Film History: Primer on Digital Cinema for a general readership (2016)

How does filming really work in a post-film age? How much does it cost to make a simple movie? How large a talent and knowledge gap separates enthusiastic amateurs from making decent films? If the reader tried it, how good or bad would it likely to be?

When I was growing up there was a fairly new phenomenon called “underground movies”. Though it sometimes had the unspoken shady undertone of nudity and/or sex, all the term really meant was an amateur movie made with ambition, usually experimental. Some of those underground filmmakers got their informal training on the go, got their names in print, and ended up as successful career filmmakers. They often worked in 16mm film, which started in the 1920s as home movie film and was upgraded to semi-professional by the armed forces in World War II, since they needed entertainment that was small and light to ship.

After the war, home movies drifted over to 8mm, which was one fourth the cost. 16mm became the mainstay of documentaries, TV news, industrial and classroom use, and underground filmmaking. On a small screen it could look nearly as good as a 35mm movie you'd see in a theater, and it was far cheaper. Most filmmakers who came up in the ranks from roughly 1950 through 2000 learned their craft with 16mm.

The cultural changes in film that could broadly be called “Left” worked hand in hand with this cultural change. Black radical James Baldwin said in 1952 that the typewriters used to write novels would soon be replaced by 16mm cameras; the radical documentaries were all on “sixteen”. Achieving cultural overthrow in Hollywood takes making movies; finding a cheaper way beats the barriers to entry.

It's no different now than it was then.

I have a mid-Eighties book called Electronic Cinematography, a premature look at analog high definition video imaging that would supposedly be used to replace 35mm film. At the time, there were all sorts of techniques to only partially compensate for the central, unavoidable fact that film imaging was just flat-out better than video; it was more detailed by far, color rendition was vastly superior, and only film was capable of dealing with very low light situations. There was one worldwide universal theatrical film standard, 35mm at 24 frames per second, but a bewildering, ever changing maze of technical standards for video. Video equipment was bulky and heavy.

A Rip Van Winkle from thirty years ago, or even half that, would be stunned to see how much has changed. Digital—which is just video in fancier, more exact form—deals with night exposures even better than film does. Detail and color rendition have basically caught up, although digital theater projection, only good-to-adequate today, is still a laggard. Digital cameras for professional filmmaking are markedly smaller than equivalent 35mm film cameras, and adjusted for inflation they are much less expensive, even in their most hoity-toity studio incarnations.

At the local cineplex, the digital revolution took its own sweet time. There were still almost no movie theater screens with digital projectors even by the turn of the century. For about a dozen years after that, the release of every ordinary movie needed to cover both possibilities, digital media, and big heavy steel cans of 35mm film. Unlike the similarly expensive talkie revolution, this time the public was mostly unaware that almost every single piece of equipment that made or showed movies was being replaced. We barely noticed the difference, which is what the industry hoped, and few of us have actually seen a “film” after 2012 or so.

“Film” and TV are both now electronic images, digitally encoded the same way, but they even have very similar technical specs: about 2000 pixels wide and 1080 tall. There’s a lot of convergence. The theaters raised that to “4K”—4000 wide, 2160 tall—but gradually, so is television, although it’s coming along sluggishly in this economy, and there are still few sources of 4K programs. Experts consider the absolute limit of the human eye’s ability to see detail to fall somewhere well before 8K, so there isn’t a whole lot of future improvement to expect in resolution.

We’re getting close to those ultimate limits already. A well shot 4K image should look good for a very long time. Standardization continues to make digital more and more consistent and compatible. The colorimetry charts look much the same as when I first encountered one, more than forty years ago, only now the “tilted triangle” of imaging color and light response is no longer a small subset of human vision, but actually one as large, or larger, than the outer limits of human capability. After several interim standards to get digital cinema going, SMPTE (the motion picture and TV engineers) and AMPAS (the motion picture academy) have made fascinating efforts to “future-proof” their latest technical specifications, to the degree that anything is truly broad and visionary enough to last centuries. Those are the lofty specs; nobody claims that today’s processes and equipment fully live up to them yet.

It means high quality filmmaking is possible at much lower cost.

I don’t happen to have a feature script and a volunteer cast and crew sitting around, but you might. If not you personally, then someone who you barely know, or don't know, who is ambitious and nervy enough to start making stories, risking rejection, and getting better at it. If that isn't someone in your own neighborhood, school, or church, it might be someone on the internet who has shared your views. If you want cultural change, then you want people like that to emerge. Will Hollywood help them? The question answers itself. So, someone has to help them, or there's no change.

Let's talk reality. I’m always intrigued by the challenge of seeing how much you can get, how high in quality you can go for a low price.

There’s a whole subculture of underground filmmaking done with ordinary D-SLRs (digital single lens reflex; high class still cameras, like Nikons) and a whole field of accessories that fit these cameras and adapt them for filmmaking, like shoulder mounts with external focus knobs and a featherweight monitor so a second person can pull focus. These cameras usually have good lenses, though not up to studio feature standards, and a big image sensor. Lena Dunham shot her first feature on such a D-SLR rig; the tech standards are higher now, but the barriers have long been breached and prices have dropped.

The main competitors for D-SLRs are a new class of relatively low-cost digital cine cameras, like the rock bottom 4K GoPro and Blackmagic Pocket Camera, both well under $1000. They are better than most DSLR cameras at “film workflow compatibility”—that is, they record video data in formats that are easy and familiar for users of common computer video editing programs; nothing has to be improvised or compromised. Like using Microsoft Word; no sweat.

I found it interesting, and a little funny, that the manufacturers have dubbed these as “Super 16 cameras” in an attempt to spell out their suggested market. Funny, because there’s nothing actually related to “16mm”; they shoot the same tech format as the studio cameras. But Super 16 is a shorthand way of saying it’s good enough for professional documentaries, sports, news, and concerts, any of which could at least be used in a feature, just as a few 16mm films like “Woodstock” did, but it’s not being pitched as 100% feature film quality.

(It's like digital radio calling itself “HD Radio”, even though radio, as a picture-less sound medium, doesn’t have “high definition” at all. But for modern audiences, “HD” is a much more familiar term than “high fidelity sound”.)

As in the old film days, “16mm quality” is the minimum you need to even hope to be in theaters someday, yet quite adequate to TV and the web, which may well be your real market. Let's jump up a level—a big level—to more professional equipment and a higher level of polish. Very roughly speaking, costs work out to half to one quarter of what the equivalent 35mm equipment prices were in the Eighties and Nineties.

You can get a RED One, a Blackmagic, or a couple of other feature film-worthy 4K cameras for less than $10,000 used. But cine pros know that the camera body is “only” the lightproof box that holds the sensor and the lens. To cinematographers, it’s still all about “the glass”—the lenses from Bausch and Lomb, or Cooke, or Angenieux, or Schneider-Kreuzbach, or Canon—and in 2016 a typical set of six prime lenses costs about $50,000. That hasn’t changed since film days. Batteries, lights, brackets and other accessories haven’t changed much in price either, so the savings on the main camera body aren’t everything.

A savvy-seeming cinematographer clarified the overall dimensions of price by saying you could buy a complete feature package, probably good for anyone working well below the Christopher Nolan-Peter Jackson-James Cameron level, for $128,000, half of what it would have cost in 1990 even in unadjusted dollars. An acceptable compromise camera package could do decent-looking films for $25,000-45,000.

A so-called run-and-gun digital camera package for independent but totally professional features could come in between $8,000 and $15,000; about a fourth of what it would have cost in 16mm, inflation adjusted, twenty years ago. You wouldn’t want to try to do Barry Lyndon or American Sniper with it, but you could shoot Juno or Taking Woodstock with ease. Plus at every level mentioned above, equipment rentals are available. If you're going to be filming a surreptitious documentary over a two-year period, you want to buy the camera, preferably a cheap one. If on the other hand you are basically making a recording of an amateur theater group perform a show they've done hundreds of times, you're more likely to do it in a concentrated length of time and might be better off renting.

The equipment itself is much cheaper than pro film gear, but the real savings for an independent filmmaker are in the lack of film stock, processing and workprint, the film copy used in editing. A 90-minute feature film shot at a none-too-generous 15:1 ratio, including blown takes, not merely unused ones, would be 1350 minutes of camera original. With each foot of 35mm color stock and processing costing about $1, and 90 feet a minute, that’s roughly $121,500 for raw film alone. Then at the end of the line a filmmaker has to pay for optical transfer of the mixed soundtrack, about $10,000, the negative cut, maybe $5,000, and the first answer print: another $10,000. So even on a Sundance-bound indie, the cost of photographic film approaches $150,000 before taxes. On a low budget first time feature, that can be 1/3 of the entire cost of a half million-dollar film. Digital saves nearly all of it; that ain’t chicken feed.

In a studio situation, whether it’s film or digital, you still need all the other expensive stuff: a separate crew that deals with camera movement, laying down tracks and pushing a dolly, or wearing a Steadicam; lights and people to move and aim them, a boom operator and sound mixer.

The real reason Hollywood likes digital hasn’t been saving on production, which matters less to them, but eliminating release prints. That’s where the studios really save. A 3,000-print release of The Phantom Menace in 35mm cost $8,000,000, almost all of it worn out within four months, and then deliberately destroyed to deter copying. If a major studio had fifteen large releases a year, that's $120,000,000 spent and unrecovered. One studio, one year. You could see their problem.

Now movies are carried on hard drives in aluminum Halliburton cases and reused. When stubborn, powerful directors still shoot on 35mm film, but like everyone else have to exhibit only on video or digital, the studios are still happy. They've still racked up the big savings. Mike Medavoy, a technically astute Hollywood executive, foresaw that with some clarity in the late Nineties.

On a larger film the savings over film in production are proportionately less significant a factor, but other factors weigh in: you don’t have to have “protection” takes for camera or performance because you can immediately see what you’ve got, one major reason for multiple takes over the film century, and actors really like that. There’s no longer a problem sometimes seeing dailies on location. The material is ready for digital editing immediately. With backed-up files, there’s no unique negative that can be damaged. The cameras are lighter and smaller, making setups faster and tracking shots easier. The camera boss is now also expected to be something like his or her own lab technician, working with a specialist to “grade” the output for color, contrast and brightness. Even for the pros it’s astonishing how fast this has all happened.

The Focal Press volume on Digital Cinematography (edited by David Stump) is detailed enough for professionals, but carefully explained and well written enough not to chase off newcomers.

Today, the essence and even many of the details of film and television production will be identical. You could, in theory, take almost any current TV camera off the set of a sitcom and use it to shoot a photographically acceptable feature to show in a movie theater. That was never true before. But in real life, you almost certainly wouldn’t, because differences in the business practices and working customs of the television and film industries have led to special adaptations to the equipment needs of each of them.

One technicality of substance: almost all color TV cameras have had prisms that divided the image into three, at first for three vidicon tubes (with red, green, and blue filters) and later for three solid state chips.

It works—it’s how the original three strip Technicolor cameras worked—but it lowers resolution and is only marginal for perfect convergence. The new “film” digital cameras are all one chip, with an image sensor that is coincidentally similar to various sizes of film stock. A three-chip amateur camera, like my 1982 RCA down in the garage, has chips about the size of a Super 8 frame. A TV news camera and most broadcast cameras have three chips the sizes of a 16mm frame. These digital cinema cameras have a single chip as large as a full image 35mm frame, with the according jump in image quality.

A TV camera is set up for one-person use, doing their own focusing through a monitor. There’s usually one zoom lens that’s used for everything, though others could be fitted. The digital recorder—tape, hard disk, or chip—is often physically part of the unit, which resembles a TV news camera. Those images are immediately replayable in their final form. A TV camera is set up so it only takes one operator to give you excellent quality. Work gets done fast.

A digital “film” camera might be identical electronically, but it's been accessorized like an old film camera so a small crew can give you virtually perfect quality. Focus is measured in advance with a tape measure during rehearsals, and operated directly or remotely by a second operator, like a 35mm film camera. The highly regarded, top quality interchangeable lenses so important to cinematographers are kept. Physically, there’s less emphasis on keeping everything within one camera body. Digital data is often or usually stored outside the camera on a separate recorder. “Film” production cameras have sizes and specs to accept industry standard Arriflex accessories, like matte boxes, filter and diffusion packs, pan and tripod heads, “eye” highlights, and lens supports. The everyday work process goes faster than the old film days, but on a feature film set painstakingly slow work has long been accepted, if grudgingly.

As of now, digital is analogized to reversal color film, the 16mm standard when I went to school: it looks great—that’s why print advertisements were photographed with Ektachrome slide film instead of Kodacolor print film—but it usually allows for much less technical manipulation afterwards. More than WYSIWYG, it’s a case of “What You See Is All You Get”. If part of the image is overexposed, you can’t print it down, as they did in the old days, and pull more detail out of an image. Once the image sensor is saturated, that’s it; that’s all you can ever get.

Though on-set playback is always available, it’s only a reduced version of the real thing, which is stored with such detail and complexity that only a lower-resolution sample can be processed to fit on the viewing screen. That unviewable form of the rawest mathematical imaging data is called RAW. Imaginative, eh? RAW data, or another math format called “log” (for logarithm), partly solves the “reversal film” problem, allowing some manipulation of the finished image. That’s why some people casually, though inaccurately call RAW files “the digital negative”.

“Workflow” has become a big buzzword. The old photographically based 35mm production chain was complicated and expensive, but it was long standardized and well understood. Today, each major brand of digital camera has its own menus and its own ways of saving and sending the finished product. So does every brand of editing software and equipment. So does each individual production company and studio. As in the early days of talkies, in a time of technical uncertainty it helped greatly to have gone through the process before, so people tended to stick with what they knew.

I learned something that is apparently true, but not spoken of much: many actresses don’t like digital, even though they have to accept it—unless they’re the star of the picture, with enough clout to demand 35mm film. It sounds vaguely sexist, but the digital picture is just too unsentimental and unforgiving for skin texture, so digital DPs often use old film lenses, plus the classic array of nets and gauzes, to soften the look.

For more than thirty years, even well before digital image capture, film cameras have had video assists, and a whole protocol has evolved around their on-set use. Before every shot was actually made in video and seen on-set on video, the ones that positively required remote video monitoring were Steadicam shots and ones made by the new, Eighties generation of unmanned automated cranes. Aerial drones have been making “crane” shots for a couple of years and have gotten better and better at it. Other elements of the DP’s job are also changing, but are at least familiar extensions of modern film tech, like LED “cool” lighting.

Like the guides that the American Society of Cinematographers used to publish, the book weaves straight technical info with stern, fatherly job guidance: if the on-set camera call is for 7 am, not only be ready at 7, but show ‘em you’re ready by having a lens in, even if it has to be changed. Work as fast as you can, talk to everyone, read up on your equipment, and be ready for anything. Never bad advice.

But amid the clichés and the grouchy old guy routines, Stump is saying something basic that’s not always obvious to someone who’s finally made it up the filmmaking pyramid to the director of photography’s chair: to you, you’re a “special snowflake”, a skilled and trained creative artist with rare abilities who’s reached the top of the craft and is entitled to a bit of leeway; but to the rest of the crew, you’re usually a barely tolerated impediment, the techie who can’t keep up with the actors and director, the one who “keeps fussing around with the lights” and slowing the shooting down. The camera boss is also the de facto boss of the electricians and grips, very large crews all by themselves, right down to dealing with the constant minor problem of keeping microphones out of the shot They’ll see it their way, not your way: that’s the Stump message to young DPs, and it’s no doubt as true today as it was in the silent era.

To baby boomers, “video village” was the name of a short-lived, but influential TV game show of the early Sixties. Now it is the nickname of the little, or not so little cluster of people on the sound stage privileged to watch playback on the monitor. This is supposedly at the director’s discretion, and would have seemed an imposition back when I was learning, but it’s evolved into an accepted practice, if not always graciously tolerated by actors and crews who understandably resent having every blown line or late focus pull instantly reviewed by the critics’ chorus of a clique of set visitors from the studio, talent agency, or network.

This valuable book reminds us how many people are involved in even a fairly modest professional shoot, say a commercial, music video, or TV show. There's the hovering on-set presence of makeup, hair, and costume people, and of the need for carpenters and caterers, drivers, guards and accountants, who have to be nearby but may have nothing directly to do with filming.

It's also a reminder of what a grind that life is. You wake up at 4:15, are at work by 6, and are filming by 7:20. You work beyond exhaustion—sound like your own workday so far? But then at 6 pm you meet again with the main collaborators and walk through the next day’s first scene so lights can be hung overnight, and a camera placement worked out. Then you sit down with the director and watch yesterday’s work. You’re “home” at 8, bone tired, “home” is a motel or even a trailer in the middle of nowhere, and it all repeats the next morning—in the case of a feature film, for about ten-fifteen weeks. They earn their money.

Albert Abramson wrote a fine history of the invention of early television, 1880-1941, but later in life he rushed to complete his patchy The History of Television, 1942-2000, which has some valuable, if almost comically slanted first-hand accounts of how video engineers spent decades deriding film’s haughty attitudes about image qualities and working procedures.

Abramson declares that once Sony’s analog HD system came out of its laboratories in the Eighties, the image quality question was settled. He declared victory over Kodak all over again, with somewhat more justification, in the very late Nineties, when the first handful of digital features were being shot essentially with slightly upgraded HDTV broadcast standards and equipment, but Abramson wouldn’t live to see digital finally triumph at both ends of the production pipeline in 2002-2012.

What annoyed Abramson is what illuminates “Digital Cinematography”; the complete subordination of electronic imaging to the conventional work habits of film studios. Guys like Abramson had toiled in the low-prestige vineyards of video for most of their careers, proud of their live television studio methods. Now, with their eternal celluloid rival finally tottering, instead of TV people being rushed to feature film sets to show humbled film people how it’s done, these first tentative learning efforts by Scorsese’s or Nolan’s cinematographers were supposed to be making Abramson’s lifelong field legitimate at last.

“Look, we can make it look even better than 35mm!” would, you’d think, please an old video chauvinist like Abramson, but in the years before his death he bubbled with resentment towards the bigfooting, or carpetbagging, of pampered, entitled feature film cinematographers coming to the sound stage to shoot their first digital film as if they were freshly inventing the stuff, which in the eyes of the fashionable media critics and writers was, of course, true.