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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

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I stepped away from filmmaking and videography several years ago. The whole film -vs- video dust storm was well under way at that time and the first variable frame rate video cameras had just appeared. Among the primary reasons I fled was the increasingly oppressive techie nature of the whole filmmaking process. The rapidly waning film-vs-digital debate in photography pales compared to the similar debates that rage with the 24/30 photos-per-second crowd.

So this post gave me the deja vu chills.

Most of this is true (I am a cinematographer that shoots film as well as video), but you cannot change depth of field in post.

One of the biggest compromises in video is the loss of shallow depth of field. The mini-DV cameras of today have 1/3" chips. Betacam-sized cameras (broadcast field cameras) have 2/3" chips. 35mm motion picture stock film is even bigger (24mm x 15mm-ish - it is 4 perforations of 35mm film as the film is run vertically... then cropped down to 1:1.85 aspect ratio).

The problem with the small ccd chips is similar to small chips in point and shoot digital cameras: EVERYTHING is in focus. To get a wide angle field of view on a small chip you need an absurdly small focal length (about 3 or 4mm on a mini-dv camera) Hence, super depth of field.

Some innovative people have invented a video lens adapter that focuses the image from a motion picture camera's lens onto a spinning ground glass the size of a 35mm frame. The video camera then records the image (with all of its 35mm optical effects glory) as rear-projected onto the spinning ground glass. (The glass spins to blur out the texture). Shallow depth of field is back - at the cost of about 2 stops of light.

While you can use a blur tool in photoshop to knock out the background in a still... it is incredibly hard to track the effect in a moving shot.

"Back in the days of film editing, three to four months was standard for editing an hour-long television documentary. Now, for a lot of cable TV projects, three weeks or less is more the rule."

Three weeks! I wish I was so lucky. The last time I did a half an hour TV documentary, we had to do it in 24 hours _straight_. And it was done on Beta, none of your fancy digitising, tons of audio and video tracks, fades and crosswipes...

Fortunately, my editor was a guy who studied editing on film and he knew what he was doing.

I do agree with you on content. So many people doing TV nowadays don't have a slightest idea about even the basics of directing, cannot work with their cameramen to get interesting footage, have no sense of rhythm and, particularly, have no wit or sense of humour.

What a great article.

It opened my eyes to read that "Back in the days of film editing, three to four months was standard for editing an hour-long television documentary."

I suppose the only way to judge what has been lost and what gained, is to fast-forward 10 years from now to see what editors with no film background have learned to do.

The bonus is video's accessibility to that talented group of people who were/could have been left out of the picture by the sheer cost of using film.

George---to clarify the depth of field point. It's become much easier in the Smoke/Inferno editing world to change depth of field--and I was mostly thinking of interview situations where it's not tough at all to do...as you said tracking is much more difficult. That said, we tend to light and shoot it right in the field to create to capture the shot we want and very rarely find a need to correct in editing.

I take two major thoughts away from this interesting then-and-now look at film/video:

1) Whether you're shooting stills or motion pictures, in this time of mature digital technologies the choice between film and digital is largely governed by output intent.

For web videos and HDTV broadcasting, digital HD is good enough, just as digital shooting has become good enough for typical photojournalism, event shooting, and home consumer uses.

Meanwhile, film lives on where the output demands it: IMAX movies, a significant-but-shrinking proportion of feature films, large contact prints for fine art, etc.

Film will soon fall out of use completely in motion pictures, though - much sooner than it will in still pictures. IMAX is already starting to launch their digital projection solution, and that's arguably the most demanding output intent in common use for motion pictures.

I only hope that some of the smaller boutique film manufacturers - who aren't dependent on large-scale coating production for the motion picture industry like Kodak was - can remain alive for those of us shooting stills. Digital still has a few hills to climb before it can match a 20x24" contact print.

2) In both motion and stills, digital technology is pushing more and more of the creative decisions to the end of the process. A digital film-maker can create pans and tracking shots that the camera never executed, composite scenes together, etc. For digital stills, the same welter of options awaits the savvy Photoshop user. Just fire up a plug-in and choose from 400 different classic film stocks, post facto. The days of holding the creative result in your mind and crafting every decision you make with that result in mind are falling away.

If there's anything this piece makes me miss, it's not film itself, it's the way film necessitated a sort of creative "architecture". Orson Welles and Ansel Adams were not so different, and the way they worked was very much shaped by the nature of the process required by film. Planning was fundamental to the realization of a complex creative vision.

Digital is leading us to an approach more akin to collage than architecture. Gather lots of raw data, and make all the creative decisions later. (Often under the pressure of a post-processing deadline that ironically leaves very little time for creativity)

I don't necessarily find any fault with that approach, but I do hope that we'll continue to see some brilliant iconoclasts approach image-making as architects - shaping their entire workflow in their mind before they ever fire the DSLR shutter or take off the HD lens cap. We have them now...will we have them 50 years from now?

I wonder if in the future we will have forums, web sites and perhaps even psychotherapists occupied with people who try to come to terms with the fact that cars will run on electric power rather than gasoline and the subtle differences around it.

Imagine, Gas vs. Electric flame wars... something to look forward to.

What has DV done for the production industry? It has given tremendous opportunity to people who were locked out by the expense of the technology, and the skill set needed to get seriously involved.

It has also diluted and atrophied the talent pool, reduced rates, driven down budget expectations in all departments, and generally created a staggering amount of really bad, really cheap looking, cartoony stuff, created by people calling themselves directors of photography, who had never heard the term three years ago, and couldn't light their way out of a wet paper bag.

There is no free lunch.

As far as film or video goes, it pretty much boils down to taste.

I'm not sure you can convincingly change your depth of field in post production that easily. Simply blurring the background is not the same at all. Things get progressively blurrier as they get further away from focus, it's not just in-focus vs out-of-focus, there is a whole gamma between the two.

A z-depth like map, combined with gradients and software that simulates the geometry and curvature of the blades can give you a somewhat bokeh like effect, but most of the time it pales to the real thing.

I'm not saying it can't be done, I just don't think it's that trivial.

Here's what I don't miss about film production:

1. Sweaty hands in changing bag in August.
2. Trying to get loop set just right on a finicky Eclair ACL.
3. Having the bearings seize up in your Steenbeck flatbed the night before your scheduled mix.
4. Crappy B&W mix prints (because your color workprint is so chopped up there is doubt that it will make it through projector.
5. Hauling around a Nagra IV recorder along with an extra set of twelve D cells "just in case."
6. Anything involving negative cutting, including the toxic fumes.
7. Having an entire shooting day's film destroyed because it broke in the soup at the lab.
8. A hair in the gate.
9. Having your film element "cleaned" before telecine, and coming back dirtier than before.
10. High speed cameras that sound like chain saws.
11. Finding your beloved "Mitchell movement" has put a new set of sprocket holes in your just-shot film.
12. Going to the lab for a color timing session only to find the entire answer print is green.
13. Not having the right color correction filter.
14. Moviola flatbeds that decide on their own that sync is optional.
15. A PA who sends your exposed stock to a lab in NY (instead of Hollywood) because that was the address on the extra camera reports in the ditty bag.
16. Shooting your animation and forgetting to put the platen down for a frame.
17. Having your producer make a picture change after you have locked picture and sound before your mix.
19. Ordering "Dust Off" by the case.
20. The seemingly endless transfers of your Nagra tape to mag stock.
21. "Coding" your film and mag.
22. Optical tracks.
23. Filing your trims.
24. Having your "core" drop out before a screening.
25. Trying to find the one magazine amongst twelve that is putting intermittent scratches on your neg stock.
26. Cinch marks.
27. Trying to color-correct a bad CRI. Or a bad IP/IN.
28. Having the lab ask you, "Are you sure it was vaulted here?"

Shall I go on? :)

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