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« Moran, Turner and "Influence" | Main | Free Reads -- Roger Scruton »

January 02, 2003

More on Digital Movies

Friedrich --

The two magazines published for cinematographers are doing a good job of keeping track of things as movies and television try to incorporate more and more digital technology into their production processes. I especially enjoy the articles and interviews where veteran cinematographers talk about their first experiences using digital cameras and tape; they're often able to put into words what I can sense but struggle to describe.

In an article by Andrew Takeuchi in the December issue of ICG magazine (couldn't find it online, sorry), a few cinematographers talk about their first time out shooting HDTV. The biggest plus: being able to see what you're getting as you try to get it. "When you're sitting there looking at the monitor before the director yells action -- that's your dailies right there," says Victor Goss. "That's the finished product ... There's no doubt in your mind whether or not you got what you wanted."

The downsides include various physical awkwardnesses. The cameras are physically clunky, and it sounds like the engineers haven't yet incorporated into them much of what camera operators really want. The cameras "are very crude, the viewfinders are black and white ... The cameras are too long and don't fit in places," says Robert Primes. Plus, cinematographers have to spend a lot of time in a "black-tented monitor area," and are thus often cut off from contact with the performers. (As if movies and TV aren't impersonal enough these days.) Goss sums it up: "The engineers that made these cameras don't know what we use them for."

I was fascinated to find the pros wrestling with something that confounds me too as I toy ineptly with my Nikon digi-still camera -- which is what digital cameras do to skin and flesh. It's too much, it's too sharp; every little blemish and flaw leaps out as though you're scrutinizing it under flourescent lights. Zoom in on a well-focused digital snapshot and even the prettiest face turns into a case study for the American Dermatological Society.

Here's how Goss describes his experience: "Even though the resolution is not as good as film, for some reason the apparent resolution is sort of greater in the sense that it has a real harsh quality on people's faces. It shows microsopic features on people's faces that you never see on film." Goss speculates that flesh shot on film looks so much more luscious because the ever-changing grain pattern of the film itself (as opposed to the rigid grid innate to the digital image) smooths the skin textures out.

Yet another problem I'd like to see solved before the whole industry commits itself to changing over to digital!

ICG's webiste (here) offers a treasure trove for film buffs -- an archive of long conversations with cinematographers. In a recent talk with Bob Fisher, Jamie Anderson, who has shot (among many other movies) "The Gift" and "Grosse Point Blank," had this to say about the film image vs. the digital image:

FISHER: Does it matter to you whether itís a film or digital camera?

ANDERSON: I hope people continue shooting on film for a long time, because I think there is such a fundamental difference between digital images and this magic lantern where you shine light through something, and get this organic, chemical reaction. Iíd really hate to lose that, so I hope the original recording gets done on film for a long time. Film has a warmth and smoothness. It has a much more human image, a more organic quality. Digital images are amazing and startling, and getting better all the time, but thereís a kind ofóitís not a coldnessóitís like a record as opposed to an impression. Thereís tremendous pressure to go digital because producers and the studios have this false impression itís going to save a lot of money. The worst thing we can do is do what they did with television in the early days, which was to rush into a format and a system too soon and get stuck with something that would hamstring the quality of images for years or decades. Especially with technology changing so fast, it would be a mistake to commit to something thatís going to haunt us later.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at January 2, 2003




Comments

Micheal,

This morning I picked up my new membership card at my gym. They use a digital camera right there at the desk to take your picture. Y'know, I'd really thought my face had cleared up since high school, but after the pretty young thing at the counter handed me this hideous photo I wanted to crawl under a rock and die...

Goss is right. The all-or-nothing nature of the pixelated grid has a definite edge-enhancement effect. There are ways around it (a friend who does video production tells me that the latest pro cameras have built in "gaussian blur" effects that can "soften" areas of the picture even on live feeds), but film is still ever-so-lovlier.

Have you had a chance to see one of those new-fangled digital projection systems yet? I saw "Signs" that way, and (aside from the fact that the movie sucked) I couldn't get over how bad the skin tones were. I'm assuming for the moment that it was an artifact of the fact that the colors were timed for the film print and weren't fine tuned for the digital release, but maybe this is how we're doomed to see everything if Lucas has his way...

Posted by: jimbo on January 2, 2003 9:46 PM



hey jimbo

frightening, no? i've seen a few movies digitally made and projected, and couldn't agree with you more. the image was crisp and efficient and utterly lacking in magic. nothing at all transporting about it, just big and clear, and not nearly dense enough. and, as you say, the skin tones were awful. the imagery fell apart in the faces, which became patchy. imagine movies without transporting and beautiful closeups! as far as i'm concerned, that ain't the movies.

thanks for your input. amazing the way the mainstream press is ignoring all this, isn't it? for them, it's just the glory of scoring another q&a with george lucas...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2003 12:09 AM



Why is it that these arguments *exactly* parallel the arguments heard (and heard still) on the switch from LP to CD?

Well, the question is of course rhetorical, but the answer is that what is so beloved of the non-digital renderings is the distortions introduced into the rendered image, visual or tone.

A case for distortion is good?

Maybe -- in works of art.

ACD

Posted by: acdouglas on January 3, 2003 12:29 AM



Geeze, talk about your conservative temperament, Michael. I grant you, film has a lot going for it. But in terms of cinema, what it doesn't have going for it is COST. As in BUCKS. MOOLAH. IRON MEN. Let me say once and for all, FILM COSTS TOO MUCH. WAY TOO MUCH!!!! The cost of film is a BARRIER TO ENTRY in the world of cinema, which, like most barriers to entry, is not good for CONSUMERS! While I'm not going to argue for the quality of the video image as it currently exists, I am going to cheer LOUD and LONG for each improvement in electronic imagery, because each improvement REDUCES THE BARRIERS TO ENTRY. I notice I don't hear much from you anti-electronics types on the Foveon X3 technology, which reduces all those nasty edge effects by getting 3 color data from each pixel (unlike CCD sensors, which get color data only from every third pixel, and use algorithms to calculate what the other two-thirds of the image must look like, in the process getting it constantly wrong.) You Luddites should check out the Foveon website at http://www.foveon.com/X3_comparison.html to see what improved technology hath wrought.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 3, 2003 1:07 AM



For a good discussion of the Foveon system, you should go to the Discover Magazine website, click through to "Recent Issues," go to the December 2002 issue and read the story by Eric Levin, "The Next Photographic Revolution." (Sorry I can't get a URL for this page.) One quote you might find interesting: "Phil Askey, whose exacting equipment tests on his Web site, dpreview.com, are must reading in the trade, says, "This could be the first sensor to truly surpass film."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 3, 2003 1:20 AM



Hey, chill out, dudes!

I realize that digital is the Wave Of The Future(tm), and that future technology (like foveon) is gonna be better. Hell, the latest and greatest ccd and CMOS still cameras are, frankly, incredible. (I've been lusting after Canon's D60 for a year now...)

But... the fact is, the current digtal technology that Lucas et al are trying to push on the world are just not there yet. "Attack of the Clones" looked terrible. I'm sorry, it just did. The movie I saw (captured on film, digitallly projected) looked horrible. Now, maybe this is part of the necessary learning curve, and I'm sure it will get better later, but why is everyone pretending that it's "as good as film" now?

Posted by: jimbo on January 3, 2003 9:42 AM



I'm with Jimbo on this one, I'm afraid. Let's applaud every bit of progress that's made in the digi-verse, and I've got a digi-Nikon myself, love it, and will never return to film. But why pretend that everything's superfine and swell at this point? Cratered and spotty faces are there on the computer screen before me when I download my snapshots, and diffuse and unmagical images are up there on the movie screen when a digitally-captured and projected movie is shown to me.

There are huge pressures on the movie business to make the leap to completely digital production now, coming from the tech industry, the fantasies of studio people (who imagine they'll make more money), and journalists, who have been amazingly uncritical of the claims made for digital imagery. To my mind, anyway,it's simply too soon. There are quality and "magic" issues that need addressing first. Is the industry really ready to say that their product can do without, for instance, lovely closeups of actresses? Digital movie technology just isn't up to making such things yet -- facial closeups seem to be where digital imagery is most prone to falling apart. Leaping over such a problem would be taking an awfully big chance, given the importance of "lovely closeups of actresses" in movie history.

What's going to happen is going to happen for bizarro and impossible-to-decipher economic, business, personality and legal reasons in any case. But I can hope that everyone shows a little class and holds off for a few more years, can't I?

FvonB, I'm a little puzzled by a couple of the points you make in your comment. The Foveon chip, which I've been following for a while, seems to solve many of the color problems with digi-still shots. But why should it have any impact on the excessive coldness and exactitude of the digital image itself? That would seem to have more to do with the rigidity of the pixel grid, and as I understand it the Foveon scheme does nothing to address that.

I'm also puzzled by your fixation on the costs of digital production vs. the costs of film production. I'm under the impression that they simply aren't that great, unless you're doing really scrappy, small productions. I notice, for example, that you enjoyed "Catch Me if You Can," which I'm going to do my best to see this weekend, and thanks for the recommendation. But you don't imagine that the cost of the celluloid itself was a big part of the cost of that movie, do you? Compared to, say, the salaries of Hanks, DiCaprio and Spielberg, or the costs of promoting the picture, or the cost of studio overhead and union labor? (One of the characteristics of video that can be both an advantage and a drawback, by the way, is that the reels of it are much longer than reels of celluloid. Ie., you can turn the camera on and just keep shooting -- why not? But one of the results has tended to be that people shooting on digi-video tend to expose a lot more footage -- which means more time in the editing room, which costs back much of the money that's saved by using tape.)

And even if shooting on video could save such a production a few million bucks -- if the movie's final cost were $98 million instead of $100 million, to pick figures out of the air -- that hardly seems like anything much worth celebrating, particularly if it comes at the cost of lousy image quality and reduced audience enjoyment.

My hunch, for what little it's worth, is that the advent of digital tech in the movie world is going to have many unexpected consequences, many for the good and some for the bad. I wouldn't be surprised to see the low-end inexpensiveness of home-video and Macs have a big impact on short movies and Web experiments, for instance; that's one of the reasons I've occasionally linked on this blog to such things. A groovy new kind of creativity! And, if I were a betting man, I'd bet that the studio movies will tend ever more in the direction of producer-controlled spectacle, which may also have its upside.

But who knows, really?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2003 12:22 PM



I guess I should do a posting on this. My point is not that digital will change the nature of studio films, but rather I hope it will open up the world of independent, underground, "private" film/cinema/whatever. I think if something like digital video allows the next Jean Renoir to be able to wander into filmmaking without having to scale the walls of studioville, that's great. (How many Jean Renoirs have never made it in over the past 50 years?) I would certainly rather see what Jean Renoir would do with a HDTV camera than, say, what George Lucas would do with a film camera--bad closeups and all.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 3, 2003 3:28 PM



Ah, gotcha. And hear hear to that.

I sometimes wonder what the talented and sensitive moviemaking people who'll no doubt emerge will be making. Do you suppose much of it's likely to take the form of hour-and-a-half narrative works? I wonder.

What's your hunch? I'd bet most of it will boil up in short forms. My case is that feature-length movies (whether studio pix or indies made with chums) are like novels -- really, really big projects that are beyond the reach of most people. Even if feature-length movies become cheap-ish to make, the time and energy demands (let alone the talent demands) can be overwhelming. Short movies, though, might become something like short stories or poetry -- something a talented person can do in a non-professional way.

Any hunches about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2003 4:58 PM



3 words: Blair Witch Project

(shudder)

Posted by: jimbo on January 3, 2003 5:15 PM



I'm with Michael on this one. I never did manage to find the passage in Turn of the Century (the Kurt Andersen novel) that I was looking for, but it's the bit where George Mactier, television producer, keeps on worrying about what's going on as his show is being shot, and is constantly reassured that everything can be fixed "in post". I worry that come the digital era, that will be literally true: that everything from lighting to tone of voice will be alterable on a computer, and that the cinematographer's job will be little more than to have a camera pointing in more or less the right direction. The beauty of film is fragile, I fear.

On the other hand, we have to remember where studio directors come from: they make short films at film school or later, which get critical acclaim if no commercial success, and then they're hired by the big boys. Nowadays, it's a lot easier to make a good short film: all you need is a few friends, a $3000 camera, a $2000 Mac, and a lot of time. So the studios will have a much broader and deeper pool of talent from which to fish. That could be grounds for optimism, no?

But when it comes to the digital origination and projection of big-budget feature films, I'm definitely agreed that the benefits for the viewing audience are few if any.

Posted by: Felix on January 4, 2003 1:58 PM



I stumbled across this discussion tonight during a break from writing - In a moment of boredom I googled myself and was surprised find that someone had actually read a recent article I had written on the emerging field of electronic cinematography.

My training and passion has been in the field of analog film so it was fascinating to talk with a few seasoned veterans about HD video and its use in motion picture and television production.

Recently I had the opportunity to shoot a project with the Sony HDW-F900 camera (the same system used by Lucas on the latest Star Wars movie) and was generally pleased with the results.

Yes, it is in some ways cheaper to shoot in HD as the tape stock is considerably cheaper than 35mm raw stock. But when it comes to post-production, costs are not necessarily that much lower. Also, the cameras are considerably more expensive to rent, body without lens runs in the $1000/day range versus around $500/day for a state of the art 35mm camera. And let's not forget about the importance of having a skilled crew to dress the sets and light them - those costs remain the same.

Beyond issues of resolution and more importantly, dynamic range (tonal range from light to dark) HD has other limitations including its lack of depth of field fall off due to the smaller size of the imaging chip and the cumbersome nature of the equipment.

But enough with the technical details. I agree that advances in digital video have opened the door to a wider range of filmmakers, but I think that what is often forgotten in these discussions is that filmmaking, like any other art form is a craft with fundamental skills that must be mastered.

I regularly make short digital movies with a local film club - shot primarily on Mini DV and edited on Macs. Occasionally movies made by novices will capture attention with a breath of originality, but more often than not pieces made by novices are hard to watch, lacking the sense of composition, pacing and dramatic direction that is only learned with experience.

Of course the ability to make short pieces with friends certainly allows one to polish skills without too much financial commitment and this is one reason I participate.

There are an increasing number of outlets for the works produced by the new breed of digital filmmakers including the proliferation of digital "film" festivals and the occasional DVD magazine featuring short work. But in many ways I think the situation is akin to the independent music scene, made possible in part due to the arrival of affordable home recording equipment - Small college radio stations play the music, but mainstream radio (to say nothing of the video networks) pretty much ignores the work.

So yes, there maybe a large pool of talent out there, but in large part I think we will continue to see movies made for the 14 year old male market, with plenty of car chases and gun fights and little cultural/intellectual content.

Does this mean I think the glass is half-full?

Posted by: Andrew Takeuchi on February 7, 2003 2:07 AM






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