Friday, June 15, 2012

Being Talent & Tech - My Geek Side - Digital Film Making Finally Beats Chemical Film Making




I'm an imagination person first. There's a theme park carnival universe in my head / hear - then I'm an an actor, then a writer, then a director, then a DP and then an editor (I think... the orders of those things switch - and I'm not including music or broadcasting or hosting). Somehow after or before or quantum sideways of that I have something to do with the Thrice Great Okapi but let's not get into that now. Why must you readers always distract me? Oh wait, you haven't read this yet. It's me who's distracting me. So sorry, let me get on with it:

As the title says. Digital Film Making Finally Beats Chemical Film Making.

I just viewed Prometheus. This article is not about the movie plot or merits. It was OK.  OK it was a little better than OK... I'd say 3 stars out of 4 for you geeks out there. It was dark and highly predictable in that same way that so many sci fi movies are with their ominous shots of Halo like activity but it was a fairly good movie none the less and the visuals are amazing! The focus here is that it was shot and projected entirely digitally. No chemical film.  I viewed it in 3D on dual 8K digital projectors from a digital source (it was shot on Red Epic digital cameras with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses) and I was so impressed that it led me to write this column that will only be appreciated by hard core film or motion picture buffs, fellow film makers, or total and absolute techy nerds.

I apologize to my regular 'wacky guy with a hat" audience about the extreme levels of techy geek I am about to enter but I am compelled to write on this for my film making friends (we need to change that terminology to 'motion picture' or 'movie' making, because old school film making is finally really dead and unnecessary.  OOPS I just blew my whole article away! That was a huge spoiler... oh well anyway I thought I'd give the above disclaimer, and now having done that... here we go!

Chemical film is finally dead. Let me make it clear I don't say this with a hatred of chemical film like it is some witch or beast that needed to be slayed, but it was/is just way too expensive. People who had the money liked this fact as it keep them in some sort of elitist club. I did not. I used to have fantasies of stealing panavision film equipment when I found out they only rented and didn't sell film cameras and related equipment. I say this as a LOVER of the motion picture 24p chemical film look that has been on a loooong (add as many o's as you need to make that long really looooong) quest to make movies that looked like what...well movies looked like... well.. at the movies!!! I was not once ever satisfied with digitally shot and digitally projected movies from the Star Wars fiascos to the IMAX lies (especially in 3D) until now.

Watching Prometheus on dual 8K projectors was the first time I could sit closer than mid row and be absolutely immersed in the entire film without seeing the artifacts of digital film making or 3D problems. The picture was as detailed as I have ever seen - other than some outstanding real (chemical film) IMAX 3D films - but nearly the same, and there were no pixels, the brightness was excellent, the 3D did not flicker. I mean seriously - holy shit it finally works! Give someone a gold star sticker!!!


So actual chemical film appears to really be dead now. There. I've said it again. Now I have never been a fan of the Red One camera but I have to say the Red Epic is, well, fairly Epic, and while it is still out of reach cost wise for most indie film makers, it has sealed the coffin on shooting with actual chemical film - and there are HD-SLRs out there that look nearly as good as the Epic without the cost if you don't mind not shooting at 5k resolution, which most people don't need and most audiences don't appreciate unless it's a massive screen and they are sitting close enough (we'll get to that in a bit).

Hollywood will use chemical film it a little longer because just like any old system that is in place - they don't like to change what is already working until they are absolutely forced to or the new thing saves them major cash and looks just as good or better. Well after finally seeing a film on dual 8K projection systems (unconverted from a 5k master) and then watching Men in Black 3 on a regular 2K digital projection system - the comparison is like this - Men in Black 3 looked to Prometheus like Nintendo Wii looks like after you play PS3 or XBOX 360 on a big real 1080p screen: horrible and blocky!

I enjoyed MIB3 immensly and think it was a much more fun movie to watch - but it looked horrible, and here's the funniest part of the whole thing - Men In Black 3 was shot on real chemical 35 mm Kodak film. It probably would have looked great if it was actually projected on 35mm film on real film projectors but that's a dying thing here in NYC. Almost all the movie theaters have gone entirely digital. Even little indie Film Forum and art house cinemas are going totally digital. It's just what level of digital have they gone to and as the hardware gets better and cheaper it's obvious film is going bye bye.

A 2K projector works great in your home living room theater or a small small venue, but it's not so hot  for a very large venue unless you're sitting past the mid row to the back row of seats. If you sit close than that, you'll see something like this:

Eww! What 2K projection looks like if you sit too close!

So let's talk about chemical film motion picture capture and projection vs digital motion picture capture and projection for a bit here, and lets talk about resolution and perceived resolution. This will be the really short cliff notes version.

Again, we need to stop calling films "films" now I guess and stick to "motion pictures" or "movies" because movies are not going to be made on film anymore for very long so it's confusing to call them films.

People love stories, and motion pictures are supposed to tell stories, and stories compress life into bigger than life moments and movie making is the latest of human art forms (only been around the past 100 years or so compared to say painting and sculpture that go back as far as time) and it's the only human art form that combines ALL the disciplines of EVERY OTHER art form and science known to man into a new art form. Movies basically combine all of the the arts into one. Writing, story telling, acting, live performance, photography, sound recording, music, dance, editing, art design, architecture, sculpture, modeling, carpentry, building, painting, lighting, magic, slight of hand, illusion, and the list goes on and on. All of us at one time or another have watched that gigantic list of credits that scroll after a movie and marveled at how such a thing could get done that involved so many people of so many different artistic disciplines. When a big movie actually does come out great it actually is a miracle to behold when you think of all the individual parts that have to gel together to make the whole movie work.

But I digress again. I love movies. That's the point. I love acting more than directing because acting is so much more fun for me... it's a virtual cake walk (sorry fellow actors but it is). Directing and editing are WOOOORRRRRRRK and this is why you'll find large gaps between my pieces, especially if I am trying to write, act, and direct. It's awesome inspiring fun creative work but damn it's work and so you'll never catch me procrastinating when it comes to acting - I can pop into any character almost on the spot, but with directing, shooting, and editing I procrastinate like a mofo. Acting is a lot more playtime to me. Talk about the craft all you want but acting for motion pictures can be done with 'no skill' if someone just 'has it' or is naturally right for a part. I have cast non actors plenty of times and it worked sometimes (though I prefer trained actors) but directing, shooting, and editing CAN NOT be performed with no skill or practice. The results are disastrous.

Shit I ventured off course again! Back into the realms of techy geek speak:

The thing that's so great about digital motion picture capture and projection finally surpassing film motion picture capture and projection is not that it allows Hollywood to go on blowing up and smashing things in stupid new ways, but that now the QUALITY level of Hollywood is TRULY accessible to the individual or small crew of talented artists with vision, where as before it was out of reach.

Still, let's talk about WHY people love chemical FILM motion pictures and the reasons certain people kept giving to "shoot real chemical film or you're not a real film maker!"

Basically - there are three reasons movies shot on actual film by talented people were so much better looking than anything anyone at home could make or any digital process could do no matter how good the story. You could WRITE it, but you couldn't shoot it - or more accurately you COULD but it would look terrible! For years and years..... and years, and some more years - this was the plight that all indie film maker dreamers had to deal with. Sure, you had your occasional 'Blair Witch' or 'Paranormal Activity' that used how crappy video looks as part of the story - but that's a one trick pony. It only works once.

The three reasons movies shot on actual film USED to always looks better and more 'magical'  than anything shot on video tape or shot digitally are, #1 - 24p vs 60i (24p has a magical suspension of disbelief look bigger than life while 60i/p looks like life) - #2 - the  incredible resolution of film over digital and #3 - the dynamic range of chemical film (the ratio of how much detail can be in the lightest and darkest areas of the image). That is why people still went to movie theaters when TVs came out. TVs at home could not duplicate the theater experience. This is why TV shows that were shot on film look even more stunning now on Blu-Ray (sometimes too stunning), because the original audiences of say... "Star Trek" the TV series never saw the show at such a quality level even though it was shot at that level. That's just how good film was. It was "future proof". The fact that TVs in the 60s were not that great at visually producing an image actually helped Star Trek work and not look so fake as it does now on HD - but that has been addressed with retouching and computer updating so you can watch the original film or the restored and updated version, and that option is truly a great thing. 

320 x 240 60i - NOOOOOOOOO!
This is not so true with shows that were shot on video cameras like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, or soap operas. That is were that dreaded 'video look' came from and it is very low low resolution and low dynamic range so even prime time high budget shows that were shot directly to video tape do NOT stand the test of time as far as quality goes. They do not look good blown up to big full HD screens. Some software or hardware programs can do a lot of interpolation work and create some fake resolution to kinda sorta make it look ok but that's about it. Remember how horrible youtube looked when it first came out? Have you blown up the old 320 x 240 clips to 6 foot diagonal or bigger screens? IT'S NOT PRETTY! Even a total 'regular Joe' non technical / non movie buff audience member can plainly see that. Play the same clip on an old tube TV and it looks great, play it on the same size HD tv and it's a MESS! However, if you have a really long hallway and stand far far far away - it looks OK. Now you will start to understand resolution and how it relates to screen size viewing distance from the screen. Your viewing distance should always be twice the length of the screen for optimal viewing of HD on a big screen.

While there is nothing like a packed audience in a real big public venue to sense the collective consciousness of an audience engaged in watching a motion picture, all the TECHNICAL sound and visuals can now be reproduced at home - both the recording and the display and sound reproduction - AND on a decent budget. This was simply NOT possible for almost the whole history of movie making. Movies used to cost millions to make at the quality level that can now be had for thousands. Movies are finally undergoing the revolution that sound recording had in the 90s went Trent Reznor made the first NIN album "Pretty Hate Machine" on a home computer that cost a few grand rather than in a conventional sound recording studio that cost a few million. After that - as tech got cheaper and cheaper - EVERYONE was making music at home and pumping out CDs, and now everyone sounds like autotune everyone of course except Tay Zonday. CHOCOLATE RAIN! 

If you can sit through this whole thing without going insane - you have a special power.
The power of Chocolate Rain.

This is why everyone and their mom who has a new HD camera calls themselves a "film maker" or "director" now, much to the dismay of many a union card carrying old school actual director or camera operator - also known as a DP (director of photography) also known (if they are really fancy pants) as a "cinematographer."  Oooohhheewww! wow is that a fancy way of saying camera operator. The old dogs of chemical film do have one thing correct though - very few are actually good at making a movie. Making a really good movie takes talent, vision, and then practice, lots of it, and skill, and talent, rinse, repeat. Then again there's "THE TRANSFORMERS" (Sorry Michael Bay). I hate you in my own loving way. I forgive you - you know not what you do. VROOOOOOOOMMMMM BRAWWNNNN BOOOOMMM (CAMERA SHAKE).

Just having the technology to record motion pictures at a quality level and resolution equal to that of main stream Hollywood doesn't give you the skill to act or direct at a high end level just like owning a typewriter or computer doesn't make you a good writer or world class novelist. Buying the best ice skates in the world don't make you a world class ice skater.

But I digress... back to chemical film motion pictures vs digital motion pictures and all the fuss about resolution.

The best moving images or movie I have ever seen (we are talking technically not story) have been projected IMAX 3D in a real 4:3 film old school imax theater. Really, the movie watching experience doesn't get much better than 70MM x 48.5mm imax chemical film in a real IMAX FILM theater.

You are looking at a HUGE picture at a very close viewing distance that has an amazing amount of massive detailed resolution, dynamic range, and it is projected onto suck a large screen that it takes up all your peripheral vision. IMAX then scammed people by going to 2K digital projectors and not telling people (which caused a lot of anger) and produced a vastly lower quality image than true IMAX chemical film - while still charging you premium IMAX prices. The average viewer doesn't understand this stuff and it's hard to directly compare chemical film to digital because we are dealing with very different ways of storing and reproducing light to form an image, but real movie lovers notice these subtle differences and in the end of course it's story and performance first, and all the tech in the world doesn't matter if the script sucks and the actors are no good. But - just for wow picture quality's sake let's say this is a nature documentary like the BBC's outstanding (and a must own blu-ray for every big screen owner out there) "PLANET EARTH"piece where image quality is actually more important than the writing because the picture itself is the amazement - like still photography - but with motion. Does the end result done digitally look and sound as good? Well I am here to say YES, it finally does, but only in a few theaters for now, but I am sure it will be in all theaters soon.

The exact resolution of chemical film is a tricky thing and has been argued for a long time because it doesn't store an image as a definite X by Y resolution number like digital does, but by light reactive chemicals at multiple layers according to color so you have softer moving grains depending on film stock rather than sharp exactly defined pixels depending on the digital acquisition and intermediate steps.

A good analogy for this are billboards and LCD signs in Times Square. A plastered on a building printed billboard is closer to how chemical film looks / works and an lcd billboard is closer to how digital motion picture recording and projection works. The actual resolution of both is pretty awful. If you walked up too close to a billboard - you'll see big ugly dots. Walk up too close to an lcd billboard and you'll see pixels or actual individual lights - but since most of the world views them from the proper spot - more than twice the length away or further - they look amazing, sharp, and detailed, and increasing the resolution wouldn't do ANYTHING for people viewing it from that distance - it would only make it clearer for people close up - which most people are not. Get it?

Now I am a resolution, quality, and detail whore to the point of obsession. I admit it. I fiercely hated the decision of Lucas shooting the Star Wars shitquels - (actually only the last two shitquels were entirely digital - phantom menace was chemical 35mm film) Attack of the Clones - & Revenge of the Sith all digital because I thought Star Wars was too important to ruin with experimenting with tech that just wasn't there yet on material so important (you're going to shoot a Star Wars movie on a PXL-2000... WHAt WHAT WHAAAAT!!?!?). While I admired where Lucas was trying to go - my thoughts were, "experiment on another Howard the Duck or something but for God sake's man don't ruin Star Wars shoot it on IMAX!"! Of course.. I digress again because it was already ruined by the soulless scripts that had no resolution or definition themselves so the lack of resolution and detail in the recording I guess is fitting for what ruined Star Wars. Lucas and his many billions aren't hurt by little old me, so I'll end my hatred of how Star Wars was destroyed geek rant there but it connects:

Because of my insane obsession with quality, resolution, dynamic range, compression artifacts, and detail, I was a very very unhappy film maker and I abandoned the art several times (having used everything from real 8mm film as a 7 year old then downgrading to vhs, s-vhs, back to 8mm, hi-8, 3/4 inch, betacam, digital betacam, 1 inch uncompressed analog tape, DV, DV 24p (DVX-100 the first promising camcorder) early hdv, all the way up to this current HDSLR and red epic revolution. The first time I was EVER satisfied with something I shot (with the look - not the script or story line) and said to myself - THAT looks like f*&^ing FILM - FINALLY -was in July 2010 when I made this little piece with a hacked Panasonic GH13 camera:

"Saturday With the Dogs"

If you search for "clearest video ever" or "clearest encode ever" that comes up at the top on almost every search engine and I got a few directing and DP jobs from it after people's jaws dropped from seeing that sort of quality out of youtube HD video. You HAVE to have a full 1920 x 1080p monitor and fast bandwidth and choose full HD to watch it (most people never do this they watch it in the little crappy window or worse, they full screen the little crappy window and get 640 x 480p blown up to 1920 x 1080p which is awful and makes me cry).

That little experiment garnered me many underground friends, awards, and directing work where I was previously working as a sound designer and boom op as a 'day job' while I still called myself an actor but was doing very little acting. If you want to talk about all work and no glory - go into sound recording for film, it's a form of zen monk like self torture that is SO important to movies (like the foundation of a home is important to keep the house standing) but no one gives a crap about it. The sound guy is usually the weird mousy guy on set who doesn't speak to anyone and so since I was doing sound on the side because it was the only thing I could get paid for at the time and I had the high end recording gear, people found it very funny when I would be very gregarious and crack jokes or pranks - or start to give acting or directing tips, and I got many a harsh yell from a director in the form of , "who the fuck does this sound guy think he is!!?? An actor or director!!!? He's a fucking sound guy tell him to shut the fuck up!"

Little did they know that's exactly what I really was, but I had to zip it because, well, you know... whole chain of command on a film set thing - it's like a navy ship and even if you see the damn ship is sinking your supposed to shut up and mind your place while the ship goes down cause sound is just a recruit and the director is the admiral. Oh, and also - no one respects the importance of sound recording on a film until it's too late and they have ruined at least one film by being cheap on sound. Well.. fuck that shit I say, and that's why I rarely do sound anymore. Damn I'm angry now.. What the fuck was i talking about?! Oh yeah - film.... anyway it was fun for a while and while I was doing that I tinkered away at HD films ** cough ** HD 'motion pictures' and got some secret underground fame in the indie film world for having made the "blackout gh1 hack patch" which eventually turned into a collaboration called the Blackout-Powell gh1 or gh13 hack patch. By no means was it done by me alone - it was a combo of many people. A Russian dude Vitaliy Kiselev known as his handle Tester13 in the same way I am known as Blackout unlocked the firmware of the camera and low and behold it allowed me to tweak my Panasonic GH1 to produce images better than cameras costing tens of thousands of dollars more. I tweaked and tweaked till it looked like 24p chemical film to me, or as close as I could get, and it finally did!!! For the first time ever I was happy with how something I did looked projected on the big screen. This was huge, this was epic, and I made some decent money as an alternative to people shooting on film or the Red One, got to go to Sundance, and while everyone and their mom in "film school" was shooting blurry movies on the Panasonic HVX 200 and 170 as well as the Sony EX1 (slightly better but still video looking as all hell no matter what lens adapters you throw on it) and then the whole Canon 5d mark II and 7d fad which STILL isn't over and let me just say it right now - those cameras SUCK - I had made this piece on a camera and lens that cost about $1500 and projected it on a huge real movie theater screen and it blew all those film school and Canon cameras and even high end cameras like the Sony CineAlta out of the water which was and still is simply mind blowing to me when the other options cost $10,000 to $100,000 or more once you had the camera, expensive overpriced proprietary memory, lens adapters, lenses, and all the other mounting crap.

There is one close up shot at about 2:16 in that is of my dog Cider (RIP) that is so amazingly clear and film like that when people saw that projected and then saw the tiny little camera I shot the Saturday With the Dogs bit on - NO ONE even believed me, so when I would get professional gigs I would actually over deck out the camera to make it look more fancy but I really didn't need any of that crap. The Panasonic GH2 - which is even smaller and looks like a toy - took a loooong time to hack but once it was - if hacked and set correctly and operated by a skilled operator (DP) - it was capable of producing even MORE stunningly detailed high resolution full HD film like motion picture recording:

That digital cameras could finally make "real film looking motion pictures" that looked like film or better - my dreams were finally realized - but then weird things started happening in movie theaters...while 1920 x 1080p transferred to 35mm film looks awesome (the transfer actually gives a touch of softness that helps the image because you don't see direct pixels - you see film grain) - theaters started going to crappy 2k projectors starting with the Star Wars shitquels and Toy Story. I remember watching the digital projections of both and thinking how horribly 'digital they looked' if you weren't in the back of the house. This caused many people and critics and old school film makers who didn't quite understand what was going on to initially reject (and rightfully so) digital cinema and saying that it could never rival real film - and there are some people who still think that and while that may be true to a certain romantic level (film chemicals and grain adds a distinct look to the way it captures and stores and then reproduces light) but it can now fully be reproduced digitally without a shadow of a doubt better resolution and dynamic range (dark to light ratio) than any chemical film currently made.

FULL HD on Blu-ray (1920 x 1080p) is so clear as it is (and that's not even that big of a resolution for really big screens - it's 2073600 pixels - two million seventy three thousand and six hundred pixels changing 24 times every second for a total of 49,766,400 visual pixels per second in a full hd 24p movie or 99,532,800 pixels per second for a full HD 24p 3D (really 48p - 24 left eye pictures and 24 right eye pictures) that many films don't look so great and need serious clean up before going to full hd blu-ray (remember blu-ray is just the storage medium NOT a resolution but generally blu-rays are now all 1920 x 1080p), and that resolution is great for home theater or small movie houses where the viewing to screen distance is double the screen width. THAT'S REALLY IMPORTANT. This is why a lot of people say, "I don't even see the difference between blu-ray and DVD," because they either have a crappy small screen or old display or they are very far from the picture not getting the proper distance of viewer to screen size ratio correct to appreciate the detail.

In English - this is why 2K digital projectors look shitty or inferior to the first half of the audience in digital projection movie theaters. They are simply sitting too close! Chemical film is not always technically better it is just that you see grain or blur rather than blocks of sharp resolution with film - in but you see the pixels rather than the chemical noise - or the spaces which gives the resolution or squares away with digital projection done wrong.

I saw own a 3 lcd 6k hd projector that fixes this issue (when projecting on large screens for festivals) by half pixel off shifting each color (red, green and blue chips of 1920 x 1080 pixels each, then projecting into one color image - so your 1920 x 1080 film now has a 6K apparent look and you don't see the lines or pixels even if you are up close.

3D needs TWICE the resolution or two projectors and twice the speed to avoid that annoying flicker. Finally Prometheus - projected at 8K 3D - actually looked better than the IMAX digital experience which is only glorified blu-ray in a movie theater for the most part since they are phasing out actual real IMAX film negative theaters - there are only a few left and most productions are blown up and up sampled to the few real IMAX film theaters left - which is POINTLESS. - Welp - that's my tech nerd director rant for the week. I think I am going back to only acting.

1 comment:

  1. The preservation process is big business for the film industry which uses a very sophisticated process. 8mm, 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film negative or film positive is transferred to any one of 26 (and counting) available media. Convert Video Tape to DVD


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