Digital’s increasing domain

ASC Awards 2012

The American Society of Cinematographers traces its origins back to The Static Club, a gathering of cameramen convened in 1913 in part to discuss and solve technical issues. The club’s moniker sprung from the concept of motion picture film building up static electricity inside the camera that, when released, emitted light that exposed the film.

The ASC itself was chartered in 1919, and since that time, the exclusive, invite-only club has been associated with filmed images, almost always captured on 35 mm silver halide emulsion.

But the Society’s long-standing stance on the primacy of film stock is changing. Today, the ASC is more agnostic regarding filmmaking tools, underscored by this year’s two nominations in the feature film category for movies shot digitally: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” shot by Jeff Cronenweth on Red cameras; and “Hugo,” shot by Robert Richardson, using a two-camera Arri Alexa 3D rig.

The recognition is not unprecedented. Dean Semler’s 2006 nomination for “Apocalypto,” shot on the Panavision Genesis, was a first for a digitally shot movie. In 2008, ASC nominations were given to two digitally shot films: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” the latter shot by Anthony Dod Mantle. In a shocker, Mantle won.

In subsequent years, “Avatar” and “The Social Network” were given nods. (“Avatar” won the cinematography Oscar for 2009.)

The ASC’s technology committee, chaired by Curtis Clark, has been deeply involved in streamlining digital techniques and testing digital cameras and disseminating the results. Numerous representatives of digitally savvy companies also serve on the committee.

Today’s digital cameras come in a wide variety of flavors. Film buffs say that because of the billions of silver halide crystals in a film frame, numbers can’t describe the differences in how filmed and digital images represent visual information to the human eye.

Still, there are a few measures that are usually used: The first is resolution. Digital images are captured by pixel arrays that are a fixed grid of light-sensitive photosites. When a camera is said to be “4K,” that number refers to the number of these discrete sites in the horizontal dimension of the light-sensitive chip.

Most early digital cameras, however, had a bottleneck in terms of how much electronic information could be sent down the pipeline and recorded. The solution was compression. Compression is basically a mathematical attempt to throw away unnecessary data. Image experts say there is good and bad compression, and while data rates have improved, compression remains part of the picture. When a camera records “raw” data, it is generally said to be uncompressed. “Raw” recording has quickly become a standard method, to the surprise of some camera manufacturers and designers.

Today, three digital cameras are garnering most of the attention in today’s high end production world. The Red Epic, the camera that broke the ice for 4K origination; the Arri Alexa, which is currently in use on many television productions, and is making headway in the feature realm on productions like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Rampart”; and Sony’s F65, which uses an 8K sensor to capture light and downsamples that information to “nearly uncompressed” 4K.

Many cinematographers say the Alexa’s images are more filmic. Arri claims its many decades of providing tools to cinematographers make its product better suited to professional production.

The Red Epic was an upgrade for Cronenweth, who was Oscar-nominated 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.”

“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.

“Film and digital are so close now,” he adds, “especially with the enormously powerful tools you can utilize after photography. I think we are really dead even. We had to live though 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.”

After extensive testing, John Schwartzman chose Red Epic cameras for his 3D photography of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” due out in 2012. Meanwhile, Bobby Bukowski shot “Rampart” with the Alexa, using an onboard recording system that captured somewhat lower resolution images, but gained him the freedom to operate the camera handheld, without cables to hinder his movements.

The ability to record images in ArriRaw format using the Codex Onboard recorder was a major factor behind d.p. Chris Menges and director Stephen Daldry’s decision to choose the Arri Alexa for “Extremely Loud.” 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, who earned Oscars for “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission.” “It’s got a very good, vibrant color presence that you can use to advantage.”

On “Rampart,” Bukowski found he had to change his lighting for the Alexa, as compared to film.

“I found that with the Alexa, everything becomes a source light,” Bukowski explains. “The Alexa seems to be affected by everything – not only the primary source, but the secondary source bouncing off the wall, and the tertiary source that’s going up to the ceiling and bouncing back . It winds up being a very heavy grip job, particularly in daytime shooting. You end up subtracting a lot of light just so you can hone in on a primary source.”

Although Bukowski was happy with the Alexa, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to give up film as a visual storytelling tool. Like many cinematographers, he feels having more options is always better.

“I would never say that any camera is better than any other camera until I have that discussion with the director and discover what the story means,” he says. “I would happily go back to film if that was right for the story.”

The latest entry in the digital camera sweepstakes is the Sony F65, which starts with an 8K sensor and promises “true 4K” after “downrezzing.” Jon Fauer, a New York cinematographer who publishes Film & 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.

Costs estimates for these cameras vary widely, with the Red Epic basic package starting at about $60,000, the Arri Alexa beginning at $70,000, and the Sony F65 reportedly available in late December for about $85,000, but that number went up after the first of the year.

All those numbers are considerably smaller than the cost of a brand new 35 mm film camera. But such cameras are not currently being manufactured. The irony is that film could become the lower-budget alternative, especially with cheaper options like 2-perf 35 mm and Super 16.

“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.”

TV’s big-screen canvas | Digital’s increasing domain | Forever young & curious

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