Making the MPEG IMX Choice
For Izzy and Jacob it's all about taking risks. Eleven-year-old Izzy's risks involved breaking into neighboring apartments to see how far he could push the boundaries of his troubled young life. Thirty-one-year old Jacob's risks involved breaking the celluloid ceiling to see how far he could push the boundaries of a new digital filmmaking technology to tell Izzy's fictional story. Each risk, in its own way, paid off. Kornbluth, Director/Screenwriter of The Best Thief in the World, reports he "couldn't be happier with the choice to shoot digitally" using Sony's MPEG IMX-based MSW-900P camcorder. As for what happened to Izzy, you'll have to see the movie.
"Digital is becoming synonymous with the ability to take risks," Kornbluth elaborates. "And I think it's because the format democratizes the medium-it's so expensive to make movies-that having [moviemaking technology] in the hands of the people is fantastic and something to be celebrated. In my case The Best Thief in the World is a story that was ambitious and risky; taking some chances and shooting it digitally basically allowed us to make it. I don't know if I'm wired in such a way that you could ever say there's no way we would ever have made the film without digital, but you could probably make that argument."
Kornbluth's first feature, shot on 35mm film, was the acclaimed 2001 Sundance film Haiku Tunnel, released by Sony Pictures Classics. He co-wrote and co-directed that film with his brother Josh. This time around Kornbluth is the screenwriter and director of The Best Thief in the World, which premiered at this year's Sundance festival in the Dramatic Film category. The film is produced by Tim Perell and Nicola Usborne and co-produced by Howard Gertler and Scott Koenig. A Process and Jorge Films production, it's one of the first films to be released under Showtime Network's new Independent Films group, which finances movies directly for independent theatrical release. This coming-of-age family drama, which stars Mary-Louise Parker and young Michael Silverman (as Izzy), was shot by DP Ben Kutchins in practical locations in New York City. Or, as Kornbluth explains it, "in real apartments, real neighborhoods, and with real thugs outside trying to break into our truck." As such, it presented unique production challenges.
"Ninety-five percent of the film is shot hand-held," Kornbluth relates. "We shot during the summertime in New York city inside apartments with the air conditioning shut off so that it wouldn't mess with sound. By the end of a take Ben would take the camera off his shoulder and he'd look like we just dumped a bucket of water on his head."
That being said, it was the Sony MSW-900P camera that enabled Kutchins to shoot the intimate, close-quarters scenes that were essential to telling the story of The Best Thief in the World, yet also achieve the image quality necessary for theatrical motion-picture release.
"A lot of the advantages of shooting in video showed up in different ways," Kornbluth continues. "You could carry the camera around and get into tight places. We were using film lenses with a Pro35 adaptor, so the camera wasn't light or particularly small by the time we were done rigging it up. But the film certainly wasn't something we could have done with a 35mm camera. And the support-package stuff-including the stock itself-made it a bit more mobile too."
The adaptor Kornbluth mentions-officially known as the Pro35 Digital Image Converter-is made by P+S Technik and sold in North America by ZCG. It enables digital filmmakers to attach any Arri PL-mounted prime 35mm film lens to an SD or HD 2/3-in. camera and obtain what the company terms "the three-dimensional quality of a 35mm film camera on videotape." The Pro35Digital projects the 16mm by 22mm image produced by a 35mm lens onto a specially designed, eccentrically moving ground glass. "It gives an apparent grain to footage and a texture that you really don't get when you're using a standard video lens," Kutchins recently noted in an interview in a Digital Cinema sister publication, the Park City Digital Report, distributed during this year's Sundance Festival. "It's another element in front of the lens that could cause focus problems. But I feel like the rewards are pretty huge."
The other rewarding technology experience for the makers of The Best Thief in the World was the use of Sony's MSW-900P camcorder. Designed for newsgathering, the MSW-900P employs the MPEG IMX format, which records compressed standard-definition digital video at 50 Mbps (megabits per second) using the internationally standardized 422Profile at MainLevel format for production and transmission. In addition, MPEG IMX VTRs can play back all of Sony's half-inch formats, including Betacam, Betacam SP, Betacam SX, and Digital Betacam. MPEG IMX has been widely adopted by such major television broadcast networks as NBC, but it has also found favor among filmmakers as a digital alternative to Super-16mm film. The MSW-900P camcorder not only offers the 16:9 aspect ratio filmmakers prefer, but also high sensitivity for low-light levels, four channels of 20-bit audio recording, and--in the MSW-900P PAL version--a frame rate of 25fps (frames per second), which is a definite advantage for producers intending to record their finished product onto film at its standard rate of 24fps. The camera also features a digital time-lapse feature, which was used to create a cinematic metaphor for frenetic urban life in director Scott Saunders' The Technical Writer (2003), the first film shot with the MPEG IMX format.
"The DP and I looked at a test we did to see what the IMX camera could do and we were ultimately impressed with how it held up under daylight conditions and how it held up under night conditions," Kornbluth states. "We did our own test with it to see how it handled these various types of environments and I think we had to worry about them less than if we had used DV, for instance. [MPEG IMX] held up to what our experience with film was."
"I approached it initially pretty skeptically," Kornbluth continues. "I needed to understand how it could be an advantage. I wasn't there just because of the general novelty of working in a trailblazing medium. I needed to figure out a way that it would have some creative advantages for me. So I put it through a rigorous test, mentally, about how it could be used and in what ways I could use it. A bunch of things appealed to me: It was new and offered an opportunity; it was like a blank slate. It was something we could work on to see how it works best for us without having a body of knowledge in the background. It appealed to that sense that people have been approaching digital filmmaking with for a while. It's the sense of: This is the frontier; let's figure out how to make it work and what's good and what are the true advantages of it.
"I think the main thing that first got me was the idea that I was really looking to get a sort of verite feel from the story and I was going to be working with kids that I had a pretty good idea were going to be non-actors," Kornbluth adds. "And I really wanted the sense that the camera wasn't going to be the focal point for the actors, that they would feel as natural and be as unaware of the camera as possible. And the IMX format really seemed to offer those possibilities in a way that film certainly couldn't. And looking back on it, having been through it, I think it really did that for us."
Myths and Realities
Having already directed Haiku Tunnel in 35mm, Kornbluth's work on The Best Thief in the World provides him insights to comment on how digital filmmaking is different.
"The first thing I'd heard about video from other directors was that it makes you work faster, that there's less time between set-ups and you can make a film more quickly," he observes. "I actually did not find that to be the case for me. If you still want something to look good you still have to light it. And the lights don't get set up any faster.
"What I did find, however, is that once you set up to shoot a scene, within that scene you don't have to roll and cut in the same ways that traditional filmmaking requires. You don't have to say 'Cut!' because you don't have to save every inch of film. The fact that tapes last an hour really has a fundamental effect on the way actors can act in front of a camera. You can keep rolling and talk to them for two or three minutes and say 'Why don't you try that?' right in the middle of a sentence. And then suddenly they're off and acting again. It allows for a bit more of an organic style and the chance to do what I call 'continuous takes.' We could do four or five takes in a row without the crew playing with lights. We could let the actors act in a space for extended stretches that might last ten or 15 minutes. That was really exciting. That really brought something new to a way of working with actors for me. Also, you can see what you shot just by rewinding the tape if you need to, which is amazing. And you're not reloading the camera, buying stock, paying for transfer."
And what of the low-light advantages of digital, an area often praised by filmmakers experimenting with alternatives to celluloid?
"We shot some night stuff and I was particularly happy with how MPEG IMX reacted in low light, dealing with night images," Kornbluth replies. "We didn't consciously make it low light or push that to any extreme, but when we were forced to for various logistical reasons and I was really pleased with how it responded.
"More important to us was the contrast ratio-20
no bright windows in the background, and how bright the windows were relative to the interiors," he adds. "We wanted to keep the contrast low and make sure that the difference between the brightest spot in the image and the darkest spot in the image wasn't so extreme. I think the lights themselves-a lot of Kino-Flos-were pretty small units in our case. We knew we'd have a lot more ability to handle the image in post with digital, really manipulate it after we're done shooting. And I think it was something the DP really felt strongly about too, that one way to make it look most beautiful and offer us the most image control was to spend a little bit more time keeping the contrast low in shooting so we could boost it in postproduction, and that actually was what took us the time."
"We used Sony's XPRI nonlinear editor," Kornbluth states, "and the possibilities MPEG IMX offers once you're done shooting were particularly great for me. The XPRI is designed specifically to work with the IMX format, so you can see what you shot in 25 frames." He adds that being able to see their images without further compression on the XPRI was a special bonus.
"We were basically editing the same image that we shot," he observes. "And also things that are opticals in the film world-like simple attempts at dissolves and different transitions, or slowing things down by over cranking in production-you can do easily in digital post. These things are very liberating, they allow you to make a connection between all of the possibilities you can think of and what you can do. And if you're rigorous about it, digital lets you really push things as far as you can think, which is great."
"Not having to do a separate online before we did our color-correct was really nice," adds Co-Producer Howard Gertler. "We had to do some TV inserts, and we were able to do them directly in the XPRI, which was an advantage. Honestly, this is the fastest I've ever had a film go between picture lock and finishing for its premiere exhibition. And I don't think you can do that in film, where you're cutting negative and everything just takes longer in making your prints. With digital the facilities you're working with are flexible and go much more quickly."
"I think it looks great," Kornbluth says of The Best Thief in the World's final image. "We spent a lot of time thinking about the esthetic and the feeling of the whole movie. The way that the visual esthetic reflects what the narrative intentions are is something that I'm really pleased with. I couldn't be happier with the choice to shoot with MPEG IMX. Digital's definitely come to the point where if you use it you can get a lot out of it. I'm really pleased with that."