Knowledge, preplanning keys to realizing HD production savings

In December 2007, HD Technology Update had an opportunity to spend an hour at a panel with Michael Bravin, chief technology officer (CTO) for Band Pro Film & Digital, and others discussing electronic cinematography, the progress of HD production in Hollywood and the impact HD is having on the film community.

With the tentative approval of the deal set to end the writers’ strike announced over the weekend and the relaunch of the multibillion-dollar motion picture and episodic TV production market, HD Technology Update thought it was appropriate to once more catch up with Bravin to get his perspective on HD production trends.

Bravin offered insightful observations that were too extensive for a single interview. This week, HD Technology Update presents Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will appear in next week’s edition.

HD Technology Update: Two years ago, I had a chance to visit one of your clients, Clairmont Camera, and see how they were modifying HD ENG-style cameras to be more in line with the expectations of the film community. How would you assess the acceptance of HD/2K production in Hollywood at this point, and are those efforts paying off?

Michael Bravin: They’ve rented the F900 with the modification and also modify the Panasonic Varicam. They are also doing some modifications to the F23. That being said, the acceptance of 1920 x 1080 for television is almost complete.

There are a couple of shows that were shooting on HD that are now shooting on Super 16. There are a couple of shows that were shooting on 35mm that are shooting on Super 16, but HD 1920 x 1080 digital production has steadily increased every season.

HD Technology Update: One of the things Clairmont was trying to do was to make the HD environment familiar to the folks who were coming to HD from a film background; thus, they moved the controls, for example, to places that would be much more comfortable to those who had worked in the film community.

Michael Bravin: One of the key initiatives that we have been a part of is easing the acceptance of electronic cameras that weren’t really designed for motion picture and television, dramatic production, but were designed for newsgathering and documentaries. An important way to do this is to accessorize and outfit these HD tools so that they operate in a way that is familiar to those working in film. The controls and operator interface must be familiar.

What Clairmont did — and Panavision to a certain extent and what some other rental houses have done — is to take the raw material of these electronic newsgathering-style cameras as delivered from the factory and modifying them so they are more friendly for film crews.

HD Technology Update: Has that effort been successful in building comfort and familiarity?

Michael Bravin: I think the biggest lure of these modified cameras has been the comfort factor because the controls are in familiar places. I think evidence of this is that when the F23 was announced and the film community saw it, almost unanimously people said, “My God, I can’t believe they actually listened. They actually made a camera that looks and feels like what we are used to using with our film cameras.”

HD Technology Update: What are you finding in terms of lens preferences for HD movie production? Are DPs and directors satisfied with the prime HD lens selection, or are they drawn to film lenses that they can attach to HD cameras with special adapters?

Michael Bravin: I think it depends on the DP and it depends on the market. I know a handful of our clients and many of our colleagues in Europe prefer to use 35mm lenses and an adapter. Some of it is an intelligent, creative decision because it is a tool you can use to capture the depth of field of 35mm film systems.

Some of it is misinformation that people have that somehow if you put a lens that’s from your film camera onto a digital camera, it makes the image look like film. The only “film look” would be that with one of these adapters you could get a shallower depth of field.

The problem is — and this is one of the things I want to make sure people understand — is that you lose performance of the lens in exchange for shallow depth of field. So, once people clearly understand that, there are some who choose to shoot with a 35mm film lens and adapter because they are willing to trade some technical performance for shallow depth of field.

In cinematography, pretty much everything you do is a trade-off. For example, there is a group of people who only want to shoot with DigiPrimes, and that group is the one that wants the lens to make a pristine, technically accurate images with a lot of contrast and saturation as well as a flat, evenly illuminated image with corner sharpness and little or no contrast diminishing flare. They trade off a tiny bit of depth of field control for more pristine images.

Then, there is a group of people who come from shooting film who mess with the image as much as they can, putting on filters, putting Vaseline on the front of the filters, weird lighting angles. They are going for an effect or look, and those people — some of them — aren’t interested in the DigiPrimes because they are too clinical-looking. They want something that is a little more textured and something that has a little more personality to it — a little softer, mushier-looking image, which, depending on what you are shooting, may be more desirable. This group is going to be more interested in using glass that may have a lower technical performance but has a certain look to it.

Then, there is the majority of people who I would say really have no idea, and that’s the group that shoots dramatic with ENG-style lenses because the ENG lenses are designed for shooting news and they work great, but they are not ideal for cinema production. However, they are a lot easier and relatively less expensive, so a lot of people just choose the lens that’s easier with the servos — and it looks good enough.

There are three groups: the group that wants technically accurate images that will go toward the Zeiss DigiPrimes, the Fuji E Series or Canon cine lenses specifically designed for HD production; then there is the group that wants the more stylized look, and they are going to be more attracted to shooting with motion picture film glass and adapters; and then the balance with no preference.

HD Technology Update: Is price an issue as well?

Michael Bravin: Another important issue is price. It can be less expensive to rent the older film primes and an adapter than it is to rent a set of the current digital primes.

The other thing we are seeing more and more is that digital cine zoom lenses are becoming much more popular because the quality of many of these lenses is going way up and they are faster to use — you can have one lens that gives you four or five different focal lengths without having to change lenses, and the compromise in performance is minimal.

HD Technology Update: Are you finding that more projects are being funded because it costs less to shoot in HD than in film?

Michael Bravin: It is true that a large number of high-end HD productions are slated for HD based on a perception of savings. What I am seeing increasingly, and it’s kind of disturbing, are productions that budgeted for 35mm film switching to HD because they believe that it is less expensive — and it can be less expensive. But, then they don’t do their homework, and they end up doing productions that are more expensive — and are kind of getting turned off to it.

As a general rule in any production endeavor, if you don’t know what you are doing or you are not properly prepared, it doesn’t matter what format you shoot in, it will be more expensive and take more time.

If you really know what you are doing and you really preplan, there’s an opportunity to save when shooting in HD. But, taking a crew that is experienced in film and is not expert in shooting HD can be expensive and unsuccessful.

HD Technology Update: What are some of the gotchas that you see most often sneaking up on people?

Michael Bravin: A big common misconception is that the difference in the equation when comparing HD to film acquisition is that the film and lab costs are the only differing costs and that everything else is the same. Another big misconception is that if you just shoot “flat” or just shoot “log” and do everything in post, this saves money. Again, it may, but not without proper preplanning and proper assignment of budget. Don’t forget that unlike film, these systems are in some sense WYSIWG in that what you are capturing can be very close to your finished product.

I would say overall, if you are shooting with an electronic cinematography system and film system side by side, and you know what you are doing, there is an opportunity to save time and money in addition to the cost of film and lab costs.

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