Digital Cinema: More accessible but not less complex.

I saw this link the other day from one of my indie filmmaker friends about Black Magic’s new 2.5k cinema camera.  I recommend reading the article for anyone interested from a professional standpoint, but the reason I cite it here, as I continue to focus on digital cinema, is the headline:  7 Reasons Why Black Magic Rules — and DSLR is Done. 

Let me be clear.  I’d love to test drive one of these cameras, and they sound very exciting, but this headline is a very basic example of just one reason why digital cinema is not simple — it never stops changing.  Even the statement “DSLR is done,” which refers to motion capture using high-end still cameras like Canon’s 5D, implies that DSLR itself is some sort of standard, which is most certainly not the case.  More to the point, based on the description of the Black Magic camera, its look will be very different from a DSLR, and the cinematographer doesn’t always think “better” or “worse” in this context, just “different.”  I imagine an engineer reading this might tilt his head like Nigel in Spinal Tap, and say, “But this goes to eleven.”

Digital cinema offers a lot of exciting products and possibilities for the artist, but one of the challenges, especially as we move up the ladder from guerrilla, indie film production to high-end, large-scale features is that every new product is actually a disruption in a very complex process that begins with planning a film project and ends with storage of the material.

It is true that, when cinema was celluloid only, the means of production were out of reach for most bootstrapping independents; but at the other end of the spectrum, professional cinematographers were able to amass a body of knowledge that enabled them to control a film’s look from start to finish because imaging science wasn’t moving quite so quickly as it does today. One thing many laymen may not realize is that there is a qualitative and instinctive aspect to cinematography that cannot be quantified in a spec sheet.  An experienced DP exposing a particular film stock in a given situation, knowing how he’ll process, correct, and print that sequence is able to operate on a feel for the medium beyond the numbers that has been acquired through years of repeated use.  While the same instincts apply to a DP working with digital, the reality is that both the quantifiable specs and the more subjective characteristics of each system are in constant and rapid flux.  You get used to the behaviors of one technology just as a new one comes along.

Digital cinema for quality feature filmmaking is only about a decade old, depending on where we choose to start the clock, and we already have capture technology that acquires more visual information than may be desirable in some cases.  As I discussed briefly with cinematographer Steven Poster the other week, producers are just beginning to realize, for example, that hyper-realistic resolution demands an increase in detailed work by every department, which actually drives costs up at the high end of film production.  “We have to apply makeup with airbrushes now instead of paint brushes, and sets have to look like finished homes” says Poster. In short, artisans and craftspeople don’t do better, and more refined work for less money.

So, what about the DIY, indie filmmaker, who doesn’t have a makeup artist at all, let alone one with airbrushes? Is 2K resolution, for instance, helpful, or will magnifying every pore on an actor’s face have a negative impact on the audience experiencing her film?  The smaller the budget, the more the filmmaker relies on real locations, available light, and small crews wearing many hats.  In these situations, for instance, this new camera’s wide exposure latitude is likely helpful, but its resolution could actually be a hindrance, if the filmmakers want the backgrounds to go nice and soft. These are crude examples that are not meant to critique a camera I’ve never touched.  My point is that digital cinema is a complex and dynamic medium that does not begin and end at the engineer’s bench.

In general, I tend to think of camera systems as analogous to different film stocks, taking the attitude that no one is better or worse than another, so much as each has unique characteristics that are either suited or not to a particular project. Thinking in these terms is one way to avoid being buffeted by the dynamics of competing manufacturers, but only if one maintains a practice of renting instead of buying equipment.  Of course, with cameras coming out at low price points like this one from Black Magic, renting is often impractical or impossible. So, at the point of considering an investment, the experienced filmmaker will ask questions like “What is my post-production workflow? What are my storage demands?  Which lenses can I buy or rent in my market?  What will this camera allow me to do, or what obstacles does it pose for my next film — or next three films? Bottom line:  how much mileage will I get out of the investment before it too is obsolete?”

And that’s the one thing we can know for sure about each low-priced, digital product that comes on the market — something new is always around the corner — and soon. I can assure you that competitive products are already in the works and that the success of any particular camera will have more to do with market dynamics and the types of film projects people want or need to make than with the impressive specs of the product itself.

I often think back to a meeting with a Sony representative at the rental company in New York that I’ve always used.  The Rep showed me and the owner all the specs and a demo video for Digital Betacam. Sony’s whole push at the time was replacing film, and they spent a fair bit of time and money producing programs for their demo that yielded some gorgeous images to be sure. Of course, their pitch was based on a combination of technological achievement and saving commercial and TV producers money on camera rentals, film stock, and processing.  What they had failed to do in my opinion was to take a holistic view of production and realize that once a producer brings together certain elements — talent, crew, logistics, set pieces, etc. — that cost a lot of money, the line items DigiBeta presumed to replace were negligible. Plus, nobody was going to thank a producer for the savings if the final product didn’t look right. Hence, why would any DP or director choose a good but inferior and untested technology in this situation?

Like I say, this camera from Black Magic sounds very cool, and I look forward to trying it.  But after twenty years of watching the emergence and disappearance of “game-changing” technology, I like to remind myself and others that films are as good as the people working on them, not the toys in their bags.

© 2012 – 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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