Since writing my last blog entry on “the Evolution of Motion Photography”, a personal investigation into the developing trends in the merging of photographic & Film equipment, I have had a surprisingly large response from various people. As a result, I feel the need to update this blog with more information that’s come to my attention.
Just recently, I attended a new product launch held by Kodak in Melbourne, Australia. They were releasing a new 250D stock called 5207/7207 which utilises their new Vision 3 technology. Unbelievably, the fact that they are still developing new motion picture film stocks means that at least Kodak is committed to continuing production of traditional cinematography supplies. They will be in the future, releasing updated versions of all their products which will make use of this new Vision 3 technology. Now, in the face of all the new digital developments, it could be easy just to say “Why bother”! However, as my previous blog entry highlighted, “Film Technologies” have been proven reliable and of a high quality. For a Cinematographer, shooting 35mm is still the preferred route in most cases, when given the option. For me, it depends on the project, which takes into account things like budget, aesthetics and general workflows. I’m not in favour of any format that requires me to NOT hire the right people for the job, or use substandard gear from poorly maintained rental houses! Sadly this is often what’s asked from me when I’m dealing with “Feature Films” shot on motion picture film stock! Quite often, and I believe I’m not the only one, the Producers will ask everyone to do massive deals with Cast and Crew to enable them to shoot their project on 35mm film. This also results in little or no lighting equipment, poor conditions for crew with regard to covering their personal costs like Parking, Mobile Phone Bills, Food, Travel expenses etc. etc. I for one will no longer “do” these kinds of projects! Not because I’m a snob or carry some sort of “Union” banner but because these types of projects are often so over extended financially that they generally fall apart at the first sign of trouble. Mostly, there is also not enough support to help the Director achieve his or her aim and the end result is nothing but a series of compromises.
So what does this have to do with the Evolution of Motion photography? Well, I see it as the driving force. Digital technologies can rescue a project that would otherwise be impossible to shoot on a traditional medium such as film by allowing for proper crew rates, enough lighting, good conditions for Cast and Crew etc. Unfortunately, it’s also seen as the magic bullet and shooting digital appears to be a black art from many Producers points of view. A lack of understanding of the capabilities of “Digital” has created an environment of confusion amongst Producers who may have had some experience producing Television or Video based productions. The confusion over HD – what exactly is HD?, various video tape formats and now the emergence of full digital systems like RED, Phantom, Canon, Sony etc. has meant that a trend to minimise crew and their rates has continued unabated. They see camera manufacturer reports on Low light handling capabilities of their products as an excuse to not hire a gaffer or hire lighting equipment. A clapper loader’s job was seen as the first job to go, with the roll of the Camera Assistant reduced to a care taker of the camera. I’m generalising here obviously, but I can speak from personal experiences here. It did and still does happen!
The technological march of “Digital” has also educated many people also. It’s taken a long time but I do believe there is now a better understanding of many of the processes, formats and suitability of digital equipment for various projects. The roll of the Focus Puller for instance was seen to be a job going into extinction in the Video world. With many new camera systems employing film style lenses and sporting 35mm sized sensors, Cinematographers have re introduced a powerful story telling technique called “Depth of Field”. It’s what makes things look more “filmic” by creating regions of focus. As with film, the focus puller’s job suddenly became important again. The Clapper Loaders roll previously required that person to reload film into Magazines of motion picture cameras on demand. Now that roll also includes handling data from the new digital camera systems. In both cases that persons responsibilities are the same - The handling of “Raw” and “Exposed” footage. In the digital world, the roll is sometimes referred to as the Data Wrangler! My point here is that although technology is developing better equipment, these technologies are best leveraged by treating them in the same way we the Film Industry has treated traditional film – with care! Giving every scene the best possible chance to be in Focus, move from point A to point B smoothly and be well lit should be every filmmakers ambition. With the convergence of camera systems from the Photographic, Video and Cinematography worlds in full swing, these issues will be ongoing for some time I fear. Certainly Photographers who have never worked with a focus puller before, become convinced very quickly when they first start shooting motion imagery. The Canon 5D MKII is a professional grade stills camera that also shoots HD video in 1920 x 1080 30P format. Utilising Canon’s range of lenses with a full 35mm sized sensor provides for some pretty stunning images with all the focus trappings of traditional film. The problem is that camera does not have any automatic focusing in that mode at the moment, so Photographers shooting motion have to learn how to pull their own focus. This is tough to do while also concentrating on framing etc.
Other manufacturers I didn’t mention in my earlier blog entry include Dalsa, Sony and Silicon Imaging’s new product the SI-2K MINI. Silicon Imaging have just released a new MINI form factor digital camera system called the SI-2K MINI. It shoots 2048 x 1152 using a proprietary Codec called “CineForm RAW™” – It does this via a SiliconDVR recorder.
These cameras are like “Lipstick” cameras or Security Cameras on steroids. They aren’t complete units on their own as such but rather simply an optical block with a lens mount. By using the SiliconDVR unit in-conjunction with the MINI, you can record up to 4 hours of continuous shooting. I think one of its more unique features is the ability to tether this camera using a Gigabit ethernet cable over very long distances and still have full control of the camera. Stick two of them with the right Ocular offset and you have the ability to shoot 3D! The system can be used to record 72fps in 720P mode. Like the 5D MKII, you can purchase Arri style baseplates, handlebars, follow focus equipment etc. My only concern about this type if system is the proprietary Codec. This nearly always results in trouble later down the track. Either the editor will need to buy an expensive Codec Pack, or the manufacturer supplies it for free. Which ever, it still requires something to be downloaded and installed into the host application. The other issue is over time, the Codec disappears and the footage is unplayable by future editors of the footage. For instance, right now there are many different versions of AVC HD codec floating around, produced by Camera manufacturers. It’s a nightmare to work out if you haven’t been supplied information about where the footage has come from. That’s why I’m very much in favour of open source codecs and systems or standards like QuickTime or H.264 etc.
Dalsa is another manufacturer with several small cameras in release. DALSA’s Spyder3 Color is a color line scan camera system which can capture up to 4K in a small form factor. These cameras do not have any onboard recording ability though. They are simply the “Head” only. They are intended for “Machine Vision” applications for the robotic inspection of manufacturing processes. DALSA’s Falcon line of cameras record using a “Global Shutter” which prevent Smearing due to motion blur and differ from other cameras that employ a “Rolling Shutter”. These cameras are not really meant for TV/Film work either but rather for stopping high speed action such as “Speeding Motorists” through traffic lights etc.
Dalsa also makes “Genie Cameras” which can record up to 300 frames per second depending on the exact model. They again have an gigabit Ethernet interface and have a CMOS sensors with global shutter. The Genie HM640 records at 300 fps with a max resolution of 640 x 480. While all these cameras do not have an immediate use in the Film & TV world, nor did the 5D MKII until recently! The technological change thats taking place right now is powering a change within the Film & TV industry also.
Probably one of the more interesting developments in recent days, was the announcement of what Sony claims is the “world’s smallest” HD capable camera module. The MCB1172 HD camera module shown below is truly tiny. The sensor is an 8.3 megapixel sensor that can shoot 720p at 30fps video with image stabilization, face detection, high-ISO mode, and 120fps slow motion! You can read more about this at Engadget’s website. It’s not suitable for Film work necessarily either but the shear size and most likely power savings from a tiny form factor will be appealing to many. This could be a cheap stunt camera or a disposable camera that could be used with a transmitter for instance. I recently had a call for something like this on “Drop the Bomb” with Hamish & Andy.
Going back to the Kodak launch of their new 250D stock, at the end of the evening, a Kodak representative opened up questions to the floor. The room was filled with very well regarded internationally renown Cinematographers and it remained completely silent! Simply the differences in the new stock verses that of the original Vision 2 250D was very slight! We looked at projected 35mm side by side comparison footage and although the new stock was comparably better in the high lights, I doubt an audience would notice the difference. I think most people in that room were very well acquainted with the earlier version of the 250D stock & didn’t need to ask any technical questions about it. It’s this familiarity I want to point out. HD or “Digital Systems” do not have this advantage. Film still has more latitude then any of these “Digital” formats. It has in my opinion a more pleasing colour rendition then most digital systems. Resolution wise, Film is still more then capable for most projects and for long time archive, film beats digital hands down! So why not just stick with shooting film. One reason only – price! The price is plainly outrageously expensive! Currently motion picture film stocks sell for about $700US for a 1000 ft load (Example Price). In reality, Production Companies can get this at a slightly cheaper price based on volume. Keep in mind that a 1000 ft load lasts for 10 minutes! And this price does not include processing and Telecine (scanning to Video). If the price of film stocks fell over night to even half their current level, I doubt that it would be enough to stop the mass exudes heading for Digital! If it can’t be made cheaper then I’m afraid no amount of technological improvements will stop it’s extinction.
I’m probably confusing you now. Where do I stand – Digital or Film. The answer is neither. I want good lenses, with a good crew who know what they are doing! I want gear that will not break my back, is quick to setup, durable and doesn’t cost a fortune. However most of all, I want a certain level of quality that Film was/is able to provide. I don’t want to compromise on anything when it comes to Resolution, Colour handling and Latitude. So until we have a system, Digital or Film that can deliver all these qualities, the debate will rage on! As with my last blog entry, I am excited about the future of Digital. Everyday there is something new being developed that breaks new ground. I’m also thankful that motion picture film still remains as a “Gold Standard” and quietly sits in the background as a backup medium. The convergence of Photographic, Video and Cinema Cameras will change the way we make motion picture films forever.