IMIS COO Bryan Cook on what technological overabundance means for cinema
There is a constant emergence of new technology developed for the film industry. With new technology also comes new ways to tell creative and interesting stories. Virtual reality, for instance, is no longer just a stationary experience in a 360-degree environment — now we have eye-tracking, face-tracking, positional audio and haptic feedback just to name a few, to accompany the experience. Each piece of new technology is often heralded as the new saving grace for filmmakers. While this may be true when each new development is viewed on an individual basis, there is little discussion or consideration on the ripple effect that new technology has on the entire pipeline or its effect holistically on the journey to the big screen.
1. Camera Acquisition
The film industry has a historical preference for Super 35mm as the medium of choice for capturing and exhibiting films. The 65mm film and 70mm IMAX cameras, while used periodically, have never been the gold standard for filmmakers. As digital cinema cameras have become more prevalent in recent years, sensor sizes have typically retained the Super 35 standard. In recent years, however, sensors sizes have begun to surpass Super 35. RED Digital Cinema’s Weapon Dragon was one of the first to be larger than Super 35. This was followed by RED’s Monstro VistaVision which is nearly twice the size of Super 35. Other manufacturers have followed suit. In 2014, ARRI announced the return to 65mm with the Alexa 65 camera which was exemplified best in Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015) which won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. ARRI’s new Alexa LF (Large Format) camera features a full-frame sensor — again twice the size of Super 35.
The other recent trend is a shift to higher resolution. In 2008, affordable professional 4K cameras began to become available and, during the past decade, more and more manufacturers have continued this trend. While early adopters were able to record ultra-high definition footage, many productions have opted to edit, manipulate, and distribute these films in 2K; the reasoning behind this is severalfold: 1) there was a lack of monitors or projectors that supported 4K; 2) the sales or development of 4K consumer TVs had been lacklustre; 3) 4K images downsampled to 2K resolution look better compared to 2K images.
As the adoption rate of the technology down the pipeline has become more common, the post-production to get it to that level has occurred. Some platforms have become forward-thinking and require 4K as a minimum. Some sensors can record 8K and are used frequently in VFX-heavy films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017). Productions may take advantage of the higher resolution cameras to allow reframing of images in post, remove shakiness induced from operating in high-action scenes, or to assist with visual effects shots. Of course, with 4K images comes 4x the amount of data than an HD recording and 8K being 16x the data of HD. While the quantity of footage is substantial, releasing a film with higher resolutions means more storage of files as well as longer times to download films from distributors.
Cameras have become able to record incredibly high frame rates (HFR) in recent years — the Phantom Flex4K can capture a staggering 1,000fps in full 4K. Recording in HFR has been helpful in slowing down time to give effects similar to the ‘bullet time’ in “The Matrix” (1999). However, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” (48fps), Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (120fps) and the upcoming James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels (120fps) were or are all captured with the intention of a release in HFR. While many current HFR projectors were able to support “The Hobbit” and even 60fps, special systems will be needed for exhibition at 120fps for the ones around the corner.
High dynamic range (HDR) is the ability to capture more stops of latitude of what is seen, or in simpler terms, to be able to see more difference between the lights and darks a camera can record before losing detail at either end. In standard dynamic range, cinematographers may have had to choose to sacrifice capturing a blue sky in favour of exposing an actors face that is in the shade; this often led to overexposed or blown out (white) skies. HDR can assist in some situations for capturing the detail of an actor’s face and the sky in this example. While cameras have been capable of capturing higher dynamic range (HDR) for years, the ability to see these images on the big screen has not been possible until recently. Because time and resources may be limited on set, some cinematographers have been able to take advantage of this one-sided relationship by choosing to sacrifice a perfectly lit shot knowing they can adjust the final image in post with sufficient range to correct any exposure issue. However, as HDR in cinema becomes more mainstream, cinematographers will have to light their sets more carefully with controlled lighting rather than being able to rely on a colourist’s ability to manipulate their footage. More veteran cinematographers who have always lit with light meters might soon have an advantage on those reliant on technology to fix their images.
2. Logistics with Technology
Not only is the variety and selection of technology something that has to be carefully considered, but also the quantity of the technology.
If a production decides to capture 3D on-set rather than convert to 3D in post, the number of cameras has to be doubled in order to achieve this effect (see June’s CT Mag on Light Field Cinematography on how this could change.) It becomes incredibly important that 3D camera systems are calibrated and additions to the regular camera crew like convergence pullers are involved in maintaining the settings throughout different scenarios on set. Any tiny error that is made can lead to the budget being redirected to correcting a problem before it hits the cinema.
Cinematographers often choose to use multiple cameras to ensure that scenes are seamless from cut-to-cut or to ensure that intense action scenes reliant on timing are captured just once. Setting up special effects explosions with actors can be dangerous and, of course, might not look the same each take. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) used an astonishing 30 cameras for some sequences to capture in-camera effects rather than rely on visual effects. Similarly, productions will split into multiple ‘units’ to assist capturing multiple locations simultaneously. In doing so, the resources of the production are doubled for each new unit needed.
Dealing with these multiple cameras, units, and a plethora of technology that comes with them only multiplies the ramifications down the line. The quantity of data throughout the workflow is often hundreds of terabytes and nearing petabytes. No wonder the relatively new positions of Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) and Data Wrangler were created to address collecting, logging, and managing all this information.
3. Trends in Filmmaking
Technology itself may not be an issue, but how the technology is used could be. Normally everyone assumes that new developments are universally better for filmmaking, however this is not necessarily the case when they are combined. Sensor sizes are becoming larger, sensors can record higher resolution images, lenses are becoming more efficient combined with shooting in low-light scenarios, all lend themselves to shallower depth of field, which translates to a far more difficult job for the focus puller to obtain sharp focus. Tiny deviations of focus may not be noticeable on your home television, but when projected at 30 to 90 feet, the smallest error can make the whole shot feel out of focus. This can be off-putting to an audience member and can bring them out of their experience. This is just one way in which the sum of the parts can have implications on the cinemagoer’s experience.
With the development of all of this new technology, it is now even more important that the producer, director, production supervisor, post-production supervisor, and unit production manager be thoroughly informed about the new tools available, they hire experts in their craft, and understand the impact that their choices have throughout the entire workflow — all the way to the big screen.
4. Cinema exhibition’s impact on production
Sometimes the technology developed for exhibition and video games can alter the ways filmmakers tell stories as well. CtrlMovie’s “Late Shift” (2016) takes video games and feature films and merges them together. “Late Shift” allows cinema audiences to participate in a story and vote on decisions for the protagonist to take — akin to the ‘choose your own adventure’ books. The film features an assortment of choices along the way with seven possible endings. This style and choice of platform has ramifications back towards the production itself — a web of different scenes and endings must be written, recorded, and edited for the various scenarios. It doesn’t take much to imagine how much more has to go into a project like this to see it to the end. The point is that technology works both ways.
5. Cinema upgrades
The difficult question for cinema exhibitors has been when they should upgrade to new sound and audio kit. Upgrading at a particular time and you risk excluding the cinema to new developments on the horizon. If cinemas had been early adopters and upgraded to 4K projectors, for instance, they might miss out on HDR. The same goes for HFR and so on. A never-ending cycle of upgrading is not economical when considered in terms of ROI.
Although major studios are responsible for distributing films, smaller production companies are usually the ones that create them. These production companies often rent cameras and related equipment from rental houses instead of outright purchasing as costs can be exceptionally high. This minimises the risk of equipment becoming obsolete quickly as well — cinemas do not have this luxury of renting the newest or committing to an upgrade as frequently.
A further risk is the decision on what to upgrade to. It’s incredibly difficult to predict which of the, latest developments is going to lead to customers experiencing cinema in a genuinely different way. What will drive interest and ultimately sales? The conundrum, of course, is that there has to be committed content that supports the new technology before it can become mainstream. Barco’s Escape, for example, was a terrific development towards a multi-screen, panoramic experience but it suffered from a lack of content to support its adoption. The best clue you have an the upgrade path is to pay careful attention to the developments of production technology and identify patterns from content developers to anticipate what is coming next.
Let us not forget that despite all the technical advancements, the quality of the final film is dependent upon a number of factors: great vision, great teamwork, and most importantly a great story.
The Vision Comes Together
Some of the decisions on what technology will be used can be credited to artistic vision while others choices may simply be made as a desire to break from the norm and experiment. In either case, filmmakers need to consider the entire pipeline to exhibition in order to take advantage of the technology and effort that has gone into making the film.