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Published : 25th August 2003

The last two Fridays I went to London's National Film Theatre and saw a lot of examples of hi def from all three relevant camera manufacturers and various formats - also witnessing 2k and 4k projection (clean, clean, super clean) –

During the week I also got involved in a couple of shoots one on Varicam and one on the Panavised Sony. I saw projections of a lot of stuff from lots of different sources, but one thing stands out: It's so, so, so damn clean !

It's a new standard of viewing: it's like listening to a CD instead of vinyl. There's no noise of a needle scraping away at plastic...You're in an operating theatre, an airport lounge, a suburb with lawns and white fences and no people present. Whatever we saw, be it shot with news or sports aesthetics, verite documentary, or pseudo 35mm drama - it was clean, clean, clean.

Even when the DP was trying to invoke atmosphere - smoke in the air (which always seems to show up bad in this medium because we see clearly that it's smoke), shoot underexposed print normal, desaturate - whatever - the cleanness of the medium screamed - "don't believe me" ! And then there's the issue of everything actually taking on the semblance of the 35mm look (minus 35mm artefacts). So the progressive scan actually delivers "film distance". Now every DP helped by the post process is inferring high production values - without actually delivering them - except in rare cases. What happens when it's only your department that's reaching 35mm values because there isn't the budget for other departments to match your inherent advantage ?

Oh, and there were clips from star wars as usual and it looked like the packaging you get round a burger, or plastic wrap on a new toy. (Christopher Lee still being buried alive - this time in a CGI coffin).

I showed a piece that was period - somehow it didn't buy, I mean it was great looking, the actors did their stuff, wardrobe, costume etc etc and the lighting was nice... but, but, but.... A cold chill ran down my back.

For the odd commercial I don't think there's a problem, the doc or drama series on tv should get away with it too, because when that occasional shot sticks out saying that it is in fact video then the medium will make it ok. But for a sustained drama in the cinema... ?

It's like we dive into a pool but the salinity of the water won't let us dive very deep...Help me here: Are we really going to have to overprint film scratches to get over this intermediate stage ? That can't be the way it would be like using valium. I'm convinced that the essential problem is that the materiality of the medium is somehow prohibiting entry into the viewing experience. For me cleanness in this medium is a problem. Is it just that because it's so new we're not being clever enough yet ? Is there someone out there with a bit of alchemy that can melt bytes down.

Is there's some solution that's just out of vision ? Maybe I just OD'd on too much of the stuff... It all looked too easy to achieve the semblance of craft - and that cold chill is still there.

Terry Flaxton


Were the things you viewed projected Digitally or transferred and projected on Film??

B. Sean Fairburn

I think you're overreacting a bit, Terry. Surely any improvements in image quality from a purely technical standpoint are welcome. We can always find ways of degrading an image if necessary for creative purposes.

If we get beyond the "textural" difference between film and digital projection for a minute: There have always been two opposing principles at work in filmmaking. One is the notion that film should be a clear "window" on reality, and the larger and sharper the image is, the more immersive the viewing experience, the "you are there" feeling that processes like Cinerama, Todd-AO,

ShowScan, IMAX, etc. have tried to create.

The opposite principle is that the ways in which film is NOT like human perception -- like being 2-D, having grain, etc. -- all help the processes of creating the willing suspension of disbelief because these artefacts help mask the artificiality of the image (the use of sets, actors in makeup, 2-D special effects like matte paintings, etc.) We rely on a certain amount of "smoke & mirrors" to sell the image as being real and not fictional, in order to tell fictional stories.

A typical movie might actually employ both ideologies at various points – a 3-D-like, immersive, highly detailed "you are there" feeling at one moment and a 2-D, diffused, flattened, painterly look another time (just compare one of the super wide-angle shots in a 65mm film like "Oklahoma!" or "2001" to one of the more traditional long-lens close-ups in the same movie.)

So while most everyone agrees that the 1280 x 1024 pixel limit of current DLP projection technology is inadequate to hold detail on a big screen without being aware of the pixel grid pattern, I'm sure some will think that a 2K or 4K projected image will seem too clean & sharp.

Personally, I'm all for it, anything that gets closer to the quality of a first generation 35mm print or even starts to achieve the quality of a 70mm print. And as for weave, jitter, etc., most IMAX projection, which is film, is rock-solid -- and certainly I don't miss the jitter when watching IMAX (in fact, it would be highly annoying.) I personally don't feel that more artefacts like jitter and dust & dirt flying by are adding to my emotional immersion in the movie going experience.

I don't have a problem with the notion that movie projection someday might get sharper, more steady, less dirty, etc. Of course, I also think that film projection is "warm" while digital projection is "cold", just as one feels that way with good analogue should versus digital sound. When I saw "This Is Cinerama" at the New Neon Theatre with 5-track surround sound coming from a 35mm full coat mag, I was amazed at how could it sounded, and how less "brittle" is sounded compared to modern digital recording and playback. It had a certain amount of hiss, but otherwise, it was technically flawless. I can see someone complaining about digital projection - ONCE it gets good-enough -- in the same way about digital sound. But as for the notion that if an image is too sharp, clean, etc. to make actors standing in WW1 costumes look realistic, that's partly a problem of conditioning in the viewer plus simply quality-control. "Lawrence of Arabia" is set in WW1 and is a super-sharp, clear, detailed image and yet we don't feel that it lacks believability because of that.

However, we might have had the photography, art direction, costumes, and make-up had not been top-notch enough. But I do agree that shooting such a period setting in an all-electronic means (digital capture and digital projection) starts to be so far removed from what we are used to, plus we our visual ideas of what the early 20th Century looked like are formed by photographs, that it feels "wrong" to us (or some of us.) But I wonder if we would have the same reaction to period settings from a pre-photography era (like the Roman Empire) shot and projected digitally.

David Mullen
Cinematographer / L.A.

>Help me here: Are we really going to have to overprint film scratches to get over this >intermediate stage ?

I have many many thoughts and little time today so I'll spare you all.

Meanwhile I hope you'll allow me this observation: When I first heard CD's one of them was "Abbey Road" and although "super clean" as you put it, it really did bother me, it didn't sound "right" in fact sterile (the plastic packaging in your metaphor).

The next I heard was the "Rainy Day" side of Jimi Hendrix "Electric Ladyland" and I remember thinking THIS is great because all of his feedback distortions and noise (relax, Dale were audible *as distinct* from surface noise one might typically hear on vinyl).

More later, gotta prep to shoot fireworks (a very analog medium )

-Sam Wells

>For me cleanness in this medium is a problem. Is it just that because it's so new >we're not being clever enough yet ?

Allow me to use television as an analogy. Strange analogy, but hear me out. Prior to about 1984, all film television programs were delivered on film, and those prints were telecined for air. In 1984, Lorimar did an experiment with "Knots Landing" and posted it completely on videotape. Other shows followed, and other studios followed. The thing was, "Knots" had been finished on film for a number of years prior to that change. The look of the prints was the look of the show. When the change to video post happened, the show began to be transferred directly from the camera negative. The look, needless to say, encompassed much of the "cleanliness" you're now seeing in theatrical projection of video acquired material - more detail than we were used to, less contrast in some areas and more contrast in others (i.e. different gamma), different colorimetry (in many ways closer to the real-life colors), and more clarity than we had ever seen on film prints.

My first reaction, and that of a lot of other people, was that the video posted shows looked "cheap," that they lacked the "richness" of the prints. Over time, two things have happened. One, the approaches taken in post have improved, and two, most people have simply gotten used to the "new" film-on-television look, and come to appreciate some of its advantages.

This is all a rather long winded way of saying that personally, I think it's inevitable that there will be more and "better" video acquisition, and that it will eventually become the accepted aesthetic. Hell, it already is among the video game generation.

Mike Most
VFX Supervisor
IATSE Local 600
Los Angeles

In response to Sean Fairburn's question:

"Were the things you viewed projected Digitally or transferred and projected on Film??

Everything that was projected, was projected digitally - except, ironically, one thing I brought originated on HD and transferred to 35mm (that had been scratched). The irony here is - I've been pushing the idea that video could be lit well for years.

I'm going to think on the other messages - the list gets to the UK
after 12am so my brain is pulp - thanks guys

Terry Flaxton

> Sean - everything that was projected, was projected digitally -

Terry This might sound like an over simple response but it is absolutely True.

What you Saw looked like Video because it was Video.

Good HD when done well and transferred to Film Looks like Film because it is Film. It gets back all the "Dirty" little artefacts that you associate with Film but it has less dynamic range especially in the Highlights.

Sounds pretty Basic but it is sometimes just that simple. I have tested this quite a bit and I am Amazed by it. Like being baptised in the chemical bath as the images are transformed into a new creation now on Film.

I am also never satisfied with anything I have seen yet that starts and stays in the Digital world that claims to posses such Qualities they are never authentic and its easy to see.

B. Sean Fairburn

Well, maybe I over reacted and I take the points that were coming back to me - thanks guys again. I saw a lot of digitally projected HD and it was a shock in its intensity and cleanness. I mean I work with the stuff, and there's a lot that I could respond with, but I'm seriously into mulling this one over. David you said: "We can always find ways of degrading an image if necessary for creative purposes".

And there's the rub because I don't want to just gloss it over (or rather simply degrade it) I want to crack the issue, articulate what's going on to myself, start to try to find the truth of this one.

Terry Flaxton

To add my two-pence worth to David's excellent reply, I have followed this HD versus Film debate for a long time and can't help but compare it to what happened in music making in the beginning of the eighties. With the advent of the Yamaha DX7, using wave modulation FM technology, music producers suddenly had the opportunity of reproducing orchestral sounding music from a simple box.

In fact Alyson Moyet's first album, Alf, was almost entirely DX7 generated. It had the musician's union in uproar and everyone was counting the days to the demise of the live band. Yet, 20 years down the line, live musicians are still out there with their instruments and orchestras are still conductor led. Of course things have changed, but producers and composers choose to use a mix of sounds, samples included, to make music and the quality of that music still depends on the composers and musicians, not the box they use.

Whenever I get asked how I would deal with one format choice or the other, and lets face it, its very seldom the cinematographer's choice which format will be used, I always reply "celebrate your medium". With other words, if the requirement is for video, make it good video, if it is for film, make it good film.

Don't compare apples and oranges, enjoy each for what they are and can give. As with the DX7, we are led to believe that this new magic box will replace film, it won't happen. We just need to find what works to our advantage in all media and use these benefits to our advantage. I know what I prefer, but I still think "Festen" was a great movie, regardless of the way it was shot. I have used every medium available apart from IMAX and have never thought "if only this were...." Don't be afraid of over sharpness or different gamma, use it!!!

Roger Simonsz