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ARE WE THERE YET?
HD continues its journey into the mainstream.

BY JAMIE STUART

HARRIS SAVIDES AND DAVID FINCHER ON THE SET OF ZODIAC. PHOTOS BY: MERRICK MORTON

As the transition from film to digital feature production ramps up before us, one thing is certain: HD is here. Still to be answered, however, is the dilemma: is HD there yet?

Sony first introduced HDTV technology in the late-1980s, initially as an analog system, but it wasn’t until the development of digital HDCAM with a pixel ratio of 1920 x 1080 in 1998 that the format achieved any legitimacy. Further status was granted the emerging medium by George Lucas in 2000 when, armed with a “Panavised” Sony CineAlta HDW-F900, he shot Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones in 24P. While it can be argued that Lucas’ decision was based more on the practical needs of his VFX, suddenly, for the first time since the birth of cinema, celluloid had a qualified competitor.

One hundred years is a long time. But time doesn’t stand still, and neither does technology. Just three years after George Lucas made his controversial decision, the once state-of-the-art HDW-F900 had been updated and surpassed. Some of its drawbacks, including image compression, were modified for the HDW950, which was used for Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. By the time Episode III was released in 2005, Panavision had released its premiere HD system, Genesis, and Michael Mann used the Thompson Viper FilmStream Camera to shoot most of 2004’s Collateral. Not far behind, Arriflex unveiled its D-20, based on a Super 35mm image width. Then there was the prototype for a 4K camera called Red One, and Vision Research created the Phantom HD to handle high-speed shooting. Also, the Dalsa Origin was developed in part by Ed DiGiulio, famous for mounting the NASA Zeiss lenses on Stanley Kubrick’s BNCs.

These advances even trickled down to the prosumer level, where first 24P entered the Mini DV field; then all of the major brands began marketing a mess of competing HD formats based on HDV, DVD, hard disk and P2 cards, the flagship of Panasonic’s endeavors.

As it turns out, the professional systems are probably just as varied and competitive as the prosumer models. While they’re all working toward a standard 1920 x 1080 format, image capture can be differentiated by the number and size of the CCD chips a camera uses, whether or not it records to tape, the amount of compression required and even the size of the lenses. But amid the confusion of this unavoidable transition from celluloid to digital cinema, the fact remains that good old-fashioned film is still the standard to beat. It is this simple conclusion that colors most professionals’ views on HD and, that said, an interesting conundrum has developed around the issue of whether digital should simply be used to replicate the look of film or be allowed to develop its own attributes and idiosyncrasies.

In the past year, we’ve had some high-profile test cases for the emerging digital cinema. On one side, there were movies shot on Genesis like Superman Returns and Apocalypto — neither of which sought to announce its digital origins, though they were undeniably synthetic looking. At the other end, and much more controversial, there was Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, shot on the Viper, and David Lynch’s Mini DV Inland Empire, shot with Sony’s PD150 — both of which intentionally displayed grainy and distorted images that inherently called attention to their formats. Comparatively, while the first two drew scant attention for their aesthetics, the latter two sharply divided both critics and audiences, with those in the pro camp hailing the films for their beauty and newness and those in the negative suggesting they resembled an old, worn-out VHS tape.

MARK RUFFALO IN ZODIAC. PHOTO BY: MERRICK MORTON

The latest evolution in HD technology will be introduced to theaters shortly in the form of David Fincher’s long-anticipated Zodiac, about the San Francisco serial killings of the late 1960s. Photographed by Harris Savides, ASC, using the Viper, it boasts of being the first major Hollywood production that will exist as pure data from beginning to end. Having developed the Viper to his own specifications, Fincher bypassed tape for an S.two hard drive, and in the process captured the movie completely as 4:4:4 uncompressed HD, an impossibility with tape.

The straight-talking Savides describes the situation bluntly: “Everybody who’s shooting this stuff is a guinea pig right now.”

“Everything is still R&D,” he elaborates. “I feel like these movies being made are just little experiments for the big conglomerate studios. They’ll see what it’s like, what’s gonna happen, see the best way to handle it down the road.”

The fluctuating nature of the technology means that most filmmakers still have to fight to shoot their films on HD. Directors like Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez can get away with HD because they keep their budgets down. But once budgets start rising to $100 million, or tent-pole status, the resistance is much fiercer. Savides says his hat is off to Fincher for making Zodiac happen in such an unconventional manner: “He’s amazing. I don’t think anybody could’ve done it this way. David had to figure it out on his own, and then present it to the studio. He had to do smaller projects, commercials. He’d been using the Viper, got really used to it. So by the time I stepped in he had gotten the Viper integrated and he’d figured out how to make the camera work. When I got there, 90 percent of the problems had been ironed out. I was just part of the creative solution.”

A distinct decision was made by Fincher and Savides to minimize any intrusion of the new technology into the storytelling. Zodiac isn’t an FX spectacular like Superman or Sin City, types of movies Savides believes are perfect for digital, but a reality-based character study. The theory was, says Savides, “when an audience is in the theater you have to present a reality, or at least lose them in that reality for those two hours.” For Zodiac, this was complicated by the ’60s and ’70s setting of the story, an era of great visual familiarity. “It’s hard enough to screen reality and make people believe that what they’re watching is real,” he continues, “so when you have a period movie like we did, and to present it with a new technology, my concern was that it was going to add one more layer of artifice on top of all the other artifice that moviemaking brings to the act of storytelling — actors, sets, props explosions —whatever other bullshit you have to present to an audience. But now we had this technology inherent on the screen, this imagery, and I just didn’t want it to look like video.”

Keeping that in mind, Savides says, “I tried hard to impart a character to the imagery that would make it feel like film, or at least older than the footage I initially saw from the Viper. I struggled with the technology to give it a look of film — and I think we were pretty successful. It’s very banal. It’s very dull. The production design is beautiful and of the period, but it’s not too overdone, it’s very subtle. Everything, [including] the colors, were chosen to that end, to work well with the Viper.”

This is an area, the aesthetic difference between film and digital, where everybody has an opinion. Though well known for her Mini DV work with Spike Lee and Rebecca Miller, d.p. Ellen Kuras, ASC, has used the Viper on commercials. “I think that digital has its own integrity,” she says. “Personally, I still prefer to shoot with film negative. I can see with digital now, it’s being made to respond to certain concerns of cinematographers, in particular about the latitude and the ratio of light and what it’s able to handle, and how we’re able to use it as a tool. I think there are two distinct feelings that come from each medium. I don’t think that one supplants the other necessarily. Whether digital supplants film in the future remains to be seen.”

Neil LaBute, whose directing career began with the five-figure In the Company of Men, which, had it been made a decade later, might’ve been a prime candidate for a digital format, says, “I think it’s important — vital, actually — that video maintains its own life and look. It seems as if most filmmakers who utilize video do so for very specific reasons, whether economic or aesthetic, and this seems valid to me. Why treat the medium as the poor cousin of film when it can have its very own, distinct personality?”

MICHEL GONDRY’S STAR GUITAR MUSIC VIDEO.

Michel Gondry, like most, still prefers film for capture, though when he has shot video, he’s followed a non-invasive philosophy: “On “Star Guitar” [a Chemical Brothers video], we went onto a train and shot days of footage. My brother was doing the special effects, and I told him, ‘I just want to have this texture, this video texture from a camera on the train, so whatever you do, I don’t want it to look clean or futuristic or perfect. You just have to repeat each element with the rhythm. But each element has to look real.’” He further warns about the aesthetic transition from film to video: “Something that looks really on the edge now, in five years is going to look very dated because the technology is evolving.” (For his current feature, Be Kind Rewind, Gondry and Kuras shot some of the footage on the lowest of low-fi video formats, VHS.)

For Savides, meanwhile, “the benchmark is still film.”

Invariably, as much as the discussion centers on aesthetics, it ultimately comes down to the technology. HD neither looks like traditional film, nor is it worked with in the same manner. So a cinematographer treading into these waters has a double duty forced upon him. It’s hard enough just trying to adapt to the look of video — but on top of that, each system operates differently and each is constantly being improved.

Shooting Zodiac with the Viper, Savides, who often likes to operate the camera, found his freedom slightly inhibited. However, he had previously photographed Fincher’s The Game, as well as his commercials and second-unit work on Se7en, so he was well accustomed to the director’s use of preplanning. In that sense, the Viper worked perfectly for Fincher’s filmmaking process.

As developed by David Fincher, the Viper setup used on Zodiac was structured around random access hard drive capture. Whereas most systems, including the CineAlta and Genesis, are solely tape-based — and even Michael Mann’s use of the Viper was tape-based — here the image was recorded as pure data. Furthermore, both the sound recording and the slate were integrated into the capture. To make this work, the camera was run through an “umbilical cord” and controlled by a technician at a computer station. It was this technician who started and stopped the recording, and the camera was so dependent on this person that if he was away from his station, Savides couldn’t even look through the viewfinder.

Beyond controlling the start and stop, the capture technician was also capable of offering the cinematographer a color-corrected demo of any given shot as it was being lit and photographed. However, this capability also led to an attempt at standardizing any given sequence; Savides was asked to create a series of templates such as Day Exterior, Night Exterior, Day Interior, Night Interior — which he refused to do. He explained, “I couldn’t look at them. I didn’t want the look-up tables to bias my eye. I wanted to work with a neutral slate, and that neutral slate had to be that RAW file. It’s the only way I could understand what I was doing everyday. The look-up table would slant you toward whatever you made that look like.” Furthermore, “there’s no way that you could generate a look-up table for every scene in a movie with the scope of Zodiac.”

Kuras relates that during one show where she used the Viper, she found herself in a battle with a capture technician. She wanted to blow out some backlight, but the technician, afraid that the light would be off the scale, rebuffed her. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Who’s gonna be the fall guy?” Savides said he had no problems on his shoot, and that a situation like that was probably the result of differing personalities. It does illustrate, though, the added difficulty that results from adding a new crew position while taking a certain freedom away from the cinematographer.

Faced with this new approach, Savides ultimately found himself working in a more intuitive manner than normal. This even affected how he dealt with one of the most traditional tools of photography, the light meter. While the Viper has a recommended ASA of 320, he admits, “You can’t rate it. I wasn’t using my meter after a while. I’d say it’s between 500 and 800. But you do it by eye.”

“When you really get down to the problems of photography and backlight — the problems that I deal with every day — if someone’s against the window and it’s four stops under in their eyes and the window it’s six stops hotter... I just threw everything away ’cause it just didn’t work. It never looked good. I would just do it by eye. Eventually I found a place where I knew that it would work. You’d learn that the highlights — you just couldn’t go there. Luckily, David had a movie that didn’t need highlights. We just didn’t shoot places that had hot backgrounds.”

One of the supposed advantages of shooting HD over film is its sensitivity to light. On this point, Savides was skeptical. “The toe [the sensitivity to dim light] of the Viper is extraordinary,” he says. “Not as good as the toe in film, though some people will say it is. But it’s not. It will get noisy. It gets very noisy in fact. You cannot do a night interior of a room like you can in film. You have to light everything up and then take it down. That’s disappointing to me, because I like to work in low levels, see things dark, instead of lighting things hot and printing them down. I’d rather see it the way it is, and the Viper doesn’t let you do that. That whole thing about shooting in practical light and not needing to light isn’t really true. Film is just as sensitive if not more so than the Viper.”

He did enjoy working with uncompressed HD and, coming from still photography, understood the importance of starting with RAW files. Strangely, a bit of a debate has developed recently over whether the uncompressed image is really any better than what’s recorded to tape.

Robert Strait, manager of digital technologies at Panavision, doesn’t think it makes much of a difference. “Part of that is a marketing game,” he says. “There’s a technical argument versus a perceptual argument. I myself can’t visually perceive the difference between an image that’s been compressed — depending on the type of compression, obviously — against something that’s uncompressed. And that’s something that’s been known inside the industry for a long time.”

On this point, perfectly illustrating the difference of opinion, Savides sharply retorts, “You can too [perceive the difference]! Compression is compression. That’s the problem with all those movies. The tearing, the artifacting you’re seeing in, say, Michael Mann’s movie — it’s all compression. It started from the compression. Once you start with compression, no matter what form it manifests itself as, it’s just a catalyst for problems down the pipeline.”

On the prosumer side, compression has been one of the major complaints holding back the HDV format, which tries to squeeze a 720P image onto a Mini DV tape and ends up looking more like high-end Mini DV than true HD. But that’s just another example of the current chaos of competing formats, as the industry slogs through the transition process.

Speaking of messy transitions and differences of opinion, the talk about HD inevitably segues to digital projection. Should it be 2K or 4K? Are celluloid movies really projected at their highest resolution of 4K anyway, or have they been degraded through multiple negatives and screenings to something just over 1K? Who pays for the transition? Who pays for the upkeep?

Strait is an advocate of digital projection, noting issues of quality control, as well as believing it will affect the front end of production. “The sky’s the limit,” he says. “What you see in the DI room is what you’re going to see in the theater. That’s the final frontier, as far as streamlining that digital pipeline. Then you’ll see a lot more digital acquisition for feature films.”

Kuras, in contrast, has reservations. “I think that not all cinemas are going to be able to afford the latest digital projectors,” she says. “That’s where the difference is going to lie. It’s going to vary widely. People are going to find the cheapest way to get it up on the screen. We all know that, ’cause that’s what winds up being the bottom line.”

Savides is unrepentantly enthusiastic about the advances in digital, arguing that current celluloid projection is a mess. “Digital projection is where it’s at,” he says. “Digital projection is great. It surpasses regular projection right now. Digital projectors are the best projectors in the world now, I think.”

He elaborates on the battle between 2K and 4K: “I think it would be great to get [digital projection] to 4K. The 4K projectors are phenomenal. I think that’s where it needs to go. Especially these tent-pole movies — that’s where this business is going to go. I don’t have a crystal ball and wouldn’t predict anything, but I think people are going to watch movies at home, and the major Hollywood business is going to rely on these big movies like The Polar Express that are going to be events. You’ll bring your family and friends and they’ll be these spectacles that will be in 3-D. They’ll be these visual treats that you’ll need to see in 4K. If the theaters are going to last, they’re going to have to draw people in with something like that. Otherwise, who goes to movies anymore?”

MIAMI VICE. PHOTO BY: PHOTOFEST

Perhaps it’s the theatrical expectation audiences have that’s made movies like Miami Vice and Inland Empire so controversial. It’s no secret that people receive more visual entertainment via TVs and computers than at movie theaters — and images on TV are clean and flat. Most people forget how grainy motion pictures used to be. Even a recent movie like Eyes Wide Shut, shot on film, received a mixed reaction for its degraded imagery.

“There’s certain expectations when you pay $12 now to go to a movie with your date on a Friday night. You buy your bucket of popcorn and you want to see your Michael Mann movie — there are expectations that we have,” says Savides. “But to make films and to be an artist, aren’t you allowed to be impressionistic? If you saw Miami Vice in this incarnation or Inland Empire in this incarnation at the Whitney Biennial, what would you say? You might think that you’ve seen something really extraordinary. Are there supposed to be rules? Is there a Dogma 2006 that the Academy should put out? When we make movies there must be a certain number of pixels? It must have a certain resolution? There must be a certain amount of focus? Otherwise it can’t be a movie? If you don’t like Charles Bukowski, is he not a good writer? It’s the same argument.”

For now, the transition continues. Will HD overtake film as a capture medium? And if so, will it be a system like the Genesis or one like the Viper? Most likely, some combination will triumph utilizing the former camera’s adaptation of 35mm lenses with the latter’s uncompressed hard drive acquisition.

But as the aesthetic seems inseparable from the technical, questions arise about the nature of movies and how we look at movies. Although this is a confusing era, it’s one we should be paying close attention to. When else could you pose an abstract question such as “How different would Fight Club be if it had been shot on a PD150?” — and have it truly resonate?

This transition allows filmmakers to wonder what the goals of movies are. Is it about how the audience feels? Does the new technology offer an image that captures the heart and soul of the picture? Or is it about streamlining the workflow? How easy it is to get a take? Or how quickly data can be accessed? At the end of the day, are we telling a story or talking about mechanics?

Enjoy the transition while it lasts. Once it’s over and standards have been adopted, it’s going to get pretty boring out there.

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