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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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Developments in color correction bring with them both good and bad.

Even still, there's still work to be done in post to correct colors.  Hurlbut cited digital intermediates, and telecine – both methods of digitizing film that used earlier versions of the same software colorists use now. Hurlbut said he’s been working on platforms like da Vinci and Lustre since the 1990s.

But the tools change. “Knowing what the tool can’t and can do is important – I read up on color correction,”  Hurlbut said. “I do think it takes a little work to keep up, and sometimes you need to sit with a colorist,” Morrison said.

One of the most significant changes is Power Windows  – a feature included with Black Magic’s da Vinci hardware and software. Power Windows, operated by the colorist, allows color manipulation of specific areas of a frame. For example, a colorist can use one set of color values for an actor’s face, and another for the background the actor’s standing in front of.

According to Hussain, Power Windows is now able to track movements automatically – following, say, an actress with a color matte on her face.

But, like all new technologies Power Windows –  and similar software – can also be a double edged sword. Hussain cautioned that using the tracking feature can cause unintended artifacts, on displays where black levels are set too bright – a common problem on displays at home, he said. “You’ll notice black bubbles following their [the actress’] head,” Hussain said.

We must consider multiple modes of viewing:  from iPhones to DCP Projection.

To be competitive in a digital world it’s important to understand the tools, tricks, and limits, all with a sense of poetry.

Playback in general was a concern for Hussain in terms of digital production. Each digital playback device – projector, television or computer – often have different color settings, he said, usually aren’t calibrated to the precision of a color grading monitor. Digital formats create new possibilities for bad playback, “Especially those horrible LCDs with settings like ‘sports’ and ‘video games’,” Hussain said.

Codecs, compression and decompression technologies, also play an important role in the way an image appears– something cinematographers must also take into account when selecting a camera. Hurlbut, for example, doesn’t like Apple’s ProRes format, “People love ProRes, but is has those crunchy blacks,” he told Indiewire, “It looks better on a 24’’ screen or a 60’’ plasma, but it isn’t great on a 40 foot screen.”

For some DPs codecs require a frustrating amount of technical knowledge. Biron explained to Indiewire it’s now an important part of her work to differentiate how much latitude there is between the various encoding formats because so much is on the computer's terms.

Hurlbut embraces the challenge head on, often employing methods that appear unconventional, even in an unconventional age. For example, for "Act of Valor," Hurlbut chose to mix 35mm film with a Canon 5D Mark II – and used Adobe’s Premiere Pro to transcode 5D footage from 8-bit to 10-bit, making it appear “Less 8-bit,” Hurlbut said.

The final output format of a film is also a consideration when selecting a codecs. "Antiviral," for example, eventually destined for a digital cinema print went through a complex production workflow – including a change from the Rec 709 color space to DCP’s XYZ. “The JPG 2000 [the image format DCP uses] is the color space limit,” Hussain said, “... I’ve found the DCP quality is pretty consistent.”

But even DCP has it’s problems. Theater owners sometimes reduce costs by purposefully dimming expensive digital projection bulbs. “With film, at worst it would be incredibly dark and murky,” Hussain said.

In the face of new challenges in digital production, cinematographers have no choice but to adapt. New tools present new challenges, without a doubt.

“To be competitive in a digital world it’s important to understand the tools, tricks, and limits,” Hussain said, “All with a sense of poetry.”

Max A. Cherney is a San Francisco based writer/director. His first documentary is due this summer. You can follow him on Twitter @chernandburn.

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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