After screenings in Melbourne and Sydney I’ve had a lot of people asking to access these tests online. Well here they are !
I would say though, that these are designed to be viewed in a cinema. That was the whole point when Kate Dennis and I first set out to create this test. Obviously there’s a lot lost in the encoding for the web as well. I’ll go through the technical in a bit, but it’s also interesting to look at the feedback from those who actually attended the screenings and saw both the DCP and the 35mm print. Because this was what we most wanted. To see the results in a cinema, and to compare them screened as a print and as a DCP.
Which takes me back to the why. It’s probably worth going over the thinking behind these tests again.
On the first season of Offspring, setup director Kate Dennis and I were shooting some night exterior scenes on the mean streets of Fitzroy with a then just released RED MX camera and some fast primes. Both of us were simply amazed at how bright everything looked just using the available street lighting that was around from all the retailers.
We started to discuss the idea of shooting scenes for a cinema finish, for a film in the same way. Kate is ex-camaera department and she’d retained a scepticism for digital formats for a feature film but she was getting curious about just how good the new digital cinema cameras are.
Kate has a feature film in development that is largely set in Paris and would feature a lot of night scenes. She was wondering if she could just let the mayor of Paris do the majority of her lighting. Maybe there was a different model of shooting with her relatively modest budget that would enable a much freeier style of shooting.
And the common thinking now amongst most would go something like this. Digital cameras have a distinct advantage when shooting at night and in low light over film acquisition. I wanted to put that to the test. I wondered if you could adapt a guerilla style of shooting that seems to go hand in hand with shooting on digital cameras. Could film be treated in the same way ?
So Kate and I started to think about a test. Something that would replicate some of the key scenes from her feature, shooting in an urban environment. It also became obvious that we should use actors. We wanted there to be scenes that would then inform the way they were shot. We didn’t want to shoot test charts. We wanted to replicate narrative drama.
As I was still in the middle of shooting the first season of Offspring, Kate began scouting and finding locations. We came up with 6 locations that each offered their own challenge. Kate then wrote a sequence of scenes that would form a loose story that we could shoot.
So we wanted a short sequence of narrative drama that would be about 2 mins, that would have 6 locations featuring difficult available light situations. We would then shoot the same short sequence 6 times over using 6 different cameras. Each sequence would then be compiled together and screened as a 35mm print and then again as a DCP.
In a way, we were trying to de-intellectualise the usual kinds of tests one sees of charts and colour chips and make them more about the emotional reaction to a narrative sequence. We were also prototyping the usability of each camera in the field. So not only where we judging the end results, but the practicalities of each camera.
Rather ambitiously, we settled on 6 cameras to test.
We also adopted a style of shooting that would favour speed of setups. To reduce the crew numbers we would shoot like a doco crew. I pulled my own focus right off the lens. We would stage the scene, work out the coverage, then shoot each setup six times with a different camera for each take, before moving on.
We decided on;
35mm. Obviously the standard for cinema acquisition with 100+ years of history. I was really interested to see how the format would go competing in this worst case scenario. The lighting conditions would very much favour digital cameras. We shot using 5219 500T and perhaps controversially, I didn’t push the stock on the advice of Kodak. (the advice being that with the modern stocks there’s very little to be gained in a push process)
Super 16mm. Although considered by many to be a bit of a dead format, I was really interested to see what kind of look could be created with it. A slew of successful mainstream films had featured super 16 recently so I was quietly confident it would give us some kind of look, even if it was a bit grainy. We used the 7219 500T stock, also not pushed.
RED MX. The digital camera that has certainly generated more debate than almost any other other camera, and the camera that had started the whole discussion off.
Arri Alexa. The new kid. when we shot these tests (december 2010) there were only a few of these around and RAW recording wasn’t enabled. We shot 4:4:4 logC pro res.
Sony F3. This was a late addition, but I thought it would be worth while. It was an engineering sample, so it wasn’t finished and we recorded natively to the internal recorder.
Canon EOS 1dMKiv. I knew that this camera had a slight sensitivity advantage over the 5D / 7D’s so we chose this camera as out DSLR entry.
All the lenses were the same, Cooke S4’s. We approximately matched the focal lengths for the Super 16 and we couldn’t get a PL mount 1D so used compact primes instead.
On set we had myself and Kate, plus a Loader, a data wrangler, a low light gaffer and a runner.
Now I did say Gaffer didn’t I ? I had someone to wrangle some poly bounce and I had a single LED battery light. That was my lighting package ! Again, in keeping with a stealthy and small footprint style of shooting !
Originally, this was a test just for the interest of Kate and I. As we went though post at Deluxe, a few people started to hear about it and wanted to see the results. We started talking about organising a screening in Deluxe Melbourne’s 20 seat preview cinema. We quickly ran out of room and ended up at ACMI where nearly 200 showed up !
Deluxe Melbourne who couldn’t have been more supportive of our experiment handled all the post and the excellent and experienced colourist Stanly Lopuszanski put in so much of his own time and brought so much to the end result we felt he had to credit him up the front.
So some numbers. We had 6 cameras. We shot this in a single night across 6 locations across the city of Melbourne. We were on foot. We mostly only had a single take with each camera in each set up. Even so, the final edit has on average 28 shots. That means 168 takes. Pretty impressive on any DPR. It also meant that sometimes, there would be a take that wasn’t optimal for technical reasons used in the cut to maintain continuity.
We also made a definite choice to NOT edit them exactly the same way, but to favour each edit to be the best it could be with the available material. This extended to the grade. Instead of trying to match everything to one camera, we simply tried to make each camera look the best it could.
This clip was created as a Pro Res from the final DPX sequence that was created in Lustre. I’ve then converted it to an MP4 using squeeze.
Now, as an extra challenge, I’ve only identified the cameras by a letter code. So you’ll watch all 6 sequences and then your challenge is to try to pick which camera is which.
After the 6 sequences, I’ve put selected shots from each camera back to back so you can more readily make a direct comparisons. I’ve also then done a 200% blow up on a selected shot, and the theory with this was to try to show how the resolution (or lack of resolution) stands up in a cinema environment. It’s not quite the same at this small online scale but you’ll get the idea. I then included a sequence that shows the ungraded and graded shots just to show how little we were working with.
I would say, looking at the end Vimeo encode, that the blacks are a little crushed and in the cinema versions of theses, they are a lot more “open”.
I also had a lot of trouble eye focussing with the 16mm material, and unfortunately the first setup is quote soft.
So enjoy the results. Remember they were designed to be seen in a cinema where they do look quite different to how they look here. We weren’t’ setting out to do a scientific test as such, but more just to compare the emotional story telling impact of these cameras in very difficult lighting situations without the usual lighting and gripping support of a *big* shoot.