As you know, I've been uncharacteristically limited in my blog output of late due to a temporary focus on a number of time-sensitive art projects– trying to turn your favorite blog into a book, and prepping for an upcoming film. I want to share some of what I've been up to.
What does filmmaking look like? What can it look like?
If we appraise the direction or cinematography in a movie, we usually consider it relative to the film's emotional content. We don't say, gosh, Billy, what a great movie. The decision to shoot the climax with prime lenses at an f-stop of 1.4 and an approximate t-stop of 1.8 really got me going....
Okay, well, I might say that. But most people don't.
We forget how ardently technical filmmaking is. Directing is the rare job requiring immense fluency in both intuition, sensitivity, observance of human nature... and the prodigious world of technical gearhead know-how. Manufacturing believable worlds on-screen, with a sense of aesthetic panache, isn't for dreamers. You have to be technically proficient.
Which brings us to what I've been doing the past two weeks: watching video after video of pasty, chubby white guys talking about camera gear. Boy, do they ever know their stuff. Reader, I use the appellation with affection; some of my favorite people are chubby white guys. For reasons too complicated to get into, CWG's are drawn to techy stuff like moths to a flame, and I've gazed upon more than my fair share of late (imagine my confused delight upon finding an instructional video led by a skinny, sprightly middle-Eastern college student!).
You see, one can't just go out there waving an expensive camera about and hope to capture greatness. On one of my earliest pictures I made the critical mistake of ignoring the manual and trusting the romance- ah!- of artmaking, only to learn after shooting that the touch of one simple button would have made the film's visuals incalculably better. One button.
You've got do the pasty white guy routine.
It's for the sake of the art. It's for the art, that I'm spending day after day alone in a dark room, chomping on cheap noodles and reading about sensor size and crop factors, blinking as I step outside to go to work, wondering what all this daylight is.
It's a different world for me, this. I recall while editing Regulate moments of rushing to the electronics store, waiting for it to open so I could get this hard drive, that RAM upgrade. Who'd always be waiting outside the main doors as well?
I knew the look in each of their eyes.
The gathering outside appeared to be a daily morning ritual. None of them spoke to each other, but they were united in glowering darkly at the unopened store entrance, fidgeting with anxiety, unable to continue life without this mini-DVI to HDMI cable, that quick release baseplate slider, this Thunderbolt to USB 3 adapter. And for those moments, I was one of them. I don't know what their end games were, but for me it was my film, and nothing else mattered. Many people want to make a film, and few manage to get one started; only with this sort of single-minded, focused madness can one actually complete a picture.
Although this lifestyle isn't for me, and the clash it represents with the soulful humanity of bus passenger interactions borders on the absurd (cycling between compassion over homelessness issues and wondering whether or not MovCam's power cable cage pocket clamp is compatible with the Smallrig 1665 is a feat of mental gymnastics I've not encountered before!), I find this new world amusing and want to share a glimpse of it with you. After all, there's a whole host of fine folks in windowless basements right now, pulling their hair out over unintentionally hilarious rabbit holes like the one I'm about to describe:
Blackmagic Design, the Australian camera company, leveled the filmmaking playing field several years ago when it introduced a 4k video camera for only $4,000. People were gobsmacked: equivalent technologies at the time costed $20,000 to $50,000. After this Blackmagic Cinema Camera proved its highly competitive quality, despite the low price, Blackmagic further wowed people with its next release, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
Nerds don't have time to say such long titles, let alone type them; known online almost exclusively as the Bmpcc (capitalizing the remaining letters would obviously be far too arduous), it further flattened the playing field by offering, as much as possible, a digital approximation of 16mm motion picture film. Blackmagic is so confident of this they describe the look with the enjoyably paradoxical title of: "digital film."
You're familiar with digital still cameras (dSLRs) that also shoot video. You may have even heard that such video quality is good (a la Canon's 5D Mark II), or that movies have been shot on them (like Like Crazy, which used the Canon 7D).
This is where we scholared, Blackmagic-familiar geeks take a moment to scoff, arrogantly pointing out that the video function on dSLRs is a mere add-on, designed originally for journalists. dSLRs are stills cameras that also do video. They're not video cameras proper. They're not dedicated. Sometimes the fervor reaches a nigh-religious intensity: they're not worthy.
Religious-level fervor implies a deity worthy of worship, and the Bmpcc is just such a god. It's different.
It doesn't have the multi-functional capability of other cameras in its price range. It doesn't take still photographs. It doesn't record usable audio. You can't review your footage in-camera. You can't even delete your footage. It doesn't do anything at all... except record ridiculously beautiful, film-like images. It does only one thing, and it does that thing extraordinary well.
Like a motion picture film camera.
When we discuss identifying the difference between digital and film, the discussion is usually less about resolution (where film generally still reigns supreme, especially with its advantage of not being made up of smaller units like pixels; 70mm film translates into a currently wildly impossible 18k digital resolution), or color (where film once again reigns supreme, with millions of colors; digital is limited to thousands. Digital movies compensate for this with artistically limited color palettes).
No, the major and most easily identifiable difference, more than the above, is tonal range. If you're shooting a person's face in front of a bright window, film has the latitude to capture both the face and the world outside. Often digital can only get one or the other, leaving you with either a blown out window or an unreadably dark face.
Barring scenes of people standing next to bright skies, the easiest place to ascertain film or digital origins is in looking at skin tones. Skin, especially skin in natural light, is made up of an enormous range of colors, and digital struggles to capture that full range, instead reducing the tones down to several bands of beige. Ew, I say.
This is where the Blackmagic Pocket comes in. It's 13 stops of "Dynamic Range" (they could've just said tonal range) are what make it so filmlike. I know you came to my blog today to hear me talk about how tonal range is measured, but I'll skip the details in favor of this link, stating instead that Kodak film stock has 14 stops of tonal range, whereas the vaunted Canon dSLRs listed above only have a puny 8. Weeeak, moan the CWG's, and I enthusiastically join their chorus. Basically, the Bmpcc looks astounding. It blows away the $15,000 Canon C300's image. When combined with a Sigma lens, it's a reasonable competitor to the Optimo 15-40mm T2.6, which costs $47,000. The Bmpcc is $995. The best cinema lens on the market for it (Sigma's 18-35) is $800. A leveling force indeed.
So all that sounds nice. But– unlike Blackmagic's Cinema Camera, the Pocket Camera doesn't shoot in 4k resolution, but just 1080p. Should I be using a different camera for my film?
Thus began my descent into the rabbit hole. The level of online debate regarding 4k vs 2k vs 1080p, not to mention explanations of what those all specifically are, is legendary. You'd think the answer would be simple- shoot in the highest resolution available. You'd really think that. I did.
But as we outlined above, after a certain point tonal range has a bigger impact on image quality. And, unless you're sitting less than 5.5 feet away from a screen measuring 80 diagonal inches or more (why would anyone do that to themselves??), your eyes aren't even going to be able to resolve the difference between 4k and 2k. Even in a movie theatre, where 2k is the current projection standard, walking from a room screening 4k projection to another with 2k is going to feel borderline identical. Skyfall was shot in 2.5k, not 4k, and no one cares. Seriously. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography. You don't hear anybody complaining about the visuals in that one.
After pulling my hair out trying to ascertain these resolution issues, and discovering that 2k and 1080p have the same vertical resolution, and learning that horizontal assignments of pixels are measured vertically (!!?!?).... Rabbit holes don't lead to clarity. They lead to other rabbit holes. It was time to watch more YouTube videos. Forget taking a shower; I grabbed a bowl of frozen vegetables and some stale orange juice. This was starting to get exciting. I was looking forward to pulling my hair out over a completely different issue.
The excitement continues! Click here for Part II!