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The Dizzying World of Digital Cinematography: How New Cameras & Software Both Perfect and Complicate the Indie Filmmaking Process

By Max A. Cherney | Indiewire April 8, 2013 at 11:11AM

To select a camera for Scott Waugh's street racing film "Need For Speed," cinematographer Shane Hurlbut pitted nine cameras against one another in dozens of tests simulating every possible shooting condition. Then, Hurlbut had each camera’s footage color graded and presented with a 4K projector on a 42 foot screen.Hurlbut didn’t tell anyone working on the project, including the director, which camera was which. It would be a blind test. Eventually, Hurlbut revealed the details, but the unanimous, final decision was based on the picture alone.Needless to say, Hurlbut’s "Need For Speed" test is a cinematographers’ dream– to have both the budget and time to test nine high-end cameras. This test underscores an unprecedented change in the cinematographer’s job – understanding how a multitude of cameras and post-production workflows function together.
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Flickr User Elliot Bennett

To select a camera for Scott Waugh's street racing film "Need For Speed," cinematographer Shane Hurlbut pitted nine cameras against one another in dozens of tests simulating every possible shooting condition. Then, Hurlbut had each camera’s footage color graded and presented with a 4K projector on a 42 foot screen.

Hurlbut didn’t tell anyone working on the project, including the director, which camera was which.  It would be a blind test.  Eventually, Hurlbut revealed the details, but the unanimous, final decision was based on the picture alone.

Needless to say, Hurlbut’s "Need For Speed" test is a cinematographers’ dream– to have both the budget and time to test nine high-end cameras. This test underscores an unprecedented change in the cinematographer’s job – understanding how a multitude of cameras and post-production workflows function together.

READ MORE: 10 Basic Things Indie Filmmakers Need to Know about Digital Cinematography Before Shooting

The swarm of new technologies – like camera sensors, codecs, and color grading software –  make the job now, more than ever, one that requires immense technical expertise.

It can be rewarding to dig into a camera’s published specs and post production workflows. But, as cinematographer Stéphanie Weber Biron explained to Indiewire, there are often differences between a camera’s published specifications and how it performs in the field. Camera companies aren’t necessarily lying, she said, but camera production is a business. Published specifications don’t tell the whole story about a camera.

Getting the whole team to help decide what camera is worth going with.

Working with an editor and colorist to try out new cameras, if possible, is the best case scenario. Where the editor is relevant, cinematographer Rachel Morrison said, is figuring out if creating dailies is going to be possible given the editor’s system’s processing power. “Are we going to get backed up waiting for the dailies?” Morrison asked.

Cinematographer Karim Hussain said that, “Usually when a new camera comes out that’s radically different, I like to try it out on a short film,” But, even before that camera makes it on set, Hussain runs it through a battery of tests. Hussain told Indiewire that, he does so “because a new camera is now a film stock, a look.”

Film cinematography conventions are still important.

Film isn't completely dead in this process, either.  Cinematographers use film stock and emulsion metaphors to describe the many new digital options.

Hussain’s testing includes close collaboration with his go-to colorist, Jim Fleming. For example, on "Hobo with a Shotgun," Hussain and director Jason Eisener, aimed for a look that took advantage of the Arri Alexa, but required testing to ensure the camera – including post production aspect – was capable of achieving the look Hussain and Eisener agreed on.

“We went for a radical almost 16mm reversal look,” Hussain told Indiewire, “It also meant using photochemical tricks with filters on the cameras, and lighting on set.” Because of the specific look, the colorist, Fleming, was essential during the tests, Hussain said, because post production was integral to achieving the desired picture.

We can fix color now, rather than later, with a new on-set role.

Color grading now also happens, at least to a limited extent, during production on set. A digital imaging technician or DIT, often performs fast, on-set color correction for “dailies” – that way ensuring the director and cinematographer can view something much closer to the final product than with film or tape dailies. “Digital lets us be fearless,” Hurlbut said, “What you see is what you get."

The DIT, a relatively new role, is “still being defined” according to Biron. DITs dump footage from cameras, make backups, review footage, and perform fast color grading.

While it’s tempting to make compromises with shots because of new post-production techniques, cinematographers shy away from the idea. Morrison said that she tries to get everything right because while, “taking down the wall behind my actor by a stop and a half is an option... I don’t like to rely on post for what I can do on set.”

While DITs offer cinematographers fast on-set feedback, there are also tools available to a colorist once a film is shot, and in post production. Tools that cinematographers must now also understand– although not all of them require an entirely new skill set.

“Going back to the original color science, I communicate in terms of color charts,” Morrison said, “The tools and technology changes, but too saturated or not saturated enough, that will be a constant.”

Continue to page 2 for the rest of this story.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the film Hussain talked about on page 1 of this article.  The film is "Hobo with a Shotgun," not "Antiviral."

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Cinematography







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