NAB 2011

NAB 2011 attendees gathered for the keynote address / Photo courtesy of NAB

The Road to Wisdom, Technologically Speaking. By Valentina I. Valentini.

Conjure images of the newest, shiniest cameras, the biggest and brightest displays, the most exciting leaps and bounds in the burgeoning 3D filmmaking world, and you’ve seen just a fraction of what NAB 2011 had to offer. In addition to the massive amount of new gear on the show floor, there were panels galore during the busy mid-week rush.

This year’s offerings were all about integration — streamlining workflow from pre-production to postproduction and back again. The hour-long sessions crammed in as much valuable information as possible — from discussions on groundbreaking image data preservation software, to DSLR workflow, to a new wave of CG animation techniques, and even how to make 3D on a budget.

One of the hottest topics last year was DSLR cinematography, so was to be expected that at least one of the 2011 panels would revisit the hybrid phenomenon. Between 2009 and 2010, the Canon 5D and 7D DSLR cameras went from relatively obscure still cameras to front-line use on film and TV projects like House, Tiny Furniture, Red State, and hundreds of high-profile commercials for clients including BMW, Nissan and others.

The DSLR Cinematography panel, moderated by American Cinematographer associate editor Jon D. Witmer, featured three cinematographers from distinctly different backgrounds, all singing the praises of DSLR capture. Russell Carpenter, ASC, (True Lies, Charlie’s Angels, Monster-in-Law), who was a stills shooter, and Svetlana Cvetko, an up-and-coming documentary and commercial DP, both bought a Canon 5D Mark II in 2009. John Guleserian, the third panelist, shot the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Like Crazy entirely on the 5D.

“Originally we’d thought about using the 5D as a B-camera and a RED® ONE as the primary shooter,” Guleserian revealed. “Then our producer suggested we shoot the whole film with it. I was apprehensive, but as we kept playing with it and Drake [director Drake Doremus] and I discussed how it could enhance the actors’ performances because of the camera’s low-key profile, we decided to use it for the whole movie.”

All panelists loved the low-key profile of the DSLR.

DSLR Panel, L to R: Jon Witmer, Russell Carpenter, Svetlana Cvetko, John Guleserian / Photo by Jon Silberg

“The capability of having multiple cameras, especially in documentary situations, is a big advantage,” explained Cvetko. “All of the projects I used a DSLR on, there was a cost factor. But when people look at the footage and realize that it’s great, it becomes an aesthetic choice as well.”

Carpenter said that when he was introduced to the 5D in 2008, he knew it would revolutionize how images could be captured.

“It was going to even the playing field of what could be produced for a limited amount of money, but at a professional quality level,” he recalled. “I wanted to use [the 5D] for insert shots, but at that time post-production houses couldn’t quite figure out how to make the compression of the H264 in these DSLR cameras translate into film space. Within a year though, they’d been embraced and people were doing some amazing things with them.”

The discussion also touched on the challenges DSLRs pose to camera crews, including potentially leaving focus pullers out of the equation. Although they added that since the units can be retrofitted, it’s not always a certainty that just because a project is going with a DSLR, the crew will be tightened down.

“When I go out with a camera by myself, I miss my assistant,” admitted Cvetko. “I always wish I had my focus puller and assistant with me because they’re so great at what they do.”

“The unions have been very responsive to the new technology: people are getting trained, and the people I work with are all up to speed,” Carpenter added.

All three panelists expressed the desire for some tech changes in the near future, like eliminating cables and getting hardware on-board to make sharing information from the cameras easier with post-production crews.

The myths and realities of a more streamlined workflow were also on tap for the Quality Filmmaking on a Budget panel, moderated by ICG Magazine editor David Geffner. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin said he brought the lower budget mentality of independent filmmaking to recent studio shoots like Sony’s Battle: Los Angeles and Lionsgate’s The Lincoln Lawyer.

“The perception that you have to pay big to go big isn’t necessarily true,” Ettlin insisted. “It’s about balancing quality and understanding the nature of a project with everyone else involved, including the producers and the studio and what they’re looking for.”

Local 600 Panel - GoPro to 3D: Quality Filmmaking on a Budget, L to R: David Geffner, Pankaj Bajpai, Lukas Ettlin, Sean McKittrick, Steven Poster, ASC, Scott Steele / Photo by Jon Silberg

Sean McKittrick, who produced director Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and The Box (both shot by fellow panelist and Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC), spoke about capture mode choice.

“In my opinion, it’s the producer’s job to make it work for what the DP and the director want. Sometimes what they want is impossible, but more often than not you can work it out. And more importantly,” McKittrick continued, “there’s a perception that once you dive below a certain budget level you can’t shoot union. But that is where all the talent is, and every union is going to work to your budget size. My approach with them has always been, ‘This is what we have, how do we do this with you?’ and every single time they’ve come back and worked with us and its never been a huge headache.”

As Pankaj Bajpai, a colorist at Encore, revealed, things are also changing at the end of the chain.

“One way to save money is by developing a relationship with your post house,” Bajpai offered. “When you get into the digital realm you’re not just sending your negative to a lab anymore. You’re sending it to a place that will somehow interpret what you’ve shot. There is an incredible amount of communication that needs to happen, in many cases, long before you even start shooting.”

3ality Digital stereographer Scott Steele talked about one of the big misconceptions in the industry today.

“There’s this assumption that because 3D systems are at the top of the industry in terms of technology, they are unattainable for many productions,” Steele said, “and that’s just not true. At one end of the spectrum we’re working on The Hobbit, but at the other end we have a documentary done with three people in a pick-up going around Wyoming shooting in 3D.”

The voice of craft-first no matter the budget, Poster urged the audience not to sacrifice quality because of money.

“With the release of the F65 from Sony and the Phantom 65, we’ve seen some really high-end equipment being developed,” Poster noted. “But we’ve also seen some really low-end equipment coming out, and there is absolutely a time and place for low-end digital capture.”

Another surefire way to maintain image quality was presented during the Justified/IIF/ACES panel. This new architecture for production and post (IIF stands for Image Interchange Framework) preserves image data and helps give digital capture a filmic look — like maintaining latitude where it was previously lost — has been called a groundbreaking new workflow, and is the product of six years of work by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Science and Technology Council.

Ray Feeney, co-chair of the council, spoke on the panel with Francis Kenny, ASC, Curtis Clark, ASC, and Bajpai, all of whom were involved in the development and implementation of IIF.

Justified/IIF/ACES Panel, L to R: Pankaj Bajpai, Francis Kenny, ASC, Curtis Clark, ASC, Ray Feeney / Photo by Jon Silberg

“The structure of the system we’ve been putting together at the Academy has been to provide a variety of different things, but primarily to provide an unambiguous method to get into the archive, to interchange materials from one facility to the other, and, most importantly, to move beyond the limitations of a 10-bit DI-type workflow,” explained Feeney, who also is president and founder of RFX Inc.

Bajpai, Feeney, Curtis and Kenny had tested IIF on previously shot material from season one of FX’s Justified, for which Kenny is the DP. In its second season, the television series became the first commercial production to implement IIF/ACES, with seemingly spectacular results.

“How lucky can you get as a cinematographer?” Kenny asked. “To have all these guys take your images and make them look even better, and then I get the credit for it? In all seriousness, [the capture] began to look more and more like film and I began to once again use my eye, rather than a meter or a monitor, to shape the image. What these gentlemen are doing is a miracle and truly a gift to cinematographers. With IIF, I can actually approach it like I’m shooting film.”

Another premise of IIF is to separate the laboratory steps from the creative steps.

“We’re seeing more of a discussion about what DPs can get when they go into DI —the nature and feel of the images and less of a discussion of the nitty-gritty mechanics of workflow,” explained Clark, chairman of the ASC’s Technology Committee. “That, to me, is an indication that this system is maturing quickly and becoming second nature for people in production.”

The development of IIF/ACES included input from color scientists from more than 50 different companies.

“We were trying to bridge the gap between electronic media and film and to provide the ability to have the best of both worlds,” Feeney said.

Another popular FX show, Sons of Anarchy, provided the backdrop for an in-depth panel on how to produce a gritty show about bikers. Kurt Sutter, creator, writer and executive producer, said he had a contact in northern California who was “living the life.”

“After seven seasons on The Shield, I was in a place to write about these damaged characters, this sort of pulp style with stories bigger than life,” he shared.

Sons of Anarchy Panel: L to R: Paul Maibaum, Kurt Sutter, Anthony Medina / Courtesy of NAB

After the pilot was shot, Paul Maibaum was brought on as cinematographer. Due to his comedy-rich background, Maibaum said he thought it might be hard to get onto a hardcore show of this caliber, but in fact it seems to have done the opposite.

“Now that I have Sons at the top of my CV, I get agents telling me they can’t even submit me to comedy projects,” he laughed. “I believe that once you’re given the parameters of what a project is about, a good DP should be able to shoot anything, whether it’s brighter and flatter – the standard for comedies – or darker and more real, something like Sons.”

Sutter’s main criteria for his DP in what he calls a “guerilla filmmaking” environment, was someone who could work and assess quickly, while still making it all look great.

“It’s a down-and-dirty schedule,” Sutter explained, “shooting eight pages a day on a seven-day shoot. I often find with other DPs that speed is not their strong suit. It was a critical aspect of bringing Paul in.”

The discussion also covered shooting fast and efficiently, even when with a cast of actors on motorcycles who aren’t stuntmen.

“When we’re shooting the guys on the bikes, we have two motorcycle rigs: one with a platform on the right side and the other a platform on the left, with an excellent driver who knows the safety measures that need to be taken,” Maibaum explained. “And even though the setup for shooting the bikes on the street can take an hour and a half, safety always comes first.”

The panel wrapped up with insight on the show’s look, which is accomplished in large part by Anthony Medina, the production designer.

“I had a few field trips that I can’t talk about too much,” said Medina. “I had the chance to see what this life looks like from the inside so that I could achieve the most real look possible.”

Sutter shared his opinion on his collaborators: “Because the look and the feel of the show is so real, sometimes people think that’s easier to get to than something that does look lit or staged. But it takes a lot of work and time to master that look [of realism].”

For the Rango panel, the next-generation in CG animation was discussed — an arena not traditionally tied to live-action cinematography. However Rango’s creative team —animation director Hal Hickel from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), visual effects supervisor and Local 600 member John Knoll (also from ILM), production designer Mark “Crash” McCreery, and co-writer and creature designer James Byrkit, both of whom had worked with Gore Verbinski, director of Rango, on Pirates of the Caribbean — all had live action backgrounds with no experience in animation.

“We come from the school of making things more complex, more textured, more layered,” explained Byrkit. “It didn’t matter that Gore or I had never done an animated movie before. We just said to each other, ‘Why don’t we not worry about that and let’s just make a movie that happens to be animated?’”

Rango Panel, L to R: John Knoll, James Byrkit, David Cohen, Variety; Hal Hickel, Crash McCreery / Courtesy of NAB

Byrkit, Verbinski and McCreery worked with ILM on the photo-realized Davey Jones character from the Pirates franchise.

“We figured we could use that technology to make this film,” Byrkit said.

Knoll and the team knew from the beginning that they wanted a photographic look.

“I know a lot of animated features use very careful stylization of lighting with contrast and colors to show form,” Knoll stated. “But I didn’t know how to do any of that.”

The panelists discussed how their cinematography approach to styling Rango was influenced by the films of Italian director Sergio Leone, revealing information through composition changes and camera motion.

“That’s kind of a dated look now,” allowed Knoll, “so we talked about what more modern pictures might be good keystones. Gore really liked There Will Be Blood [for which Robert Elswit, ASC, won an Oscar®] as a recent film with a beautiful style, and relevant to what we were looking for. On our first lighting test we were actually trying to emulate particular shots from Blood.”

“As soon as we threw away the whole animation caveat and opened ourselves up to what we learned from live-action, that’s when the flow started,” McCreery said. One of the ways they broke the rules of animation was in the number of characters they created. Generally, animated features have about a 12-character limit. In Rango there were no fewer than 60 characters, each with their own name and a little backstory, even if the character was only on the screen for a few seconds.

One of the final panels at NAB was an eye-opener for the dozens of cinematographers and hundreds of industry professionals who came to see an impartial and comprehensive evaluation of the image quality of 11 top digital motion picture cameras and 35mm film. It was presented by Bob Primes, ASC, and the Image Quality Geeks (IQG) — a group of DPs, engineers and image aficionados.

Primes recruited the IQG members to create 15 live-action and instrumented tests to evaluate the Sony F35 and F3, ARRI® ALEXA, Kodak Vision3 film, the RED ONE MX-sensor, Weisscam HS-2, Phantom Flex, Panasonic AF-100, Canon 1D Mark IV, 5D Mark II, and 7D, and the Nikon D7000. They tested each camera for sharpness, low-light sensitivity, exposure latitude, highlight detail, shadow detail, color quality, skin tone reproduction, compression losses and shutter artifacts. Offered as a work in the public domain, the presentation gives filmmakers the opportunity to compare these aspects of the cameras tested to meticulous standards.

“This whole thing began with a very strange phone call from Zacuto in Chicago last November,” Primes explained. “They provided the funding, but at my behest it was a completely independent test.” Primes’ brain trust included Josh Siegel (IQG), Mike Curtis (Pro Video Coalition), Bill Hogan (Clarity Image), William Feightner (EFILM), and Michael Bravin. Then Alex Forsyth, Jack Holm, Ray Feeney and Andy Maltz, all of whom are associated with the Academy’s Science and Technology Council, came on board. The DPs were Stephen Lighthill, ASC, Matthew Siegel, and Nancy Schreiber, ASC.

“While I don’t want to do this exact test again, I don’t believe this one is finished,” Holm said. “We tried very hard to get this stuff through ACES, but we were fighting the clock and didn’t get a chance to do so with every camera then; however, we have now. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this footage in the near future that will have taken out the differences in color analysis of the cameras.”

Lighthill acknowledged that they were really trying to test the boundaries of each capture device.

“In the real world, this test should be used judiciously,” he said. “For example, the RED camera test could have had improved lighting, but we weren’t changing the lighting for each camera. What it really comes down to is the fact that a $1,700 camera [a Canon DSLR] is competing quite well with a $16,000 camera [Sony F3]. So, whatever works for the project at hand is what you should go with.”