An important part of cinematography is choosing media for projects. The advent of digital formats has continued to expand the options and potential for digital cinematography every year while film, and especially the look of film, continues to be the choice for many productions.

We spoke to several cinematographers and directors of photography who have interesting and varying ideas, experiences and comments about different media for filmmaking, contrasting the use of digital formats and film. Cinematographer Toby Oliver ACS, pointing out that 35mm ?lm has traditionally been the standard against which emerging video and digital formats have been measured, said, “Film has the organic look - random grain structure in every frame and a chemical reaction to light that digital systems try to emulate. For most of its history, ?lm has been the only choice for photographing movies and high quality dramatic television productions and only recently, in the past year or two, have affordable digital capture systems appeared that rival or even exceed the image quality and ?exibility of ?lm.”

Contrasting Media
Toby added that overall, digital imaging systems have been advancing relatively quickly and still have a ways to go, whereas chemical ?lm stocks have seen worthwhile but smaller improvements. He and the other DPs we spoke to agreed that among film’s greatest advantages is dynamic range - the ability to record details in bright highlights and shadows - and greater potential resolution on the negative, particularly if scanned at 4K or more. “Film has a more natural colour rendition, particularly in skin tones, and can be more ?attering for actors,” he said.

Ben Allan ACS is a DP who has been involved in HD cinematography and digital colour grading for over 10 years, working on TVCs, documentaries, music videos, TV drama series and feature films. Ben actually started work shooting on tape, then progressed to 35mm before returning to digital formats. Because of the nature of the recording media and lower cost, Ben feels that digital shooting lends itself to trial and error, while film tends to make a filmmaker be more decisive about what he shoots. Also, the rushes can’t be seen immediately, which requires further discipline while on set.

Ben said he feels the change from film to digital formats could be as important to filmmaking as the change from black and white to colour images. Again, black and white requires more discipline, control and understanding of light and composition. He sometimes feels that going back to working exclusively with film would represent a loss of control. For him, digital image capture has required on-going self education about the whole production process.

Shooting Factors
Anna Howard ASC, who has worked on many commercial and TV projects in both film and video formats and shot a feature film last year on 16mm, ‘South Solitary’, said, “Budget is always a key reason for shooting in any format, along with the look the production is trying to achieve. Another factor is the practicality of using film or digital equipment for a location. On South Solitary, for example, I was glad to be shooting on film because of the many white skies we encountered and would have to grade in post. I still feel that film has the edge on digital formats for dynamic range, although some newer digital cameras are gaining in latitude and the ability to ‘see’ into darker environments, and whites are not peaking as much.”

Pieter De Vries ACS remarked that lack of depth of field was among the shortcomings of earlier digital cameras, resulting in flat, interlaced video images with uniform focus from foreground to background. “Their small sensors revealed every detail, with no depth of field fall-off, and HD emphasised this look. But the newer models now use progressive scanning and have much larger sensors, with either improved or interchangeable lenses and can produce a more cinematic, interpretive 25p video image. This gives a DP a chance to add drama, tell the story, and hide distractions or even less-than-adequate sets. These improvements are especially useful to short-film makers who don’t have a lot of time to deliver a message.”

Interpretive Images
Pieter has worked for many years as a DP on documentaries and commercials, also running workshops and providing training as a cinematographer and camera craft educator and his website serves as an information and tutorial resource for camera operators. “Because a documentary is regarded as showing something real, its story stands on its own merits. ‘Looks’ haven’t been so relevant, and the flat interlaced image wasn’t an issue. The new smaller documentary style cameras, like the Sony NEX-VG10 and the HDSLRs, with large sensors give a look that is different and expressive, though not necessarily better.

“The large sensor’s shallow depth of field isn’t new to film DPs but may be a revelation for a videographer because of the new facility for selective focus. Whether or not it is better or appropriate for a documentary is the decision of the DP, but it using it properly is critical for HD. It can be tricky to focus, and to respond to things rapidly you must be especially alert and well-prepared.”

Camera Potential
Ben has used the Sony EX1 on several projects and finds it versatile with good image quality. It also works well with a Steadicam, when other cinema quality digital cameras such as the F23 or Genesis, may be too heavy. The EX3 is another option for cinematography. Ben is also very interested in the potential of the HDSLR cameras and thinks DPs will continue to look seriously at the quality of DSLR images and comparing it with the EX1 or EX3, evaluating the cost and the need for accessories.

“I see the fact that the DSLRs are interchangeable lens cameras as a further advantage – you have good image quality, inexpensive lens options and versatility. They need a lot of accessories but the cameras themselves are low cost. The depth of field is receiving a lot of attention because, like lighting and composition, controlling it has been a means for cinematographers to add drama and expression to films.” Different matte boxes can be used with DSLRs, companies such as Redrock and Zacuto have been producing equipment especially for them including viewfinders and eyepieces, and Sachtler have new tripods for them.

Budget is a major factor in all productions and for those with a tight budget there may be no choice. “Particularly for long form projects, depending on the model, digital cinema cameras are becoming cheaper to own or hire, especially the digital SLRs that shoot HD video,” Toby said. Ben notices that the lower cost of digital cameras has caused producers to re-think their budgets, most of which used to be reserved for the camera and film, with the possibility of spending more on the workflow, accessories and post-production. “As digital camera technology improves, there are fewer differences in the image quality of two different models - what differentiates them more significantly is workflow. Photographers will be comparing, for example, the workflows of the RED and the ALEXA cameras,” he said.

Anna commented, “Whatever producers are saving on set in camera and film costs they’ll often be spending later on post. Especially on HD shoots, crews may shoot extensive footage, resulting in a quantity of data to work through and transfer costs.”

DP Garry Phillips ASC, with substantial experience across both feature films and commercials [see the breakout on ALEXA pXXX], said his experience with digital cameras has been relatively limited up to now. He has shot a project on a RED camera, plus a feature film called ‘Razzle Dazzle’ on the Panasonic VariCam in P2 format. In both cases, these format choices were budget driven. What has surprised Garry about digital models is that they may be released before certain problems have been ironed out. “Users try them out, identify problems and the manufacturer responds with a series of upgrades every few months. In contrast, when film cameras are released their performance is complete, although they do cost more.”

On set
Although film is a tried and true medium, reliable and understood, without technological teething issues, Toby mentioned certain advantages digital formats have on set. “I’d say digital is more convenient on set, with no reloading of mags every 5 or 10 minutes. Digital also offers long running times per take, up to 40 mins for tape based formats like HDCAM or even hours for ?le-based recording. It’s important for many directors experienced with digital, and can be the deal-breaker.
“The time between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ belongs to the director and the actors. Some directors on big productions use this time, especially if shooting digital, to walk in for those vital conversations with an actor which can be dif?cult to have after the ‘cut’ is called and the crew swarm in to do their work. Digital generally shows you what you’ll get, with LUT calibrated HD monitors on set giving a very good idea of the image captured, for everyone to see.”

Anna, who says that she and many directors she works with would like to shoot 35mm, for looks and latitude, if they had the budget, said, “When shooting 35mm for film, or even 16mm for TV, you don’t seem to need as many crew on set or as many lights, though the new RED format and the ALEXA have are listed with a very high native ASA. I haven’t shot on either one yet but I’m keen to see what they can do.”

Anna still feels more at ease with the film workflow and finds it’s more straightforward. “There is no data to download or wrangle, and don’t need the video splits to reference off of – you have the optical viewfinder to tell you exactly what you will get. The raw image you see on set, even with HD, can be misleading for everyone, but is your only reference. One problem with video cameras has been their weight, which the ALEXA looks set to change. When TV work changed from mainly 16mm to the Sony 900s, cameras grew much heavier and video splits gained importance, making the whole kit more cumbersome.”

“Before shooting HD, I do lots of tests first and set up my monitors in pre-production but with film I rely on the viewfinder. On set the HD image on the monitors is very absorbing for the crew, and has in some ways detracted from my job. With film you simply have an SD output from a camera that no one is expecting to look amazing – if they really want to know how a shot will look they can check the viewfinder. With HD people tend to expect the best possible image immediately, although in fact, that image will be raw and perhaps have an LUT applied – in other words, still be different to the finished shot.”

Anna is accustomed to working one-to-one with the viewfinder, while the rest of the production trusts her to know what she’s capturing in terms of the finished project. Monitors remove a degree of that control and also take some time to calibrate, adjust and interpret.

Saving Time
Garry finished a feature this year called ‘Burning Man’, almost all shot on location, on 35mm 3-perf film. While Garry feels that shooting on the latest HD camera would have taken the production longer, it might only have been because of the crew’s familiarity with the routine of shooting, processing overnight and transferring in the morning for the editor. On smaller sized projects film or even commercials, when time is critical, Garry reflected that the fact that the editor can start work the same day the footage is shot would certainly be a time saver once the crew were used to the on-set workflow.

“Getting footage back after shooting film is always a surprise and usually looks better than you expected, while HD video just looks exactly as it did on the monitor. Directors do appreciate having the monitor because it’s much clearer than video splits. In the early days, the director would sit out with the camera and actors, then he changed position to a video screen to watch the splits and now, with the monitors, he can see instantly see pretty much how the movie will look – sometimes more clearly than the operators themselves.”

Role of Post Production
Garry feels the digital intermediate pathway has changed cinematography in the last few years. “Formerly, the film would be exposed and there was a limited amount that you could do apart from adding some filters or lightening it up. You also had to make up your mind before shooting what you were going to do – a bleach bypass, or under expose and force process it, for instance. Now, on film or HD, the idea is to capture as much information as possible and manipulate it later. The options have grown in terms of filters, and you can change log curves or increase contrast. Some of the cinematographer’s task has been turned over to the post team although someone does still need to be onset with the director to help interpret scenes.

“You are still controlling the frame and most of the lighting but a great deal can be changed later on. Before DI took hold, you’d shoot and wait till the next day when you’d go to a rushes screening of a print of the day’s shoot with the whole crew so everyone would know how the project was going. After DI, the head crew members would get a DVD of the shoot that wasn’t always useful for assessing the actual focus from your lenses, or colour for the grade. You didn’t have an accurate means of advising the grader.”

Colour Grade
“Film is very flexible in digital post and a well-exposed negative can allow much manipulation in the hands of a skilled colourist, but digital offers a more direct path to post without ?lm processing or scanning required,” Toby noted. Ben expects to see more cinematographers now who can actively contribute to the tasks of editing and post production, especially the colour grade. Ben’s research into film-style gamma curves for HD cameras contributed to the film-gammas now built into professional HD cameras.

When creating ‘The Grading Sweet’, a package of colour grading plug-ins for Final Cut Pro now in use around the world, he researched the relationship between cinematography and colour grading. “In-camera processing and grading have similar parameters. The ability to manipulate colour in post is linked to resolution, and colour perception is also related to resolution and contrast. 35mm film has more latitude, which depends on dynamic range and is important for colour. But 4:4:4 (RGB) and 4:2:2 (YUV) sampling only really make a difference for complex visual effects and not in colour perception.”

Making Magic
Toby remarked, “Film leaves a little ‘magic’ in the hands of the cinematographer. No one knows exactly what the image will look like until they see the rushes and it’s the cinematographer’s skill and choices in lighting and exposing the neg that determines the raw image.” But Ben Allan doesn’t think digital formats necessarily have to interfere with the magic of cinematography. The creative decisions on lighting and composition remain the responsibility of the DP, and anything that interferes with these factors is a negative.

On set, the differences between digital and film cinematography and shooting are mainly superficial. “Having monitors on the set of a digital shoot, for example, is great for letting everyone see what is being captured but the director and the producers may have different expectations of what they see,” Ben said. “The DP is the one who can interpret what is on the monitor. Some directors trust a cinematographer to manage the shoot for them, others already know a lot about shooting and get more involved, but the important thing is to communicate.”

Exciting Times
“These are exciting times,” said Garry. “I feel as though a broad change to digital is about to happen in the next five years. I’ve also done some jobs with the Canon 5D and 7D recently. One was shooting a DVD of the band Powderfinger’s final Australian concert tour with Director Gregor Jordan, including interviews with band members. We travelled to the capitals and would always hire enough local operators at each venue to keep seven or eight camera men on each concert. At the first, Gregor hired a conventional full camera outfit, with HD cameras on stands with long lenses, a crane at the front, a Steadicam on stage and so on. In addition, operators walked through the crowd shooting with the Canons. We did this at subsequent shows as well.

I really liked the look and the ability to capture images I couldn’t have taken with a normal camera. The 5Ds record 25fps and the 7Ds can shoot 50fps, so we could include some slow motion in the DVD. We were mainly shooting handheld or using shoulder mounts, both owned cameras and some supplied by Canon. I especially rate them for the handheld work. However, it is a little hard to keep things in focus, particularly with very fast lenses while trying to use the screen at the back. You can also use the floating focus. The trial-and-error can actually become a part of the look, pulling focus on certain objects.”

Toby said, “I was DP on the movie ’Beneath Hill 60’, which was shot a bit over 12 months ago. We chose to shoot on35mm ?lm for the organic look and the ability to handle to low level candlelight prevalent in the ?lm in a pleasing way. I may or may not make the same decision if I were shooting that movie in a few months time from now, as digital cameras are getting better at giving us similar qualities that ?lm offers. Regarding dynamic range - the latest development of the RED camera system, HDRx, will apparently offer up to18 stops of DR, compared to ?lm’s 14 to 15 stops, and of course it is vital to test before making a decision.

“Will this mean the new RED or similar cameras will produce images that tell stories better than ?lm? No, of course not. A camera system doesn’t make a good movie, talented people do. But I don’t doubt we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the tools of ?lmmaking.”

Panavision, running its rental house from Sydney, are in a good position to observe both what crews are hiring for which projects, and what manufacturers are producing today for all kinds of shooting – commercial, broadcast and feature film. Camera format choices now range from 35mm film to ¼” sensor. Optics and image quality remain the critical selection factors, and Panavision aims to educate clients objectively about what products and packages will give the best result for their project and budget.

Project trends
Panavision sets out estimates for comparable film and digital packages for a producer or director to consult while they make a final decision with their DP. On trends, the company notes that, as high-end commercial budgets have decreased substantially over the last few years, producers are tending to move from film to the RED, for example, to save money.
Lower-end commercials are growing more common. Typical formats range from 16mm on the ARRI 41C to RED and DSLRs. A number of new, smaller production companies have emerged to work in this market, favouring Canon 5Ds, for example, and the RED. A RED/DSLR combination is proving popular for commercial projects also.

Feature Film
The Genesis remains a desirable camera for feature film projects because of its image quality. Originally only supplied with PV mount, Panavision now offers it with the PL mount, making it more flexible and able to accept a wider range of lenses. The Phantom HD Gold is a regular addition to feature film kit for slow-motion and other high fps uses. RED cameras are in use in a wide variety of projects, and most RED Ones in the country have been sent for the Mysterium X sensor upgrade which has led to great improvements in image quality.
At the high end, apart from the cameras themselves, Panavision doesn’t find much difference between film and digital packages - the kits are basically the same. Digital cameras like the RED, Genesis and Phantom HD Gold can accept virtually all types of 35mm-camera lenses and most of the existing accessories like Preston lens controls and cine tapes.
Working with various formats and large amounts of data, such as with the RED and Phantom HD Gold, is a trend on digital shoots generally and is shifting emphasis in time frames to data wrangling and early stages of post production, often requiring a data wrangler as a dedicated crew member.

Film Options
Advances in film technology have also come a long way, as have film scanners. Film is still in favour among high-end productions for its flexibility for filmmakers within the different types of film stock. To stay competitive, Fuji and Kodak have released new prices for film stock and processing options to revive the commercial market’s interest in film. Film scanners that can digitally scan to 4K have also been an advantage for post production solutions.
The evolution of compact 16mm cameras and lenses has revived this format for certain commercial and music video projects, according to Panavision. The ARRI 416 Camera and Ultra 16 prime lenses have become a practical combination for 16mm filming. In the past, television drama was often shot with 16mm cameras. Since the advent of digital formats, Australian drama DPs tend to use compact 2/3” cameras like the Sony F900R, F23 and Panasonic Varicam, which help with the higher shooting ratios. A few exceptions like ‘Sea Patrol’ combine 16mm and digital formats depending on location.

In response to HD television, the industry standard aspect ratio for shooting is now 1.78 (16x9), which allows the frame to sit under the 3 perforation format of 35mm film thus saving 25 per cent of film stock and processing compared to productions being shot on 4-perf. Some films in Australia have now been shot in 2-perf allowing a 50 per cent saving in stock and processing over the 4-perf format.
Broadcast operators have been slower to change because many are owner operators who may have invested in equipment and OB vans some time ago and are currently moving from digibeta to XDCAM. SD is still very common.

ALEXA in Action
As this article was being prepared, DP Garry Phillips ASC, with experience across both feature films and commercials, had recently started work on a large-budget commercial project with a very tight deadline. The production chose to shoot on the new ALEXA, basing their decision on the need to complete the whole project, including some animation work, by early December 2010. They needed a capture medium that the editors could start work on almost immediately. An editor works on set with the crew, downloading an SxS card and getting started straightaway, and then sends the Final Cut footage off to the animators to start their work on.

“At the time we started in mid-October, only a handful of ALEXAs were in Australia and the production was fortunate to have secured one,” said Garry. “A full package was hired locally. We are using a RED onset as well to do some 100fps shots, which the ALEXA cannot yet achieve. Now that production is underway, we keep the RED going most of the time as well to maximize the on-set time and get footage into post as rapidly as possible. The role of post production in the whole project will be significant. The impact of anything that prevents shooting on any day, such as weather, is magnified by the time pressure. It’s mostly an outdoor shoot, using natural lighting to capture a sunny Australian look.”

“This current project is my first experience in which digital was chosen deliberately and so far, in my view, the ALEXA feels the most like shooting on film. What has made digital shoots different for me is watching out for things like the RED overheating or keeping it away from humid conditions. The ALEXA’s construction is a bit more robust with a cooling fan at the back and the electronics separated and sealed so nothing is exposed as the fan runs, whereas the RED was more vulnerable.”

The timeframe also precluded a full testing period in pre-production. “A test we did run was between a Photron high-speed camera, a RED One with the Mysterium processor and the ALEXA. We found that using neutral density filters on the HD cameras can produce an infrared shift, giving a magenta cast to the image, but on the ALEXA, this didn’t occur. The ALEXA is made to shoot natively at ISO 800, so out in full sun you need to apply a lot of neutral density to shoot at T4, as you’d want to in those conditions.”

The camera has two monitoring-out settings – log-C gives a very flat-looking image capturing all information from the scene, every detail, and the other, REC709, looks more natural, the way a viewer sees images on screen. As the project was just a short time into production, Garry hadn’t had a chance to see the finished ALEXA footage though reports from the editors and other crew are good.

Words: Sean Young
Images: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Featured in Digital Media World. Subscribe to the print edition of the magazine and receive the full story with all the images delivered to you.Only$79 per year.
PDF version only $29 per year