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The Future of Cinematography is Here, and It's Digital: But How Do the DPs Feel About It?

11.7.12 @ 10:00PM Tags : , ,

We live in a time of unparalleled choice. The number and types of high-powered tools of our trade has never been this great, nor have advancements and price thereof been in such aggressive opposition to each other before. We’re definitely at the midpoint of a truly glacial shift – that’s glacial in magnitude, not time elapsed — and we’re all pretty well aware of the technology available to us. Something we don’t get to hear about half as often, though, is what the men and women in the creative realm most directly tied to this technology, cinematography, have to say about it, or their view of the brave new world in which we all work and strive to remain relevant. Film and Digital Times has just posted some fantastic pamphlets of short essays written by a number of working cinematographers, and the perspectives within are a must-read.

The documents contain honest and in some cases confessional testimony from American, British, and French cinematographers. Here is an excerpt from one of the essays, written by Oliver Stapleton, B.S.C. (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark). His words here represent just one of the many truly pertinent concerns, issues, and insights raised by these posts:

If everybody is purely measuring cameras in terms of how many stops of latitude it has got, what’s the resolution, and you throw everything else in the ditch, that is wrong. I certainly welcome these new devices to add to our armoury of tools for making moving images, but I don’t see why one has to take technical parameters (that are so subjective and specific to a given movie) and make that the criteria for choosing how we make a film.

We need to learn how to work with digital and learn what to protect and who needs to be involved. If we don’t lay down those ground rules very rapidly at this point, the opportunity will be lost for the habits to form. It’s a very important time in the next few years for the established cinematographers who have the clout to set some rules and standards, because if we don’t speak up now, our job will be seriously diminished.


Topics range from reluctancy to begin shooting digitally, the potential pit-falls of the DI process in taking controlling of the image out of the DP’s hands, dissatisfaction with the qualities of digital acquisition over those of film, the dangers of relegating too much power to DITs who may have to coach DPs who are new to a certain system, the moments in which it’s okay to lose some highlight detail because something just plain looks right, the abilities in low-light digital can have, the problem of archiving something that will never exist in a tangible physical form — the list goes on and on, but at this point I’ll just let you guys read the goods for yourselves (or click on the links below). The value of all this candor really can’t be overstated, nor can how well the materials covers the full gamut of pros and cons, possibilities and problems, the good, and the bad.

It’s truly fascinating, not to mention enlightening, to read of such a well-rounded variety of experiences, and I think great value can be derived from checking it out regardless of what side of the fence you stand. Many kudos to Madelyn Most for the work, and to the cinematographers in the trenches out there who, regardless of how they feel about it, really make each of these new technologies shine.

What do you guys think about all of the points the essays bring up? What experiences have you had in the field that you feel are echoed here?

Links: Talk About the Future, Pt. 1 and Le Futur, Part 2

[via Film and Digital Times]

COMMENT POLICY

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  • Christopher Nolan said it best in the up coming KEANU REEVES documentary about Digital vs Film by saying “IF FILM ISNT DEAD, THEN its definitely on life support”.

    Digital is till not fully there yet compared to the film look, but it damnnn near close, Years back i could tell which films were filmed digitally usually by eye, today it is not so easy.

    • I find that films shot on the RED Epic seem a bit more pasty and less vibrant than others. Maybe it’s not, but most of the EPIC films I have seen do look like it.

      • It’s the colorist and DI job to make raw image look vibrant and glossy. I’ve seen plenty of movies shot on Red and Alexa that look almost desaturated and very badly exposed (to be fair, i’ve experienced similar things watching 16mm and 35mm flicks). It’s not always a camera’s fault, often it’s like “he knew that you were not ready, that you will likely die… DI guy was very bad”

      • Andreas Kopriva on 11.8.12 @ 6:15AM

        I’ve made it a point to watch every movie shot on RED (according to the list on their website -http://www.red.com/shot-on-red/cinema) and have found very inconsistent results which support the notion that it’s more about the colorist’s ability than the camera specifications. Albert Nobbs for example looked quite filmic to me, while Ghost Rider 2 didn’t.
        Prometheus and Total Recall were beautifully shot and graded (despite being average as movies) and so was the latest Spiderman. Personally I found nothing jarring or noticeable with these films when compared to film.

        • The one thing you’ll notice on every film shot on Red is that on every wide with fast camera movement, the shot just screams “DIGITAL!!!” at you. It looks like it’s shot at a 360 degree shutter angle.

          • Don’t disguise your opinion as fact. Just because you’ve noticed something doesn’t mean everyone else has!

          • so what? in 5 years no one will care.

      • I’ll jump in – on the lower budget films shot on RED that you can pick-up from Redbox, I find myself often wondering, “Is this shot on the 5dmkII??” Even the opening scene of Contagion looked like the 5dmkII to me – blown out bokeh and highlights and plastic skin tones.

        Again, it was the first few shots.

        I would agree that on some of these lower budget films the grade comes into play, and some have been terrible. Also, moire and aliasing are worse than the 5dmkII – but that is because someone didn’t know how to conform to DVD properly.

        The aliasing alone has PO’d me many times and tricked me that a DSLR was used, only to find RED was. (YES, I know RED does not alias but when you conform 4k to SD wrong, it will!)

    • I prefer something I’ve heard – “Film isn’t dead, but it’s in a wheelchair at the top of a big-ass staircase.”

    • It’s harder to see by eye these days because of the lack of film projectors. The vast majority of projectors are digital, and only 2K at that. I’m sure you’d be able to tell if the two projectors were put side by each.

      The problem is that 2K is decent. Decent enough that the public won’t complain when installed everywhere. Decent enough that the distributors save gobs of cash that the reels cost them. Decent enough that the theatres can reduce ten employees to one. This, of course, was inevitable.

      However, 2K doesn’t hold a candle to a film projector. We’ll all see when 4K projectors come out. And then 8K, or whatever the following standard becomes.

      • I’d argue that the real issue is the resolution of DIs…before digital projection, most films were going through 2k DIs, so even if it was being projected on film, you were still only seeing a 2k image.

        Now there are tons of 4k digital projectors, but almost all DIs are still 2k…once there are more 4k DIs, we’ll see the difference right away.

      • What I have noticed, and enjoy about digital, is the lack of scratches that are inevitable in film. (especially when you are in one of the countries that get the left-overs after the film has been showing in other countries for months.)

        • Daniel Mimura on 11.18.12 @ 7:40AM

          That’s the part I miss…like the crackle or records.

          But everyone has their preferences…I love the steadiness of digital projection. The weave of older film cameras and projectors are distracting, while the scratches and dust are comforting.

  • It’s a very important time in the next few years for the established cinematographers who have the clout to set some rules and standards, because if we don’t speak up now, our job will be seriously diminished.

    That quote is so true, because of DSLR revolution, not only do DPS have to watch their backs but editors also need to be on look out. Because of affordability of DSLR and digital cameras, students of film are learning almost all jacks of trades by default. Now the DP can actually color grade, edit, and handle sound, and do FX graphics, these are new days indeed

    • THIS!
      I agree, its a new way of thinking when an up and comer can cover a variety of fields. We are the DP, Director, Editor, etc. I think maybe in the future film making may become more efficient with less people behind the camera, but who knows. Im excited.

    • Talent and experience will always separate the working professionals from tech savvy students and younglings. I originated as a “kid who know how to do everything” school, in large part thanks to technology, but what I have learned over the years in practical filmmaking experience is priceless and cannot be taught.

      • Yeh, your right to a point….If your talking about big budget films then your right but smaller budgets demand multiple hats. Matty

        • Exactly just because everybody has pen and paper doesn’t make writers scared, and students don’t get it no one wants a dp editor colorist steadicam operator, they want a pro steadicam operator.

        • Matt you hit it on the HEAD buddy, Budget trumps everything, sure on a Big budget and set they will have specialists for everything, but not everything is big budget these days. STAR WARS was just sold for BILLIONS , YES BILLIONS, but George Lucas still had problmes trying to fund his last movie. Trust NEW days are not coming, new days are here. We have cinema capable cameras for under $5k, we have Kickstarter , We the internet. Art will always be appreciated but at the same time money ultimatley is the common denominator.
          LAMBORGINI’S are a work of art, Most are handmade one by one, However the number one selling LAMBORGHINI of all time is the Gallardo that is not handmade.

          • If you’re referring to Red Tails, that couldn’t get funding because it was a African American story. Hollywood doesn’t put money into minority story lines, unless its hot the year.

    • I don’t think thats what he was getting at. Back in the Day with film, there was no monitor, the director didn’t even get to see what the dp was filming on set and you had limited film stock. Under those conditions, it was far more critical to have a highly skilled person behind the camera to get the desired result. Since digital’s barriers to entry are so low, unskilled individuals are becoming cinematographers and effecting the craft negatively, thats why standards are needed.

      Any good filmmaker will tell you that making films is a collaboration. A DP/Colorist sucks compared to a DP and a Colorist. Under low budget constraints combining jobs is a necessity, but given the choice, very few filmmakers would consolidate. Two heads are better than one.

      • Yes but 100 heads are not better than 20. Technology is there is to simplify the process meaning certain jobs are going to be consolidated.

  • Sorry to nitpick but Oliver Stapleton actually shot Don’t be Affraid.

    • Dave Kendricken on 11.8.12 @ 12:12AM

      You’re absolutely right Mike, good eyes, good catch, good call — brain-failure on Dave’s part >.< Fixed

  • Ellery Ryan jnr on 11.8.12 @ 12:11AM

    His name is Oliver Stapleton, not ‘John’ Stapleton.

  • How they feel about it? Who cares? If the quality of digital image is on par or superior to that of film (better res, better latitude, better colors) you have to work with what you have in your hands and stop blaming the camera or the sensors or whatever for your own mistakes, lack of interest and laziness. In a year or so you’ll have Arri, Red, Sony and Aaton raw digital systems, that give you even richer digital negative than common film stock ever could. If you are like Nolan or PTA and have the opportunity to shoot in 70mil, do it. Otherwise…

  • I think the skin tones on film are still much better compare to skin tones shot by any digital camera

  • Digital to many DP’s it must seem like like having another Diva on set to contend with. Taking time away from the art of lighting and composition. With Film though a technical mastery is required it’s much more finite than digital with its changing cameras, new work flows, new codecs, new backend systems, new chips and forever being upgraded and changing the image that’s way more to contend with than film. Then there’s how many fingers get into the pie: it’s a very niche chain of people who actually understand and want to interfere with what’s going on with exposed film and colour timing. With digital there are so many more people who can now put their finger in. Imagine if committees or art patrons could interfere with a Picasso after he’s painted it.

  • Film was also post-processed through color timing, push/pull processing, bleach bypass, enr and so on – but what worries me a bit with digital acquisition and DI is not the potential endless possibilities (I`m thankful for that) but the explosion of laziness on sets to lock your decisions and loosening discipline. I`ll never forget the sentence a music artist said while we were shooting a video: “damn, I messed that up, heck, it`s just digital, we can do it as often as necessary”. But this creeps up to bigger productions, too. Insane shooting ratios, lazy lighting styles (color grading can fix everything…) and so on.

  • I still don’t understand why to so many people the numbers and figures are so important. It should be the experience that is counting and there are many ways that lead to Rome. In theory 48fps should be better than 24, it’s a higher number, but still all movie watchers prefer the 24fps look.

    • How can all movie watchers prefer 24fps when almost no one has seen a film in 48fps?

      • one doesn`t have to see a movie in 48 fps – news, efp, telenovelas, sports and other stuff is broadcast in 50 fps for decades (interlaced or fullframe 50 fps doesn`t matter) – it`s very well known as the “live at 5″ look – a look most people connect with “cheap” or “non fiction”

        • That’s kind of a logical fallacy though isn’t it? If people have only seen it on “cheap” and “non-fiction” things, how can you say it’s the framerate that’s at fault? Plus it’s also ignoring that much of that look was due to the smeary 360 shutter, something that looks just as bad at 24fps.

          • It`s what most people who saw the Hobbit in previews critized – it`s my own view, too. But hey, if people get used to it it may fade away – I doubt it, but that`s just my view…

          • The Hobbit preview was for theater owners, certainly not a representation of the general audience.

            I don’t know if I’ll like it or not…but 24fps looks really choppy in 3d movies, and I think 48fps in 3d will be a vast improvement.

  • ruben huizenga on 11.8.12 @ 10:27AM

    It seems a lot of negativity these dp’s have toward digital is based on workflow.
    ie creative powers taken from them, to be later decided in post.
    “baked in” doesn’t just mean a camera’s picture profile, but can also mean the dp’s artistic decisions..

  • This is an interesting read but I find statements like “We should have the right to control the final look of the movie.” very hard to swallow.

    You know who should have the right to control the final look of the movie? The person who is ultimately responsible for the movie being made. The producer.

    In the indie world it’s the producer that’s responsible for the investor’s getting their money back and when you’re making a product nothing is more important than that.

    At the end of the day no one else has ultimate responsibility, and that’s why they don’t get the final say.

  • Digital can be nothing but healthy for the film industry. Sure, maybe it means a lot more mediocre players, but in the end it’s just pushing the bar up a notch for those elite few who really know what they are doing.

    I feel that the industry has gone through many changes identical to this. A newcomer enters the room and everyone starts fluttering their wings, bwak bwaking a little more than average, but at the end of the day all resumes to normality. The sun rises the following morning.

  • This discussion will be around for a few more years its subjective and you choose the right tool for the job. Just have to know there strengths. Pick a god narrative and shoot the hell out of it.

    But you have never heard the saying making film look like digital its always digital to look like film.

    • Exactly. And there will always be directors and project for which film is a better fit, at least I hope so. Wes Anderson shot Moonrise Kingdom on Super 16 as it was as good fit aesthetically and was accurate to the time period the film was set it.

  • How many in the audience going to watch a movie stop to ask, “What was this thing shot on? RED? Ugh, I don’t think I want to see this movie”? Forget about all the extreme aesthetics and look and all the arguments – the business is in the story and the experience to the viewer. Nobody who is putting down money to watch a movie gives a rat’s bottom what the heck it was shot on. Similar noises were made when music went from analogue to digital. How many people own a cassette player now?

  • Reading all this, I’m reminded of a quote from John Siracusa in an article about eBooks. Comparing the printed book to a horse and the e-book to a car, he writes:

    “Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage” — and they never did! And then they died.”

    Nostalgia is powerful. Knowing how something works better than you know how its replacement works is natural. But if you’re worried about the loss of serendipity? Don’t tweak everything until it’s perfect. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  • Doing some work in Archives and developing a archival digital plan…I think it is so much easier to preserve film for 100 years than it is to preserve digital born media for 25 years.

    Editing in Digital is so much easier than editing tape to tape or splicing film.

    I produce with digital born media but I am not looking forward to archiving it. I mean Dalet, CatDV, Cache-A, and other software and hardware products out there offer great solutions, but it would definitely help if it was done before bringing it into a NLE. Think about how many files get created for a production…for me thousands to tens of thousands. Well each file should be treated as a single asset which needs metadata, checksums, multiple copies in house, multiple copies off site, LTO back ups with migration plan and rescue plan…

    It really was easier to just put a can of film on a shelf in a vault and come back to in twenty five years.

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