Having Learnt in Vegas

An NAB attendee tries out the new 4k Black Magic Cinema Camera
  This year I attended the NAB show in vegas with my friend. I had visited the show one other time with him back five or six years ago. NAB is a convention held in Las Vegas where vendors in the broadcasting, digital cinema and radio industries meet to showcase their products. It has always been an exciting place to see the latest technology. Last time I was there prosumer HD video cameras were just emerging and now this year 4k is all the rage (with some talk about 8k technology). But camera technology isn't just about the advancement in resolution. Only a few years ago, Canon significantly altered the way independent digital cinema could be made when they allowed video capability on their 5D Mark II camera. This of course spawned the so-called "DSLR revolution" which has since revitalized the prosumer camera market. DSLRs like the 5D were in effect re-appropriated for cinema. There were technical limitations, for example, in their audio capabilities or recording length limitations. Yet considering the affordability of these cameras, the benefits far out-weighed their disadvantages. In particular the ability to use high quality interchangeable 35mm lenses were, and continue to be, very attractive. In prior years people had developed various methods for adapting these lenses. Most famously LETUS and even hobbyists made contraptions to adapt lenses to their non-interchangeable lensed digital video cameras. I remember in high school looking over instructions about making such a device. Even the materials to build it, such as the clear plastic disc often included on a CD spindle and the motor of a portable CD player are somewhat scarce now. Strangely LETUS still sells their 35mm lens adaptor for $2,399 (which is also 40% off it's list price). The technology is truly a vestige of a period when users and developers longed for a way to push digital video cameras as far as they could to reproduce the look of cinema.

The 5D's full frame size sensor not only fulfilled the dreams of video camera enthusiasts whom longed for shallow depth of field and low-light sensitivity but it also dramatically changed the aesthetic of much of the content we now view. During the early 2000s, television dramas were still often shot on celluloid. Am I not the only one surprised to learn that Lost was shot on 35mm film! Perhaps not so surprising since at the time shooting on 35mm would have made a lot of sense aesthetically if producers were hoping to achieve a cinematic look. Even in Cinema it was not until the early 00s that the first big releases of digital cinema were produced. Some of the earliest examples were: Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Star Wars Episode II : Attack of the Clones.

In 2004, we began to see television shows like Desperate Housewives shot using a combination of film and digital cameras, including the still used Arri Alexa. Conveniently and/or coincidentally, reality type shows like Desperate Housewives were prominent during this time and the documentary style of these programs allowed audiences to be more forgiving of their crude digital aesthetic.

Contrast the quality between two low light situations from season 1 and season 9 of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: 

Season 1

Season 9

Beyond resolution, there is a vast improvement in dynamic range, noise, and the flexibility in which to color grade the image. No Reservations cameraman Zach Zamboni has said that "We've always wanted to do this show completely in Super 35 format. [...] We love the cinematic depth of field, but the most important factor about this chip, as far as I'm concerned, is its enormous sensitivity. That is revolutionizing the way we shoot this show." The ability in to shoot in low light is enormous aesthetically because it means that often times available light is sufficient to produce great images thus allowing for more natural or realistic looking shots.

Camera sensors like the one found in Canon's 5D which is similar in size to 35mm film has altered viewer expectations. It has become commonplace to see images on television that compare to cinematic images. The emphasis on resolution, dynamic range, and depth of field have become some of the key areas where camera manufacturers are working hard to develop.

Dynamic range is probably the most exciting frontier right now and the ability to shoot in a raw format is key. RED was the first camera producer to build a camera that shot raw at a price point that independent filmmakers could budget for, starting around the $6-10k range. Then Blackmagic Design released their cinema camera. Its $2,999 price tag shook the industry a year and a half or so ago and just this past month they released a 4k version of their cinema camera at $3,999 and a "pocket" version at just $999. All three cameras shoot raw while the resolution and sensor size varies.

Playing with the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera
At NAB I was able to play around with the Blackmagic lineup. We haven't seen test footage yet from the pocket or the 4k version but both look really promising. Although we can't quite expect these cameras to fully stand-up to a $60-80k Arri Alexa, these cameras will encourage the lower end of the market, particularly DSLR manufacturers, to work toward producing cameras that can also shoot in a  raw format.

It was hardly surprising that Blackmagic used a '60s style test set that resembled the set of Mad Men (an exemplar of modern quality television, shot on an Alexa) at their booth at NAB.  Today's television viewers are accustomed to high production value programs that mimic the look of film. Digital video technology has enabled creatives to produce this aesthetic or perhaps the technology has even dictated a certain aesthetic.

For now, for people who love the look of film, this is a good thing. It seems to me that now more than ever filmmakers have greater control over the look of their work. For instance, the limits to which colorists can control the look of video has been greatly extended with the use of a raw format. There is much more aesthetic variety in even the commercials we see on TV now. I was stopped in my tracks when I saw this commercial aired. It is beautifully shot and colored and well, honestly, unexpected for an Oscar Mayer commercial:

Optimistically speaking, what this new technology offers us most generally is greater aesthetic freedom. And while I am enjoying this period of what some call a television renaissance or a period of quality television, I fear that what we might be experiencing is perhaps a period of aestheticism. It will be fascinating to see over the next few years how imaging technology allows for high and low art to merge, collaborate and intermingle aesthetically.


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