High-end capture’s top shots

CES Daily Spotlight: Variety Entertainment Summit

Will 2012 be a tipping-point year for 4K motion pictures? On the capture side, three digital cameras are garnering attention in today’s high-end production world: The Red Epic, the camera that broke the ice for 4K origination, was used by Jeff Cronenweth on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The 2K Arri Alexa is in use on many television productions, and is making headway in the feature realm on such productions as “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the 3D “Hugo” and “Rampart.” And Sony is in the process of raising the bar with its F65, which uses an 8K sensor to capture light and downsamples that information to “nearly uncompressed” 4K.

The Red Epic was an upgrade for Cronenweth, an Oscar nominee for “The Social Network,” shot with an older edition of the Red. The Epic came with advances in data management that allowed Cronenweth and director David Fincher to take a more hands-on approach with the images on “Dragon Tattoo.”

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“When we started the project, you had to send your footage back to Red, and they transcoded it for you,” says Cronenweth. “Fincher likes to cut while we shoot, so we shot with the Red One until the software for the Epic became available and we could do it ourselves.”

Cronenweth was pleased with the Red Epic. “Film and digital are so close now, especially with the enormously powerful tools you can utilize after photography,” he says. “I think we are really dead even. On ‘Tattoo,’ we had to live through cold, rain, sleet, snow, low light levels — and the camera performed well.

“I love film, and the magic of the photochemical process doesn’t happen with a digital capture system,” he says. “But the degree of control you have with digital from beginning to end is worth the sacrifice. It allows you to have a clearer understanding when you’re collaborating and interpreting someone else’s story.”

After extensive testing, John Schwartzman chose Red Epic cameras for his 3D photography of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” due later this year.

The ability to record images in the ArriRaw format using the Codex Onboard recorder was a major factor behind the decision by two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges and director Stephen Daldry to choose the Arri Alexa for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” The Alexa’s chip starts by capturing roughly 3.5K of information.

“It has a great ability at night, because you can boost the ASA so easily,” says Menges. “It’s got a very good, vibrant color presence. But best of all, particularly when you’re dealing with a child actor, is the Codex hard drive, which can run for 50 minutes.”

Cinematographers are looking forward to Arri’s next generation of digital cameras, led by the Alexa Studio model, which will feature an optical viewfinder, a mechanical shutter and a 4×3 sensor. The more-square sensor is well-suited to 2x anamorphic photography in which the taking lens squeezes the image, which is eventually displayed in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Most digital cameras use a 16×9 chip.

The latest entry in the digital camera sweepstakes is the Sony F65, which starts with an 8K sensor and promises “true 4K” after downrezzing. Onboard recording is handled with a proprietary solution that uses SR cards. Jon Fauer, a New York cinematographer who publishes Film and Digital Times, had the opportunity to test a prototype.

“My initial reaction was that the F65 has a very high exposure index, and a very wide dynamic range,” he says. “The 4K output is truly 4K, and really good. I think this camera is going to attract the attention of many heads of production. It’s basically an 8K camera that delivers 4K images with minimal compression. We’re not going to stop at 4K, and Sony has shown with this camera that they realize it.”

Fauer saw a 4K end-to-end demonstration at Sony headquarters in Tokyo. “It’s totally immersive, almost 3D-like,” he reports. “I think 2012 could be the year of 4K.”

Costs estimates for these cameras vary widely, in part because of the range of packages available. Red One owners have the option to trade up at a discount. And rental prices must amortize the cost of a digital camera over a presumably shorter life span compared to film cameras, which can remain useful for decades.

That said, the rough estimate for a Red Epic basic package starts at about $60,000. The Arri Alexa begins at $70,000, with the newer Studio models costing roughly $144,000. The Sony F65 was reportedly available in late December for about $85,000, but that number went up after the first of the year.

All those figures are considerably smaller than the cost of a brand new 35 mm film camera. But such cameras are not being manufactured. The irony is that film could become the lower-budget alternative, especially with cheaper options such as the 2-perf 35 mm and Super 16. The speed with which digital technology is superseded makes life difficult for rental houses.

“The economics are changing quickly,” says Fauer. “One of film’s strengths is archivability. We don’t have a good long-term archive answer yet for digital, and that’s going to be part of the argument in the coming year.”


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Moderator: Guy Finley, executive director Media and Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA)
Speakers: Darcy Antonellis , president, Warner Bros. Technical Operations; Chris Cookson , president, Sony Pictures Technology; Arnaud Robert , senior VP of Technology, Walt Disney; Ed Leonard , CTO, DreamWorks Animation

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