The awkwardly wrong path of digital SLR as digital cinema

Last week, Scott Squires retweeted a link to a Digital SLR (DSLR) review for Digital Cinematographers and filmmakers.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 5.23.38 PMThe linked article eventually gets back to its source at 4K shooters.

I sort of went off.  Not at Scott.  Or at least not intentionally at Scott.  But rather, at the whole of the Digital SLR Cinematography movement.

My general gist being:

“Why do dSLR people not understand what the hell a log image is and why you should not look at it flat for any kind of look?”

“No digital compositor in their right mind looks as a cineon and says “oooh log, nice look!” Yet I see dSLR doing nothing but.”

“Digital cinema professionals only look at log footage though proper LUTs. And proper grading isn’t a ‘levels’ filter.”

“I’ve never seen a dSLR review that takes log-ish footage, gamut maps it and properly pushes it through a vision print LUT.”

My frustration comes both form within the afore linked article and also from more than a few years worth of supposed dSLR industry journalism, reviews and shared technique.

I wrote a whole piece on color science a while ago, to try and lay some groundwork for intelligent discussions on the subject.  But really, things have continued going off in a bad direction.  And I’ve not had the time to try and right the wrongs.

A few days later, Scott posted a different article.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 5.34.46 PM

The linked blog post is generally focused on rethinking the obsession with tools and technique, and suggested refocusing on storytelling.  Mostly I agree that there has been an overemphasis on tools over craft for a lot of people.  But honestly, that’s not right either.

I worked with Terrence Malick for over two years on “The Tree of Life.”  I did sequence design, VFX Supervision and quite a bit of Post Production Supervision as well.  My final title was “Digital Effects Supervisor.”  You’d think, given that Terry is often considered a film purist, that he and I were at odds.  I must be a tool driven digital and CGI guy and Terry must have hated everything I stood for.

Nothing could be further from the truth because truly great filmmakers have a thing called: balance. While I’d like to explain how that works with Terry, I will not.  Because Terry is a very private person and a very private filmmaker.  That would be a betrayal.

But you can take it for granted: When I say that balance is the key to a proper marriage between technique, craft, intent and art, I’m saying that having collaborated with one of the most demanding and exacting of filmmakers I’ve ever encountered, Terrence Malick.  I know what I’m talking about.

Digital Cinema SLR filmmakers need to realize that they have completely botched their understanding of color and image.  It’s not just the afore linked article.  I’ve been tearing my hair out over nearly every review and forum post I’ve read on the subject.

Back on “The Tree of Life” I became responsible for figuring out how to manage our RED ONE footage.  I trawled the red user forums and drowned in horrible posts on RED LOG and PD LOG.  When I was done, I realized the “professional” community had no idea what they were talking about, and could pinpoint those misunderstandings down to discrepancies between what the RED engineers had posted, versus how the “cinematographers” interpreted those posts.  I had to go my own way based on the facts, because the accepted way was wrong.

In the end, I was able to get what I needed. I engineered a decoding path back to linear sensor values.  I engineered a pipeline that gamut maps from the sensor’s primaries into P3 primaries, which was what I needed both to work with the material as elements for film, and also to conform the material to what a DI colorist would expect of a film-scan. The trivial conversion from linear to cineon-log was done for DI bound material.

The Digital SLR Cinematography world needs to come back home to color science and math.  Or they truly are inferior to film.  Not because of technology, but because of technicians.  Or the decay of the quality of the technique practiced by said technicians.

However, I feel the second article goes too far as well.  It strays in that it minimizes technology and technique.

The goal should be neither of these extremes.  The goal is balance.  One should be striving to apply the best technology and the best technique available in the best possible way in service of the work.  That means you should obsess over your camera sensor.  You should strive to use it the best you possibly can.  And you should be doing that BECAUSE your work deserves it.  The hard part is figuring out where those two things conflict, and dealing with them when they do.  And perhaps that’s where truly great filmmakers excel, and the rest of us should at least strive to do a very good job?

I’d posit that if you are the filmmaker who wants to shoot on IMAX to get the greatest possible negative space dedicated to your image, that you are most concerned with image clarity and reduction of artifacts.  That same filmmaker should want high-dynamic-range, scene-reference color in their digital negative.  Their first questions should be “what gamut am I shooting in?”  and “can I get back to linear sensor values as a basis for color-timing?”

Instead, we’re stuck with choosing between luddites, and over-exuberant digital fan-boys who can’t get their math right.  That’s not a choice worth making.

Scott suggested the following during our exchange:

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Believe it or not, I’ve tried having conversations with cinematographers on forums about these matters.  And even in person.  And it goes no-where.

However, I did do something a few years ago which I’m now going to repost.  But I think the summation is probably the most relevant to this issue of balance:

“It’s been said that a film is written three times.  Once when it’s written.  Once when it’s  shot and once when it’s edited.  If you think in terms of having to burn your look and color decisions and exposure decision into the image on set, it means you don’t have an opportunity to change them based on your further re-writes.  And, from a creative standpoint, that just doesn’t make much sense.”

Today, I’d need to follow on with chapter 2.  It would be an explanation of the various “log-like” (cineon, log-c, alexa-log, cinestyle, slog1,2,3, panalog, etc.) curves and how they are not looks, but are ways of getting back to scene-reference, or linear-sensor-values.  I’d also need to go over color gamuts for digital cinema again (I did this in the color science article).

But for now, I’ll just repost the rough sample of my Pièce de résistance on Digital Video versus Digital Negative, from two years ago.  It uses a lot of the same terminology that you see DSLR reviewers and advocate using.  But I assure you, they’ve been mostly using the terms wrong.  This piece provides a foundation in film and image that is needed to understand digital.  More technical information can be found in my piece on color science.

But seriously.  If a DSLR for Digital Cinematography reviewer or authority starts looking at film-log-ish images and tells you that; they have a ‘nice flat look’ and some look more or less good than others; close the damn browser window and move on.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.  Real digital cinema doesn’t work that way.

Real digital cinema shoots a scene-referenced dense negative.  It always has.  Even when it shoots film.  And it either sticks to re-exposure via printer-lights, or it operates in an extremely sophisticated coloring space, like you’d find in Davinchi Resolve or Nuke (and their ilk).

Lastly I’ll just say, I’m not angry with Scott Squires.  And if anyone (including Scott) took it that way, I appologize.