in the multi-standard digital world, when it comes to preserving your work for decades (if not centuries), film still takes the prize as the most consistently reliable archival medium.



Gamma & Density Co.




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