Film to Digital and Back... Confessions of a Digital Virgin...Published in BSC newsletter Aug 2014.
I have had the experience in the last 9 months of shooting a movie on film, a movie on Alexa and then another movie on film.
As I was more or less a Digital Virgin until this year (2014), I had to keep quiet about the fact I had not shot on Digital when I was engaged to shoot the latest "Nicolas Sparks" film "BEST OF ME". Fortunately it was being directed by my old friend and colleague Michael Hoffman: we shared our first feature together in 1984: "RESTLESS NATIVES".
Over the years we have done 4 movies together and it was stimulating to get back together again. We have always had quite a competitive relationship, which has led to good, creative solutions that are always the sum of the ideas we throw on the table. I didn't think it a good idea to tell him I had never shot Digital: he likes the people around him to show confidence in what they are doing and as I am a great believer in not loading Directors with information they don't need, I saw no reason that anyone should know.
In the past I have spoken and written about Digital from a position of speculation, so it's interesting to look back and see which of my views were justified and which were not. Let me take some of my misgivings and then discuss them in the light of a real shoot...
1. Director Relationship
I was worried that shooting Digital would "democratise" the process of making the pictures and open up on-set discussion about the picture. This did not happen at all: our particular actors paid no attention to the work they saw on the monitors other than looking at their own performances. Michael Hoffman (our Director) would come into the "DIT Tent" occasionally if he wanted to check- out how it looked and/or get away from the noise of video village. As he usually managed to lean on the panel that was grading the picture, it usually looked green by the time he looked up! So we'd crack a couple of jokes and he would hurry out and back to the actors. So much for being worried that he would "fiddle" with the picture.
On the movies we worked together on film, the dailies viewing would be far from the great creative experience that some quote with nostalgia and a far-away look in their eye... It was in fact pretty harrowing as Michael always had a picture in his minds-eye that was different to the one he saw at the dailies: sometimes this would really upset him and we often slunk out of dailies with the dailies being re-graded because they were a touch too green, red, dark.. whatever. Shooting on Digital made this whole episode disappear and not only was it a relief not to have the dailies experience, but, as others have said, it was nice to go home knowing that the shots were truly "in the can" (sic)...
We had an entirely "film" on-set protocol: Roll Camera, Slate, Cut etc. We never left the camera running any longer than we would a film camera. I think this is an important part of feature film making: crews tell me that on some actor-driven sets the camera can run for periods of 30 minutes or more, whilst the actors "improvise...". I can't imagine anything worse myself: there must be only a minute number of actors in the world who could go on producing something interesting in this situation.
What happens - I'm told - in these situations is that the actors drone on and the crew sits around engaged on their iPhones with whatever they fancy... and the studio pays fortunes for terabytes of storage and an army of assistant editors to sift through all the dross...
Being such a "film guy", I thought that Digital would make me less inclined to pre-visualise what I wanted and that I would get lazy with the lighting.
I think this is true in a way: with the Monitor right there, I found myself accepting the way a particular scene looked when I was half-way through the lighting.. BUT, and it's a big BUT, I also found myself being a lot more bold and adventurous with the lighting and seeing what I had is such a PLUS, because it means I can be subtle in ways that I never imagined. A big part of this is because I chose to rate the Alexa at 1600 ASA as I found the image more pleasing - a touch of noise on the big screen seemed to take the curse off the "digital look" and also the selection of lenses played a crucial role here (more about this later).
I also found I could create a very imaginative image and then get Michael in the tent and say "What do you think of this?" if I had doubts that I had pushed things too far. I rented a 50" plasma monitor so that I could view the dailies on a hard drive at home. This gave me a different perspective on the image and although it was still different to a projected image, at least I got an idea of focus and bokeh - still hard to discern even in the tent.
Marc Clancy - Digital Imagining Technician for "Best of Me" (New Orleans)
My relationship with Marc was crucial for me and DP friends told me that I would be screwed if I got the wrong DIT... Fortunately it turned out that Marc was ideal: I managed to push him out of his "middle" comfort zone and he stopped me from falling off the cliff in some of the night work which I wanted really dark. I realised after a while that there is a reason why a number of digital movies are looking "samey.." and I think it is because of a reluctance on the part of Cinematographers to push the DIT into the kind of exposure levels that suit the image.
There was for many years two schools of thought about dark night work. One was that you exposed it all near-normal and then timed/graded it down afterwards. The other was to underexpose so that the image would look "naturally dark" and, on the plus side, someone could not come along later and "time it up" because there was nothing there. I have always been a fan of the latter: shoot for what you want it to look like. I discovered that this same philosophy applies in the digital era: underexposure at night increases noise and lack of shadow detail means no-one can mess with it later.
On the first night we did this, I had quite a time convincing Marc that is what I wanted, and he got quite gloomy staring at his waveform with everything bouncing along the bottom of the graph! The post-production supervisor contacted him the next day to give him a hard time for how dark the picture was... That was an interesting moment for me, as I have never been in a situation where a Post Production person was telling me (via Marc) how to make the image...
So I contacted him directly to tell him to address any issues he had with the pictures with me directly instead of talking to Marc and that seemed to be the end of that as he never contacted me again.
The other thing to emphasise about lighting is that the native high speed of digital cameras has revolutionised how much light is needed on set. This is not only because the chips are high speed but also because shooting in raw is gives such a high dynamic range that windows what would be blown out often have detail that can be recovered.I was amazed in some situations where I would have expected to call the grips to put ND gel on the windows: it just wasn't necessary. Marc was quick to point out when things clipped and if he was happy, I knew I could recover the bright windows later.. In a few short years we are suddenly in this situation where digital can recover highlight better than film, something I thought I would never see...
We tested both Anamorphic and Spherical lenses - old and new - for the film. We had decided to go 2.35 ratio, so "Super 35" versus Anamorphic was the test. In spherical we tested S4's, Panchros , S3 "vintage" Cooke's & a converted set of Super Baltars. In Anamorphic we only had the Vantage v-Lites & Plus series as an option.
It was a close call between the Super Baltars and the Anamorphic. The Baltars did a strange thing that no-one could figure out as they made the flesh tones more "pleasing" in a way that was hard to define. I will definitely be using these on some future 1.185 Digital movie as I loved the way they looked...
We went anamorphic in the end as it definitely takes the "curse" off digital - I can see why they are such a fashion at the moment. Interestingly a new set of Cooke's were delivered to set yesterday (I am now shooting Don't Mess with Texas directed by Anne Fletcher): the first 4 Cooke anamorphics owned by the rental company VER. We were able to shoot with them straightway and I was mightily impressed - my only regret being that they were not available when we started the movie...
It is worth a slight digression into why anamorphic is so suited to Digital - just as it was to film. Joe Dunton tells me that when he was part of the group that was developing digital projection, he was trying to convince the manufactures that cinemas should still project with both spherical & anamorphic lenses. Joe says, quite correctly, that with anamorphic film projection the "look" is the result of both the lens on the camera and the lens on the projector. Unfortunately economics dictated the outcome and we now have "super 35" projection whether or not the origination is spherical or anamorphic. So to simulate the look of movie originated and projected on film, using anamorphic origination lenses that are, in a sense, twice as "bad" as before could work nicely...
I believe that we react badly to across the screen sharpness because that is not how the eye sees: when confronted by a large 4K monitor with a 4K input it looks "un-natural" because our eye/brain combination simply does not see that way. There is a fun explanation of how the eye sees here.
Anamorphic lenses basically create an oblong of un-sharpness around the centre - much like the fovea in the human eye. This un-sharpness varies with T-stop and manufacturer: it is offensive to tech-heads and much loved by some Cinematographers. I am told that colourists are asked to create this look sometimes in the DI when the material has been shot spherically.. seems like a cheat to me but I suspect the software is good and the results quite convincing...
I have one caveat: babies are now playing iPhone games in the pram. Kids are staring at iPhones, iPads & computers for a large part of their childhood. The moving image is a learned approximation of "reality" and the next generation will have a wholly different perception of what looks "natural" than I have. I learned to interpret moving images from Standard 8 movies projected at home, low res B&W TV and the cinema of the 50's and 60's. Colour saturation, sharpness, strobing - all completely different to what a kid is seeing today. So it is quite possible that what I see as "natural" might look dull and lifeless to a newer brain.
One cameraman told me recently he had to remove anything shot on film from his reel because clients complained it looked "old fashioned" which is what I am talking about... perceptions change... they always do.
Operator Jim McConkey pictured with hand-held camera configured "nodal point" style..
So here I am shooting on film again with 2 weeks to go. Frankly it has been a pain picking up the meter again and dealing with stop pulls where you guess and hope it's about right. It has also been annoying to return to light levels of at least T2.8 at 500 ASA.. the sets are hot and bright and I somehow prefer working at a more natural light level which was afforded by the Alexa. It's also annoying because 400' magazines last such a short time - especially on 4 perf - so we are always reloading which slows the pace.. I also have found the camera is so covered in add-on's these days that everything seems slower - lens changes, etc.
As for the film "look" - so loved by all and me included - I am happy to move on in the last part of my career to the new challenge of making digital look good.. which is not easy. Like anything that is apparently easy to learn (ie Digital Photography), it just makes it harder to craft the image into the shape that you want.
If Directors see the picture and go "Great - Let's shoot..!" way before you are ready.. well.. don't work with them, but find a Director who will respect you and your process..
I will be doing the DI for this first Digital Film "BEST OF ME" in LA in August. I will be intrigued to see if I like the pictures - I liked them on the small screen but whether I like them on the big screen remains to be seen. I hope so.
"Directing is like being pecked by 2000 pigeons before breakfast." - Richard Benjamin.
I think the same could be said of Cinematography.... maybe only 1000...
Oliver Stapleton New Orleans June '14.
On the bus with gaffer Andy Ryan on the right.