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Choosing Production Tech? Keep It Simple!

Distinguishing between valuable tools and distracting trinkets has never been more crucial.3/03/2017 4:15 PM Eastern
Ryan Gosling as K and Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. Photo by Stephen Vaughan.

It's never been clearer that a bounty of technological progress is upon us. Innovations along the lines of the world's fastest slow-cooker or the lightweight barbell represent valuable opportunities to transform hard-earned cash into the sort of dust-covered clutter that fills cupboards and jams drawers.

So proceeds our relentlessly consumerist society, and that's fine, as long as we don't take the same attitude to work with us. It might be a worthwhile New Year's resolution to look again at how efficiently a production can move when the technology is kept simple.

Given the century-plus history of film and TV, it’s natural that most of the productions people now consider inspirational were made without the benefit of a lot of modern technology. At risk of raising the ire of every digital imaging technician on the planet, one of the easiest targets is the modern video village and DIT cart, providing complex, calibrated color previews, backup and duplication, and even the creation of offline versions for editing.This can be a great creative tool, keeping directors and camera crews informed as to how things are going, and making it easier to ensure the sort of highly-polished results we often need. Even so, we would do well to remember that some of the great achievements in cinematography – Blade Runner, perhaps, or Barry Lyndon – were made in the days where, at the bleeding edge, on-set preview was a flickery black-and-white video tap.

The modern video village is desirable, useful, certainly, but is it absolutely essential? Often, it isn't.

Finding the balance

Now, I’m not advocating a return to the dark ages, here. A lot of modern technology has already pointed us in the direction of leaner productions. Smaller, lighter cameras with better performance in less light can mean huge lighting trucks and generators less necessary. Or much the same sheer number of lights may be needed, but they may be LED based, smaller, lighter, and even battery-powered.

A shot from Barry Lyndon, which was largely lit by candlelight. 

Gimbals and drones, beyond their traditional aerial role, can replace a track and dolly or even an upscale piece of grip equipment such as a crane (though drones, of course, can be noisy, and attract their own red tape.) These can all lead to faster-moving shoots which are more compatible with the increasingly stern price-to-performance expectations of producers.

So, somewhere between the simplicity of that traditional world of chalk clapperboards and the modern world in which a ruinously expensive camera system becomes obsolete in eight months is, presumably, some sort of nirvana. The trick is to figure out the difference between genuinely helpful developments and things which have been developed because they can be marketed, and it's easy to grab a few examples of those out of the air.

Stereoscopic 3D is a good case study because the decided modesty of its success is widely understood, and because it provokes questions that we can usefully apply to future technological startups. Is it cumbersome to shoot? Yes. Is it expensive? Very. Does it actually work very well? Headaches and nausea are not encouraging signs.

But compare high dynamic range. It doesn't much change the required equipment, costs are limited largely to post production (though that isn't to say that various parties won't try to profiteer on it), and more or less everyone thinks it looks fabulous.

The problem with HDR is that it means everyone at home has to buy a new TV - again - which enthusiasts have already done for HD, 4K, and 3D as well. It's going to be very tough to get it out there so punters can actually start paying for it. Similar concerns attend VR, assuming we accept that VR is applicable to filmmaking as opposed to a (potentially very good) new addition to games.

The difference is that there's a reasonable claim that HDR is being pushed because people admire it, whereas VR is being marketed for the benefit of service providers and equipment manufacturers. The people who will pay to produce it, meanwhile, should not be that rudely surprised by the realization that an audience of millions, who must all own headsets and pay for the service, doesn't yet exist. Still, at least VR is an application for 8K video. If we want to give the viewer the opportunity to look absolutely anywhere, more pixels are required.

In the details

In 2017, those may be the grand, strategic considerations. At the sharp end, in camera departments or postproduction suites, the considerations may be more prosaic, but they can be just as expensive. One of the greatest losses felt by traditional camera operators is the convenient, shoulder-mounted form factor of cameras used for newsgathering.

It's something of an irony that the first camera widely used for digital cinematography, Sony's HDW-F900, actually was that shape, and received a lot of criticism from people more used to a Panaflex. What works for neither group is the ill-judged layout of many modern cameras (Canon, Sony, and Red have all transgressed here, though Canon have improved their offering with the recent C700). This isn't to advocate a return to the bad old days of heavy HDCAM compression, but to point out that cameras can have staggering specifications while being almost impossible to grab hold of.

Encumber the unfortunate crew with a cuboid camera and a six-figure, multi-kilo selection of video transmission, audio reception, focus pulling and other accessories, and suddenly we're paying handsome rental fees to create framing glitches that cost more than just syncing the sound in post.

Keep it simple

Still, we shouldn't complain too much. The reason we can get away with this level of luddism is frankly that so much production technology, from cameras to lights to the portable cooler that keeps lunch edible, is so good. Cameras have advanced far faster than both the TVs they feed and the opinions of the average viewer. Audio equipment has long been so good that, compared to even ten years ago, even the most modest gear can happily pass a quality control check. If a distributor demands 4K, fine. If the contract states the production will be shot at 120 frames per second, fine.

The message is: keep it simple; put the money into lighting, crewing, a longer and more painstaking grade, or even something as simple as more time, because an ultra-high-resolution picture of a mediocre scene is no less mediocre for all those pixels.

All of this is particularly relevant now, as we head into trade show season, and many of us will be surrounded by salespeople and PR teams anxious to get their particular box of blinkenlights onto as many sets as possible. There's nothing wrong with that, especially if the blinkenbox in question allows us to do something like, say, monitor our HDR images more accurately, as with Atomos's excellent and affordable Shogun Inferno. The distinction between valuable tools and distracting trinkets has never been more crucial.

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