Nikon D800 Holds Its Own in Hollywood: from Janusz Kamiński to 'Dexter' and 'Wilfred'
Canon obviously got off to an early start in Hollywood thanks to the incredible performance of the Canon 5D Mark II and the fact that the camera could be put literally anywhere. It really wasn't until the introduction early last year of the Nikon D800 that there was a bigger push to incorporate Nikon DSLRs into larger productions. Some of this is attributed to the fact that the Nikon cameras didn't have full manual controls in video mode until their newest cameras, but the other reason they haven't really taken hold is because the image quality just wasn't very good until the D800. Now we've got people like DP Janusz Kamiński shooting with the cameras, and it's being used on shows like Dexter and Wilfred.
If you haven't seen it, I took both the D800 and the Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 5D Mark III for a spin earlier last year, comparing them with noise reduction turned off, and then I applied my own bit of noise reduction later on:
I really like the look of the D800 personally, but I know plenty of people either don't like it or have tons of Canon lenses so they've never considered using Nikon. The D800 resolves more actual detail, but you're also going to get moire pattern from time to time because of the way they get from a whopping 36 megapixels all the way down to 2 megapixels for HD video. Here is a little bit about its use on Wilfred, which is currently the only major network show to be shot with strictly DSLRs. They started with Canon 7Ds converted to PL mount, but they switched over to the D800 later in the second season:
“ISO performance is an important factor to consider; however, it ultimately comes down to how well a camera can handle the black detail in a scene, something which we feel is commonly overlooked by camera manufactures today,” said Arasheben. “With the D800, we were blown away. The way the D800 handled the black detail was simply incredible and was enormously important to us. Our set has very dissected and specific lighting, and if a camera cannot truly represent the black levels, that’s a problem, especially as considerable resources are then required to correct the footage in post. This is an issue we never had to worry about with the D800.”
As an avid watcher of the show, it was clear when it switched over to full-frame, because the DOF changed dramatically. One other interesting bit about how they actually used the cameras:
“Instead of using the HDMI out to record to an off-board recorder, we leveraged the HDMI out to feed clean video images to everyone on set,” added Arasheben. “The Cinoflex Camera System provides a strong anchor point that allowed us to relocate the D800’s HDMI out to the aluminum chassis, where the signal was converted to HD/SDI BNC and inserted directly into the HD/SDI input on the Cinoflex. Using the Cinoflex’s four isolated HD/SDI outputs, we then gave the director, camera assistant, DP and camera operator a view of exactly what was being shot.”
One of the biggest selling points for the cameras is the fact that you can cleanly record the HDMI to get a much higher quality image, but they decided that usability was more important and the image quality going straight to the cards internally was good enough for their purposes. This is some of the same reasoning used by the team that has been shooting Dexter with the Nikon D800 as a C and D camera and companion to the Arri Alexa:
"We used the Alexa as a baseline and had the D800 recording to an outboard recorder uncompressed and to an internal memory card at H.264 compressed," says Fletcher. "We also tested a Canon C300 with a Cooke lens on it—a $40,000 setup—running alongside the $4,000 Nikon D800 setup. The Canon footage had what you might call an over-smooth look to it. But the D800 uncompressed footage blew us away."
When they looked at D800 footage alongside the ARRI baseline at Technicolor, he says, "we really couldn't see much difference. But our jaws really hit the floor when we brought up the compressed D800 footage. Right then the decision was made with the post supervisor Megan Walsh that if we shoot with this camera, there is no need to shoot uncompressed. That means the file size goes from 4GB to 600 MB. That's just the factory setup, too."
"It won't ever replace the Alexa, which is a better form factor, a better picture, and has more dynamic range. The Alexa is also amazing at highlight retention, and that's because it is doing an in-camera HDR and noise mask. But when you look at how the Nikon is handling the roll-off on the highs, how it is handling the toe of the curve, [and] how it is handling no information to getting into the dark grays and coming up in the middle tones, it is doing a fantastic job. Footage is creamy and smooth, much like the Alexa footage. It really looks cinematic and stellar."
It's really interesting to me that DPs shooting on shows costing into the millions per episode don't feel a need to deal with uncompressed footage, which is either a testament to the post workflows, or them understanding that a 3rd and 4th camera on set will only be used for minor shots, so having to rig it up will cost them more time and money than it really should. If you're wondering what the real differences can be between shooting uncompressed and shooting internally, photographer Ron Adair shot an interesting test that really shows off the differences:
Nikon was behind a recent short film that will be playing at Sundance 2013, Broken Night. That film, now available to watch online, was written/directed by Guillermo Arriaga and shot by Academy Award Winner Janusz Kamiński. It's interesting to see how far the Nikon is pushed in some of the darker scenes, and it's clear that they've got it right at its limits. I'm sure it was refreshing for Kamiński to get to use DSLRs because he could literally put the camera anywhere and move it in any way he wanted. There is a lot of great behind the scenes material with them talking about their process and using the camera, but Nikon, in their infinite wisdom, has not allowed any of this to be embedded or shown anywhere else but the Broken Night website -- so you'll have to head on over there to check it out.
If you're looking to shoot with higher-end DSLRs, you've now got more options than ever, and Nikon has truly made themselves a competitor with the D800. I haven't seen great results come out of any of their other DSLRs yet, but it will be interesting to see what they do down the road. It's certainly possible they may come up with their own video camera, and their product line is positioned in such a way that they could release something in a much more competitive price range without crippling the features.
What do you guys think? Have you used the Nikon D800? What do you think about the image over a camera like the 5D Mark II or 5D Mark III?