June 30, 2016

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.

Panasonic AJ-SDX900

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.

Credit: pbombaert / Shutterstock

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 experimentingthat'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!     

Your Comment

13 Comments

I recently reclaimed a JVC GY HD110U, which filmed to MiniDV in standard def and 720p as an mpeg2 HDV file. I always liked the look I got straight out of the camera shooting with it in 2006-2008, including a feature length circus doc.

It has great colors, the grain is looks good, and people did make color profiles for it. It also did not have an SDI out, but some of its siblings did. JVC also made a robust lens converter that gives it a 16mm FOV/DOF. Your footage makes me want to try an SDI converter to recorder solution to breathe some new life into the old JVC.

Thanks for reminding people that older tech produces good results in the right hands.

June 30, 2016 at 2:48PM, Edited June 30, 2:49PM

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Ryan Haggerty
Director of Photography/Colorist
88

Man good call! I forgot they had that 16mm lens converter thingy - that could be amazing!

this video looks great - the color and feel is really nice!

I think you can use the AJA D10AD to go component to sdi. But again it's rca, so the connection in the field might be bad.

https://www.aja.com/en/products/mini-converters/d10ad

I should try out my dvx100 again to see if I can get a more secure connection or try to soldier bnc connectors into it, vs rca.

https://vimeo.com/991635

also this video makes it even more efficient to get the super 8 look, more than mine! oh well. you give and you get!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UKxKFmv1sY

June 30, 2016 at 3:18PM, Edited June 30, 4:00PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1662

If ISO is 400 and you loose 2 stops, then you would be shooting at ISO 100, not 200.
200 ISO would be only 1 stop difference from 400.

June 30, 2016 at 3:01PM

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Nicolas Gril
DP
93

oh yea! i thought 320 was a stop in there but you are right, I think. I never really learned that stuff.

July 1, 2016 at 8:31PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1662

It's easy! ASA (or ISO they are the same thing) only doubles for every additional stop or halves for one less stop.
100 ISO -> 200 ISO is plus one stop and same with 50 -> 100
Then 500 to 250 is minus one stop and same with 800 -> 400, etc.

July 2, 2016 at 4:49AM

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Matthew Emmanuel
Camera Operator
536

ah cool - thanks - that was a hole in my education - thank you!

July 20, 2016 at 1:41PM, Edited July 20, 1:41PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1662

Ed, I relate to you so much. Thanks for this

July 1, 2016 at 12:45AM

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Still have my old DVX100B and love it. A few years back I used it for all of the WW2 History Channel-type footage for my short and think it turned out pretty good.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEw_X0GWHrA

July 1, 2016 at 9:41AM

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Pretty cool

July 1, 2016 at 11:57AM

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“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
― Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

July 1, 2016 at 8:20PM, Edited July 1, 8:20PM

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Nathan Taylor
Jack of all trades, master of none
434

awesome quote!

July 1, 2016 at 8:31PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1662

I love super 8. Kodachrome 40 in particular was basically the perfect film stock IMHO. About 20 years ago I shot a feature film-a drive in action flick-on Kodachrome 40 super 8, transferred it to svhs to edit since it was the old days before NLEs. You can see the trailer here:
https://vimeo.com/37537884

Been editing old SD mini DV footage for another feature as well and it's quite easy to get the super 8 look with it. After upscaling you are about halfway there.

July 1, 2016 at 9:44PM

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Brian Holcomb
Filmmaker/film critic/festival director
81

Before HD while in film studies in 2003, I shot my project on DVCPro 50 and was very happy with the outcome. Yes, I was working hard to pull shallow depth of field but I made it work (pulled people far from the background).

Back in those days I focused on writing and the story I would tell. Now there is so much tech candy available it is easy for the substance (message) to become lean.

July 5, 2016 at 5:57PM

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Matt Battershell
Web Developer / Graphic Designer / Filmmaker
133