Monday, May 9, 2011

Whites, Super Whites and other Bits and bobs--XDCAM-user

Do you know how your NLE is handling your video, are you whites white or whiter than white or does this sound like a washing powder add?
In the analog world you shot within the legal range of black to 100% white. It was simple, easy to understand and pretty straight forward. White was white at 100% and that was that. With digital video it all gets a lot more complicated, especially as we now start to move to greater and greater bit depths and the use of extended range recording with fancy gamma curves becomes more common. In addition computers get used more and more for not just editing but also as the final viewing device for many videos and this brings additional issues of it’s own.
First lets look at some key numbers:
8 bit data gives you 256 possible values 0 to 255.
10 bit data gives you 1024 possible values, 0 to 1023.
Computers use bit 0 to represent black and bit 255 or 1023 to represent peak white.
But video is quite different and this is where things get messy:
With 8 bit video the first 16 bits are used for sync and other data. Zero or black is always bit 16 and peak white or 100% white is always bit 235, so the traditional legal black to white range is 16 to 235, only 219 bits of data. Now in order to get a better looking image with more recording range many cameras take advantage of the bits above 235. Anything above 235 is “super white” or whiter than white in video terms, more than 100%. Cinegammas and Hypergammas take advantage of this extra range, but it’s not without it’s issues, there’s no free lunch.
10 bit video normally uses bit 64 as black and 940 as peak white. With SMPTE 10-bit extended range you can go down to bit 4 for undershoot and you can go up to bit 1019 for overshoots but the legal range is still 64-940. So black is always bit 64 and peak white always bit 940. Anything below 64 is a super black or blacker than black and anything above 940 is brighter than peak white or super white.
At the moment the big problem with 10 bit extended (SMPTE 274M 8.12) and also 8 bit that uses the extra bits above 235  is that some codecs and most software still expects to see the original legal range so anything recorded beyond that range, particularly below range can get truncated or clipped. If it is converted to RGB or you add an RGB filter or layer in your NLE it will almost certainly get clipped as the computer will take the 100% video range (16-235) and convert it to the 100% computer RGB range (0-255). So you run the risk of loosing your super whites altogether. Encoding to another codec can also lead to clipping. FCP and most NLE’s will display super blacks and super whites as these fall within the full 8 or 10 bit ranges used by computer graphics, but further encoding can be problematic as you can’t always be sure whether the conversion will use the full recorded range or just the black to white range. Baselight for example will only unpack the legal range from a codec so you need to bring the codec into legal range before going in to baselight. So as we can see it’s important to be sure that your workflow is not truncating or clipping your recorded range back to the nominal legal or 100% range.
On the other hand if you are doing stuff for the web or computer display where the full 0 to 255 (1023) are used then, you often need to use the illegal video levels above 100% white to get whites to look white and not bright grey! A video legal white at 235 just does not look white on a computer screen where whites are normally displayed using bit 255. There are so many different standards across different platforms that it’s a complete nightmare. Arri with Alexa for example won’t allow you to record extanded range using ProRes because of these issues, while the Alexa HDSDi output will output extended range.
This is also an issues when using computer monitors for monitoring in the edit suite. When you look at this web page or any computer graphics white is set at bit 255 or 1023. But that would be a super white or illegal white for video. As a result “in-range” or legal range videos when viewed on a computer monitor often look dull as the whites will be less bright than the computers own whites. The temptation therefore is to grade the video to make the whites look as bright as the computers whites which leads to illegal levels, clipping, or smply an image that does not look right on a TV or video monitor. You really need to be very careful to ensure that if you shoot using extended range that your workflow keeps that extended range intact and then you need to remember to legalise you video back to within legal range if it’s going to be broadcast.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

RED EPIC Operation Guide--REDUSER

This should be a great read for those of us who would like to someday work with a Red Epic but will not for a while. It is very informative and should make using one in the future much easier. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

it is not the camera that makes the film, it is the filmmaker--FRESHDV

I’m sick and tired. After a week of nonstop talking at NAB I have realized that there are some incredibly talented independent filmmakers out there, and they are by far in the minority. There are those people out there finding legitimate uses for the tools at hand and really using them to tell some incredible stories. However, there are far more posers than anything else. I’m fed up with Vimeo, shallow DOF, slider driven. montage sequences with credits on them masquerading as films. I’m sick of lazy, careless, pre-production, masquerading as cinema verite or so called art films. I’m completely over the pretentious arrogance put out by some co-called “filmmakers” in our industry. Now before you hang me from a tree as a warning to all who dare trespass this sacred ground, hear me out. I’m not saying these pieces don’t have warrant. I’m saying they aren’t films, get over yourself. Don’t even get me started on music videos.
So I’m not David Mullen, Rodney Charters, Roger Deakins, Robert Primes, or any of the other cinematographers whom I admire and who have an incredible body of work to stand behind. It is always a dangerous position to decry something, while aspiring to achieve something yourself. I am on a journey, a journey to learn, and absorb everything I possibly can about cinematography, and filmmaking. I want to be the best I possibly can, and often find my own ineptitude to by my weakest link. I recognize that I have not arrived, nor do I really ever hope to. Personally, I feel that the minute you quite studying your craft and learning that you should just quit. One of the things I admire most about the aforementioned cinematographers, some of whom I have had the great honor of talking with personally, is that they all espouse the same sentiment at one level or another. There is a realization that their job is ever changing, and they themselves are always building new techniques, and skills to accommodate for it. So if you will allow me I’d like to take off the facade and be brutally honest with you about myself and others I see in the field of independent filmmaking.
…ASC Manual that states that cinematography is the art and craft of the authorship of visual images for the cinema. Any processes that may affect these images are the direct responsibility of the cinematographer. It goes beyond just photography; we are responsible for the overall photographic quality of the image and how it’s used to tell the story. We work with the director and the other department heads to achieve that quality. From a production standpoint, we have three departments under our control: Camera, Electric, and Grip. Technically, “cinematography” means motion picture photography. I’m not one of those people who thinks that if you shoot digitally, it is not cinematography, it’s videography. We use the word “film” to describe movies in general regardless of their origination medium.
There is a sense that anyone with a DSLR or camera of any type is either a filmmaker, director, or director of photography. Now I don’t take to task the cameras or technology for this. No, in fact each camera could in its own right be used very usefully, and to a proper end. It is the following formula that I take to task: Camera Gear+Pretty Images=Filmmaker. It is the idea of removing the thought, and creative process from the filmmaking experience and stripping it down to a rote exercise. Lets face it, a lot of the camera systems today do not necessarily require a high level of technical competence to crank out pretty images. I react to the thoughtlessness with which such so called “art” is produced. While technology is important it is not the camera that makes the film, it is the filmmaker. The democratization of camera gear into the hands of the consumer has allowed anyone and everyone to wear the title of filmmaker. But what is it that truly makes a filmmaker? Is it simply the ability to create disparate compelling images? Is it being lauded by a crowd and having a following? Perhaps the answer is more multifaceted than we allow.
I have no doubt that Roger Deakins could light and produce a much more compelling project utilizing an HVX200, than I possibly could achieve with the new Arri Alexa. Why? He understands the true art of cinematography and the visual language of the screen. He understands the art of a specific lens choice made to compress or expand a space, subtly changing or enhancing the juxtaposition of characters in a frame. He understands how to utilize camera blocking to specifically underscore and support an emotional element of the script, or story. Lighting becomes yet another decision informed by the character, and tone of the scene, and in the hands of a master such as Deakins it speaks as loud as the dialog. All of these decisions require a deep and masterfully grasp of both story and visual language. Both of these are elements I find sadly lacking in most of the work showcased by a lot of the independent film world. I will also insert here that I personally find my grasp of these elements to be rudimentary at best, and am seeking to incorporate a much deeper understanding of this into my work. Filmmaking often becomes reduced down to making default decisions on the fly that will often result in pretty images that montage well together. While on some level this works as a study of composition and lighting, I propose that it does not make a filmmaker.
I believe the devil is in the details, as they say. A film has to start out with a strong story and it has to be supported by good acting. But if you have those elements, then how you direct it, shoot it, art direct it, cut it, compose the music, can enhance that story or tell it better. You know, “Hamlet” is a great story, but that doesn’t mean a two-year-old can direct “Hamlet” just because it’s a good story. You have to have the skill of a storyteller to make a good production of “Hamlet.” So I think cinematography is one element of the storytelling process that will enhance the experience for the audience. And the audience doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of this stuff. An average person doesn’t know how to build a house and doesn’t know anything about architecture… but certainly he wants to live in a house that is well-built. He hires experts to deal with that stuff. I think the audience expects the filmmakers to be the experts in filmmaking, that the filmmakers are the ones that know about film stocks and lenses and formats so they don’t have to. They just have to enjoy the movie.
While visually compelling to look at, especially from the viewpoint of another “filmmaker”, these montage pieces are often devoid of real heart, soul, and emotion. May I propose that real cinematography as an art form comes from making specific, and informed choices. These decisions can only be found as you develop a deep sense of visual language, that guides your style and direction. A strong technical proficiency then allows you to execute those decisions. Both pieces of the puzzle are needed. Know why you make every choice and begin to learn to defend your decisions. Why did you shoot a composition at a given focal length or stop? Why did you center punch or weight the subject to one side of the frame or the other? Its not that one choice is inherently right and one is wrong, but you should know why you made the decision.
Can you decide not to use the visual components in your production? No; If you ignore visual components they won’t go away. Color can be eliminated by shooting in black and white, but it’s impossible to eliminate any other visual component because they exist in everything on the screen. Even a blank screen contains the visual components of space, line, shape, tone, and movement. So the screen is never empty. Even a still photograph uses the components of rhythm and movement. Since the visual components are always on screen understanding, controlling, and using them are critical to great picture making.
-BRUCE BLOCK, A Visual Story
As you begin to question yourself and your work you will begin to develop an internal sense of style as well. Informed specific decisions should be made from lighting, camera blocking, lens selection, color, and tone all the way through. It is the only way to begin to bring cohesive style to a piece. These are things that separate out the truly great cinematographers, they have a commanding grasp of the elements, and wield them like a true artist.
Really, a cinematographer’s work is only as good as the director, really. That’s why I love working with the Coens and with Norman Jewison. They really push you to do something and you feel like you can work from a position of strength and take chances and risks. It’s hard when you’re on a film if a director doesn’t have the experience to understand the visual language involved, and there is a whole language involved. And if the director doesn’t understand that or isn’t confident enough with himself to let you, the cameraman, to take what the script requires and create the visuals it can be frustrating.
It is when I see true artist like Deakins, and Charters put such an insane level of thought and process into a shot that just comes to life on screen and breathes emotion, that I personally feel unworthy to wear the label filmmaker. I have no issue with people learning, and studying, stumbling, and fumbling along the way. I’m in the same boat, we are all learning together here. The issue I have is the level or pretentiousness and arrogance that seeks to assert this level of work as some presumed mastery of “high art”. It is at this point that I cry ,”Foul!” To do so is to completely undermine the level of true art poured out by the masters. We reduce filmmaking back to an academic shooting exercise. Come on, we are better than that. Surround yourselves with people who are better than that. We all want to aspire to be truly great, to create art, and inspire others. Can’t we let go of our egos for a moment and recognize with brutal honesty where we are in the journey? Push yourself to study your craft, dissect your decisions and choices, allow brutal feedback from those you trust, not just those will laud your incompetence as art. Learn from your mistakes, and push forward to make better informed decisions next time. Might I suggest the following exercises to improve your craft:
1. Get out and shoot a short scripted project with actors on a tight schedule. Repeat this process until you get it right. Trust me the first several times will produce nothing but crap. Doing it without a schedule doesn’t count either.
2. Do a script breakdown by visual elements and learn to plan camera coverage. Your producers will thank you.
3. Have you ever even done an overhead or lighting plot? If not do one, now. Again, be ready to defend your choices.
4. Get people you trust to absolutely rip your project apart, rip it apart yourself. A couple guys that I work with and I do a complete postmortem on almost every project we shoot. What worked, what didn’t work? Where do things need to be improved? If you don’t have those people around you drop everything and go find them right now!
5. Cut the crap. Chances are you are less than half as good as you think you are. All of us are, and that is the brutal truth. The sooner you can be honest about your weakness the sooner you can throw yourself into honestly learning to be better.
6. Learn some humility, we could all use a dose from time to time. This is especially true at when people tend to pump up and overemphasize our achievements or lack there of.
What about instinct, is there ever a place for simply doing something because it feels like the right approach? Absolutely. I have heard many great DPs say they attempted a particular shot simply because it felt like the correct approach. There is a lot to be said about that. However, I think it should flow as the exception and not the norm. The following quote by Bruce Block reiterates this:
Something new pops into your head that solves a problem. That is when instincts are great. Use them. You may never understand why your instincts were correct, but when you see the final product you know you made the right decision. But don’t let instincts fool you. Sometimes instincts are incomplete, unreliable, or wrong. Instinctual choices may only be old habits or underdeveloped ideas that sound good but are ultimately disappointing. “if you had been there, it seemed to work,” is a lame excuse for poor instinctual choice.
-BRUCE BLOCK, The Visual Story
So where does the technology come in then? Filmmaking is after all a blend of technology, collaboration, and art is it not? Let’s take a look at this quote by Deakins:
And, frankly, it’s not the technology that makes the great movies. I mean, if you went back to see Citizen Kane and you looked at it on a big screen and you looked at the quality of the image, I mean, frankly, some of it is not very…well, good’s not the right word, because technically it’s not as sharp. Some of it is very grainy. The lens quality is not as good as modern lenses. But…[Laughs] it’s still a better film than ninety-nine percent of what are made today. So, you know, it’s not just about technique and equipment.
Now don’t get me wrong, DSLRs and these other compact, single sensor cameras, offer some wonderful advantages to filmmakers. I’m a tech guy and I’m personally very excited about some of the features these tools are bringing to the table. Higher dynamic range, cleaner ISO, and higher native sensitivity, are all going to benefit our images in the long run. But we can’t allow that to be enough, we can’t stop there. We can’t allow ourselves to become lazy and make thoughtless default decisions, just because the technology allows it. Deakin’s quote above speaks so strongly to that, to me its saying craft, and content will always win the day. Know the technical advantages that the current cameras offer, combine that with a strong sense of craft and you have a recipe for success. Just please don’t get a big head about being a “filmmaker”, lose the attitude, really we are all sick of it. There are alot of people out there much more deserving who have earned it rightfully, and paid their dues. When you read a quote like the one above by Deakins, and realize he is arguably lumping his own work into that statement, it can’t help but really humble you. I mean if anyone had a right to assert here it would be him. You won’t hear much from these guys lauding their art or their work, they don’t need to talk much. They are too busy working in their field to take part in petty forum wars, or egotistical twitter arguments, they quietly hone their craft and develop their skills. Their art and stories say all that needs saying, it whispers, “I’m a filmmaker.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Informative words from Jim Jannard

David Fincher said "I choose RED over film" and is shooting "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on RED. Peter Jackson said "RED looks like 65mm film"... and is shooting "The Hobbit" on EPICs. John Schwartzman is shooting "The Amazing Spider-man" on EPICs in 3D. Dariusz Wolski shot "Pirates 4" on RED and chose RED again for Ridley Scott's "Prometheus". "The Social Network" was given an Academy nomination for Best Cinematography. Steven Soderbergh has chosen RED for 6 straight films. "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Underworld 4" are currently shooting RED.

These guys have shot film most of their careers and have done side by side testing of all the latest digital offerings. Yet they are now shooting RED. What is it that they know?

Forget the story, actors, set design, wardrobe, and makeup for a minute. What they know is what an image should look like. None of these guys will compromise the image for anything... their reputation and finished product depends on the best image they cam make.

So... why RED? They all have the budget to shoot anything they want. What do they know that us mortals don't?

1. They understand dynamic range, resolution... and "feel" of an image. All matter in combination.

2. They understand that their final product is headed for the "big screen". What resolution might be "good enough" for a 42" screen today may not be good enough for a 40' screen. And what is good enough for today's home theater may quickly change.

3. They have figured out the best way to get the best results from RED footage... more on this below.

4. They appreciate the value of on set feedback and have a good "hourlies" workflow.

5. They understand the value of shooting RAW and the flexibility it gives them for a final grade.

6. They understand lighting and how that effects the final image. Lighting... what separates the men from the boys.

So how do they get the very best image from RED?

They stay in REDCODE RAW as long as possible. Whether you use REDCINE-X or Pablo, stay in REDCODE RAW until the very end. Don't make DPX files 1st and then grade. Limiting the color space, range and white balance right off the bat is not a good thing. Don't do it. This is true if the final output is a DCP package or a film print. For VFX... use Log space and 16 bit EXRs. The very LAST thing you should do for a DCP output is make DPX files.

The pros know how to light and expose. If you have aspirations to make great images... learn these two thing 1st. There is no longer an excuse to blame the equipment. Too many great looking features have been Shot on RED. If your stuff doesn't look right, you are doing something wrong. Ask for help.

We are proud of the big projects being shot on RED... the biggest projects actually. We are just as proud to be able to put RED in the hands of may aspiring cinematographers. We are here to help you learn the craft. There is no mystery... just hard work and a lot of info to be learned.

Now... back to the story, actors, set design, wardrobe and makeup.


So here is the secret... stay in RAW. Open with REDcolor2 and REDlogFilm or REDgamma2. Grade the crap out of it. Then output whatever you need. Do this in any number of apps that support the SDK. Pretty easy stuff.

People get lost by transcoding to an RGB codec (usually DPX) too early on in the process.

If you are going to output to film, a film print LUT is the very last thing to do.

Not so secret #2... use exposure check to make sure you haven't clipped anything in camera. If your original isn't clipped and you grade in RAW... you are golden.

Camera Blocking - A Case Study

ProVideo FRESHDV by Matthew Jeppsen & Kendal Miller

"Last year I had the opportunity to worked as Director of Photography with Tim Zwica on his new project “The Nest,” a 35-min horror short shot on a minimal budget. Shooting a lot VFX shots and action sequences on a budget naturally made for a very compressed schedule. One of the things that I wanted to do right away was find a way to shoot longer master shots on a dolly to facilitate our schedule. This allowed us to combine a large amount of coverage into one long shot, and yet still be creative with the camera blocking. The following narrated behind-the-scenes video is a case study exploring the way we handled one such dolly shot. The goal here is to show just one of many possible approaches to the creative challenges we encountered on this shoot."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An Introduction to LOG and Its Uses-- ABELCINE

f you've ever taken light readings with a light meter set to foot candles, you're familiar with film’s non-linear response to light. In order to increase exposure by one stop, the amount of light hitting the film needs to be doubled. The fact that we perceive a one stop increase in exposure as a linear increase, whether it is a gain over something relatively dark or relatively bright, indicates that our own perception also operates in a non-linear way, similar to film. This response can be closely approximated by a logarithmic function (LOG).
When film is transferred to video, there are two approaches. One is to color correct during the transfer so that the material looks as intended on a video monitor. This footage would have video gamma applied to it. The other method is to capture the full range of the negative for later color correction. This is done using a transfer function developed by Kodak for the Cineon system. It is based on a logarithmic function so that the same numerical interval represents the same change in exposure no matter where on the exposure curve it happens.

Power Law gamma

LOG Curve
If power law curves and logarithmic curves are so similar, what is the difference? Primarily one of intent. When footage is transferred with video gamma, it is meant for display (perhaps with minor adjustment applied later). When footage is transferred using the LOG CINEON curve, no artistic interpretation of the footage happens during the transfer – the goal is to preserve the full range of possibilities for later adjustment. This footage will look very flat and dull when displayed directly on a monitor.
The approaches used for film transfer are now choices available for Digital Cinema. Most Digital Cinema cameras have a mode of recording or transcoding to a LOG curve. For example, Sony has S-Log (in the F35, F23, SRW-9000 and the PMW-F3), ARRI has LOG-C, RED has REDLOG, and Panasonic has FILMREC (which, while not technically a LOG curve, serves the same purpose). Each of these LOG curves has been designed to preserve as much information as possible from the sensor and make it easily usable during color correction.
Why Shoot LOG?

There are several advantages to capturing imagery this way. It is simple and predictable both on set and in post. On set there are fewer camera settings with which to be concerned. Color correction can be more predictable because workflows can be optimized for known inputs.
The most significant advantage is the increase in Dynamic Range (captured variation in scene brightness). Because video gamma, such as REC709, is designed to produce pleasing images on the limited Dynamic Range of video monitors, there is a limit to how much scene brightness can be compressed into the signal before the images start to appear artificial or unpleasant. LOG capture modes, because they are designed to preserve image information rather than look good as is, don’t suffer from this constraint. The LOG mode instead captures what the camera is capable of discerning. Because the maximum range of sensor data is being recorded at all times, there is more range to create the desired look in post. In a REC709 video gamma, an image may have a bright light source overexpose to white and dark shadow areas record as black. The same image recorded in LOG may have considerable detail on both ends of the exposure range, which in later color correction can be exploited, if so desired.