Archive for August, 2009

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District 3+1+2+3

August 29, 2009

Imagine that you can’t get Steve Carell (“The Office”) so you cast a talented wannabe clone as a bureaucratic dweeb teaming him up with Zoidberg from the animated “Futurama” then run the resulting movie through the effects departments of several of the leading CG houses and model builders with a little dash of “Star Wars” flair mixed with “Alien”, borrow the craft from “Close Encounters” and hover it over Johannesburg, South Africa with the righteous indignation of say “Hotel Rwanda”, wrap it in CNN style coverage, prop it with every manner of large caliber and automatic weapon from the Barrett to the M134 minigun all spitting ammunition freely as if  Gunny R. Lee Ermy operated each and every one; then add a spattering of heads-up displays from “Minority Report”-meets-touch-screen-election-coverage, and for fun throw in a large scale MECH (a human operated transformer-looking weapon-device), add to this the threat of a transformative disease and a redemptive ending taken from (take your pick here) “Hombre”, “Terminator” or “The Professional”, shoot it on the camera d’ jour, the “Red One” and you pretty much qualify to be the writer, producer, director, cinematographer, heck whatever you want, of “District 9”.

The miracle of “District 9” is that it was made for only 30 million dollars—granted, in a foreign country by foreigners– but you can’t hold that against the film makers, after all, what isn’t made that way these days.  Even the camera it was shot on, the “Red One”, an aggressively  American innovation, is outsourced to third world nations for production.

Ah, but the story, yes the spine of this patchwork of regurgitated glimpses from a not-so-distant Hollywood past, that heralds the future of digital film making as surely as naming a gas-powered vehicle a horseless carriage, the story is as uniquely American as fast food or to put it another way, nutritionless fodder.

Having run out of things to copy–cartoons like the Flintstones, or TV shows like “The Addams Family” and “Bewitched”, or literature as diverse as comic books and copyright-expired 19th century novels, Hollywood and it’s international clones are quickly gobbling themselves up at a furious rate remaking anything and everything that resembles a story, and while Tarantino defiantly copies himself, the boys from down under have cobbled together a movie parsed from other movie fragments, making “District 9” almost every bit as entertaining as say, “Junkyard Wars”.

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Glorious Bastard

August 22, 2009

Glorious Bastard

So what if he can’t spell, right?  The man’s a genius.  He must have had a good reason for misspelling both “inglorious” and  “bastards”, like maybe getting it past the censors, right?–sort of like “The Spy who Shagged Me?”  I doubt it—he probably doesn’t use a spell checker.  Truth be known it was probably done to distinguish it from the 1978 film “Inglorious Bastards”, possibly to facilitate a more accurate Google search or just avoid copyright infringement.  Trouble is that anyone hearing the title will more than likely search use the correct spelling, thus getting the older film, or if after seeing the trailer on TV, search using the revised Taratino spelling, thus deepening the Katrina flood of illiteracy that already exists in a Bush generation of no children left behind,  listening to rappers with names like “Ludicris” and wearing clothes by “Phat Farm”.  Perhaps Brad Pitt will  build some new schools.

The anticipation of another Quentin Tarantino film creates certain expectations, and “Inglourious Basterds” certainly fulfills them all.  Tarantino follows his formula, replicating himself in movie form as surely as any formula picture from a bloated studio without a clue.

First, there’s the “campy” I’m-too-cool kitsch element that infuses the bad typography, graphics and B-western theme music.  Been there….

Followed by the chapter structure that proved so effective in the nonlinear storytelling of “Pulp Fiction”.  Done that…

And the “coup-de-gras”, snappy Tarantino dialogue…  well it’s Tarantino dialogue but far from snappy—interminably long dialogue, blah, blah, blah, peppered with the occasional over-the-top Tarantino-trademark non-sequitor and a cutaway to a short flashback of violent action.  Apparently, like the theater actor who transitions to film and writes his own monologues,  Tarantino thinks he is immune to the pitfalls of exposition.  If you saw the trailer, you’ve seen just about all the snappy dialog and all the action scenes as well.  The rest of the movie consists of scene after scene of two people sitting opposite one another talking endlessly in static shots, about mostly backstory, of which there’s not really much that matters anyway.

And all this dialogue is not even about the “plastic elements” like the Travolta/Jackson “cheeseburger” exchange in Pulp Fiction is. Tarantino’s writing merely echoes the pattern of those who market themselves to audience expectations, but in his case, with the self-conscious mega-bonus of being defined by unchecked narcissism.

In the early sixties it was much simpler.  It’s Tommy Roe following “Sweet Little Sheila” with the forgettable “Hooray for Hazel”, or Sandy Nelson recording “Teen Beat” and “Let there be Drums”.  “What else you got kid?  Oh that’s it? OK, let’s do it again!!” –except it’s a conversation with himself.

And to validate his status as “Uber-Genius” in the ultimate narcissistic triumph, the writer/director kills Hitler and the entire German high command in a blazing inferno of burning filmstock and machine gun fire delivered by a Jewish vixen, a brutally insane Jewish thug, his hapless Jewish compatriot-hitman, and a handsome, warm-hearted African-French-resistance-type projectionist.

I’ve heard that this film is being touted as a “revenge-fantasy”, some new classification of films, perhaps quite timely.  I suppose in  an age where revenge is so desired and unattainable; where a divided electorate have been repeatedly cheated;  where our finest leaders are assassinated;  where Islamic villains elude the entire combined capability of the world’s best high tech forces and our own villains are promoted to high office, rob us blind and upon getting the presidential “get out of jail free” card move on to celebrity status and a life of wealth, it must be very satisfying for an impotent audience to channel their instincts for revenge safely on the long dead, and by now quite harmless, Adolf Hitler and friends.

But alas, as with his previous films, the truly original scenes are the ones that you find yourself laughing at—not because they are funny, but because they are so sick that someone would dare to put them on the screen at all, a scene like someone getting his head beat in with a baseball bat.  In other words, laughing at the filmmaker’s audacity, shooting brutal violence without a cutaway, for entertainment purposes.

In the end, whether good or bad, Tarantino films are about its star, the director, and just like porno films not about the story. ADHD and narcissism are a potent mix.

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Chips are not bad for your complexion.

August 21, 2009

Chips are not bad for your complexion.

While many Hi-def camera manufacturers battle it out in an endless debate over resolution and related formats, another, equally significant, resolution battle is being waged in Hollywood, by actors reluctant to sign on to HD productions because they believe HD will make their complexion look bad. Failing to understand that 35mm film has more resolution than any current HD displays, they fear that increased resolution will portray them negatively, making their complexion look old an haggard.

What they don’t know is that when film undergoes a DI (digital intermediate), it is scanned at 4K (4 million pixels).  Actually 4Kfilm scanners scan at 4096 x 3112, or about 12.7 MegaPixels.  However, not all DI’s are scanned at 4K.  It’s evolving in that direction, but most are currently scanned at 2048 x 1556 or roughly 4 times the resolution of a million pixel HD imager. Yes, an even higher resolution than the formats they reject, yet film is still an acceptable medium for them.  While many HD cameras will not produce an image that is satisfying in this regard, lacking that very “something “ that film possesses, in the right hands, many HD cameras will now produce a filmic look.  That’s right, not all HD is created equal and it has little or nothing to do with resolution and everything to do with sharpness, or more appropriately, limited dynamic range.  So the producer’s conundrum becomes “shall we allow camera selection to become the domain of starlets, or do we need to revise our thinking in evaluating camera selection?”

Imagine that you are looking at a resolution chart through the lens of your camera.  The fine series of alternating black and white lines is the maximum number of lines that can be resolved by your camera and they are clear, clean, and sharp.  Let’s also imagine that you are routing the video signal to a waveform scope and that the white lines appear on the scope at 100% and the black lines at 0%.  In reality this would not be the case, but for the purposes of discussion we will use these numbers as theoretical reference numbers.  With a pure white and a black, these lines would appear as crisp as is possible, that is to say, very sharp.

Now imagine that you begin to throw the lens out of focus.  As the lack of focus increases, the alternating lines diminish in tonal value as each approaches 50% on the scope.  In other words, white values lower and black values rise. The edges of the formerly crisp lines blur as the white and black values intermix, each degrading the other.  Eventually (theoretically and on some lenses only), the fine lines become blurred to the extent that the entire screen is a 50% value on the scope, or what we photographers call 18% grey.  This test would produce the same results regardless of the resolution of the camera, however the finer the lines, the sooner the effect would be noticed.

The practical test for resolution of the entire camera system, including the lens, is our ability to count the individual lines.  If you can count them, they are resolved.  However, the test for sharpness is the measurement of the difference between the values of white and black.  That difference is referred to as depth of modulation.  With white at 100% and black at 0% the depth of modulation is 100%, a sharp image, but with white at say 65% and black at 35%, the depth of modulation is only 30%, a very unsharp image.

Consider that even with a lack of sharpness, as in the above demonstration, the native resolution of the chip, measured in pixels, remains the same. Throughout this hypothetical test, these images would have been recorded on the same camera at the same native resolution.  Simply stated, the chip uses the same number of pixels regardless of the image it sees.  If you shoot a flat color, a perfectly even tone, the native resolution of the chip is still 1080×1920 whether the image is only one tone or many tones. Therefore recorded images can be sharp or blurry without native chip resolution being the determining factor.

So what we call contrast or depth of modulation is a way of describing sharpness.  Cameras that have a narrow tonal range appear to be sharper, because they are “contrastier”.  Also cameras that are “detailed up” appear sharper as well.  But don’t be fooled. Again, sharpness is not resolution.

In the initial days of HD, and continuing even today, in many cameras, the dynamic range remains narrow.  This, coupled with the fact that some manufacturers like to ship their cameras detailed up, creates an image that is overly sharp.  The same kind of thinking occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century when carriage makers started building cars.  They weren’t cars as we know them today, but truly they were “horseless carriages”.  Similarly, many video manufacturers are still building “HD video cameras” not “digital acquisition film cameras”.  The difference is more than just the name and the recording media.

While sharpness is not a function of resolution, the visible effect of increased resolution makes it more evident, as finer detail can be observed because it is enhanced by false sharpness, incurred by the lack of a full tonal range and a higher than needed detail setting.

Cameras that have a wide dynamic range, with smooth tonal changes, typically have deep bit depth and a gamma curve to emulate a film response to light.  This means that the image is flatter, has less contrast, and yes, makes skin look smooth as film. Also, the detail settings are set low so that edges are soft, rounded and filmic, not crisp and video-like.  To put it another way, filmic images have painterly volume while traditional video images lean gently in the direction of graphic illustration and line drawing.

Now, with that background as our setting, it is no wonder that several years ago a camera with increased resolution made it’s way onto the scene to a mixed response. Easily the size of an old, blimped Mitchell camera, tethered to a bank of hard drives, it seemed like a step backwards in time, away from cinema verite.  With 4K resolution, its introduction at NAB was largely considered by many to be overkill.  Most considered it useful for scientific applications, but oh dear, what about those actresses?   What will they think of “HD ultra”?  That camera was the Dalsa Origin.

Today, the next iteration will be the Evolution, although most people will still refer to it as “the Dalsa”.  Time has produced many significant improvements to the first Origin and the current version boasts reduced size and weight, still with its optical through-the-lens viewfinder and an Arri-style rotating mirrored shutter, 24 white balance look-up tables, simplified touch screen menus, and a feature that allows for on-set visual image analysis.  Shortly, the camera will be freed from its tether and will support flash memory—512 Gigs to be exact.  These units will be called “Flashmags” and will record 20 minutes in RAW and 40 minutes in a lossless compression at 2:1.

But far and away the most significant feature of the Dalsa is it’s chip, for it is like no other.  It is a Bayer pattern chip.  This is the same style used by NASA in spy satellites and is in marked contrast to most other cameras.

Line One alternates photosites (output to pixels) RGRGRGRG while line two alternates GBGBGBGB.

A typical Bayer pattern

Each frame starts as a 16Mbyte file containing the RAW color information, then using a Bayer to RGB code unique to Dalsa, and with a complex measurement of neighboring pixels (not just the adjacent pixels), Dalsa also measures crosstalk in each of the colors where the other colors “leak” through.  The algorithim then goes about examining the photosites and eliminates color fringing on edges.

Because they make their own sensor in their own lab, they are able to take unique advantage of the silicon response in the CCD that most others are cannot do and DALSA takes every opportunity to exploit this advantage. While other manufacturers use photo diodes (lenslets) for gathering light, Dalsa rejects this chip design (raised circles within rectangles) as inefficient, because it ignores as much as 72% of the usable chip surface. Rather, they use a photosensitive substrate divided by tungsten wires.  By designing a chip in this manner they have accomplished three very important goals.  First, 86% of the chip is used to gather light (14% being covered by the wires).  This is referred to as fill factor.  Fill factor is what gives the Origin II its unique-to-the-industry 13 stop dynamic range.  Secondly, with this much “signal”, noise is virtually eliminated.  And lastly, since there are no lenslets to deflect light, causing white shading and color fringing issues with short wide angle lenses, this chip design eliminates the need to white shade the camera.

Completing the process of imaging, Dalsa employs a frame transfer CCD.  The CCD writes to the recording media an entire frame simultaneously rather than using the traditional interline method, thus eliminating the possibility for corruption of the image with lagging electrons that can increase what is called “fixed pattern noise.”  The film analogy is grain.

This is a very costly chip to manufacture. Recognizing this, Dalsa has followed the “Panavision” business model and does not sell, but only rents, their cameras.  This means that all cameras undergo tight maintenance and as improvements are made, continual upgrading, so that cameras are current and each camera goes out with a technician to support it.

Workflow follows a fairly traditional path.  Video and audio are recorded to an on-set data recorder then moved to a computer such as a Mac from which it is transferred to a post facility’s server as 4K RAW data where 2K HD versions are created for editing and preview.  An EDL from Final Cut or Avid is used to conform the RAW data in the server and then the conformed program goes out to a render farm to encode BAYER to RGB, facilitating the color correction of the conformed scenes and lastly to output to a laser printer to create the film neg and print, or to create a digital cinema package for theaters.

Currently available through their office in LA, they are expanding to other markets and will soon be available in New York.  Recognizing that they have a very unique product, Dalsa has initiated an educational outreach program and have been conducting classes, about 5 hours in length, in LA, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York to familiarize potential users with their camera.

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Is the Arriflex D-20 the Trojan Horse of Digital Acquisiition?

August 21, 2009

Is the Arriflex D-20 the Trojan Horse of Digital Acquisiition?

By now there are very few surprises left in camera advancements for the digital revolution, the revolution now being largely a series of squabbles.  To understand the history of the players provides quick insight to the developments each manufacturer will offer the community, for each will be an extension of their existing product line and philosophy.

For a manufacturer making video cameras, high definition digital acquisition means changing the electronics and using the same shell (form-factor).  For a company that has sold no previous products, it becomes a wide-open design challenge, but for a company that has historically manufactured film cameras, it could mean some significant changes… or maybe not.  Why change what works well?

Arriflex’s D-20 is the prime example of this kind of thinking.  It utilizes the same PL lens mount, the same optical viewfinder, a rotating mirrored shutter and more closely resembles a film camera than a video camera in size, shape, finish and it’s 24lb lens-less weight.  Of course, video assist on this video camera is optional.  The sexy “cool factor” is alive and well in the D-20 and filmmakers everywhere can feel comfortable in their public persona, that their commitment to film and disregard of video will not be blemished by being seen in production stills with an ENG style camera.

The Germans are as well known as the Swiss for their love of fine machining, and design spawned from the principles of indestructible military functionalism, creating that certain manly panache with the lure of conquest, smothered in krinkle-finish paint.  Why, you could fly a D-20 into any episode of Star Wars and it would look right at home, while every kid in the states would be buying the blisterpak version to fondle endlessly.  It’s just that sexy, but also as timeless as say a pair of black patent-leather pumps, a tailored Harris tweed jacket or a beige cashmere sweater. I want one.

But alas, I cannot satiate my lust, for they are not for sale—not even a his and hers version in the Nieman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  Like Panavision, Dalsa and Viper, they’re being marketed to Hollywood as rentals and not for sale to the world at large.

Using a 6 Megapixel Bayer pattern CMOS sensor, and a PL lens mount, the D-20 allows use of the same lenses as 35 mm film cameras, maintaining the creative option for selective or shallow depth of field so necessary for the filmic look.  It also has the ability to capture images at frame-rates from 1 to 60fps (the chip is future-proofed to 150fps) with an electronically variable, silent, mechanical shutter (11.2 degrees to 180 degrees) and can run speed ramps as well.

In Raw Data mode it records in “Kubrick –style” 4×3, but in HD mode it records 16×9 1920×1080 either YUV (4:2:2) OR RGB (4:4:4) at 12 bit with ISO’s of 50 to 320.  As yet, specs for dynamic range have not been given in the Arri literature.

As to resolution, we need to be careful, because the 6 million Bayer pattern Cmos chip does not utilize the full  pixel count for each color channel.  Here is a direct quote from Arriflex:

“In digital photography, there is a tendency to describe resolution in terms of the number of pixels on the chip. Depending on the technology used, however, the actual pixel count of a chip does not directly correspond to the resolution the system is capable of reproducing. The D20, for instance, is designed to accurately reproduce images at HD resolution (1920 horizontal pixels). In order to achieve this goal, a Bayer mask CMOS chip of a higher pixel count is necessary.

On the Bayer mask chip itself the full number of pixels is not available for each color. For a 2880 x 2160 chip, the red channel for instance does not have a resolution corresponding to 2880 x 2160 pixels. One could assume that since every second pixel is red in every second row, we have half the resolution for red (1440 x 1080). But that is not accurate either, since for most natural images the missing color pixel values can be reconstructed very accurately, so the resolution of the red channel is somewhere between 2880 x 2160 and 1440 x 1080.

Our goal with the D20 design is to output a very high quality HD image with a resolution corresponding to 1920 horizontal pixels. In order to achieve such an image output from a Bayer mask chip we need substantially more than 1920 horizontal pixels, which is the reason the chip’s pixel count (2880 x 2160) is much higher than the desired image output resolution. The raw Bayer data at 2880 x 2160 goes through the color reconstruction process to fill in the missing color information and is downscaled to a pixel count that corresponds more closely to its actual resolution. This allows the D20 to create a high definition image that looks as good as if not better than the images produced by current high definition cameras.”

Two years ago ARRI sponsored the New York Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival to showcase the D-20.  The event gave festival attendees the chance to take a closer look and test-drive the camera. Among the many participants were included Cinematographers Mauricio Rubinstein and Director/DP Jon Fauer, ASC. The filmmakers shot in many environments, from indoors to sunny ski slopes to Main Street at dusk.

While digital acquisition allows for longer takes and shooting more footage, it can be even more beneficial for visual effects.  On Afrika, Mon Amour, Cinematographer Frank Küpper was confident it was the right tool for the historic, three-episode, television period-drama shot in Kenya, Germany, Austria and the U.K. With many CGI effects and a tough postproduction schedule, shooting digital was the logical choice. “For a production with so many VFX shots digital shooting has lots of advantages to, let’s say, 16mm. No grain, instant availability of the full resolution images and the 35mm look of the images play a vital role here,” he explains. “It was obvious that shooting HD with a camera that uses a Super 35mm sensor would give the best results and speed up the workflow.”

For camera crews that are experienced in film and perhaps not as familiar with high definition cameras, many have praised the D-20 for its easy-to-use interface Director of Photography Bengt Jan Jönsson shot with the D-20 on several commercials and his crew immediately adapted to it. “Honestly, I don’t think most people know that it’s an HD camera! The D-20 is a film camera with a digital back on it – what cinematographers and crews are used to. It says ARRI on the side and it uses 35mm lenses so they don’t really think it’s a different camera. It has a small profile on the tripod and you don’t have to tweak it too much.  With some other cameras, there is a lot of tweaking.”

Cutting costs is a concern for filmmakers but in television lowering costs is always a priority. For Sam Nicholson, cinematographer and founder of post house Stargate Digital, the Arriflex D-20 is the camera of choice for blue and greenscreen work. Nicholson and Stargate recently garnered three Emmy nominations for their work on Heroes, Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, and Grey’s Anatomy. All of these nominated shows utilized the D-2O. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more productions using the D-20 because it makes our lives a lot easier, and ultimately results in a better product. The D-20 is the closest camera yet to a film camera, yet it’s digital. It’s a fascinating technology, and I think it will be fascinating to see where the people at Arri take it.”

Production with the D-20 is continuing in Canada on The Andromeda Strain, directed by Mikael Salomon who last year directed The Company for Scott Free Productions with D-20 cameras. Feature films that have shot with D-20 cameras include, Baker Street (Director Roger Donaldson, DP Mick Coulter BSC), Prisoners of the Sun (Director Roger Christian, DP Ed Wild), and the upcoming crime caper from director Guy Ritchie, Rocknrolla.

The Arriflex D-20 is available for rental at ARRI CSC of New York and Florida, Clairmont Camera in Los Angeles and Canada, Fletcher Chicago, Arri Rental in Germany and ARRI Media in the UK.

Addendum:  Since this article was written several years ago, many technological changes have occurred and the advancements being made in digital acquisition continue to push the envelope in terms of both resolution and dynamic range to where surely the informed will understand that it now surpasses film in too many ways as to be ignored by the few holdouts in the industry that can afford whatever they want.

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No Fear

August 19, 2009

This article originally appeared in Film Festival Reporter under the byline William Ling.  Since then much has changed.

On a cold winter morning, November 218 B.C., the sleepy little village of Ticinus, nestled deep in the rich plains of Northern Italy, awoke to the rhythmic thuds of elephant hooves and clattering frame-drums, and a cacaphony of angry taunts from a marauding army that wanted more.  The circus had come to town in the form of a twenty-nine-year- old upstart named Hannibal Barca and an unlikely amalgamated army forged of Carthaginians, Gauls, Iberians, Tartessians and Celtiberians, who, while the Romans protected their existing trade routes with a fleet of 220 ships copied from Carthaginian design, stormed into Italy over the treacherous mountain passes of the Alps.  The impossible had slipped to become merely the unthinkable and for the next twelve years nothing in Italy could be taken for granted.

Centuries later, pimple-faced American teens are poring through the latest Motor Trend magazine lusting over the rocket-powered, kinetic, sculptural forms of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, all descendants of the survivors of those conflicts, mere fantasies for all but the few who can afford such playthings, ironically either the sons of slaves, (now NBA stars and their rapper cousins), or the sons of their masters and their master’s masters, forever with the inside track.

Perhaps there is some better, targeted way to reach the few, financially-able, qualified buyers than to distribute millions of magazines to every subscriber, convenience and grocery store, pharmacy, bookstore and airport news-stand on every continent.  Who are these magazines selling to and what are they selling?

To be certain, American males are romantically groomed to consider themselves great drivers but only a very few professionals can actually drive these high performance automobiles at levels approaching their limit, much less meet the financial standard for a test drive.  Nevertheless, who doesn’t dream of possessing a Ferrari?  While recognizing the prohibitive cost of hand-built, high performance vehicles, every automaker has consistently addressed high performance issues and Euro-styling at modest to reasonable price levels.  Whether Hyundai, Kia, and Saturn or Audi, BMW and Porsche, Corvette, Mercedes or Toyota no manufacturer ignores styling, handling and speed.

Right now, somewhere in Anytown USA on the way to Main Street there’s a 20-year-old fast-food clerk racing that next stoplight to work, cutting off a smug divorce lawyer, blonde hair gently blowing, in her polished silver SLK, by wrestling a whale-tailed Subaru Impreza, sporting a “No Fear” decal on the rear window, through three lanes of rush-hour traffic. Were it not for the heat-generated yearnings created by publications featuring unattainable dream cars, he’d still be on his mo-ped. This is American marketing at its best.

What makes this possible is strictly a numbers game.  Limited-production run and hand-built units carry an added cost to the purchaser that mass-produced units do not, as anyone who has priced a mattebox can tell you.  Who in the production community, whether accountant or camera assistant, hasn’t looked at a mattebox priced at $2500 and said to themselves “this ought to cost about $150” ?

But mattebox pricing does not even begin to touch the barrier to entry for camera ownership.  Exotic camera systems, whether film or HD, like their automobile counterparts, can run as much as a half million dollars and up and great glass can run $40,000 and up for a single prime lens.

Take Carl Zeiss as an example.  Here’s a company that makes lenses for a wide variety of applications, including the current incarnation of digital-backed Hasselblads resolving 4880×5440, delivering their lenses at street-prices averaging under $5,000.00.  While this is definitely the high end of the digital still market, and acknowledging that film and HD lenses must meet different standards for performance and use, we must recognize that still images undergo more careful scrutiny than any single film frame ever does.  So why does this same company sells its film and HD lenses, cine-lenses such as Digi-primes, at dramatically different, performance-car level prices.

Is the glass really that much better in cine-lenses?  Certainly a cine-lens has to meet more demanding standards, and we all know what they are, but the real cost for these lenses is a marketing issue not a manufacturing issue.  You can only sell these lenses to people who own cameras, and that market is further subdivided by the number of lens manufacturers selling to them, let’s say 6 total, and that is further subdivided by users that repurpose existing glass or buy used glass.  Now there’s our reality check.  So let’s look first at how many cameras are out there.

As of 2 years ago, Arriflex, perhaps the leading supplier of 35mm film cameras for purchase, has only sold about 670 35mm cameras total from Day 1… that’s all flavors, worldwide, from the IIC forward in time to present.  The why of it is yet another reality check.  Hollywood made only about 280 films last year, 200 of which were major studio productions.

HD looks a little different. Lets take all the cameras in all the rental houses, broadcast facilities, TV production and regional commercial production companies and add them all together.  The numbers I am about to use are “educated estimates, since none of the manufacturers want to reveal the real numbers, and when and if they do discuss numbers casually, in passing conversation, they are usually inflated for promotional ends.

Sony has sold about 2000 units (possibly more) of various iterations of CineAltas since George Lucas first lensed “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”, and Panasonic, while currently outselling Sony at a rate of something like 8 or 10 to 1, has still only sold about 1000 VariCams (perhaps less) total in 6 years.  As we go higher in price, usually measured in this industry in resolution, the numbers drop significantly.  Vipers  at $170,000.00– maybe a hundred produced, if that.  The Panavision Genesis, as a rental item only, probably under twenty and about the same for the Arri D20 (although Arri claims 50-60), originally priced at about $550,000.00, then retracted from the market and slotted as a rentals-only camera. And then consider the rarest of beasts the 4K mini-refrigerator-sized Dalsa–under ten units.

Still, Zeiss has probably sold about 1000 Digiprimes (lenses not sets)– an astounding feat considering the above numbers.  But compare that with Nikon or Canon who must have sold about 6 or 7 million lenses to still photographers since day 1 and pretty soon you understand the difference in pricing.

With that in mind, let’s consider the manufacturing and marketing of digital cinema cameras, all lumped together as simply HD.

The technology to build a digital cinema camera is well known.  It’s no secret.  It is basically the same as a digital still camera with a buffer and enough storage to allow it to capture images at 24fps and other frame rates.

Marketing poses the real problem.  It must be frustrating to the Japanese designers of cameras to be hog-tied by their American counterparts in marketing.  The problem that immediately comes to the forefront is this.  If they introduce a new high-end camera with all the features that clients ask for, then that camera must be priced in such a way as to not disturb all their other, existing markets, namely the other cameras in their product line and those cameras just recently sold to rental houses as well as other clients.  Excluding pricing pressure from the competition, they must protect the profitability of existing lines and the equity in their client’s recently purchased units.  If a significantly better camera were to be introduced at a considerably lower price, then all other lesser cameras would have to sell at a cheaper price and the customers who just bought them at the higher price would be very upset.  Changes in the upper limits of pricing ripple downward causing shifts in the pricing of not only 25 and 50 megabit broadcast cameras but all existing HD cameras.  The units on rental house shelves would not necessarily become immediately obsolete, but certainly, quickly unprofitable.

Now consider that this very small industry (a few hundred hi-end digital cinema cameras a year) is perpetuated because it is the necessary fuel that drives the real profit-making vehicle, consumer electronics.  Without great looking content, without imaging advances in digital cameras who would buy new displays to have a viewing experience limited by inferior cameras?

So, if American marketers are thinking inside the box, it is because they all live inside this box.  This is their reality.

But what if you don’t live in this box.  What if you don’t have an investment in an existing product line that you must protect.  What if you don’t have a single camera or lens sitting on a single shelf in any rental house anywhere in the world.  What if you have no track record manufacturing cameras, in fact have never sold a single product to the film and television industry.  Could you design and manufacture a camera that offered features that surpass most, if not all, existing cameras and deliver that camera at a pricepoint just under professional broadcast cameras, but just above pro-sumer, say $17,500.00–a far cry from a half a million dollars?  Current manufacturers say “impossible”.  Furthermore, who would buy these cameras from a company without an industry track record?

Perhaps the naysayers have been looking at the wrong numbers.  For a moment let’s take a side-step into the world of post-production.  In 1989, when Avid Technologies came out of nowhere to put a non-linear edit system based on the MAC platform in front of NAB attendees, the standard in post-production was still multimillion dollar machine-to-machine editing. By 1994 when Avid had rightfully assumed its place as the new standard, it was selling a software-based system with inexpensive hardware at about $120,000 per unit.  Around that time Apple introduced Final Cut at a cost of about 1% of an Avid.  Many scoffed then, but amazingly, today, as Canon, Panasonic, Sony and JVC sell tens of thousands of inexpensive HD cameras, and ignorant nay-sayers continue to rebuke Final Cut as a consumer software program, there are millions of bedroom and office based editors and working pros cutting away on Final Cut Pro HD while upgrading both their computers and their cameras to match the sheer power of what has become not only the new standard, but with the introduction of Final Cut Pro 6 and Studio II, possibly the most aggressively advanced software for editing, ever.

As to those 200 Hollywood A-list films, compare that number with the over 3200 entries to Sundance this year competing for 145 slots and you may begin to understand the market.  Those 3200 entries do not even reflect the entire indie market, just those able to get it together in time for this year’s entry deadline.  Considering the cost of a Red One camera to be about the same as a modest Hyundai luxury sedan, it might be fair to say that it is well within the reach of any festival junkie, local production company, commercial photographer, film school, corporate entity or their ad agency to purchase and put to good use. And when you consider all the regional film production companies who own PL mount glass, ready to be “re-purposed”, the cost to enter the highest realm of digital acquisition is not an issue.

Giving new meaning to the old adage, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, having no existing markets to protect, Red Digital Cinema introduced the Red One Camera, no mere Hyundai but a genuine Ferrari, at a price-point of $17,500.00.  In the short time since its introduction at NAB2006 until October 31st of that same year, with little more than a few illustrations and a promise, Red has sold over 1000 units to willing buyers who have each put up a $1000 down-payment to reserve their place in line.  Was that an elephant I just heard?

Ironically of those 1000 units, many are being sold to rental houses, who, like everyone else, were limited to a mere 5 units each.  Conventional wisdom says that if that same camera were offered at that same price by one of the big existing manufacturers, these very same rental houses would be screaming because it hurts the rentability of their existing lines.  Furthermore, at such a low price-point it is hard to maintain a rental business if the camera is easily purchased by their clients.  Consequently, had this been introduced by say a Sony or a Panasonic, it would have bred much ill will.  But demand is so great for these cameras that Red introduced an “encore” offering to purchase either cameras or lenses from January 21st to the 24th, for those that missed the first round or want to increase their order.  Truth be known, no one wants to be at a disadvantage. This brought total sales up to, just shy of, 1500 units.

Today, most camera systems still perform well enough to exceed most displays.  Imaging for either, is usually evaluated in certain terms:  Resolution, sharpness, color rendition and dynamic range and until now, developments in cameras have been leading the way.  But with very little in existing markets to protect, digital projection has temporarily surpassed digital acquisition in certain ways, tipping the manufacturers’ hands about both their capability and what will soon be our glorious imaging future.

Two notable events speak volumes.  Panasonic has introduced a home theater projector that delivers an astounding 11,000 to one contrast ratio.  That’s fifteen stops, only two stops short of the working range of the human eye but 4 more than their best camera. Film projection can only reach 9 stops.  And Sony is offering a professional projector with 4K resolution.  Even this small bit of information is telling, because Sony has always maintained the battleground as resolution, while Panasonic has wisely continued to pursue dynamic range.

In the current climate of evolving markets the overall change to digital production may take ten years or so.  Digital intermediates have been long recognized as advantageous, but digital acquisition has not been widely accepted yet in advertising and the majority of big budget studio productions.

With digital projection in home theaters surpassing film projection, the pressure will be enormous for movie theaters to make the long awaited change to digital projection or die.  If all they can do is deliver the same image quality as Mr and Mrs. Consumer, what’s the point?   4k resolution with 15 stops dynamic range may become the defining standard for reviving the sagging theater industry by providing a unique viewing experience.  Who will provide the cameras?

The answer to that question came from an unlikely source.  Jim Jannard, founder of Oakley Sunglasses and self proclaimed “Photo Fanatic” recognized the problem and wanted to see it move more quickly to a satisfactory resolution, simply because he wanted a better camera, and nothing was available to meet his standards.   After reviewing the situation he decided to build it himself and formed Red Digital Cinema.  First hire was Ted Schilowitz, formerly of AJA followed shortly by Stuart English, recently of Panasonic.  Joined by Graeme Nattress and many other fine engineers, they set about solving their first problem, selecting the sensor.  Again unable to find what they wanted, they decided to produce their own and developed the “mysterium”.

Not resting on their accomplishment, this non-hierarchical team of risk-taking, out-of-the-box, nay out-of-the-office, boardroom-and-all-things-corporately-restraining, thinkers, with titles like “leader of the rebellion”, “workflow wizard” and “problem solver”, elected to build their own lenses, first offering an 18-50mm (variable prime) zoom and a 300mm telephoto at affordable prices and then by NAB following that with a set of 5 primes for just under $20,000 which might pay for half a lens in any other manufacturer’s prime lens lineup.

Ted Schilowitz finds the resistance of all the nay-sayers “intriguing, not a bad thing because it motivates us to question ourselves.  There is no scientific or valid reason that we cannot accomplish our mission.  Fear of market change is a psychological barrier that we empathize with, but without change we would never have had the airplane, gone to the moon, had computers, iPods, plasmas or any of the many other wondrous inventions we all enjoy” and the approximately 1500 filmmakers who have made their deposit to purchase a Red One agree.  Ted finds validation in their confidence, but more so “it benefits our team to know that we are building this camera for people, not for a marketing department”.

“Changing the landscape” is a treadworn phrase that has already been resurrected several times to describe the effect that the introduction of this camera will have on the industry, but it nevertheless remains, ultimately, quite true.  Just as the virgin woodlands have all been cleared from the plains, and corn, a known commodity, was planted to feed our masses, so too, our cinema landscape will be cleared and a new standard for imaging will be widely planted.

The other manufacturers will have to respond to the introduction of the Red One in some competitive way, unfortunately and most likely, a measured response.  This may well be too little, too late, lest they, like the Romans of 200 BC want to fight an uphill battle for the next twelve years with an Army riding bright Red elephants.

Addendum to the original article:

Since the time this article was first written, Red has taken prototypes of the Red One camera to NAB.  There, together with the prototypes, they screened a short film shot by Peter Jackson a mere two weeks before the convention.  Projected on a 4K projector in a small screening room within their tent, the imagery was nothing short of stunning.  A line waiting to get in, three-people-wide, constantly surrounded their booth and the entire “block” their booth was on.  By the close of the convention they had sold more cameras than the combined total of all Cine-altas, VariCams and 35mm Arriflexes ever produced!  Additionally, mid-week in the show Red announced that they will be manufacturing a small hand-held camera they call the professional pocket camera, 4K displays and a 4K projector.  Further sweetening the ever-burgeoning Red battle wagon, Red has acquired Accu-cine, makers of the definitive color viewfinder, in order to bring the prohibitive $14,000 price tag down to the manageable Red price of $2950.

And today Red continues its development plans with a new line of totally modular cameras, Epic and Scarlet as well as many new lenses.  Complaints concerning the Red One abound, still it is revered by the faithful for being the prophet camera that it is.  Users willingly over look issues such as heat, audio problems, workflow, and CMOS rolling shutter limitations causing flashbanding and skew.  The coming cameras remain a mystery (they have aptly named their new chip “The Mysterium”).  While the film world waited to see if the Epic would fulfill the promise of matching film with perfected digital acquisition, Red expanded it’s line with a full range of Epics, going beyond reason to include a camera with a chip so large that it resembles a candy bar in size.

Meanwhile the flood of Red One cameras sold to amateur “DP’s” who package themselves with a camera “for free” has eroded the rental market and produced little more than a mountain of unusable footage with serious focus issues.

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The Old Bull

August 19, 2009

The Old Bull

a chapter selection from my recent book “Look Away”.

We’re sitting in the withering, street-shadowed window-light at the front table of Sitwell’s coffee shop in Clifton, a university area.  Outside, street musicians and beggars work the movie crowd for pocket change, as they ritually migrate from the darkened theater to the brightly lit ice-cream parlor across the street.  Hyde Park couples and university intellectuals flock next door to the Esquire Theater to see the latest in art-house and independent films, documentary and narrative thought not piped into the home-sweet-homes of this nation by establishment institutions. Inside Sitwell’s, the warm, dim light betrays a mish-mosh of unmatched chairs and tables and summer students asleep or working at their computer below a crown of painted banners of popular dissident thought.  In another time and place, I have been in this room.  Perhaps it was 1969.  It all looks too familiar–the posters, the art, the long hair; tastes too familiar– the vegan wheat-berry toast sandwich with cucumber slices, red peppers and alfalfa sprouts; and smells too familiar–that is, all but the now-banned heavy blanket of cigarette stink masking the faint smell of marijuana.   I wonder if anyone here understands.  I am reminded that ideas never die until our oppressors burn the libraries.  Though ideas might live on as oral history, they mutate with each passing generation, pollinating diverse small factions of disciples, each claiming the sole right to the wisdom and power of the mutated idea. Lacking property, it is equally dangerous to try to hold on to ideas.  Either one can get you killed, but the combination is the stuff wars are made of.

Walt has a new set of glasses and is still adjusting to the bifocals as he struggles with the menu.  His frames are of the oversized aviator-style popular in the seventies. With his rubber-banded, long grey ponytail, Hawaiian shirt and full white beard, the stylish, dainty spectacles popular today would be incongruent with his self-image and at odds with his rearview-mirrored worldview.

Walt Burton is that person for whom the word curmudgeon was devised.  He does not own a computer, doesn’t want one.  Like many his age, he cannot navigate the Internet or receive an e-mail.  He travels cross-country by train, has rabbit ears on his black and white TV, prefers the radio anyway, pays his bills with cash, drives the surface roads not the highway, and in spite of being a photographer, does not own a digital camera.  Until recently, he has been shooting with an inexpensive, embarrassment of a small plastic-lensed, consumer point-and-shoot.  But all that is about to change with Charlie.  Soon Walt will be visiting the local camera store to buy a used SLR—one that shoots film—his first since three years ago the gas and electric meter reader helped himself to Walt’s bag of Nikons, left absentmindedly by the unlocked basement door, the true nature of the cameras’ disappearance being a mystery.

Frustrated, he now reaches deep into his pocket retrieving his well worn Maglite, the same one he uses in the dark to make his way across my lawn to his car, without tripping on the stainless aircraft cable that secures my garden furniture against walking away in the middle of the night, like my trashcan, potted plants and doormat did before them. Modern urban living has its price.  As he applies the flashlight to the menu, we are interrupted by our waitress, an angelic young lady of about nineteen.  Walt lifts his gaze from the menu to assess our visitor.

“One-twenty-five”

…a confused reaction…

“Excuse me.”

“I’d say you’re about one-twenty-five and five four.”

Apparently unbothered by the personal direction of this line of conversation she responds,

“Actually I’m one-fifteen”

“It’s the shoulders.  You have broad shoulders.”

He shamelessly takes another look.

“Thirty-six C.”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’re very lovely.  You could be in Playboy.  You know, I used to shoot for Playboy.  That was years ago. I’m Walt Burton and this is my friend Michael.  We’re photographers. I’m the old fart and he’s the techno wizard.”

“Hi, I’m Charlie.  I used to be a boy.”

Modern times require a modern defense.  For years it has been a popular strategy for young women to ward off unwanted approaches by claiming to be Lesbian, but this, the transgender defense, well that’s new.

“Well, you did good.  They look very real.  They have a nice perky bounce to them.  You should be proud.”

“So, what will you guys be having?”

The Playboy gambit is no false approach.  Walt was a photographer for Playboy back in the sixties.  Now that he has passed his 73rd birthday, those memories are just a small part of a long and varied career devoted to photography.  In any other situation with any other person, I would be asking myself what is being sought with this line of conversation, but with Walt, I’m not sure even he knows.  I suppose it’s a form of flirting that just says, “I may be over seventy, but I’m still in the game.  I still got it.”  Whatever “it” is.  I have known many friends, male and female who flirt with no intention of follow through, just to flirt.  The flirt is the reward itself.  The trick is to keep it friendly, not appear menacing and to want nothing in return except the exchange itself.  The risk is that it can arouse long forgotten feelings or invite unwanted attention.  In this case Charlie carries the latter risk, Walt the former.

I have been with Walt in many environments and watched helplessly as he interjects himself into the activities of unsuspecting strangers, sometimes creating fear and confusion. It’s a lot like being in the front seat of the roller coaster as it crosses the first hilltop, just before the big drop.  Logic tells you that it will be all right, that the coaster will stay on the track, that you will live to walk away from the ride…  but then again, there is that one-in-a-million chance that today will not be the same as yesterday.

Early evening a youthful Middle Eastern family is about to cross the street with their young child who runs ahead.  The woman is startlingly attractive. Her lithe boyish figure revealed by the wind in her plain cotton dress, her hair wrapping her face in soft tendrils, she follows her husband, a tall handsome man who is now becoming increasingly aware of Walt’s unwanted attention from his slowly passing car.  He looks to his child, but Walt looks to the woman.  The man’s eyes lock with Walt’s with all the intensity of a tracking device on a fighter plane about to destroy an enemy.  But with a few complimentary words about his family, a smile and a laugh, Walt diffuses an otherwise ugly situation and drives on.

Later that night, two very attractive young girls are about to exit Starbucks with their evening coffee, when Walt rises abruptly from his table and blocks their path.  As he approaches them, they each take a step or two backwards.  He is in their space.  They have learned well, their auto response is good.  He begins by talking about their most unusual shoes.  In short order they are at ease and their fearful faces turn to laughter.

And so it is with “Charlie”.   A week later, Walt is conversing with her on her cell phone, planning a variety of nude photography shoots together.  On another day they meet to review wardrobe and to shop for naughty clothes for the shoot and for the first time in many years, Walt is shopping for a real, if yet woefully outdated, camera.

Walt takes in the world and relishes each moment but like most of us he lives in a future that is governed by his past. Perhaps that is the nature of art, the shaping of raw elements of the real world to conform to our understanding of the past and a desire to carry something of that forward into the future.  Art is not life, but it parallels life, imitating it to the extent that our limited experience is filtered through our consciousness taking form as a concept, that according to our ability to shape solid matter into an illusion provokes others to share in that consciousness.  It has been said that success is based not on talent or ability or luck so much as on persistence.  On the other hand, it has been said that the definition of insanity is making the same mistake over and over again, expecting different results. Certainly there must be a direct correlation between success and insanity.  If that holds true, Walt is long overdue for a winter storm of success.

Blissfully careening down narrow streets at the wheel of his luxury sedan, lost in thought and high on conversation he bumper-rubs the tail of a parked car, ignores a stop sign and hops the corner curb flattening a group of purple pansies.  An occasional burst of speed thrusts the car jerkily forward as his excited mind issues commands to his vehicle through his stiff control.   Sitting too far forward, elbows low and at his side, forearms extended, locked in place, pedal to the floor; he doesn’t have the physical space or posture to properly negotiate the steering.  Unaware of the many non-fatalities of the evening he rockets on.  Once on land he is equally off balance.  Consumed in his thoughts he fails to see the concrete parking bumper and falls into an extended modern dance interpretation, remaining airborne for at least five seconds, lighting occasionally as a cart-wheeling butterfly an elbow here, a knee there, skidding across the blacktop and up the sidewalk into a cluster of evergreens and flowers, where he regains his breath to continue the conversation.  The world is Walt’s China shop.  And the dance continues as the old bull thrusts himself upon an unsuspecting public.

Now loose, there is not a hint of the kind of stiffness apparent in his techno wrangling of the car.  No, he effortlessly slips into the conversations of others, wedging himself tightly in the narrow spaces of dialogue and erupting with enthusiasm to startled onlookers.  The China falls. He disarms their scared and confused reactions to what would otherwise be regarded as menacing behavior, with compliments and laughter.  More China falls. In one moment he engages the family of a severely deformed Alzheimer’s patient and in the next he advises a young child about safety. Then he moves on to a group of women out on the town, coming full circle to a young couple enjoying their ice cream. No one is off limits. Referring to him as  “Dad” I smile and usher him on, explaining that he just got out of the hospital this very evening.  Looking backwards over my shoulder, we retreat to the relative safety of the car.  They seem to understand.

Occasionally, Walt is flush with cash and when he is, he spreads it around like salve on the weary wounded he meets on the street.  A wallet full of C-notes doesn’t last long and he gives sympathetically to stranger and friend alike, his only criteria being that he can recognize a real need that he can ameliorate.  Walt and I have shared many dinners together and it is a rare event when he allows me to pick up the tab. His relationship with his money is as paradoxical as his relationship to his art.

At moments like this, it’s hard to believe that Walt is possibly the most reviled person in all of professional photography. Without exception, whenever I meet someone new in the professional photographic community, they know “Crazy Walt”, said acknowledgment usually followed by a spew of necessarily censored comments.  Nor is Walt unaware of his past or his affect on people.  He once relished in telling me a story about jumping over an office desk to assault a prominent millionaire client who had made him uncontrollably angry, ending the evening’s altercation by bending his finger backward until it broke. More China.

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Letter in support of Amy Goodman

August 18, 2009

Chris Coleman, St. Paul Mayor

And John Choi, St. Paul City Attorney

cc: St. Paul Star Tribune, letters to the editor

cc: Democracy Now

September 18, 2008

Dear Sirs,

I use this entirely inappropriate salutation, in place of the standardized “to whom it may concern” as the city of St. Paul acting in collusion with the Fascist element of the RNC has exercised Draconian measures in denying the people of the United States alternative press coverage of the Republican National Convention without concern for a constitutionally guaranteed free press. By arresting Amy Goodman and her staff photographers on obviously fallacious charges designed to intimidate journalists and corrupt our right to be informed, you do not even deserve to be addressed as “sirs”.  Were I able to think of an uncensorable and appropriate salutation, I would have gladly replaced it, yet there is none that satisfies both criteria.

I seriously doubt that authorized representatives of the persons responsible for the policies leading to this grievous misfortune acted alone or in ignorance.  Press credentials being what they are, and journalistic distance and objectivity being the benchmark of good reportage, the more plausible and historically consistent explanation is that your stormtroopers acted with foreknowledge and under instruction, rather than ignorance, to avert the electorate’s “right to know”.  That being the case, it is you, not she, that has acted with criminal intent.

Amy Goodman and “Democracy Now” may very well be the only alternative, national broadcast news media team left in the United States, and as such the only source not beholding to corporate sponsorship or influence.  To be unaware of her prominent position as an incorruptible journalist of integrity and courage would be an admission of incompetence in a person in your position and responsibilities.

To continue to pursue prosecution of Amy Goodman and her staff will serve no purpose except to bring shame and disgrace upon you and the city of St. Paul and amalgamate the sleeping forces you seek to repress into a more focused dissent through the creation of a martyr, for Amy Goodman is nothing short of a saint.  Her record is self evident.  Her stature is beyond reproach.

To call this event a colossal blunder would be kind, for it was clearly premeditated.  The damage that you have done to the reporting of this event cannot be undone and in that you may smugly take comfort.  The damage you have done to the democratic process can and will be undone, as this type of abuse of publicly granted authority will not be tolerated by the American people.

Sincerely

Michael Caporale