Tuesday 29 June 2010

CAS Day 2

Day 2 at the CAS show was one of seeing the same shots over and over again and watching for differences between one camera system and another. It mainly was focused around film vs. each of the other digital cameras.

If you don't know what CAS is, or haven't about CAS in Mumbai, head over to my earlier post on CAS. For a report on CAS day 1, head over here.

My broad conclusions from these tests may or may not match those of a cinematographer, because I ain't one. I saw each camera's output from the point of view of, can this tell a story. Whether it (anything digital) looks as good as film is something I stopped looking for a while ago. Nothing looks like film. But some digital stuff looks rather good.

So, some random observations...

There was a handout distributed at the start. It listed in a table the basic characteristics of all 8 cameras that were tested. Some of the stuff there could be contested. For instance, F23 and F35 are shown as uncompressed. Neither can record uncompressed to tape.
The Arri D-21 is shown as edit ready. But if you shoot ArriRAW then all that stuff needs to be converted to Quicktime before you can edit it. Just like with Red. But if you shoot D-21 to tape, then it is edit ready, but then, its not uncompressed.

These tests were shot in Jan 2009. And post completed in April 2009. Some changes have happened in digital cameras since then. Red one has been superseded by the Red M-X, and the Epic is near completion. Arri introduced the Alexa. And, of course, there are HD DSLRs.

On the test methodology and workflow...

Manufacturers were asked to do the conversion of their digital material to 10bit log DPX. And all work was done in this medium. In a real world situation if one is shooting digital, one may wish to work in the camera's own format. Or another linear format. 10bit log DPX is the preferred medium for film scans, not necessarily suited to digital.

Also, in these tests, the film shots were graded first. Then the 10bit log DPX converts from all digital cameras were graded to match the film as closely as possible. Only simple colour correction was used and no windows, or no sharpening or noise removal was performed. So in that sense it was a clean test.

One thing someone from the ASC mentioned was "Editorial was ignored". I guess that meant that the shots were simply plonked on a timeline with no relation with one another. In a real world situation, one always builds a scene as a series of shots. And maybe in this respect, digital is much more uniform than film. Meaning shot to shot variations are far less in digital than in negative film. meaning. Film absolutely has to be graded in some manner. The editorial factor has to be be part of the testing, As has sound.

Another observation I had was flicker was common across all formats. I mention this because I've lost count of the number of hours I've been debating this with commercial film-makers when the camera pans across a bright surface and it strobes and flickers. They blame the telecine, the colourist, the DigiBeta VTR, the FCP, even the editor. The CAS showed that ALL cameras flicker during pans.
When showing the tests, there were some observations expressed on the voice-over. I thought them to be leading, and it highlighted some defects that a cursory observation would have overlooked. After all no one watches one single shot over and over again, unless they are editors.

Archival in the digital age

It was narrated how, during the CAS shoot, one entire shot shot on the Viper camera erased because of a wrong interpretation of an alert message. This was used to highlight how in the digital age, its very easy to lose work. Whereas with film, it can't be erased.

I agree. Digital data is far more 'fragile' than film, when it comes to clumsiness and callousness. But out here, producers often skimp on hard drive costs, so they buy the cheapest one they can find. So archiving of digital data while production is on-going is a neglected area.

But, here in India its just as easy to lose film. We have lost negatives of films shot in 2003 to bad storage. We have this serious problem of heat and dust. And spotty electric supply. So, outside of Mumbai, even if you store your film in an air-conditioned chamber, where will you get 24x7 electricity? 
On the other hand, huge amounts of data are securely stored for extended periods in India. The Indian Railway reservation system is the world's largest database. The Census and UUID program, the largest database of human beings. Our IT boys store data for the world. Hollywood may not have the answers to data storage, but the Indian computer industry might know. We probably should ask.
On a side note, for most of the trash we produce on television and even in movies, do you really want to store that? Will people really watch any of it? Wouldn't you wish you could erase all that film and reuse it for something better?
Just go over the list of flops of this year and you'll see what I mean.

But yes, our classics, they need better storage, and digital is probably not it.

Conclusion

The overall feeling I got was that the differences between film and digital cameras of Jan 2009 was marginal. Cinematographers will debate on the finer points, but the truth was out there on the screen for all to see.

And, the reality of this test between film, Red, Viper, Genesis, F23, F35, D-21, 3700 for us in India could be summarised as film vs Red. We simply don't have any of the other cameras in large enough numbers (like exceeding 1-3 all India) to matter for film making.
On day 1 we saw film vs Arri Alexa. And day two was film vs Red. Then there are HDDSLRs which were not tested. So, in India, we need to make our choices between these. Film, Red, Alexa, HDDSLRs. For TV you can add EX1/EX3 or F950 type of cameras as well.

In the end, Kodak showed a film highlighting their new Vision 3 stock. it looked impressive. But the film also highlighted the role of cohesively edited material, a story and good sound to the overall film experience.

For the future, I wish the Cinematographers Combine, and some camera rental company, and a well equipped post house in Mumbai do a film vs digital test based on cameras we have here. And make it a fuller exercise with a story, direction, acting, sound, and editing. That's really real world.

I'm available. 

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