Configuring a 21st Century Camera Crew – Pt. 2
The second part of The Twenty-First Century Camera Crew and How it Works, which was produced in Association with the International Cinematographers Guild, and proved to be one of the most interesting panels I attended. David Geffner, The Executive Editor of ICG Magazine moderated the panel made up of Lewis Rothenberg, Digital Imaging Technician, TNS Productions, Inc.; Andy Romanoff, Technical Marketing and Strategy Executive, Panavision; Steven Poster, President, ICG, Director of Photography, International Cinematographers Guild; Jason Clark, Producer, Ways & Means Productions; Rodney Charters, who spent nine years as the Director of Photography on the hit Fox Television show “24″ and special speaker Gale Tattersall, DP from another Fox Television show “House”. This may be the longest article I’ve written for this blog, but I believe is worth the read.
Canon’s 5D camera, workflow issues and the growing popularity of 3D dominated a good deal of the discussion. Producer Jason Clark, who is well known for his films “Monster House”, ”Stuart Little: and the indie hit “Happy Texas”, told us how 70% of his upcoming movie for Warner Brothers “Act of Valor” was shot using the 5D. The film, an action piece about the Navy Seals, is the first studio feature to be shot primarily using this camera. “We have to shoot it with a great sense of immediacy in the action sequences. The movie actually stars real active duty Navy Seals,” Jason said. He went on to explain that this is the first time they’ve been permitted to be in a film and that when these guys go on an operation and you’re following them, you’re not necessarily directing them. With the numerous action sequences the crew had to travel light, move quickly and be able to operate in small spaces, while ensuring that other camera units couldn’t be seen, so they chose the 5D. Making this a challenge was that the work flow was hard to manage and the camera was untested in this type of project. They figured out how to deal with the frame rate and rendering issues and also discovered they could Panavision lenses on it, which greatly reduced the focus issues. The result is, it supported their creative vision. Jason was aware that having camera teams in the busy Cambodian marketplaces would bring thousands of people descending upon them, making shooting impossible with other types of cameras. “While we were shooting the 5D, we were anonymous. It made this movie possible. That camera system supported how we needed to movie,” he stated.
Gale Tattersall, who used the 5D to shoot the season’s last episode of House, said they chose the camera because they were looking to do something special this year for the finale. The 5D, “created an incredibly shallow depth of field and thus enabled us to put the actors into their own headspace. Quite a lot of our scenes are shot in a hospital that’s very geometric. It’s very distracting and fights for attention when you’re looking at an actor’s face,” he told us. However, once the decision was made to shoot using the camera “it turned out to be a nightmare.” he confided. “My first AC’s stuck pins in effigies of me.” Tattersall said that the camera was difficult to pull focus on and that it was “insanity” using the Canon lenses. “So, it was unbelievably, unbelievably difficult and we plunged ahead with it, He mentioned that the operators used Marshall Monitors which are great focus indicators with contrast etching and that worked incredibly well to aleviate some of the difficulties. The results turned out to be very satisfying, however. “We’ve achieved an amazing episode and something that I don’t know how else we could have achieved,” he added.
The 5D allowed them to shoot the episode different and produce the visual they were looking for by exploring new avenues. “With regular cameras that would have been impossible. It’s enabled us to do a lot of things we normally wouldn’t be able to do. You can cram three people with three cameras into a car, for example, and there are shots that you can get that were otherwise unachievable. I really take my hat off to guys like Shane that really brought this to my attention and thank Canon for bringing such an incredible device to market. It’s not suitable for all things, but it is an incredible system,” he said.
Gale also believes that the camera will be a good fit for emerging filmmakers. “I really do believe it is a game changer, not so much because I think everyone’s going to start using it. I think it’s wonderful to see the device that possibly democratizes filmmaking,” he explained.
“There are a lot of very talented people out there who can get one of these cameras and lenses and shoot a really nice piece of work over a weekend or whenever. It enables people. The Reds and the accessories are all very expensive, so I think that’s a really wonderful thing”, he concluded.
Rodney Charters, the DP on Fox’s other Monday night hit show 24 has been a supporter of the 5D for quite a while. He has been using it to shoot on the series, since it was on location in Washington, DC shooting Season 7. The New Zealand native, who has worked in both films, such as “Youngblood” and on other television series including “Nash Bridges” said that for 24′s final season they decided to use 5D cameras exclusively for gathering the plates in New York City where the show was set.
Rodney showed us a scene from the show and explained, it was a 5 camera rig set up for a green screen with action taking place in the back of a taxi. “Although at the time we were always shooting the scenes with natural playback, we decided that in this case we had to have green screen because it involved some stunt work and in fact even though that looks like a plate, it’s much more scary with a lot of cars passing in front and travelling all over it. What we’re talking about here is what fundamental changes these cameras have meant for our show,” he enthused. He also referenced the upcoming episode on House and said “that director’s online now saying this is the future of our business and we are in for a game changer.”
Continuing on, Charters mentioned a friend of his in Toronto, who has a lot of shows there. working with the Red. He told Rodney that with every Red camera there may be two to three going out on a job, but on a series they are using five or six of these 5Ds as well. “They’re all being deployed in various ways to shoot whatever the shot. They always put out two or three extras because they can,” he told us.
While his admiration for this camera is evident, Charters, like Tattersall, admits there are challenges to using it. He explained that it’s not an easy camera to shoot with and that throughout the year a number of adjustments had to be made, but that, on the other hand,the footage from it is astounding and worth the effort. Another camera high on Charters’ list is the Alexa, which he believes may be the industry’s true game changer, because of the camera’s built in editing capabilities. “I already have friends who are delivering dailies right off the systems, doing it on set and delivering dailies.” Ultimately he believes this could lead to the elimination of many post houses, creating havoc within the industry because of the financial nature of relationships involving the studios.
The new systems available also bring up the question of how producers are going to determine which cameras and equipment are right for their projects. Clark jumped in, “You go to your Cinematographer and then you kind of figure out what the needs are of the picture. Each movie has its own kind of unique set of circumstances.” Comedies require lots of improvisation and the immediacy of being ready to go to support the performances, whereas films about talking animals require technological support. “It may be different than something that’s shot primarily on a green screen, so you look at all of the facets of the movie,” he added before recommending to review the creative requirements and work with the director of photography in order to determine what the best tools are.
“You want to streamline that production, so that when you go into post production you’re not going to be hammered by problems that you set into place by making decisions early on,” Jason continued. In his work flow discussions he relies on the cinematographer for the creative look of the picture, but then he makes sure that the entire team thinks through the work flow, so that elements that may not be represented in those initial talks, like having a special effects artists coming in or a stereoscopic conversion taking place down the line, are defined and kept in mind when designing the workflow. He equates it to using a reverse engineering process. “This is where we want to end up. This is the quality of image we’re looking for. This is the look and style that the Director of Photography and the Director are looking for. Once we know that, then we reverse engineer that work flow to best support the production,” he explained.
Poster added, “I think that Jason’s an enlightened Producer, which means one thing. It means that he’s in touch with what is needed to create an atmosphere, so that the people who he hires can accomplish the job in the best possible way. That’s what I call an enlightened Producer.” He continued to say that often producers come in and hire DPs and without making informed decisions choose the type of equipment they want them to use. “That’s not borne out of any knowledge. That’s borne out of what’s hot this week and that’s not a good way to start. What you need to do is, you need to look at the script, break down the concept of the script, look at the budget, understand what the parameters are and where you want to end up as Jason said. The key is work flow. It’s that magic buzzword that everybody uses now,” Steven stated. “It’s becoming a little more understood that you have to understand what the material is you’re going to capture, how it’s going to be used, how it’s going to be manipulated in post, how it’s going to be finished and what you want on the back end and how those processes work together,” he went on. Then he stressed that it’s a very complicated digital world now and everyone must understand up front what all departments including cinematography, digital effects, post production editing, the post facility are doing. “All the numbers have to meld together and work together, so that what you end up with is end to end color management of the project all the way through, so that everyone works together,” he concluded.
Moderator Geffner raised the question of the importance of lighting with regards to the evolving technology and the need for experienced operators.
Poster responded, “Wait. Let’s just take a deep breath here. Lighting is always essential. It is the director of photography who knows how to see the light and create the mood, whether it’s a lamp or a 10k or an HMI or a match. It doesn’t matter. It is lighting.” He maintains that just because a chip is fast, it does not eliminate the idea of taste and design for telling the story with lighting.
“What we could accomplish with lighting because of the speed of the chip was even greater, so we made a reach deeper into the visual bag of tricks that our Cinematographer had because he had the capability of doing that,” Clark spoke up next. Being in this digital format and having an HD monitor and being able to see the way it would eventually look gave them a freedom to design looks they wanted and pre determine what they wanted to do. “We had a lot of great flexibility on how to control the light, but it was always controlled, meaning the environment dictated the basic lighting set up and then he went and found the visual story telling within that or found the best looking pieces of that and obviously where the camera is and how it chooses to tell the story is essential, so we had a plethora of operators. We needed assistance to do what you always do, to follow focus and do all those things,” he continued. There’s also the issue of systems being clunky on certain cameras and complicated issues related to having shallow depth of field. “Ultimately it’s the same group of people doing the same job, but we’re giving them new tools that have different post production impact. We’re pulling post production closer to the set than it’s ever been before,” Jason concluded.
At this point Geffner said, “No matter what the technology, the cinematographer, the camera still needs to be the guardian of the image.” He stated that the creative people that capture the image on the set still need to have control over the image and that data capturing has opened this up to anyone who can get a laptop. He then questioned how control of the image is maintained by the camera team.
Andy answered, “Control. It’s a lovely word.” He said that there’s a world of assumptions regarding the functioning of motion picture crews because a hundred people, who have never met one another before, can show up on the first day of a movie and each one of them arrives with a set of assumptions about how the other ones are going to work and how together they will make this film. “As far as I know, we’re the only industry in the world that does that. Everywhere else you go to work with a group who’ve been together for many years, their structures have been defined you know and you slowly work you way into them. What’s happened to us over the last five to eight years, is our base for assumption has just been completely knocked on its ass. Every time we show up there’s a whole new game to be played and so the old method of working, the old idea that assumptions will work is no longer good enough and in fact will get you trouble.” He also agreed with Jason that there’s a need for the entire decision making body or group to get together before they start shooting.
Continuing along that thread, Clark addressed the practical issue of when crew members are actually hired to begin projects, mentioning that lots of times they’re not on board yet at critical times in the decision making process. “How do you involve them in the conversation? As a producer, I take it upon myself that’s it’s my responsibility to engage them in the conversation, to find out what’s important to them and make sure that message gets out to the rest of the people that are engaged at that time. Maybe you’ll have a DP on, but you may not have a visual effects department started yet when those decisions need to be made,” he explained.
Once again, Andy spoke on this issue. “Because it’s changing all the time. there are a lot of questions about who is responsible for each piece of the work flow and you may find overlapping groups of people.” He also said that sometimes what’s worse is the reverse when “nobody’s thinking who is responsible for the image.” He explained that in the old days when you shot film, it went to the lab and at 5 o’clock in the morning someone was there looking at your footage. “They weren’t screening it critically, but they were running it at high speed and they were making sure your exposure was okay and that you didn’t have any specific problems and if you did have problems at 5:30 in the morning there was a phone call and you knew.” Now times are different. “This does not exist in the current digital model and it’s definitely to our disadvantage,” he finished.
This brought Lewis into the conversation, discussing the role of the DIT (Digital Information Technician). “I’m fortunate. I owned a post facility for a long time and color corrected over 250 shows, so I have a pretty good strong working knowledge of post production and I think the DIT kind of has to be the glue between production and post production on a digital show,” he said. Rothenberg believes that when people talk about how they shot film and handed it over to the lab before, a lot of the time that was the break between production and post production, who then took over. The DPs had relationships with the color timers ensuring that it was timed and inspected the way it went out. Now with the adjustments to decision making in production affecting post production, this is no longer the case. Another change is that operators, who used to have the best seats in the house, now have the worst, so in his role Lewis tries to let them know if he sees something amiss in the frame of the shot. “It’s important to understand the role and to respect everyone who is part of it, but again my primary job is to make certain that the Cinematographer’s vision gets to the screen,” he summed up.
Clark continued, “There’s other roles that are required and other expertise that’s required now if you shoot digital and with 3D.” He reiterated that an understanding is needed of the equipment, the cameras, the formats, the file formats, the translation of these formats and post production and that all of it should be considered one thing.
“I just know when you’re on the set and the issues come up, somebody needs to be accountable to give you an answer on what you can and cannot do and that’s what the DIT does,” he said before adding that on top of that all the assets that are now being created need to be managed and filed. “The information has to recycle out of the camera. Used to be you’d take your mag and give it to a loader and put it in a can and send it to the lab. Now, that is captured right there and a lot of times it may give people the opportunity for producers or directors to ask for dallies immediately, so those dallies may come through and become a part of the production’s requirement as opposed to something that you would send out,” Jason concluded.
“So now you have digital asset management. Now, you go to 3D. You’re doubling the number of cameras currently the way it’s captured. You have twice as much camera equipment and you also have the alignment issues that happen, the convergence issues and the various different rigs,” he went on. “There’s a lot of different technology that is not normally handled by the camera crew, so now you need someone to be able to manage the language of stereo. How do you shoot stereo with convergence points? How do we get the DP and the director’s vision into a 3D world?” he asked.
“The thing that impresses me about working on a movie is what Andy was saying about walking into a situation we’ve never been in with people we’ve never met before and we do a very complex service, basically capturing a story and telling a story and we do it in such a way to be quietly productive,” Clark concluded before adding, “My job is to create an environment to make that work.” The new tools showing up and the need to suddenly teach people about them contributes to this difficulty. Everyone’s trying to figure out the best way to use the technology, but Jason believes that ultimately what will happen is what’s happened in the previous one hundred years of capturing movies. The cream will rise to the top and there will be the essential key people to make it work.
”There’s someone who’s in charge of the photography. There’s someone who’s in charge of the editing. There’s someone who’s in charge of the music,” he asserted. When sound started he figured there were probably an extra 30 people surrounding the recording process before they realized that while it’s an important element, it’s not storytelling and got back on track. He believes that when you create your work flow the issues find a way to get resolved. He explained that his process is to draw an anatomy of a shot and see how that one shot works from pre production to post production. Following it like this provides a real clear point of view for him. At that point he determines whether he needs 3D or if it’s an extra step. Once he wrestles all that out, he stands back and asks himself what the movie is they’re trying to make. He added that the reality is that the same group of people who were needed 10 years ago to make films are still needed because their artistic and creative skills still drive what they’re doing.
Continuing on the topic of the workforce, Andy mentioned that one of the things local 600 has begun to see in the training community is the diversity of the file based image acquisition systems. “It’s like being in the jungle,” he claimed, where there are so many different things to know in order to safely download and protect the images. “The producers were hiring PAs to do this work. We created a training session that is a weekend session for loaders to understand every file that exists in every system there is, so the loader can go on to a set and safely protect and safely check it out and make sure that it’s right and clear the chips and get it back to the camera images. We essentially created a standard operating procedure for all these different methods, so the industry now has a workforce out there. We trained about 300 people around the country to do this and will continue to train some people. We now have a workforce that understands the job that never was defined.”
“With every new technology, comes a priest,” he said. They examine the technology and “Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work. Step two of that is an improved process. The workforce becomes experienced with the technology and now it’s no longer necessary for the priests, so the priests can leave. The priesthood is necessary and the workforce is necessary,” he continued emphasizing that because the technology changes there is always something new for both the priesthood and the workforce to do.
Another aspect of filming in this new world is the budgeting process. The cost of film versus the expense of going digital and needing new crew members to work on projects is at the heart of the debate.
Clark said, “I budget films actively every day and I’m currently fighting over 3 or 4 budgets. In all of those budgets I’ve thought about filming digital versus film and here’s what I’ve come up with.” He estimates that an additional 1-2 people may be needed for digital asset management or for a technician and he’ll have to pay people that he may not have had to bring on board before digital to keep from getting into trouble. On the other hand, film stock is expensive and eliminating that from the budget, already spares a considerable expense. Cameras are another factor and then there’s considering the advantages of digital itself. “First of all you can shoot. You lose the laboratory and begin to deal with what you were saying, Rodney, about streamlining and being able to do digital dailies. All that is reduced, because you don’t have the overhead. On an average studio film you could look to save several hundred thousand dollars going digital at the end of the day. At least that’s the calculations I keep coming up with,” he explained.
Lewis added that there’s a footage per day shot point, where shooting digitally definitely becomes cheaper. He stressed, however, that people should be making these decisions based on what’s best for their productions, not on cost. He told us, “Discovery and BBC banned the use of film for a while because it costs more to compress it because of the random grade structure. It was bigger bandwidth to use that to broadcast it so it had nothing to do with quality. It was economics.” He believes that what might be best is actually a hybrid production depending on the type of shots being filmed. He also joked about investing in archiving companies stating that preserving film on film seems to be a very sound long term idea. He explained that if it’s shot on film they archive all the original material as well as what the finish is because nobody can predict what that finish is going to be.
Finishing up the thread, Clark chimed in, “Film is still the best and in some areas it’s a creative decision ultimately. The cinematographer’s going to make this decision based on what’s best for the film. As a producer, I don’t want to go into the process denying them what’s best to do their job. Reality is most cinema fades to the quality of the image most people see.” He concluded, “When you’re creating you want to give the cinematographer the best opportunity to be successful. If that means shooting on film then that’s what we’ll do.”
In conclusion, it looks like it’s going to be a very exciting and challenging proposition to configure a 21st Century Camera Crew with new ideas, technology and roles to fill in order to get productions made.