Meta (Data) Morphing

High-resolution workflows change the game at NAB 2013

Two thousand less attendees at this year’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas was an ironic reminder that anyone touting 2K gear ran the risk of being left in the entertainment industry’s technological dust.

It was all 4K, all the time: Canon – including their new 4K lenses with a set of primes, the 30-300 mm zooms and the 4K anamorphic lens – Blackmagic Design, Sony, AJA – all attacked the NAB show floor like four walls closing in.

“By far this has been the most exciting NAB I’ve been at in a number of years,” said Local 600 President Steven Poster, who guided the third annual ICG-sponsored tour through the giant NAB showroom. “Digital acquisition and image processing is beginning to mature into delivery systems that will prove great for some parts of the industry and not so great for others. What it’s great for is content archiving and for the ability to manipulate image quality, but it’s not so great when you consider how much information needs to be stored and what it’s going to look like when you have an actor in front of a lens at 4K. The photographic skills of lighting and lensing will become that much more important as we learn to tell stories with 4K and beyond.”

ASC president Steven Lighthill leading NAB workflow tour

Poster and ASC President Steven Lighthill led show floor tours of upwards of 35 people, Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Poster’s group stopped off at Tiffen, The Mac Group, KinoFlo, GroPro, Steadicam, Canon, ARRI and Band Pro.

“This year anything 4K or that supported 4K was of the most interest,” observed BandPro’s Jeff Cree after the booth visit. “The new lenses expanding the Leica Summilux-C Prime family and the new soft light panels from Fill-Lite seemed to get the most attention from this year’s tour. We enjoy working with Steven and ICG as they are always so focused on the new products that will help them perform at their [best].”

Lighthill’s rounds, which were more focused on post and workflow than camera systems, included Element Technica, Carl Zeiss, Codex, MTI Film, AJA, Blackmagic Design, Sony, and ASSIMILATE, where Steve Bannerman, VP of Marketing said “SCRATCH artists have been delivering 4K features since 2010, but it’s always been a highly customized workflow. It’s exciting here at NAB to get our first peek at the democratization of 4K. From storage, to graphics, to displays and projectors, capabilities of the components around SCRATCH are going up, and prices are dropping fast. We believe that mainstream 4K workflows will be the catalyst the industry needs to realize the promise of the amazing RAW images delivered by digital cinema cameras.”

After attending Poster’s Monday’s tour L.A.-based camera operator Sam Ameen noted that, “I had a very small window to attend NAB, so I welcomed some intelligent and pragmatic filtration with respect to my craft.”

ICG Magazine’s Revolution Panel / L to R: Matt Doll, A-camera operator, Director of Photography David Moxness, ASC, CSA, Bad Robot Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Worth, Supervising Producer/Writer Paul Grellong

Postproduction heavyweights in attendance, Adobe, Avid and Media 100 (Apple has yet to have a presence at NAB), all used the annual trade show to position themselves at the head of the high resolution sprint, providing software offerings that import and edit native 4K, including in 4K RAW and 4K Codec.

AJA was also in the game with its KONA 3G card that captures and outputs uncompressed and compressed 4K, as well as their Ki Pro Quad, which pairs nicely with the Sony F5s and F55s, although it can be used with most 4K cameras, except the RED.

And speaking of Sony: They proudly showed off their new 4K cameras – the F5 and F55 – announced a couple months ago, but still gaining traction in the support categories with gadgets from companies ARRI to Z.

RED Digital was looking to be ahead of the curve with its 6K Red Dragon workflow. Along with Peter Jackson and others, footage at nine-times more resolution than HD and over 19 megapixels shot with the Dragon was displayed on RED’s long-anticipated REDRAY, the first-ever commercially available 4K professional cinema player.

Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC, leading NAB show floor tour

The Phantom Flex 4K was perhaps the shiniest of new toys, but at $100,000 it was also one of the priciest (and won’t be available for public consumption until 2014). It boasts RAW 4K recording at up to 1,000 fps – a new technological feat.

“I usually don’t get very excited about the release of new cameras,” says cinematographer Greg Wilson, who was commissioned by Vision Research and Abel Cine Tech to shoot and produce the Phantom Flex 4K footage for NAB, Let Me Know When You See Fire. “But the image right out of the [Phantom Flex] was inspiring. It felt almost like shooting 65mm [not 35mm]. The depth is remarkable; and I haven’t seen skin tones look this good on a digital camera before – the color rendition is incredibly filmic, even compared to the Alexa. It’s very smooth but holds all this detail and with that resolution it’s the best looking, and the most versatile, digital cinema camera I’ve used.”

ECA Cocktail Reception guests / L to R: Vantage Camera Rentals co-owner Wolfgang Baumler, Local 600 1st AC Tammy Fouts, Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, ASC

The year’s NAB theme was Metamorphosis, as in a technological morphing into butterflies that can fly faster and see clearer than ever before. During the event’s keynote address on Monday morning, NAB’s Joint Board Chairman Paul Karpowicz opined that consumers are demanding content anywhere, anytime, on any device. That demand is pushing manufacturers toward borderless boundaries that may be difficult to achieve. Then again, when did the film and television industry not move too fast for its own feet?

Cinematographer David Moxness, CSC (aka “Moxy”) and A-camera operator Matthew Doll spoke to that affect on the ICG-sponsored panel, You Say You Want a “Revolution”? How Cinematographers and VFX Collaborate on the Hit NBC Drama. Like most fast-paced, big-budget TV shows, Moxness believes there is a strong desire in episodic television for lots of additional coverage and angles, which makes managing time a big challenge.

“You have to keep the story in mind all the time and ensure the visuals complement the narrative,” Moxness reminded everyone. “For me, often camera angles, focal lengths and image size play a big factor and are important elements leading up to and coming out of an exciting visual or event. I pay close attention to whether I’m in close-up with the character prior to the action, or cutting out wide for the event, whether I need to use a long lens or go close and wide. Speed is important as well – should I shoot any part of the sequence in slow motion? Those questions all go through my head. But I can’t get caught up in these big fancy [tech] events, when the most important goal is telling a story.”

The show’s VFX supervisor, Jay Worth, touched the rocky shores many VFX houses in Hollywood and beyond have washed up upon. Worth is based in Los Angeles with Revolution’s writers and editorial team, and said he’s thankful the studio gives him the flexibility to work with the vendors he chooses.

“It gives me the freedom to pick the artist based on specific expertise and taste as well as cost,” he explained. “The ability to take smaller fixes and shots to smaller companies saves us thousands of dollars over the course of the season, so more ends up on the screen in the end. There’s a lot of trust there,” continued Worth about his working relationship with Moxness. “Since Moxy and I have worked together on three shows now, the growing pains have gone.”

Shot in Wilmington, NC, on the Alexa, Revolution has integrated the largest amount of weekly VFX shots (about 60 to 90 per episode) into network television. And with Executive Producer J.J. Abrams’s track record for features, it makes sense that he’s coming into our homes now, too. “J.J. incorporates VFX into everything he does,” Worth added. “But he’s also just a real visual story teller. There’s a lot of collaboration on his shows between VFX crew, the writers and camera department.”

Paul Grellong, Supervising Producer and one of Revolution’s writers, spoke to that collaboration, revealing that from the minute the first draft of an episode script gets emailed around, they figure out the best way to prep a particular scene so that everyone is ready to put their best foot forward for the story and the visuals. “Early drafts are more descriptive than narrative,” Moxness added, “which is extremely helpful because we can instantly get a good visual of what road the team wants to go down.”

And if there’s one thing Local 600 knows best, its teamwork. In the second ICG-sponsored panel at NAB this year, two former Emerging Cinematographer Awards’ (ECA) honorees joined representatives from Tiffen and Canon for a conversation on technologies and toolsets, and how collaboration between manufacturers and end-users is more necessary than ever before.

As a child, Steve Tiffen used to come out to Los Angeles with his father as he met with heads of camera departments at the studios to talk about what they needed. “It was fascinating watching my dad come out and listen to their problems,” Tiffen recounted. “He’d go back to New York [Tiffen is headquartered on Long Island] with a fierce determination to solve those issues – creating the look they wanted with the control they needed. It’s not about what we want, it’s about what you the filmmaker wants and needs. If we do our job right, you’ll have the tools to do everything you want to do.”

Advisor for Film & Television at Canon, Tim Smith, reminded the audience that they’ve produced four cameras and 11 news lenses since November 2011 and stressed that all involvement is important, from the beginners to the veterans.

“You only have to look at the emerging DPs and know that we should be talking to them,” said Smith. “We’re not in this for two years, we’re in this for 50 or more.”

At the show’s opening address NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith had warned the crowd that the danger of being complacent is being left behind, and stressed that “we must continue to innovate and keep our eyes on the new doors that open.” Smith reassured everyone that the industry’s long-standing history to adapt and endure would continue to allow broadcasting, radio and television to thrive.

By Valentina I. Valentini. All photos by Beth Dubber.