SURFING CHAOS Part II
Part 1 of my conversation with Howard Lukk, Standards Director for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), explored the historical antecedents for how the technical community has responded to disruptive technologies. In Part 2, we delve into the practical changes, and Local 600’s role in helping to safeguard the moving image through a now-fragmented digital pipeline.
Steven Poster: I recently saw a demo of a 1000-nit television [the minimum threshold for UltraHD Premium], and it hurt my eyes it was so bright; to me, that doesn’t seem practical for visual storytelling. Preserving suspension of disbelief has been my mantra since we first met, and digital technology arrived. There are parameters within the film standard of 24 frames per second – such as time between frames when there’s nothing on the screen, judder and weave, random grain – that force the brain to interpolate, which aids suspension of disbelief. Howard Lukk: Yes, and [the tool employed] should remain a creative choice by filmmakers, not a technological imperative.
Steven Poster: Years ago I talked to the Academy, Kodak, even James Cameron, about scanning the brain to see what areas [our cinematic processes] lit up. Everyone said it was a great idea, but no one wanted to pay for it! [Both laughing.] Now Dr. Corey Carbonara, professor of film and digital media at Baylor University, is working with Baylor’s Neurology department to test how different frame rates impact viewers, based on my original ideas and meetings we had with Local 600. That’s pretty exciting. Howard Lukk: I’m curious how we control the ambient environment as these new technologies enter people’s homes. Audio always leads visual because the bandwidth is much lower. So audio receivers come with microphones and speakers to calibrate the room, and I think we need the same thing for televisions. The problem is that TV manufacturers crank up the brightness to sell displays, and that’s the wrong thing to do.
Steven Poster: They actually have a setting for it! It’s called “dealer mode.” Howard Lukk: So if we could have [display makers] create a “home mode” that could help adjust the display to the ambient light of the room, then the benefits of HDR, of which there are many, could be fully exploited by members of your Guild. [Local 600 Technologist] Michael Chambliss is working on figuring out how we, as an industry, can start that conversation with the consumer display makers.
Steven Poster: That’s right. And Local 600’s panel at HPA [the Hollywood Production Alliance conference this past February] included the lead technologist from Samsung, saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea!” It’s important we keep urging manufacturers to use these new metadata tools to tell smart TV’s to adjust for different viewing modes –broadcast, live, movie, sports – to preserve creative intent. Howard Lukk: There are new technologies that return control of the image to the set. For example, the demonstration I saw at HPA, using Unity, showed how gaming engines can very quickly help previsualize camera positions, lighting, framing, et cetera, on set. There are also new projection technologies and immersive microLED environments – in lieu of green screens – that can help bake-in creative intent. The flip side is computational cinematography, where a multi-camera array provides so much control – through over-sampling – that focus, lighting, and camera positioning can all be left to post. That’s a Photoshop world…
Steven Poster: Yes. And a world where the director of photography must be involved all the way through postproduction, right up until delivery and release. Howard Lukk: I completely agree. The DP’s should be aware and learn about processes like computational cinematography, because there has to be coordination from on-set through that back end, where all of the ultimate decisions will be made.
Steven Poster: I think it’s even deeper than that. Framing and focusing the camera is an art – it’s not something that should be left to an engineer or a CGI artist… Howard Lukk: Or a producer…[laughing]
Steven Poster: Camera assistants, who have the artistic and intuitive skills to know where the focus needs to be to serve the story, must also be involved in post. We’re already seeing Guild camera operators brought into motion capture [environments] because directors and producers recognize the creative value. And we’re working to expand that awareness to include Pre-vis, too. End-to-end, technology is redefining the scope of our craft. These are our new frontiers. Howard Lukk: We need to look at the business incentive behind any new technology. 3D was the mechanism to sell digital cinema, because even if you shot on film, you needed to project digitally. Right now there’s a lot of investment in VR, but who’s making money selling VR content? Technology waves come and go, and it’s difficult to know which ones will endure. But gone are the days when a cameraperson could say: “I’ve learned my craft, so I’m good to go for the rest of my career.” You constantly have to keep educating yourself.