Tuesday, December 7, 2010

DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility by Dave Stump

DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility

by Dave Stump
Creative COW Magazine : Divergence Issue : DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility
DSLR Video Feature at Creative COW

CreativeCOW presents DSLRs for Digital Cinema: Their Potential, Your Responsibility -- DSLR Video Feature

Dave StumpDave Stump
David Stump, Director of Visual Effects & Photography
Los Angeles California USA

©2010 CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
Dave Stump ASC explores the innovations and limitations of DSLR cameras and offers his insights into how and when to work with them successfully.

Dave Stump, ASC, has spent over 20 years as a director of photography, a visual effects supervisor and VFX DP. Along the way, he won an Academy Award® for Scientific and Technical Achievement. Add his position as Chair of the Camera Subcommittee of the American Society of Cinematographers Technical Committee to the mix, and you have a unique combination: a rigorous, scientific mind with direct responsibility for evaluating new cameras and technologies for his peers in the ASC, and a guy who is used to doing whatever it takes to get the shot -- the scholarly and the practical.

In his role as Rigorous Scientific Guy, Dave has been part of the Camera Assessment Series (CAS), jointly produced by the ASC, the Producer's Guild of America, and Revelations Entertainment, which is the production company founded by Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary. The goal is simple: to shoot demanding scenes with the industry's highest-end cameras, side-by-side, to illustrate their strengths and weaknesses.

[Ed. note: Robert Primes, ASC, described the CAS in Creative COW Magazine's "Blue Ribbon Awards" issue, and how DSLRs stack up, in an article called DSLRs: A Time Exposure.]

We knew that Dave has heard reports from his peers in the ASC that are using DSLRs and has been taking a closer look at them for his own work. We asked him how well these new cameras hold up for digital cinema, both technically and in practice. This article contains some of the observations he made during a recent conversation.

We brought a Canon 5D Mark II along on some of the Camera Assessment Series setups, but it was never intended to be part of the actual primary testing, because the CAS had strict criteria that excluded it. Among the rules: the participating cameras have to be commercially available, have to have shot commercial motion picture work, and have to have 4:4:4 capability. But we did actually sneak one in alongside a couple of setups, just so that we could see what there is to the craze.

Unofficially, it was an interesting experience to see them included in side-by-side testing of the material. There is obviously some pretty interesting stuff being shot with DSLRs in those commercial motion picture and television work -- but I find that the backend workflow for the screen leaves a lot to be desired. The codecs for handling material from DSLRs are pretty low in color bit depth, and fairly high in compression, and there are not many options to derive higher quality for large screen use of the images.

There are also limitations for using DSLRs on set. For example, there is not much in terms of video tap output for monitoring while shooting.

They are also difficult to keep in focus unless you put cine lenses on them. And when you put a cine lens on, if you don't connect the camera to some kind of fairly rigid platform, focusing with a cine-style focuser actually deflects the camera. You get a snap-jerk to the image -- just by virtue of the camera's light weight, and of the torque of the focus puller's arm -- focusing the darn thing. Unless you get the camera connected to something, focusing will actually point the camera down and away or up and away. It's as if the light weight works against you in some scenarios.

For the shooting itself, DSLRs are yielding good latitude -- not as great as the highest-end digital cinema cameras, of course, and certainly not as good as film. But there's some very powerful image processing going on inside those cameras. They have done a lot of dark subtraction work to quiet those sensors down, and can make them very quiet in the blacks.

But for now, you can really only output HD for motion imaging from DSLRs. You can't get the full benefit of the resolution of the sensor to do motion picture RAW work with any of them. I don't know if anybody has hacked that yet, but it really would be a lot more valuable to be able to derive for motion pictures the same resolution in RAW format that you can for still images from those same cameras.

And truthfully, while the images generally look really good, the right image criteria is going to stress the sensor -- or at least stress the QuickTime output wrapper -- and you will get some color aliasing.

So it's just an absolute mystery why manufacturers haven't purposely designed these DSLRs as digital cinema cameras, based on the technology that's already in them. I think that companies like Canon have an enormous potential for building awesome digital cinema cameras, but they don't seem inclined to go that way... or at least I haven't seen them, or anyone else, SEEM to be inclined to lean that way yet.


The thing that I always keep in mind when I evaluate the trend towards using DSLRs is the same thing I keep in mind when evaluating any new camera: I don't have a judgment about it one way or the other. It's just another tool in the toolbox for certain kinds of shots.

What it really is, is an indicator -- a barometer of what cinematographers want. They want a camera that is smaller, lighter and easier to use, and that produces better looking pictures. The Canon 5D Mark II is the size that people wish the Sony F35 could be. If you could get that kind of performance in such a small package, then the result becomes the cinematographer's dream camera.

That has always been true. In the 40s and 50s, we shot movies and TV on big, heavy Mitchell BNCR's. And then along came ARRIFLEX (For image and more information please view Gary Adcock's article, "Digital Cinema Comes of Age.") with this amazing but noisy little thing called the 2C, which was sort of a byproduct World War 2. Everybody jumped in and had to have one, because it was so much smaller and lighter, and yeah, who cares about the racket it makes? Now we can handhold the camera!

That was a revolution -- but it's a revolution that a lot of people have forgotten about. It really is the same revolution that the Canon 5D Mark II has created. In that respect, it is already a big success.


We don't need to limit our conversation about DSLRs in digital cinema to their future potential. I think that DSLRs have a lot of value right now.

For example, I do a lot of visual effects work. I can use these cameras to get a shot that nobody has ever seen before. Say I was going to put a camera out on some train tracks to get run over by a train: I wouldn't put an ALEXA out there. I wouldn't put a RED out there, but I can go to a producer in good conscience and say, "I can get the plate that we need by putting a Canon 5D Mark II out on the railroad tracks, and running over it with a train." 

There are also times when it helps to have stealth in your toolbox. You can get a shot that, if you were there with a film camera or with an F35, you might have problems. If you are doing a wide shot in a public place, people might shy away from it, or they might just stare into it. You might even attract the ire of the local authorities, whereas if you are just standing there with a still camera on a tripod, you can gather an establishing shot of traffic going by for a movie or a TV show, fairly efficiently, without interference, and without attracting too much attention. To me, that's extremely useful.

There are numerous television shows that have been employing them to great effect. That is what has led to things like an entire episode of "House, MD" being shot with DSLRs [by Gale Tattersal, ASC], and episodes of "24" [by Rodney Charters, ASC].

I personally am not inclined to try and shoot a whole television show with a DSLR. But there are guys who want to be out there, on the hairy edge. This is sort of what they're doing to stay in the avant-garde. They're shooting entire TV shows, and even moving into features with the Canon 5D Mark II. I think it has that kind of value. I personally might never do that, but I honor those who would.


I have done some of my own testing with the Canon 5D Mark II, and I really enjoy shooting with it. As with any new camera, I enjoy finding its unique characteristics.

To me, one of the responsibilities of a cinematographer is to know how to use all the tools available, so that you can let the script and the story and the circumstances tell you which camera to use, rather than just picking a camera that you have a comfort level with.

It obeys a really old axiom, that when the only tool you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you know only one kind of camera, then every job you do looks like a job for that camera. But ultimately, what we learned from CAS is that every camera has its strengths and weaknesses. If you let the job tell you which camera to use, rather than just your knowledge of only one camera, then you are ultimately doing the greatest service to your producer.

The thing that I think about most is my responsibility to the projects that I do. Sometimes part of the job description entails that you're here to save them from themselves. In the same respect that it's possible to spend too much money on a project, it's also possible to spend too little. Making the right choice palatable and desirable is a delicate dance.

Ultimately, a question that you must ask your producer and your director, as a responsible cinematographer is, "What is your expectation of the shelf life of this product that we are creating? How hard do you want me to work to make this product future-proof?"

By knowing and educating myself on a lot of different camera systems, I can make a choice. There's an important distinction to be made here. If I only know one camera system, I can't make a choice. I can only decide to use the tool that I know.

I can't choose some of the others that might work better, if I don't know what they are.

Dave Stump, ASC has worked as a DP, effects cinematographer and VFX supervisor on dozens of films including Quantum of Solace, X-men and X-men 2, The Bourne Identity, Army of Darkness, Star Trek: First Contact, Batman Forever and many more. He chairs the American Society of Cinemtagraphers subcommittees on Cameras, and Metadata.
In 2000, Dave was part of a team that received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® for hand-development of advanced camera data capture systems, which he describes in his first article for Creative COW Magazine, Metadata and The Future of Filmmaking. There, Dave describes a possible future for filmmaking -- faster, less expensive, and more creative -- as cameras and metadata come together.

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