Unlocking the Secrets of SD Cameras: Perfect for the Super 8 Film Look
Standard definition is much more useful than you might think.
I can't hide it any longer: I'm a huge fan of standard definition. Now, I'm not looking for a resolution war here—though I am expecting a bunch of digital eyebrow raises—but I think there is a place in this world for SD.
In fact, I was able to chat with an old friend of No Film School, New York-based cinematographer Ed David, about the many unseen virtues of shooting in SD. The coolest? It's perfect for mimicking the Super 8mm film look.
No Film School: Can you tell us about your interest in SD cameras?
Ed David: I have a strange affinity for CCD cameras, the previous generation camera chips. Unlike CMOS, the current technology, these have a different pixel array and motion is global shutter—it is not rolling, so the motion moves more like film. I could be wrong about the benefit of CCD over CMOS (there are many downfalls to CCD—low light, etc.), but I think that makes them interesting.
"The secret is to try to shoot as low-contrast as possible and without any detail enhancements."
Also, SD cameras like the SDX900, the DVX100's big sister, tried to have more filmic curves. With any of these cameras, and even the 5D Mark II, the secret is to try to shoot as low-contrast as possible and without any detail enhancements—the closest one can get to log and with as much highlight and shadow detail.
NFS: But why SD over HD?
David: Why standard over HD or 4K? There is something smooth about it I like—how these cameras see the world, their limited dynamic range of around 8-10 stops, the Panasonic color look, the old 2/3' lenses with chromatic aberration—all that weirdness is kind of lost now. There is a new aesthetic and I love it (I love the Alexa and the Sony F65), but SD cameras have some strange old feel, some kind of weird mystery.
NFS: You shot a video that mimics the aesthetic of Super 8mm footage. What was your process? How did you achieve that look?
David: Technically, I went from the BNC composite "monitor" port of the SDX900 with an AJA composite to SDI converter via D-tap, and from there, the SDI went into the Sound Devices PIX 240 recorder.
"It has a smoothness that comes from lack of detail, deep and natural saturation, motion, grain, flicker."
I shot in progressive as 24p over a 60i signal and in the PIX I upconverted to 1080p 23.98fps, or so I thought. On this test I did something weird and it went as 29.97fps. Whatever happened, I screwed up and didn't do the pulldown correctly. But I got a decent signal. I tried using the DVX100 this same way and the issue is that it does not have BNC connectors, just RCA connectors, and those things are not that reliable to hold a signal with an RCA to BNC converter. Maybe I should try again.
NFS: What's the trick to getting digital footage to look like film—or as you put it, the "secret sauce"?
David: For me, Super 8mm varies based on the telecine and film stock used. But overall I think it has a smoothness that comes from lack of detail, deep and natural saturation, motion, grain, and flicker.
"When I shoot, I make sure the camera's picture profile is as flat as possible with no digital sharpness."
So when I shoot, I make sure the camera's picture profile is as flat as possible with no digital sharpness. I take the footage into DaVinci Resolve, make sure to lower contrast, then play with putting FilmConvert over it as a generic REC.709 starting point. I then vignette the image and do a blur around the corners as well. I add film grain. I make it even less sharp—as little detail as possible. What I like to do is skinny up the image, changing the width and then zooming in on it. The skinnies look a little more like actual film. Then I put on gorilla grain with flicker.
It is in no way perfect; I wish the grain size was bigger. I also wish there was some kind of shake and flicker tool in Resolve to shake each pixel and create more flicker. But hey, the thing is free. Shouldn't complain.
NFS: How do CCD sensors differ from CMOS sensors in terms of capturing that vintage film aesthetic?
David: Well, the global shutter—the camera movement feels more like film. But the Panasonic DVX100 and SDX900 and the original VariCam all have this weird unique "Panasonic look"—the VariCam and SDX900 almost look cartoonish—which I don't like as much as the DVX100, but adding more contrast and desaturating it helps. But it's definitely a look! It's just weird and different, which is nice. It seems like everyone these days is using either the Alexa, or the RED, or a Sony or Canon camera—and all the looks are getting kind of similar. Sometimes you just want your stuff to look strange and different.
NFS: Couldn't you just as easily shoot on a 4K camera and degrade the image, add some digital film grain, and color correct? Wouldn't it look more or less the same?
David: I've been doing some tests, and yes, technically it gets you to that kind of look, but with more dynamic range, but at the end of the day, each camera sensor and camera sees the world slightly differently. Again, I'm no scientist or anything, but they all are nuanced and have slightly different ways of seeing the world, so it's kind of interesting to play with an old forgotten camera and see how it helps you see differently.
"SD is just plain weird and no one really does it because they think you need to use tape with it. They don't know you can just record the video out to a recorder like the PIX or the Samurai or nanoFlash."
NFS: Nowadays, it's all about 4K and UHD—getting the highest resolution possible. What are the benefits of shooting on an SD camera? Do you think there's untapped potential there?
David: For me, it's not so much about resolution from the 4K and UHD cameras; it's their dynamic range and how to capture skin tones. That's why I love the Alexa and my Sony F65. And when I shoot on the F65, I always use diffusion. Always. It's too sharp. Which is fine, because on 35mm film, a lot of DPs would put pantyhose over the lens. 35mm is sharp too. Sharpness is different, though, with film; it's randomized in some way, whereas digital has a more constant sharpness. Some people love it, some people hate it. Depends on the project.
SD is just plain weird and no one really does it because they think you need to use tape with it. They don't know you can just record the video out to a recorder like the PIX or the Samurai or nanoFlash. If you like it, you can get a system for around $600 tops (including lenses). I used it to shoot a long interview; Super 8mm cameras only go for 5 minutes, but this guy goes for 45 hours if you want it to.
NFS: What are some drawbacks of shooting on an SD camera? I know not being able to swap out lenses without using a 35mm adapter would be a major one....
David: Well, you get laughed at a lot. You are limited to 2/3' sensors, which don't allow you to get as much shallow depth of field. (And don't we all love shallow depth of field?) Some lenses are interchangeable, but there are only, I think, a few that can go on them, like Zeiss DigiZooms and Zeiss DigiPrimes. Or you have to use a 35mm adapter, like a P+S technic Pro35 adapter, which costs God knows how much these days. But with that you can put on 35mm lenses—however, the thing loses probably 2 stops of light, and the cameras are only around 400 ASA to start with, so you are down to 200 ASA—which is not that fun to shoot with. It's old school, I guess.
"That's the beauty of filmmaking: you never know if you are going down an interesting new path or if it's just one giant mistake. As long as you're having fun experimenting, that's the important part."
Maybe I am an idiot for choosing to experiment in SD. Maybe it's just a weird hang-up from when I first started shooting. Longing to go back in time to the good old days of 2004, when I was king of the world!
NFS: Do you think that resolution is just as much a stylistic/creative choice as camera placement, color grading, and lighting?
David: I don't know, actually. I think resolution is tied into so many other aspects of camera technology that resolution can't be taken out of the picture. I know resolution affects image processing and pixel size and color and all that, but it's a complex relationship. I think it just comes down to this: if you like the SD look and it reminds you of 16mm or 8mm, then go for it. If it feels right, then do it!
NFS: Personally, I really like the look of SD footage. It's imperfect, unpredictable, and leaves more to the imagination.
David: There is something kind of strange and rebellious about it. As the whole world becomes obsessed with 4K and now 6K and 8K (thank you, RED), saying that you are going to shoot at 480p or 480i, or as the kids call it 0.4k, that's pretty interesting and sure to raise eyebrows. But maybe all of this can just be done in post. That's the beauty of filmmaking: you never know if you are going down an interesting new path or if it's just one giant mistake. As long as you're having fun experimenting, that's the important part. Who cares whatever you did to achieve what you wanted. If you like the look of it, then keep shooting with it!