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

Indiewire 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."

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