Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shot on 35......the real story

For the last few months I've been getting a few requests to shoot commercials on 35mm. I usually answered in the usual jaded manner....NO.

Rather than getting the expected annoyed response from my clients, most of them seemed amused. However, like most things in my life, I finally said yes to an old director friend of mine. After about what seems like an eternity since my last 35mm experience, (where I spent all night before the last day of a shoot fixing the gate/claw of an ARRI 435 ES) I finally decided to work on a project with celluloid.

Its not that I'm against 35mm (well, maybe a little) but I find it overkill, especially when the final product is an interlaced 720x576 image @ 25fps. Then, I started looking into the finer details. Thats when things got interesting.

35mm is in reality the best scam most media personalities have come up with and it just continues to grow. Celluloid is the best in terms of quality, exposure latitudes, etc. However, for a 30 second commercial that is going to air for about a year max on PAL only channels, is it really required? Most directors here will convince clients that the answer is absolutely yes. The client, who has a pocket that rivals with Donald Trump, will oblige since money is really no object for him and the director would go on shooting on 35mm.

Now lets talk about the reasons why and how the directors choose 35mm.

1) The myth here is all about one thing - Only the best work on 35. Drawing examples from Hollywood and Bollywood counterparts, the Bengali hotshots aren't far behind. It's a way of boosting your showreel (and your paycheck) by proclaiming you don't shoot anything but 35. Local DPs aren't any better. They'll proclaim that 35 requires "a lot of skill and talent", which is true is you're lighting a scene from Amelie, but about 90% of the stuff shot here looks umm......lacking. I'm currently editing a commercial shot on 35mm and the lighting is flat, no real contrast.....dare I say, almost a video look.

2) Digital is good, but we don't have the facilities here. This is true. One particular company here owns a Sony EX1 with a lens converter. However when they rent it out, they call it a "CineAlta" (which it is), the camera used to shoot Hollywood blockbusters where the CineAlta cameras are used (which it is not) ie saying its in the same league as the F35 and the F23. So when the clients, who have know idea about anything really, rent this camera they expect images to look exactly like Tron or the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. When they get to the editing stage and see the 8 bit, 4:2:0, 35Mbs XDCAM EX codec in all its glory as opposed to the 4:4:4 Uncompressed 10-bit images, that the big CineAltas churn out, they are appalled. Also, the guy grading the footage to "make it look like film" (which is difficult to do in the first place with a camera having about 8-9 stops of exposure latitude, is made near impossible), is some dude who is really an editor and toys with Apple Color ($1000, bundled with FCP), not having any formal education on color correction. Yet, when you shoot on 35, your footage gets handled in Singapore or Bangkok or Malaysia or India (since Bangladesh has no film transfer stations) and gets graded by a Pandora or a Da Vinci (about a million dollars) by a guy who is well trained in grading. So, you can tell how the graded in Bangladesh "CineAlta" footage will differ from the footage massaged in Singapore. What about shooting a commercial on the EX1 and then taking it abroad to be graded by a pro? Is that possible? Directors here will laugh that option off.

3) The complexities of digital shooting. When you don't have a professional color grader under you, the best option is to shoot your pictures are best as possible so it doesn't need much love in post. I myself tried introducing Dhaka to the glory of 4:4:4 10-bit production. Some companies have bought a few REDs (not the best in digital cams imo). Still, the business of digital cameras fail to flourish. Why? Most DPs here have no ideas what to do with a digital camera. I saw a DP toy with the Picture Profile settings on an EX1 once. It was sad. One DP turned off the 180 degree shutter "to get more light". If you ask the DPs here about what kind of LUTs they'd like, the usual question is "What's a LUT?" So you can throw as many 4s and Ks and bits/bit rates out there, but the guy using your camera will have no idea what to do with em. My production manager keeps telling me that I should rent out my camera as well. The only problem being what happens when a DP shoots something with the wrong LUT activated? He'll probably shoot something 5 stops overexposed and won't even know about it. Scary isnt it?

When shooting 35mm, there are no LUTs, no picture profile settings and no electronic rolling shutters to worry about. See whats in front via the optical viewfinder, take a few readings with your light meter, figure out your f-stop, shoot. The Kodak film stock and the ARRI camera will take care of everything else. Of course, if you expose incorrectly, someone in Singapore will save your ass. But then again, 35mm requires a "a lot of skill and talent", doesn't it?

So when I looked at all these factors and I was asked to shoot on 35, I said first. Then I looked at the positives again. Fatter paycheck (cause using a film cam automatically means I'm skilled and talented), a professional grading suite abroad (cause you can't do a transfer here), which also means I have a tension free-environment (since I have a pro color grader and I'll be shooting whatever I "see" without making LUTs or a picture profile setting that'll match the look the director wants, eliminating hours of pre production work, that can be applied to perfecting my Madden skills) and hopefully, (if I can persuade the director) a free all expenses paid, 3 star hotel room trip to Singapore (cause my client has deep pockets). Should I still say no?

Robert Rodriguez on the matter

Michael Bay, who stated his disdain of digital cinematography using a Sony F35 for the new transformers movie

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