Sony PMW-F3 Goes to Nollywood
Prepping with the recently released large-sensor camcorder for production in Africa.
By Giuseppe Pugliese
A few months ago, cinematographer Giuseppe Pugliese of New York Film Studios (pictured below) was selected to shoot a feature film in Nollywood — Nigeria’s film marketplace, which is the world’s second largest, smaller only than India’s Bollywood.
I was recently hired to shoot a dramatic feature in Lagos, Nigeria, for 24 days with a RED One system. But, always looking to find the next and newest gear, I found the Sony PMW-F3. I just happened to accidentally come across something on the Internet talking about this new camera. I then saw a short film shot with a preproduction model of the camera and was blown away — the image was stunning. I was ready to buy a RED, but once I saw the capability of the F3, the benefits of speed and smaller data size mixed with the 4:4:4 output capabilities for outboard recorders and matching with the Sony F35, it was the prefect match.
Our script called for just about every kind of lighting condition imaginable: outdoors on sunlit dirt roads, moonlit waterfalls, jungle exteriors, interior office rooms, dance studio locations, car interiors, and more. It was going to put the F3 to the test, so proper preparation was essential.
I proceeded to track down a preproduction F3 and get some hands-on experience with it. Sony has a CineAlta User Group meeting in NYC every month, and setup an intimate look at what the camera can do. I knew this camera was what I wanted to shoot with in Africa, and after seeing the footage on the big screen at Sony Labs, I began my preproduction investigation into the camera’s abilities. The image was so filmic and handled highlights well. That would be very important for the hot, bright, African sun. I went to every CineAlta meeting I could, getting as much hands-on time with the F3 as possible, as well as seeing the footage projected on a large screen. We had an event set up for some F3 footage to be projected in 2K on a 40’ screen at an AMC theater in Manhattan. It was wonderful to see the image hold up extremely well on such a large screen.
Preproduction tests with the F3 were soon underway, as this project would be a huge test for the camera. Starting with a 120-page script, I believe we would be the first feature to do such a grand-scale shoot with the F3. And it would need to run for long production hours under the hot African sun. So prep included looking for signs of camera overheating and any anomalies that might occur in the picture under such harsh shooting conditions.
After bringing aboard gaffer Jordan T. Parrott for our preproduction tests, we created studio lighting conditions with a variety of fixtures with different color temperatures, including Kino Flos and ARRI Fresnels. Our goal was to test the camera’s dynamic range, skin-tone rendition, and low-light capability — the latter with just candlelight. We then took the F3 out to shoot in hard sunlight to see how it handles highlights and blown highlights. The footage was then dumped into a Final Cut Studio editing bay for analysis. It was then brought into Apple Color to see how the footage handled grading in various degrees of strength. Jordan and I were very pleased with the results, and the camera handles like a mini ARRI Alexa. I liked the way highlights were rendered. When they did blow, they went out smoothly. Instead of harsh clipping, there was a nice soft round feel to it. The low-light abilities of the F3 were unlike anything I've ever seen. With the ISO set to 1600 there was very little if any visual noise. It just looked clean and natural — you wouldn't have known it wasn't a native ISO. At 3200 there is some noise in the image, but nowhere near what I'd consider unusable. It was like using a higher film stock ISO; of course it’s going to get a bit grainy, but it’s not unpleasant.
Our tests were meant to be real-world trials, and we employed charts only when we needed to show calculated results. Almost all the tests were done to eye, without much metering, because of the fast-paced shoot planned for our production in Africa. Jordan was extremely impressed with the low-light capabilities of the camera, which would allow him to use smaller lights, go into smaller spaces and work in hard-to-light locations.
We started with just a color chart and seeing which gamma settings and ISO settings would do. All tests were done with the internal 8-bit 4:2:0 codec. I created a wide sitting that would help capture as much information as possible in the shadows. I am calling it my "G-Log" setting (G for my first name). This helped in the lower region and kept my black levels safe. Jordan setup a 1.2K Joker bouncing off a card about 6’ away from the subject (himself). I was really just interested in the highlight and low-light capabilities. The lens used was the RED 18-50mm T3. This is a relatively "slow" lens, so it was interesting to see how the test results would come out.
To create the desired highlights, we went from normal exposure to underexposed and then over, we started at T5.6 for the proper exposure then went under to T22 and then overexposed to T4 and T3. The T3 looked blown-out on the monitor, but a quick tweak on the computer brought back all the highlight information. The image wasn't blown at all — all the visual information was there, which was amazing. The low-light test was done with a single tea light candle. The room was sealed from light, the candle was lit and placed on a stand about 5'' from Jordan's face. The test went from 0db (ISO 400) to 18db (ISO 3200).
The scene file I used was my G-Log, and everything looks washed out and milky, but that’s saving the information in the blacks. There was noticeably more visual noise in the picture than I expected, and later I found out it was due to one of my settings. I will re-shoot this test with myself to confirm this. In Final Cut, I brought back down the black channel in the 3-wheel correction to meet with a 709 look. The information held well.
Next was the daylight test, unfortunately it was overcast, but I still got to test the G-Log setting against the standard and OFF settings on the camera. Now all of these tests were pretty quick and not completely scientific. I have many more tests to shoot, and this will be a handful of MANY more to come.
Bringing an “untested” camera to Africa would be a big gamble, but Sony has been there every step of the way with us in this process. Sony representative Dawn Terranova helped get the F3 into my hands as often as possible during prep before my production version arrived. Together with Jim Hagadorn from Band Pro East, they gave me every chance I could to play with the preproduction models Sony had shipped around to various places. BandPro East will be showing clips from our Africa footage back in NYC for others to view and evaluate.
Lens choices were discussed in length and, since the production would be shot on numerous locations, traveling light was key. I thought it would be wise not to bring a ton of gear, as it would only slow us down, and its not like I'd be able to go back to Africa to do pickups if we missed anything. Making our days and getting good coverage was paramount. As I knew there would be a lot of Steadicam work on the shoot, I wanted to have quick lens changes. Instead of bringing an entire set of primes, I opted for zooms instead. I really like the RED 18-50mm T3 zoom, which is solid yet lightweight and short. It’s a beefy little PL-mount lens that looks great at all ranges and is super sharp. When I'm on the Steadicam, it will balance well and not tire me out so much. I’d also bring my favorite prime, a rare Russian 35mm T2.2. I could shoot a whole movie with that lens if necessary. It’s just beautiful, and the bokeh is lovely due to its 12-blade iris. These would be my workhorse optics.
Choosing the right recording media was also an issue. The production needed to be quick on its feet, and not be a data hog. Choices ranged from an SR deck to the F3’s on-board recording and everything in between. The right choice for this project ended up being SxS native recording. The image is very stable and holds color correction surprisingly well. Most people wouldn't even dream of shooting a feature drama with the standard Sony SxS codec, but I didn't see a reason not to for this production. Since I'd seen the native codec footage projected on an 40' screen, I had no doubt that it would hold up well. After all, look at how many productions are shooting with the low-quality H.264 of the DSLR cameras. This was a much more stable and smoother codec to work with, and in its native resolution, holds up from a TV screen to a theater with no problem. Another advantage was quick turnaround. We could dump cards in six minutes flat and wouldn’t have to bring as many hard drives with us for backing up. I feel ours was the right choice for this particular shoot, though I would later opt for using AJA’s Ki Pro Mini for subsequent F3 shoots.
After these preproduction tests there were only a few days left to play with the footage and prepare the rest of the gear for our flight to Africa.
Look for updates on Pugliese’s production in Nigeria and post work in upcoming issues of DV.