I don’t normally get involved in stuff like this, but this has me quite angry. While an Oscar will still be awarded for Cinematography as well as Editing the presentations will take place during a commercial break (the same for Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling).
Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of every movie. If we go back to the very beginnings of Cinema it was all about the Cinematography. The word Cinema is a shortened form of the word Cinematography which means to write or record movement. There were often no actors, no special effects, no sound, just moving images images. perhaps a shot of a train or people in a street. Since then Cinematography has continued to advance both artistically and technically. At the same time Editing has become as important as the script writing. The Cinematography and editing determine the mood, look, pace, style of the film.
As Guillermo del Torro has commented: “Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft, they are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or literary tradition, they are cinema itself”. I completely agree, so the presentations for Cinematography and Editing deserve the same coverage and respect as every other category. Cinematographers and editors are often overlooked by film goers, they rarely make the mainstream headlines in the same way that leading actors do. So really it is only fair that AMPAS should try to address this and give both the credit and coverage deserved by those men and women that make cinema possible.
Over the years I’ve met many well known high end cinematographers. Most of them are really no different to you or I. Most of them are passionate about their craft and almost always willing to chat about ideas or techniques. But one thing that at first surprised me was how many of these high end movie makers cut their teeth shooting documentaries. I guess I had imagined them to have all been film school graduates that shot nothing but drama, but no, a very large percentage started out in the world of documentary production.
Documentary production is full of challenges. Location shooting, interviews, beauty shots, challenging lighting etc. But one of the big things with documentary production is that you very often don’t have a choice about what, where or when you shoot. You are faced with a scene or location needed for the story and you have to make it look good. So you have to think about how best to approach it, how to frame it, light it or how to use the available light in the best way.
A lot of todays aspiring film makers like to hone their skills by shooting beautiful people in beautiful locations when the light is at it’s best. These short beauty films very often do come out looking very nice. But, if you have a pretty girl, a pretty scene, and good light then really there is no excuse for it not to look good and the problem is you don’t learn much through doing this.
When you are shooting a typical TV documentary you will be faced with all kinds of locations, all kinds of people and the challenge is to make it all look good, no matter what your presented with. Having to take sometimes ugly scenes and make them look good you learn how to be creative. You have to think about camera angles, perhaps to hide something or to emphasise something important to the story the programme tells. And, like a feature film it is normally also story telling, most documentaries have a story with a beginning middle and end.
If you can master the art of documentary production it will give you a great set of skills that will serve you well elsewhere. If you move on from documentaries to drama, then when the director asks you to shoot a scene that takes place in a specific location you may well have already done something similar in a documentary so you may already have some ideas about how to light it, what focal lengths to use. Plus now you will probably have a more time to light and a much more control over the scene, so it should actually be easier.
In an ideal world I guess the best way to learn how to shoot movies is…. to shoot movies. But very often it’s hard to get the people, locations and good script that you need. So very often aspiring film makers will fall back on shooting 90 second vignettes of pretty people in pretty places as it’s easy and simple to do.
But instead I would suggest that you would be much better off shooting a documentary. Perhaps about something that happened near where you live or an issue you are interested in.
Go out and shoot documentaries in less than perfect locations with all the challenges they present. I bet the resulting videos won’t look nearly as perfectly pretty as all those slow-mo pretty girl on a beach/forest/field of flowers videos. But it will teach you how to deal with different types locations, people, lighting, weather and many of the other things that can be challenges when shooting features. It will make you a better camera operator. Making something that’s already pretty look pretty – that’s easy. Making what would otherwise be an un-interesting living room, factory or city street look interesting, that’s a much tougher challenge that will help bring out the creativity in you.
So here it finally is. Sony’s latest digital cinema camera and finally it has a name rather than a number and it’s called Venice.
I was lucky enough to be involved with Venice during the filming of the UK promo film, so I have had a little bit of a chance to play with one, seen it in action in the hands of an experienced DP (Ed Wild B.S.C.) and I have copies of the footage from it (I did the BTS film). So I have a pretty good idea of what we are dealing with…… and it’s good, it’s very, very good.
For a long time I have been saying that what we need is better pixels, not more pixels and that’s precisely what Sony have delivered in Venice. The newly developed sensor is a full frame sensor, 36mm x 24mm with 6K’s worth of horizontal pixels. This means that if you use the camera as a super 35mm camera you have 4K (and for the demo films the pre production cameras used only worked at 4K, the equivalent of 35mm 4 perf. 6K will come a little later). Venice will be able to do a huge range of resolutions and aspect ratios including Anamorphic.
Why only 6K? Well it’s down to pixel size. Bigger pixels can capture more light and they can also store more electrons before they overload. This means you get a bigger dynamic range than would typically be possible with smaller pixels. The extra light capturing capability can be used in one of 2 ways, to increase sensitivity or to decrease noise. It appears that the engineers behind Venice went for the latter, lower noise.
A lot of research was done for this camera. Engineers from Japan met with many ASC and BSC cinematographers. They talked to post houses and colourists to find out what was really needed. I know that Claudio Miranda A.S.C. played an important part in the development process, he also shot the US demo film. The end result is a pretty sensitive camera (500 ISO) with very low noise and over 15 stops of dynamic range. Yes – that’s right over 15 stops without resorting to double exposures or any other tricks!!
While the sensor isn’t a global shutter sensor it does have an extremely fast readout rate. This extra fast readout means that jello and other rolling shutter artefacts are minimised to the point where it behaves much more like a global shutter sensor. Generally speaking, the extra memory circuits needed to get a global shutter either add noise, reduce sensitivity or reduce dynamic range. So it’s not a huge surprise to see the fast read out approach. There was quite a bit of filming done with a rather lovely Lamborghini Uraco, both hand held inside the car and mounted on the front of the car. Looking at the rushes there is no sign of any noticeable rolling shutter artefacts, even the trees flashing past in the background are still nice and vertical.
A lot of the car shooting took place at dusk and an interesting thing that came out of the UK demo reel shoot was how well it performed in low light. The 500 ISO rating is deceptive, because the camera produces so little noise you can rate the camera at a higher ISO and still get good results. Most current cinema cameras don’t produce the best results unless you rate them lower than their base ISO’s. Venice is different, the base ISO is very low noise and very high dynamic range. There appears to be little need to rate it lower for even less noise, although you could if you wish. I asked Ed Wild about this and he was really pleased with Venice’s ISO rating commenting that he often had to rate cameras from other manufacturers lower than the base ISO while he felt Venice at 500 ISO worked really well and that he would even consider rating it higher if needed.
Having a low base ISO means there is less need to use large amounts of ND on outdoor shoots. But talking of ND filters one of the great features of Venice is an 8 stage, behind the lens glass ND filter system. This allows you to choose just the right amount of ND for the light levels you have with no loss of quality. During the pre-shoot test and prep day at Pinewood each stage of the ND was carefully tested for colour shifts and accuracy, no problems were found.
The lens mount on a Venice camera can be changed. It’s not a quick release mount as on the F55 or F5 cameras. It’s normally a PL mount. But the PL mount can be removed and the camera changed to a Sony E-Mount. 6 bolts remove the PL mount and a locking E mount similar to the one on the FS7 II is on the cameras body. This opens up the possibility of using a huge range of lenses, practically anything in fact as it’s easy to adapt from E-Mount to other mounts such as Canon EF for example. For the UK demo reel XTAL Anamorphics from MovieTec were used. Ultra Primes were used for the US promo film.
VENICE A Truly Modular Camera.
Not only can the lens mount be changed but the entire front part of the camera can be changed by removing just 4 screws. Venice is built as a modular camera and the front part of the camera that contains the sensor and ND filters is a removable module (no need for lab conditions or clean rooms to remove the module). This means that in the future Sony could release new sensor options for Venice. Maybe a higher resolution sensor, a monochrome sensor or a high speed sensor. Removing the front sensor module from the camera allows easy access to the cameras internal near silent fan so that it can be cleaned or replaced should that become necessary. All of the cameras electronics are in sealed compartments for dust and moisture protection and rubber seals are installed around any openings such as the SxS card access door. In addition if you do use the AXS-R7 recorder to record Raw/X-OCN this too is weather sealed.
Venice records to SxS cards and with the AXS-R7 attached to AXS cards. You can record XAVC, ProRes HD, ProRes Proxy, as well as Raw/X-OCN. The XAVC recording option allows you to record direct to compact but high quality ready to go files or to record lower resolution proxy files. X-OCN gives a 16 bit linear workflow with raw type performance but without massive files. There is very little difference between X-OCN and Sony 16 bit linear raw and different versions of X-OCN work at different bit rates so you can pick and choose the right balance of image quality against file size for each project.
For Venice Sony have developed new colour science that is designed to emulate film. Looking at the rushes from the camera it really looked nice without any grading. The images contain lots of lush colours. You could see amazing subtle tonal information in the leaves and trees in the shots. Skin tone highlights roll of in a particularly pleasing way.
One of the biggest criticisms of the PMW-F55 and F5 cameras when they were launched was that they were too complex to drive. The F55 menu system is very large containing many, many pages of settings and adjustments. This is a cinema camera without a lot of the fancy modes that cameras like the F5 or F55 have so the menus are simpler straight away. A lot of time was spent trialling different menu structures to determine the easiest and friendliest structure. At the press event during the hands on session most people found it quite easy to navigate around the menus. But really the way the side panel and the quick menu is set up means you won’t need to dive into the main menu very often.
The camera body is a bit bigger than an F55/F5 and a lot smaller and lighter than an F65. On the right side of the camera there is the main LCD display, which is very similar to the one on the F55/F5 with 6 hot keys around it and a rotary menu dial. This is actually quite similar to the F55’s new Quick Menu system and easy to master. All the key functions and setup options are just a couple of button presses away. This is the main display and where most of the cameras settings can be changed. It’s on the right side so the AC or DIT can get at it and see it easily. Pressing the user button turns 5 of the 6 buttons around the LCD into user assignable buttons (the 6th button is used to set the assignable functions).
On the left side of the camera there is a small information display that shows the frame rate, shutter speed, ND, ISO and white balance.
The white balance of the camera can be dialled in manually unlike the F55 you are no longer tied to 3 presets. You can now dial in the white balance you want down to 1 kelvin increments. Once you have set your white balance you can include your new custom setting in the preset list for quick recall at any time.
The camera can run off either 12V or 24V and it has an internal 24V inverter so that when using a 12V power source such as a V-Mount battery you still get 24V out of the industry standard 24V lemo connectors.
Venice is a modular camera system with various upgrade options. The base camera comes as a 4K super 35mm camera. the 6K option, anamorphic options (6K full frame and 4K 35mm) and other options will be available as option licences. These licences can be purchased as weekly, monthly or permanent options depending on your needs.
What about the picture? I spent a couple of days looking at footage from this camera both in my own grading suite and at Sony’s Pinewood facility during the production of the BTS film. I also saw it projected at the press day and it looks good. One problem today is that there are so many very good and very capable cameras that it’s tough to really pinpoint things that make one stand out as better than another. What I have found to be very pleasing from Venice is the skin tones. Sony have introduced new colour science and colour management for Venice and I think it looks really good. Even before grading, just looking at the clips on a monitor with S-Log3 gamma the pictures have a wonderful rich look. It’s worth noting that the cameras used for both the US and EU launch films were hand made pre-production units and the engineers are still learning how to fully exploit the new sensors in these cameras. So we can only expect them to get better between now and when they become available to buy.
Will I be getting one? Probably not. This is a wonderful camera and I would love to own one, but Venice will be more expensive than the F55 and probably not the best investment for me at least. However I fully intend to get my grubby fingers on one as soon as possible to learn all of it’s in’s and out’s as I hope to use a Venice for some short films I have planned. This is a serious Alexa or Red alternative It has image quality to rival or better almost any other digital cinema camera, but that does come at a price, although it’s no more expensive than any other comparable camera.
The estimated price for the base camera is expected to be around €37,000. Full frame and anamorphic options will be payable options, with the full-frame option costing a approx €4,000 and the anamorphic costing a approx €6,000. it should be available from around February 2018.
This is part 1 of two articles. In this article I will look at what timecode is and some common causes of timecode drift problems. In part 2 I will look at the correct way to synchronise timecode across multiple devices.
This is a subject that keeps cropping up from time to time. A lot of us camera operators don’t always understand the intricacies of timecode. If you live in a PAL/50Hz area and shoot at 25fps all the time you will have few problems. But start shooting at 24fps, 23.98 fps or start trying to sync different cameras or audio recorders and it can all get very complicated and very confusing very quickly.
So I’ve written these notes to try to help you out.
WHAT IS TIMECODE?
The timecode we normally encounter in the film and video world is simply a way to give every frame that we record a unique ID number based on the total number of frames recorded or the time of day. It is a counter that counts whole frames. It can only count whole frames, it cannot count fractions of frames, as a result the highest accuracy is 1 frame. The timecode is normally displayed as Hour:Minute:Second:Frame in the following format
RECORD RUN AND FREE RUN
The two most common types of timecode used are “Record Run” and “Free Run”. Record run, as the name suggests only runs or counts up when the camera is recording. It is a cumulative frame count, which counts the total number of frames recorded. So if the first clip you record starts with the time code clock at 00:00:00:00 and runs for 10 seconds and 5 frames then the TC at the end of the clip will be 00:00:10:05. The first frame of the next clip you record will continue the count so will be 00:00:10:06 and so on. When you are not recording the timecode stops counting and does not increase.
With “Free Run” the timecode clock in the camera is always counting according to the frame rate the camera is set to. It is common to set the free run clock so that it matches the time of the day. Once you set the time in the timecode clock and enable “Free Run” the clock will start counting up whether you are recording or not.
HERE COMES A REALLY IMPORTANT BIT!
In “Free Run” once you have set the timecode clock it will always count the number of frames recorded and in some cases this will actually cause the clock to drift away from the actual time of day.
SOME OF THE PROBLEMS.
An old problem is that in the USA and other NTSC areas the frame rate is a really odd frame rate, it’s 29.97fps (this came about to prevent problems with the color signal when color TV was introduced). Timecode can only count actual whole frames, so there is no way to account for the missing 0.03 frames in every second. As a result timecode running at 29.97fps runs slightly slower than a real time clock.
If the frame rate was actually 30fps in 1 hour there would be 108,000 frames. But at 29.97fps after one real time hour you will have only recorded 107,892 frames, the frame counter TC, won’t reach one hour for another 3.6 seconds.
DROP FRAME TIMECODE.
To eliminate this 3.6 seconds per hour (relative to real time) timecode discrepancy in footage filmed at 29.97fps a special type of time code was developed called “Drop Frame Timecode“. Drop Frame Timecode (DF) works by: every minute, except each tenth minute, two timecode numbers are dropped from the timecode count. So there are some missing numbers in the timecode count but after exactly 1 real time hour the time code value will increment by 1 hour. No frames themselves are dropped, only numbers in the frame count.
WHEN TO USE DROP FRAME (DF) OR NON DROP FRAME (NDF).
Drop Frame Timecode is only ever used for material shot at 29.97fps, which includes 59.94i. (We will often incorrectly refer to this as 60i or 30fps – virtually all 30fps video these days is actually 29.97fps). If you are using “Rec Run” timecode you will almost never need to use Drop Frame as generally you will not by syncing with anything else.
If you are using 29.97fps “Free Run” you should use Drop Frame (DF) when you want your timecode to stay in sync with a real time clock. An example would be shooting a long event or over several days where you want the timecode clock to match the time on your watch or the watch of an assistant that might be logging what you are shooting.
If you use 29.97fps Non Drop Frame (NDF) your cameras timecode will drift relative to the actual time of day by a minute and a half each day. If you are timecode syncing multiple cameras or devices it is vital that they are all using the same type of timecode, mixing DF and NDF will cause all kinds of problems.
It’s worth noting that many lower cost portable audio recorders that record a “timecode” don’t actually record true timecode. Instead they record a timestamp based on a real time clock. So if you record on the portable recorder for lets say 2 hours and then try to sync the 1 hour point (01:00:00:00 Clock Time) with a camera recording 29.97fps NDF timecode using the 1 hour timecode number (01:00:00:00 NDF Timecode) they will be out of sync by 3.6 seconds. So this would be a situation where it would be preferable to use DF timecode in the camera as the cameras timecode will match the real time clock of the external recorder.
WHAT ABOUT 23.98fps?
Now you are entering a whole world of timecode pain!!
23.98fps is a bit of a oddball standard that came about from fitting 24fps films into the NTSC 29.97fps frame rate. It doesn’t have anything to do with pull up, it’s just that as NTSC TV runs at 29.97fps rather than true 30fps movies are sped up by 0.1% to fit in 29.97fps.
Now 23.98fps exists as a standalone format. In theory there is still a requirement for Drop Frame timecode as you can’t have 0.02 frames in a timecode frame count, each frame must have a whole number. Then after a given number of frames you go to the next second in the count. With 23.98fps we count 24 whole frames and the increment the timecode count by one second, so once again there is a discrepancy between real time and the timecode count of 3.6 seconds per hour. The time on a camera running at 23.98fps will run fast compared to a real time clock. Unlike 29.97fps there is no Drop Frame (DF) standard for 23.98, it’s always treated as a 24fps count (TC counts 24 frames, then adds 1 to the second count), this is because there is no nice way to adjust the count and make it fit real time as there is with 29.97fps. No matter how you do the math or how many frames you drop there would always be a fraction of a frame left over.
So 23.98fps does not have a DF mode. This means that after 1 hour of real time the timecode count on a camera shooting at 23.98 fps will be 00:01:03:14. If you set the camera to “Free Run” the timecode will inevitably drift relative to real time, again over the course of a day the camera will be fast by almost one and a half minutes compared to a real time clock or any other device using either drop frame timecode, 24fps or 25fps.
So, as I said earlier 23.98fps timecode can be painful to deal with.
24fps timecode does not have this problem as there are exactly 24 frames in every second, so a video camera shooting at 24fps should not see any significant timecode drift or loss of timecode sync compared to a real time clock.
It’s worth considering here the problem of shooting sync sound (where sound is recorded externally on a remote sound recorder). If your sound recorder does not have 23.98fps timecode the timecode will drift relative to a camera shooting at 23.98fps. If your sound recorder only has a real time timecode clock you might need to consider shooting at 24fps instead of 23.98fps to help keep the audio and picture time codes in sync. Many older audio recorders designed for use alongside film cameras can only do 24fps timecode.
In part 2 I will look at the correct way to synchronise timecode across multiple devices.
Lets face it cameras are becoming more and more sensitive. We no longer need the kinds of light levels that we once used to need. So why is lighting still so incredibly important. Why do we light?
Starting at a most basic level, there are two reason for lighting a scene. The first and perhaps most obvious is to add enough light for the camera to be able to “see” the scene, to get an adequate exposure. The other reason we need to light, the creative reason why we need to light is to create shadows.
It is not the light in a scene that makes it look interesting, it is the shadows. It is the contrast between light and dark that makes an image intriguing to our eyes and brain. Shadows add depth, they can be used to add a sense of mystery or draw the viewers gaze to the brighter parts of the scene. Without shadows, without contrast most scenes will be visually uninteresting.
Take a typical daytime TV show. Perhaps a game show. Look at how it has been lit. In almost every case it will have been lit to provide a uniform and even light level across the entire set. It will be bright so that the cameras can use a reasonable aperture for a deep depth of field. This helps the camera operators keep everything focus. The flat, uniform light means that the stars or contestants can go anywhere in the set and still look OK. This is lighting for exposure, where the prime driver is a well exposed image. The majority of the light will be coming from the camera side of the set or from above the set with all the light flooding inwards into the set.
Then look at a well made movie. The lighting will be very different. Often the main source of light will be coming from the side or possibly even the rear of the scene. This creates dark shadows on the opposite side of the set/scene. It will cast deep shadows across faces and it’s often the shadow side of a face that is more interesting than the bright side.
A lot of movie lighting is done from diagonally opposite the cameras to create very deep shadows on faces and to keep the background of the shot dark. If, as is typical in TV production your lights are placed where the cameras are and pointed into the set, then all the light will go into set and illuminate the set from front to back. If your lights are towards the side or rear of the set and are facing towards the cameras the light will be falling out of and away from the set rather than into the set. This means you can then keep the rear of the set dark much more easily. Having the main light source opposite the camera is also why you see far more lens flare effects in movies compared to TV as the light is often shining into the camera lens.
If you are shooting a night scene and you want to get nice clean pictures from your camera then contrast becomes key. When we think of what things look like at night we automatically think “dark”. But cameras don’t like darkness, they like light, even the modern super sensitive cameras still work better when there is a a decent amount of light. So one of the keys to a great looking night scene is to light the foreground faces of your cast well but keep the background very dark. You expose the camera for the bright foreground (which means you should not have any noise problems) and then rely on the fact that the background is dark to make the scene look like a night scene. Again the reason to light is for better shadows, to make the darker parts of the scene appear very dark relative to the foreground and a high level of contrast will make it look like night. Consider a bright moonlit night, faces will be bright compared to everything else.
So in cinematography, very often the reason to add light is to create shadows and contrast rather than to simply raise the overall light level. To make this easier we need to think about reflections and how the light that we are adding will bounce around the set and reduce the high contrast that we may be seeking. For this reason most film studios have black walls and floors. It’s amazing how much light bounces of the floor. Black drapes can be hung against walls or placed on the floor as “negative fill” to suck up any stray light. Black flags can be used to cut and control any undesired light output from your lamps and a black drape or flag placed on the shadow side of a face will often help increase the contrast across that face by reducing stray reflections. Flags are as important as lights if you want to control contrast. Barn doors on a lamp help, but if you really want to precisely cut a beam of light the flag will need to be closer to the subject.
I think most people that are new to lighting focus too much on the lights themselves and don’t spend enough time learning how to modify light with diffusers, reflectors and flags. Good video lights are expensive, but if you can’t control and modify that light you may as well just by a DIY floodlight from your local hardware store.
Also consider using fewer lights. More is not necessarily better. The more lights you add the more light sources you need to control and flag. The more light you will have bouncing around your set reducing your contrast and spilling into your otherwise nice shadows. More lights means multiple shadows going in different directions that you will have to deal with. Instead of using lots of lights be more careful about where you place the lights you do have, make better use of diffusion perhaps by bringing it closer to your subject to get more light wrap around rather than using separate key and fill lights.
I’m running some workshops for Singapore Media Academy in September. Spaces are limited and I don’t get to visit Asia as much as I used to. So if you are interested in attending one of my highly regarded and popular workshops here is a great opportunity.
The first is on Creative Composition. Good shot composition can make or break a production. In the workshop I will guide you through ways to achieve images that will draw the audience in, focus the viewers attention or create different emotional reactions. I will show you how to deal with composition in moving shots, something that can be difficult. We will use case studies of well known movies to see clever use of classic techniques such as the rule of thirds, vanishing lines or Fibonacci curves. We will see how subtle lighting changes can be used to direct the audiences gaze. From the framing of a simple interview to the staging of a complex scene the workshop will help you develop engaging and interesting images. Understanding basic composition is one of the keys to great productions whether it’s for TV news or the cinema.
DIGITAL CINEMATOGRAPHY, LOG AND RAW (Plus HDR).
The second workshop is on Digital Cinematography, Log and Raw. This is an essential workshop for those serious about obtaining the best possible images with a modern electronic video camera. I will explain the differences between standard gammas, log and raw in a way that’s easy to understand but will give you all the information you need to be able to make informed decisions about which to use and when. Next I will teach you how to expose Log and Raw looking closely at how to use exposure offsets for the best results in differing lighting conditions. Then we will look at Look Up Tables. I’ll show you how and when to use them and how to easily create your own. We will finish with some practical end to end workflow sessions where you will develop your own LUT’s, shoot with log or raw and then perform a basic grade on your content. This will include how to use color managed grading tools such as the Academy of Motion Pictures workflow “ACES”. There’s no hard to understand mathematics, no complex formula’s, just easy to understand explanations and great practical tips and advice that will make log and raw easy to understand and use. I will also include how to expose and shoot for HDR and what you need to consider for HDR productions. More details can be found with the links below:
This post might be a little controversial, I am often told “you don’t need to know the technical stuff to be a cinematographer” or “I don’t need to know about log and gamma, I just want to shoot”.
I would argue that unless you are working closely with a good DIT a modern DP/Cinematographer really does need to understand many of the technical aspects of the equipment being used, in particular the settings that alter the way the camera captures the images. Not just things like “set it to gamma x for bright scenes” but why you would want to do that.
Now I’m not saying that you have to be a full blown electronics engineer, but if you really want to capture the best possible images it really is very important that you truly understand what the camera is doing. It’s also a huge help to understand how your footage will behave in post production. Any craftsman should understand the correct way to use his tools and not only know how to use them but how they work.
Part of the understanding of how your chosen camera behaves comes from testing and experimentation. Shooting test clips across a range of exposures, trying different gamma or log curves and then taking the footage into post production and seeing how it behaves.
Film cinematographers will shoot tests with different film stocks before a large production under the kinds of lighting conditions that will be encountered during the film. Then the film would be processed in different ways to find the best match to the look the cinematographer is trying to achieve. Digital cinematographers should be doing the same and importantly understanding what the end results are telling them.
Most of the great painters didn’t just pick up a paint brush and slap paint on a canvas. Many artists from Da Vinci to Turner studied chemistry so they could develop new paints and painting techniques. DaVinci was a pioneer of oil painting, Turner used to make his own paints from base pigments and chemicals and patented some of the unique colors he created.
This doesn’t take anything away from the traditional skills of lighting and composition etc, those are just as important as ever and always will be. But modern electronic cameras are sophisticated devices that need to be used correctly to get the best out of them. I believe that you need to understand the way your camera responds to light. Understands it’s limitations, understand it’s strengths and learn how to use those strengths and avoid the weaknesses.
And that’s a really important consideration. Today the majority of the cameras on the market are capable of making great images…… Provided you know how to get the best from them. One may be stronger in low light, one may be better in bright light. It may be that one camera will suit one job or one scene better than another. You need to learn about these differences and understanding the underlying technologies will help you figure out which cameras may be candidates for your next project.
It’s not just the camera tech that’s important to understand but also how to manage the footage all the way from the camera to delivery. While you don’t need to be an expert colorist, it certainly helps if you know the process, just as film cameramen know about color timing and film processing. A trend that is growing in the US is high end cinematographers that also grade.
This has come about because in the days of film the cinematographer could determine the look of the finished production through a combination of lighting, the choice of film stock and how it was to be processed. Today a cinematographer may have much less control over the final image as it passes through the post production and grading process. Often the final look is determined by the colorist as much as the cinematographer. By also becoming colorists and staying with their material all the way through post production, cinematographers can retain control of the final look of the production.
As HDR (High Dynamic Range) delivery becomes more important along with the need to deliver SDR content at the same time, a good understanding of the differences between and limitations of both systems will be needed as you may need to alter the way you expose to suit one or the other.
So, there is lots that you need to know about the technology used in todays world of digital cinematography. Where there is a big enough budget DIT’s (Digital Imaging Technicians) can help cinematographers with guidance on camera setups, gamma, color science, LUT’s and workflows. But at the low budget end of the market, as a cinematographer you need at the very least a firm grasp of how a modern camera works, how to correctly mange the dat it produces (you would be amazed how many people get this wrong). Finally how the material handles in post production, if you really want to get the best from it.
It isn’t simple, it isn’t always easy, it takes time and effort. But it’s incredibly rewarding when it all comes together and results in beautiful images.
If you disagree or have your own take on this please post a comment. I’d love to hear other views.