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Tuesday, 23 November 2010 19:48

DPs' Digital Diversification

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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There’s no question that digital technology has dramatically altered the world of the cinematographer, even when it’s still a film-based shoot. Digital technology not only includes actual cameras, it also extends to things like camera controls. This month, P3 Update takes a look at a group of products that take advantage of digital technology either directly or indirectly to make life easier for DPs and camera operators.

Even the most passionate proponents of digital cinematography will acknowledge that when it comes to picture quality and archival value, film remains the gold standard. But with so many people claiming that it’s cheaper to shoot digitally, the folks at ARRI have a comeback: A modification to some of their 35mm cameras now allow them to shoot 2-perforation frames instead of the standard 4 perfs. The previously unused space between frames is eliminated, which cuts raw stock and lab costs in half.

The 2-perf gates are options on the ARRICAM Studio, ARRICAM Lite and ARRIFLEX 235 cameras, and these movements can be quickly and repeatedly exchanged with 3- or 4-perf movements by qualified technicians. With a native aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (slightly wider than the standard anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio), 2-perf delivers a cinematic, widescreen look that takes advantage of the full width of a 35mm frame. “We started with the ARRICAMs because they’re our top-of-the-line production cameras and the ARRIFLEX 235 because it’s so popular with FX and MOS work,” says ARRI President and CEO Glenn Kennel. If the market embraces this option strongly enough, the 2-perf gate may be offered as an option on other 35mm cameras in the ARRI line.

Though the concept of shooting 2-perf frames dates back to the Techniscope format of the 1960s, Kennel says that the combination of new, very-fine-grain film stocks and the emergence of DI postproduction workflows make this technology a viable option for modern filmmakers. The 2-perf pipelines involve no extra work or expense once the decision to go through a DI has been taken. The ARRISCAN film scanner, for example, can scan 2-perf material just as easily as 3- or 4-perf footage. It’s a simple matter to create a conventional anamorphic release print from scanned 2-perf images.

The 2 perforation also allows for longer individual takes than with conventional 35mm, as each roll of film effectively lasts twice as long. One production that has already taken advantage of this is the Cannes Caméra d’Or-winner Hunger, on which Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, BSC shot an entire scene in a single, incredibly tense 20-minute take. For less extreme shots, film magazines on a 2-perf shoot need changing half as often as normal, so the flow of performances is less disrupted –– a fact much appreciated by directors and actors alike.

An ARRICAM Studio fitted with the new movement can achieve running speeds of 1-to-60 fps forward and 24 fps in reverse, while the ARRICAM Lite reaches 48 fps forward and 24 fps in reverse. The ARRIFLEX 235 will run to 75 fps (forward only), and all three cameras can utilize their full range of shutter-opening options. According to Kennel, achieving those higher frame rates was a top priority in developing the 2-perf gates. “At 48 frames, you get half the grain and a much sharper, cleaner picture,” he says. Kennel also explains that to get the maximum benefit from this higher frame rate, you have to send it out as a digital cinema package: “If you’re in a theater that’s already set up for 3D, all you have to do is drop the Z screen, which will enable you to project at 48 fps.” Even if you’re going to do standard 35mm film projection, shooting at the higher frame rate will result in higher image quality following a down-conversion process, according to Kennel. And with today’s technology, that down-conversion process is fairly simple and cost effective.

This year, ARRI raises the bar in digital cinematography with its new ALEXA camera, which features ultrafast workflows and “image quality akin to 35mm film,” according to company literature. Michael Bravin, ARRI’s VP of market development for digital camera products, showed me some of the new camera’s benefits. According to Bravin, ARRI’s tradition of building top-quality film cameras for over 90 years was a strong influence on the ALEXA’s design.

The camera also incorporates a DTE (Direct to Edit) function, which uses two 32 GB SxS Pro cards that allows footage from the ALEXA to be transferred in full resolution directly into any NLE editing system that supports Apple ProRes 4444 and ProRes 422 (HQ) codecs. Bravin says that the ALEXA gives the choice of using the SxS cards as a primary recording medium or as a proxy. The camera also has uncompressed HD and ARRIRAW formats. ARRIRAW is completely different from the RAW format used by the RED ONE camera. “What we do is take the sensor data right off the 3.5K CMOS sensor and capture it right on a hard drive without any compression or processing,” says Bravin. “It’s just raw data off the sensor.” The camera can record data at 2K or video at 1920x1080.

Bravin anticipates that operators will really appreciate the simplicity of the camera’s operation with its control system that uses an LCD panel with soft keys and an easy-to-follow home-menu system that controls things like frame rate, shutter angle, ASA and white-balance settings. With an 800 ASA rating, Bravin says the ALEXA is actually more sensitive than most film stocks and you can shoot from ASA 160 to 2650, giving a full range of ISO settings. “The film-like look is because of the way the imager works with several elements working together to give the smoothest, most organic look we can get,” notes Bravin.

More than just a camera, the ALEXA represents an entire image pipeline, and the camera is fully hardware and software upgradeable. Like the RED, the ALEXA uses a modular design to make it easier to swap out and upgrade various components. It also supports a PL mount as well as Panavision, Nikon and Canon lens mounts.

As of press time, the ARRI ALEXA was scheduled to begin shipping in June. Some of the first cameras were shipped to London for Filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s upcoming 3D feature Hugo Cabret, due out in December 2011.

Garrett Brown, the Academy Award-winning inventor of the Steadicam, reports that even before he shot Rocky, he had always wanted to shoot from floor to ceiling with a lens. “It’s something I’ve wanted since 1973,” he says. But back then, cameras were too heavy to make it work. The range of the Steadicam was from a little below the waist to a little above the head. “That has served us for 85 percent of shots,” Brown explains, “but it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be great to be able to go beyond that terrible barrier. We did a rig that was a completely upside-down rig that would let us go from the knee to the waist, but it wouldn’t go higher or lower.”

Thanks to the new generation of sub-five-pound digital cameras, Brown finally achieved his goal with the introduction of the TANGO, a floor-to-ceiling jib arm extension for the Steadicam that Brown and his colleagues demonstrated at the 2010 Cine Gear Expo. According to Steve Tiffen, president and CEO of The Tiffen Company (which owns Steadicam), the TANGO is a product that’s unique to the industry. “The TANGO is a game-changing Steadicam accessory for use with today’s miniature HD cameras,” Tiffen comments. In terms of usage, Brown predicts early adopters of the TANGO will include people who shoot music videos and other extreme productions. “I think it’s going to be a great item in the kit of a Steadicam operator,” Brown adds. “All I can do now is think back on the over 100 movies that I shot and what I could have done if I had a TANGO at the time.”

The TANGO was designed to provide a comfortable, centered operating position, even at full-up/down boom. It incorporates all-mechanical construction and uses a conventional Steadicam sled plus the six-pound TANGO extension. “There are no electronics, gyros, wiring, connectors or power-hungry components,” says Brown. It also has a large-aperture and an interior cable-path for camera/CCU interconnection. “[It will be] surprisingly inexpensive because there’s nothing to it: a couple of poles that bolt onto a Steadicam and an extra gimbal or two,” Brown adds. “We tried to make it stupidly simple.” As of press time, the Steadicam TANGO is still in the prototype stage with shipping and pricing information pending.

For situations where a Steadicam is either unavailable or impractical, productions have to find other solutions. During most of the year, Professor Anthony T. Allegro, PhD is a tenured professor of cinema in the film program at the University of Miami School of Communications. During his academic downtime, Allegro travels around the world making documentaries, often working as a one-man crew. He did this in the summer of 2009 when he shot his documentary Walking with Elizabeth, inspired by a book written by Anglo-Irish Author Elizabeth Bowen that depicts a trip to Rome.

Allegro’s mission was to follow in Bowen’s footsteps and shoot the sites she described so eloquently in her book. He used a Sony EX1, which has since been replaced by the EX1R. “What’s nice about the EX1 is that it enables you to control virtually every imaginable parameter of the photography, including paint settings,” Allegro explains. “You can customize settings for different types of scenes, save them then call them up, and the camera automatically is set that way. It makes working very easy and simple.” Allegro also likes some of the camera’s computerized functions, which he finds very useful, like the ability to preprogram a zoom at the precise focal-length range and speed you want, making it much easier to capture a very smooth move.

One sequence in Walking with Elizabeth was shot in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where dozens of prominent 18th- and 19th-century literary luminaries, like John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, are buried. “Because I was working alone without a crew, I was using a very light tripod, which held the camera fine. But if you were to touch the camera, it would begin to shake,” says Allegro. “I was able to program the zoom into the camera, framing the beginning and end of the shot so that the shot would zoom into or out from the tomb I was covering. This way it was perfectly focused and perfectly set.”

Allegro used the camera’s remote so he wouldn’t have to touch the camera once everything was set. The camera’s computer memorized the speeds and frames that Allegro programmed and held focus perfectly throughout the shot. This allowed Allegro to do other things, like log location and technical information for each shoot and coordinating everything with the preliminary script he kept on a clipboard. After each shot, the camera automatically shut off, and Allegro would then review the shot to decide if a retake was needed.

For Allegro, using the EX1 was similar to having a robotic camera. “It was kind of like having a camera assistant without paying him,” he says. “You can customize shots any way you want; have the camera remember those customized settings in files; and then call them up any time you want.” When Allegro first bought the camera, he thought that all this technology was overkill: “[I thought], ‘Who would want to use these automation features? I can do the zooms myself.’ Then when I was on location, I discovered the advantages of having the camera do everything without even touching it.”

Feat_Trends_Allegro_3The aerial team of Camera Copters, Owner/Pilot Paul Barth and Aerial DP Steve Cassidy of Cassidy Productions, was recently selected by Discovery Channel Founder and Chairman John Hendricks to shoot an extensive HD aerial footage package to promote his Gateway Canyons Resort in western Colorado. The sprawling adobe-style resort is part of Hendricks’ vision to create a new type of vacation resort that encourages guests to step out of their comfort zones by taking on new adventures while gaining learning experiences within a scenic setting. The resort is located an hour southwest of Grand Junction, Colo. in a very remote location near the Utah border.

As part of the resort, the Experius Academy offers weeklong programs that include lectures from leaders in a variety of fields that discuss compelling issues in science, art, the humanities and civilization. This is combined with outdoor activities like mountain climbing, horseback riding, kayaking and biking.

Dara Padwo-Audick of the Experius Academy was the producer and director for the Gateway shoot. Cassidy shot with his Aerial Filmworks Cineflex HD five-axis gyro-stabilized aerial system, which features the Sony F950 CineAlta camera, and recorded it on a Sony HD field deck. And Hendricks accompanied Barth and Cassidy in the helicopter to direct the aerial sequences.

Camera Copters’ custom-built NASCAR-style helicopter transport truck is a full-size 18-wheel semi that was instrumental in the shoot. It arrived with a helicopter that had enough jet fuel to facilitate several days of aerial shooting, which prevented the crew from having to refuel at an airport over 40 miles away. Camera Copters also uses the truck as an on-location base of operations that serves a wide range of clients throughout the U.S.

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