In Closing

26 10 2010

Much like the Cold War, our PP2 film is coming to an end quite slowly. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that we’ve gone through so much this year to end up with 14 minutes of footage laid out on a timeline. This entire year has been oriented around making a massive film, to go out with a bang, and much like the Cold War, the ending is rather anticlimactic. This is a good thing however, and not a reflection on the film itself. Contentedness is death, so I take it as a good sign that I’m not in awe of my own film. I think that over the last couple of months, we’ve outgrown the project we’ve spent so long working on. What was previously a mountain is now another step in the staircase. I often find myself talking about this film in an ultra-modest, almost dismissive matter, as if it was nothing. Just another crew of random uni students trying to make a silly film with a big shiny camera. On one level, it’s true. That’s what we did. If you look at the end product, it’s just another film. But I also see this film as the culmination of so much planning, conflict and replanning that it’s a testament to our abilities as a small group of RMIT film students. The scale of our production was greater than anything I’d previously shot, and I could start to get a taste of why the DP is a director of photography. You have to have foresight and confidence in every decision, as you’re in charge of so many highly skilled people and you can’t mess them around. Shooting on RED made being decisive even more crucial, as the camera is the antithesis of mobile. I think that our months of planning, in terms of coverage and camera positions, really paid off in terms of making quick decisions and powering through such a large script. We got through 99 shots in three days. Yes, the lights were mostly pre-rigged and the shoot took place in one room, but I still think it’s a fair effort.
And so on one level, while I agonise over two shots that I’m unhappy with and plot to cut large chunks of the film out to make it move faster, I’m proud of it all. Not content, but proud that we made it. We trapped 31 people inside two rooms in South Melbourne for three days, and for the most part we worked like a well-oiled machine. We had gear from RMIT, Key Lighting, Videocraft, Lighting Lab and Panavision.. we had production design, art department, continuity and a 17″ HD Monitor. It was all there, it was a highly stressful production to be at the helm of (well done Emma and Stevie and Eric), and no matter what happens next, we made something.
I’m not going to get all sentimental about whether this is the “final” PP2 blog I write, or whether it’s the “final” RMIT film I work on. This is not the end of anything. If all goes to plan, PP2 will be the tip of the iceberg — and I’ll be back at RMIT next year raiding the equipment supplies.


MI2 self-assessment (v2)

4 10 2010

I’m going to rethink the way I do this self-assessment. I want to talk about this course holistically rather than focus on the Film/TV seminars that I was involved in. I think this way there’s more to talk about, it’ll be more relevant to my career aspirations and what I want out of this degree, and generally it will be far more positive.

Contribution and Collaboration
Alright. I can’t escape talking about the MI2 seminars here. I tried to actively contribute to discussions in class during the start of semester, where we were all trying to get a sense of direction for our two seminars. It was a difficult situation in that our group needed strong direction, but this would have meant dominating the group and dismissing the ideas of others. I guess you end up accommodating for many different ideas and working democratically, which doesn’t always mean you end up with a well-defined seminar concept. There wasn’t any real solution to this, and it was especially tough to collaborate because so many of us had film projects to work on (this is what happens when a group is formed purely out of Film/TV students). In any case, I’ll admit that I fell out of touch with the group during mid-semester. Certain group members such as Shu Shu and Daniel took on great responsibility, and I do feel bad for not contributing more during this stage. But as I’ve already said, it was never my priority. I enjoyed the seminars and working collaboratively on the day, but the success of our seminar never mattered to me. This is somewhat unfortunate, and I felt this when I actually sat down and watched the seminars unfold. It was a great effort on the part of a few group members and it was well done. During the seminars, I tried to be as helpful as possible with whatever was required. I picked up equipment, moved tables, helped calibrate the two cameras and pick up extra dv tapes. I had a stab at setting up the audio equipment as part of my production manager role. And as a camera operator on the first seminar, I tried to make the video content as engaging as possible with minimal downtime — I was shooting closeups of each person, and I needed to pre-empt which person was about to talk and be ready to reframe. i also needed to change exposure and refocus for every person — it’s not like this was a terribly difficult task, but it means that I was certainly switched on and actively working throughout the course of the first seminar.

Proactive Learning
I think that the best thing about this whole degree is that it encourages proactive learning. During this semester, I’ve seized every opportunity to learn outside of a university context. I realise that VCA productions are not professional, but I have had a chance to meet several professional cinematographers through working on these productions, and I think they’ve given me a better sense of the way DPs must conduct themselves on set and what their life consists of (on set at least). It’s also worth mentioning that sometimes, “non-professional productions” teach you a lot. You can see problems unfold on set, understand the effects of poor communication, or see what happens when a person makes a mistake — you quickly learn what not to do. I think that all of this is valuable in its own way. It’s no substitute for working on a professional set as I did last year on Lowdown, but I’ve gotten a lot out of experiencing both. Every day on any set I’ll learn something — it’s all experience. I also think I’m good at assimilating this experience and extrapolating knowledge from it. A shoot is only as beneficial as you choose to make it, and I think that my reflective posts on Lowdown (Lowdown pt1, Lowdown, a day in the life of, Lowdown, in retrospect) and posts on VCA productions (Strange Things, Trial by Fire, Like a Swan) are all quite honest and involved reflections on different aspects of filmmaking. Basically, I’m saying that I think a lot about filmmaking, what to do on set and what it takes to become a good director of photography.

I think I’ve covered most of this in a previous paragraph on collaboration, but I guess in a broader sense, my participation in this course has been dictated by what I’ve seen as the most valuable aspects of the subject. I’ve organised my time for MI2 with this in mind, and while at times this means that I haven’t been to a group meeting, I have been on set — learning my craft from the ground up. And all of this surely feeds back into what is surely the core purpose of MI2 — to consider our career aspirations in relation to the realities of media production in a professional context. I think that in this sense, I’ve been committed to MI2. I’ve worked on professional and student productions, I’ve reflected on these experiences, spent time with professional DPs on set, contacted DPs as part of my PNR project, and I’ve been working extensively on my showreel, portfolio website, production credits list and CV in preparation for this course to come to a close. To me, this form of participation is far more important than counting the number of classes I’ve attended.

Connections and Intersections
I’m reminded of a conversation I listened to on Lowdown last year. “Film students these days are all confidence and nothing else. They’re brought up to believe that they’ll walk into a job as director once their course is finished. They come onto our sets and no matter how many prestigious courses they’ve taken, we break them down until they realise that none of that means anything.” – That was the gist of it anyway. I’m reminded of this because I think that MI2 is necessarily a humbling course. In TV1 and TV2, you’re a director, you’re a cinematographer, you’re an editor — there’s nothing you can’t do, there’s no reason why your film can’t “go places”. Media Industries, especially MI2, has the grizzly task of forcing your dreams to meet reality. People get a sense of how hard it is to find media jobs, how jaundiced and cynical professional “production people” often are, and how no one trusts a film student. It really is a tough industry, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll get anywhere. It’s a lie to say anything other than this. But at the same time, MI2 also makes you think about where you want to end up, what you’re really passionate about, and this (potentially) instills you with an even stronger drive to fight for a media job and find a way up. There’s a way out there. I may never find it — but in forcing me to accept this reality, MI2 prepares you for what may be a depressing struggle, a hard slog, an uphill battle. Because that’s alright — that’s part of the process and it’s nothing personal. This all sounds quite bleak, but I find it comforting somehow.

And on that note.. I’ll conclude my 2nd attempt at MI2 self-assessment. I’ll stand by the same mark. 75.

Problems solved

4 10 2010

It’s been a long while since I last talked about my PP2 project. It was almost a semester ago, and I had talked about taking my cinematography to a new level by imbuing it with subtextual meaning. Colour could be used as a tool to invoke specific mental states, different focal lengths could convey degrees of intimacy or distance between characters, and so on.
Did I think like this while shooting the film? I find it depressing to admit, but no — not to the same extent that I’d hoped to. Does this make me a bad, or otherwise immature cinematographer? Maybe. But in my defence, when I wrote my previous blogs, I had no idea of what this script would require logistically. Shooting this film was undeniably a challenge, and the reality is that our shooting setup had to be designed so that the film was actual shootable — that had to be the first priority. My biggest fear throughout pre-production was that we’d never get through 15 pages of script in three days. At times, this fear eclipsed my more creative thought processes — I wanted to find workable solutions to make the film happen, and deeper meanings to the cinematography were neglected somewhat.

There were a lot of mental puzzles to work through — first, our location was much, much smaller than I previously imagined. The room was 5.34m x 6.7m and we needed to fit 5 actors, a table, set dressings, lighting, a director, 1st AD, camera crew, RED, split, continuity and 360 degree dolly tracks into the one god-forsaken space.
Second, shooting 5 actors around a circular table presented some interesting problems in terms of the 180 line. Obviously this is a problem easily overcome in film after film, but as someone used to shooting dialogue between two people, it took a while to get my head around this — and it was made more difficult by the dolly movements and so on.
Third, lighting 5 actors simultaneously without having lights in shot was a bitch. I wanted to disguise and/or rig all lights on the ceiling so that we’d be able to shoot whichever part of the set we wanted at any point in time. So all lighting had to be “invisible”, and also work well on each of the actors. Often one fixture would look great on one actor, while also spilling across to make another actor look flat and boring with seven nose shadows. It was tough to find something that worked.
Finally, finding a safe (and cost-effective) way of providing lightning strikes on set was difficult because of RED’s rolling shutter. Strobes and camera flashes were all dicey and probably would have been much too fast for RED’s CMOS sensor, but we had no pre-production camera test where we could try it out.

Anyway, that’s enough complaining about how difficult this shoot was. What did I do to solve all of these problems?

Well, there was obviously nothing we could do about the physical space of the room we were shooting in. However, we did take advantage of the much larger woodwork room right next to our location. We used this space to set up extra lighting gear and keep it standing by. Luckily, there were also large windows between the two rooms, and we set up our largest light source, a 2k fresnel, to blast through the windows and act as pseudo “moonlight” source. Essentially, all lighting fixtures on floor stands were placed in the woodwork room and aimed through windows. This gave our lighting some semblance of motivation, and also conserved floorspace in our actual shooting room. The rest of our lighting was pre-rigged (with the help of our masterful gaffer) to wooden beams across the ceiling. Lighting the characters from such a high angle with dedos meant that we could move the camera around on dolly tracks with casting any shadows onto the table. It also minimised spill and kept the key to fill ratio high (We never used a redhead throughout the film. I think that’s a good sign). Finding a lighting setup that was aesthetically pleasing for every character simultaneously was quite a balancing act. Backlights had to double as fill lights without throwing too much light on the table or casting multiple shadows.. but for the most part, I’m really happy with the lighting — especially on Tony, Molony and Angela.

The next puzzle involved the 180 degree line. Initially, I was quite paranoid about crossing the line at all, and I tried to devise ways of always keeping Tony frame-left, interacting to all other characters frame-right. I’m so glad I abandoned this theory after a day or so. Finding ways of crossing the line made for greater freedom in covering the action, and finding angles where the lighting looked most interesting on each character, etc. In the end, I thought of Tony as the focal point of the table, and his head movements would dictate the line of action at any particular moment. Tony would look frame-right to Gibbons and Molony, but frame-left to Luci and Angela. I then established secondary eyelines between the supporting characters – particularly between Gibbons and Angela. To conceptualise all of this, I shot footage of the first actor rehearsal, and took still shots on the second actor rehearsal. Armed with this material, I could find angles that looked best in terms of lighting for each character, and looked at what this would mean in terms of eyeline. The result was that for mids and closeups, every character was shot from a predetermined camera position, and the line of action remained consistent. We needed to cross from one side to the other, but Tony’s movements made this easy to pull off.

Last problem was quite technical in nature — we needed flashes of lightning. I looked at lots of different options. We considered putting tungsten sources onto dimmers and quickly changing the intensity by hand. Our gaffer pointed out that the tungsten filament wouldn’t provide a quick enough response to the dimmer, the change would be too gradual. We then looked at camera flashes and strobes. This is obviously a dangerous area when you’re working with a CMOS sensor. Initially, we were looking for a camera flash where we could set the duration of the flash and make it much longer than normal — 1/50th of a second or something like that. Photography rental houses told us that this wasn’t really possible. The duration of a camera flash is fixed at something like 1/800th of a second — all that you can manually set is the intensity of this flash. In terms of strobes, my hope was that we could do the opposite: fire the thing at such a high frequency that it would be picked up multiple times by the rolling shutter, similar to the way a TV’s refresh rate is usually too fast to cause problems on 50hz video. We couldn’t get any info on the highest frequency of the strobe in hertz.. so that was a bit risky. While looking through the catalogue of strobes and smoke machines, I came up with an idea: LEDs. This lighting place rented out LED fixtures that could be controlled through a DMX board. Unlike tungsten filament, the LEDs would have a virtually instant response when toggled between “on” and “off”. And the DMX board would allow us to control the length of the flashes by hand, and ensure that they were much slower than a camera flash. I have to say that I’m really happy with the result. There’s no problem with rolling shutter, the LEDs were quite strong (equivalent to a 1K par can in theory) and having two of them meant we could create multidimensional lightning from different angles that wrapped nicely around characters’ faces. Definitely worth it.

This film has definitely pushed me. Towards the start of pre-production, I would have said “no” to the small location, “no” to deliberately crossing the line, “no” to continually dollying around the table during takes, and I’d say “just fake it in post” to the lightning strikes. In the end, I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and worked through all of these challenges. I was worried that they’d be unworkable, or that they’d slow us down so much that we wouldn’t get through the film. But with enough planning, we got there, we made it work and we did it with lightning strikes, smoke machines, continual dollying and 10mm closeup shots. It’s easy to take all of this for granted when watching the rough cut, but I think it was quite a feat.
I’ll come back to the question of “deeper meanings” in a later post, but for now, I just wanted to demonstrate that no matter how hard you try, some things are dictated by logistical problems.. and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Lowdown, in retrospect

30 09 2010

It’s now been almost a year since I worked as a lighting intern on Lowdown, the ABC comedy written by Adam Zwar. It’s still by far the most professional production I’ve had a chance to work on, which is depressing since it makes everything I’ve done post-Lowdown feel like a step backwards. But on a more positive note, working on Lowdown definitely held me in good stead for working on large-scale productions of all sorts. Above all else, you’ve got to be conscientious and aware of the fact that on a small, crowded set, you are often a potential hindrance rather than a help. There’s a correct time to do everything, but no way of knowing what time will be correct. I learned to never stand in corridors, to stay quiet near the camera, to ferry gear and then evacuate the set. At times, this made for a fairly stressful atmosphere, but even on a professional set, pressure comes in waves. There’s a big push at the start of the day, which suddenly halts when we’re ready for a take. At this point it’s easy to lapse into carelessness and start talking to someone to pass time. Inevitably, this is going to happen at times — but it’s easy to be caught talking at the wrong moment and this never looks good. You never know when the DP will call for a lighting adjustment, or when bad weather will hit and send everyone running to secure gear. So above all else, I think that being attentive and eternally aware of what will be required at any given moment is the most important attribute to have on set. This comes before knowledge of equipment, and also before speed. Initially on set I rushed to bring lighting gear out from the truck, or I juggled 5 different things, taking them all down to the truck in a bundle. While I did this because I worried that I’d be yelled at for being too slow, I think the reverse was correct. I should have taken my time, disconnected the header cables from the kino ballasts and brought everything down in a more logical order. It took me a while to realise this.
I guess that in a broader sense, working on Lowdown gave me an idea of how large and mechanical a professional crew can be. Being at the helm of a professional production, as a director or a DP, still intimidates me to some extent when I think about Lowdown. There’s a lot of pressure to perform and make good decisions, with so much money riding on every hour that you’re still in production. I also wonder how I will ever earn the respect of a professional gaffer if I were ever to work as a cinematographer. After working as an intern under Chris Parkinson and Daryl Pearson, it’s hard to conceive of ever telling such experienced people what to do on set. Maybe if I’d worked as an AC or best boy for 15 years I’d feel more comfortable doing so, but if I wanted to work my way up faster (ideally I do), I wonder how awkward it would feel, working with a full electrics and grip team under me. Having a camera crew doesn’t intimidate me so much because I’ve had some experience there, but my understanding of proper grip and electrical crew is still substandard.
In any case, there’s still a long way to go, and Lowdown has made this increasingly clear to me. The degree of respect and responsibility necessary to effectively oversee the entire technical production crew on a professional shoot is quite daunting. So, if nothing else, Lowdown has made me realise that professional cinematography is much more than understanding lighting or cameras or digital imaging technology. Working with and orchestrating such a large body of seasoned filmmakers is something massive in itself.

MI2 Self Assessment

29 09 2010

I’m going to be honest here. I think that MI2 is an extremely valuable course — it forces us to look at the realities of the industry we hope to become a part of. The PNR and Career Portfolio are both crucial to us as graduating media students trying to break into the industry. However — I struggle to see any value at all in running a media industries seminar, and it’s a pity that that’s what my self-assessment must entirely revolve around.

I know this sounds blasphemous. I know that it’s meant to be a great opportunity to network with industry professionals and ask them insightful questions and impress them. But the course has doubled up. I’ve already talked to industry professionals for my PNR project — I’ve talked specifically to cinematographers about the exact questions that I’ve wanted to ask them about. By contrast, the MI2 seminar project is a watered down, group-oriented version of PNR where the guests are generic “filmmakers” and the questions are necessarily generalised to please a mass audience. At most, there will be one or two seminars that vaguely apply to your chosen field — the others do not relate at all and we must sit through them to satisfy course criteria. Further to this, much of the seminar project consists of making posters and catering, and these things are completely irrelevant to cinematography, filmmaking, and media in general. I knew from the start of this course that putting on a good MI2 “event” was low on my list of priorities. I feel that even if I’d poured my soul into the seminar project, flew Lars Von Trier, James Cameron, Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lesnie down to Melbourne to be part of the panel and asked them all a series of insightful questions, I’d walk away exactly the same. I wouldn’t be a better filmmaker, and I wouldn’t have a job. I might have had some nice tea and biscuits with some fancy filmmakers, and a few laughs along the way, but that’s not enough to justify the whole endeavour.
So. With that in mind, I guess I’ll now run through the gauntlet of obligatory self-assessment parameters:

Contribution and Collaboration

We had a really large group to work with. I think that this created a “diffusion of responsibility” effect where I could think “they can cope without me”. And everyone did. I’d like to think that I actively participated in discussions at the start of semester, about the potential directions we’d like to explore in our two seminar weeks. I often played the devil’s advocate and challenged ideas — this may make me seem like a bastard, but I think that it ultimately helps the group take shape. Without a critical voice, all ideas have equal weight and it’s harder to find a definite direction to follow. During mid-semester, I fell away from the group in order to shoot my PP2 project. All I can say is that at least I didn’t promise I’d be around. I didn’t disappoint anyone or let anyone down because I knew all of this would happen from the outset. And finally, during the actual seminars, I’ve tried to be a helpful contributor to the group. I’ve brought tables down for catering, I’ve gone to the techs to source gear and extra connection cables, and in week 9 I worked closely with another camera person to ensure that our video footage of the event matched up. I calibrated the cameras and made sure everything was in order, and then tried to film the event in a way that is engaging as possible.

Proactive Learning

In relation to the MI2 seminar events, my “proactive learning” was “zero”. And really, I don’t understand why proactive learning would be valuable in this context. I’m trying to be as proactive as possible in developing my PNR report. I’ve been on set as much as possible, talking to various departments about the future of filmmaking and whatever else — this is where I’ve focused all of my attention and I find it strange that I must now penalize myself because I was “proactive” in the wrong place. In terms of the seminar, I did what was required and used the rest of my energy on projects that seemed more valuable.


My participation has been decent. I’ve come to as many classes as possible (missed a few because of PP2 shooting), attended the external MI2 meetings that I’ve been aware of (there were a few that I had no idea were taking place). In class I’ve tried to give input and actively participate. And obviously I’ve turned up to both the actual seminar events and tried to be an active member of the group in facilitating said events.

Connections and Intersections

The value of the seminar series? Not much I’m afraid. I’ve tried to extrapolate some ideas from them as best I can (see my blog posts: Indie Online, The Write Way, Making it in Melbourne). But ultimately, I would have learned far more from working on any given film shoot, or talking to a DP in my own time with my own questions. Putting on a big show for other people with completely different (often incompatible) interests and aspirations seems irrelevant to me. The seminar project seemed to satisfy RMIT Media’s insatiable demand for group work, and relentless reflection at the end of said groupwork. This is frustrating because I already know (from the last 5 semesters of Media) that I’m perfectly capable of working well in groups, and to me, group work seemed utterly unnecessary in MI2. I feel that I could have benefited more from focusing all my efforts on the PNR rather than juggling the PNR with yet another “group-based learning” project. I did not have any personal revelations about myself or my career because of the MI2 seminars or because I had to collaborate in a group. I could fluff up something and make it seem like I had an epiphany, but what’s the point if it didn’t happen. I haven’t “discovered” anything. I find it irritating that the course guide presupposes that I *must* have had an earth-shattering moment of enlightment while putting together a seminar and watching 4 people talk to an audience about their media professions.

You’ll dismiss this as a rant. It is. But it’s also a summary of how I feel about the seminar process and this obsession with personal growth. When I learn something, I will happily blog about it. But I don’t feel that I have. MI2, as a subject, has been valuable. But in this post, I’m forced to talk specifically about the seminar, and hence I’m forced to say that I’ve learnt nothing.
Now, I’m going to give myself a 75, which is shocking, considering all that I’ve just said. It’s not because I’ve worked really hard, it’s just because I don’t think we should be assessing ourselves on the MI2 seminar at all. It would make much more sense to assess my work in MI2 holistically — and with that in mind: 75. D.

MI2 Seminar 5

29 09 2010

This is the seminar on Indie media production, Indie Online. I think it was #5, but I could be wrong — I missed a couple of seminars somewhere to work on productions. Anyway. This week’s seminar featured the editor of ThreeThousand, an experienced Film/TV professional, the CEO/director of a Melbourne production company, the creator of Melbourne Coffee Review, and the creator of Vimeo — via skype. It was a good mix of “indie” people from markedly different backgrounds in the media industry, and the discussion was detailed and in-depth.
I have to admit that I find it hard to identify with the “indie media” mentality, it feels too close to “one-man-band” media production for my liking. The emphasis on being an entrepreneur and knowing business management was hard to stomach, but that’s a matter of taste — and it’s a reality of running your own media production company or anything else that you’d consider “indie”. Of course, on a broader level, the common thread running throughout the seminar was “online content”. This seminar was yet another example of the fact that the internet has given us the means of production, previously inaccessible to individuals. And this has in turn given birth to the proliferation of smaller, niche-oriented media sources that would not be sustainable as print media with the costs of physical media production. What I liked most about this seminar was its direct acknowledgment of this fact — the way in which the internet has changed the face of media production was openly discussed at length. Being honest, I can’t say the guests told me anything surprising in regards to online content — it all felt like something straight out of IM1. But it served to consolidate what I’d previously known in theory. The internet is a readily accessible space where media is infinitely replicable at virtually zero cost to the creator or consumer. If you’ve got the time, and the idea, and the persistence to keep things moving (for years at a time), then the internet allows for “indie” media production in a way that no physical format currently can. What this means, in practice, is that media makers such as Penny Modra and Peter Christo can create a business out of (to some extent) being themselves and talking about niche interests. This does seem like an effective remedy to the vacuous, mass-oriented content cut together for TV broadcast, etc.
All in all, the seminar went well, and the discussion was more future-oriented than past seminars, with less of the “work hard and you’ll get there” mantra. At times, I think that the pace could have been faster — the Skype interview with Zack Klein was detailed and interesting, but could have been cut down, and the history of Melbourne Coffee Review went on for a bit as well. Other than that, I can’t really fault the seminar. I gave it two Ds and two HDs.

Thoughts on RED footage

22 09 2010

I don’t think there’s a camera brand that polarises filmmakers as much as RED. Some people are blown away, signing up for a life on the forums of, while others deride it. And I’ve heard from at least three people that despite the hype, watching the footage back in post was extremely disappointing — the blacks were washed out, the colours were dull, etc etc. And after grading and transcoding 520GB of R3D footage last week, I finally feel entitled to have an opinion on the issue. I’ve come across some strange anomalies when viewing the footage in a variety of programs, and it’s difficult to know what to trust. I opened everything up in REDCINE-X and graded until I was satisfied with the result. But upon exporting a 2K Prores 422 HQ version of the clip and looking at it in Quicktime X, it was indeed a disappointment. Despite crunching the blacks in REDCINE, everything looked washed out and dull, with significant noise in shadows. However, calling up the same ProRes clip in Final Cut 6 yielded far better results, much closer to what I’d previously graded in REDCINE. Finally, I placed the clip onto an FCP timeline and exported to h.264 640×360 — this h.264 version played perfectly within Quicktime X, with deeper blacks and much better contrast. Yet all I’d done was pass the footage through FCP, without any additional filters or processing. I can’t explain the discrepancy, but my hunch is that Quicktime handles 10-bit images differently to REDCINE or FCP. The final h.264 transcoding knocked the footage back down to 8-bit, possibly making it easier to display in Quicktime. It’s a fairly half-assed theory, I know.
In any case, the footage is looking good in FCP, and from there I can export back to quicktime and be confident of the results. So yes, any idiot with a Mac Pro in his bedroom can make RED footage look “good”. I’m not surprised. Now.. the more interesting question is “was it worth it?” — why couldn’t we have shot on a DSR-450, or an HVR-Z7, or a 5D? What benefit do we have from working with RED footage? Well, the knee-jerk reaction is to say “The DOF man, it’s the RED’s DOF that’s awesome it’s like that kind of DOF you get when you’re shooting on film or something man it’s just awesome” and so on. But.. let’s take DOF out of the equation for now. Let’s talk resolution. On one side of the fence, I realise that we don’t need 4K. Further, I realise that the RED One cannot resolve 4K anyway. But on the other side of the fence, I think that standard definition PAL video stands out like a sore thumb these days. The aliasing can be quite severe, especially in wide shots, and for a large-scale screening, you can definitely see the difference. Online, PAL video is still alright, but SD is still a significant limitation. That eliminates the DSR-450. But why not shoot on a Z7 or 5D? In terms of resolution, HDV is getting there (1440×1080), and the 5D delivers full 1920×1080 HD. Let’s assume we’re mastering in full HD — both HDV and 5D will get us over the line. The HDV footage would be undersampled, and the 5D footage would be sampled at just the right size.. compared to the RED’s quadruple supersample. Ultimately, after transcoding everything to HD ProRes, the difference in resolution would be fairly negligible. You’d see some benefit to supersampling at 4K and downconverting to HD.. but not enough for “regular audience people” to swoon and fall out of their chairs.
But now let’s talk compression. Here’s where I think the RED footage really shines. I don’t know anything about the inner workings of “REDCODE”, but it’s flexible and robust from what I’ve seen. Footage can be pushed around. A lot. And compression artifacts are minimal or absent. There’s some banding in deep shadows, but nothing that a bit of crunching can’t fix, and the 12-bit tonal range is really impressive (I say this because I’m used to DVCAM). Now.. fans of the 5D are going to be telling me that I shouldn’t *need* to push the footage around in post. If I was any good with a camera, I’d light it and shoot it the way I wanted it, deepen the blacks slightly in post and that would be it. Today I ran some tests on some 5D mkII footage (I managed to get my hands on a 5D for the first time last week), and the results scare me a little. When viewing at full 1080p, it’s all quite decent — you’re only going to find artifacts if you’re specifically looking for them. *But* as soon as I desaturated the image in FCP, it all started to fall apart. All I did was take the colour away, and suddenly my image was composed of obvious blocks and squiggly mess, with serious banding in the shadow tones. The compression damage quickly worsened as I boosted the contrast, which made the banding ridiculously obvious. This all scares me because my RED shoot is incomplete. We still need to shoot the first scene, on a 5D, in black and white. And the results of my testing do not bode well. We’d be fine if we down-rezed to PAL, or maybe 720p… but at 1920×1080, there’s a massive difference between my RED footage and 5D footage.. much more of a difference than there would be if the film was left in colour. I’m hoping that if I shot the 5D footage in black and white to begin with, the h.264 codec would focus all of its attention on making the monochrome footage look good, but I have to test this to be sure. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board.
So anyway. I’m extremely glad we didn’t decide to shoot the entirety of our PP2 film on a 5D with the intention of desaturating it in post. That would’ve been a nasty and fairly devastating surprise. Regardless of depth of field or “4K” resolution, I think the core reason why we forked out extra to shoot on RED was the sheer malleability of the footage and the compression codec. REDCODE is a fairly phenomenal thing.