The American Society of Cinematographers

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The ASC and the Producers Guild of America put 7 digital cameras through their paces with the Camera-Assessment Series.


Photos by Yousef Linjawi and Simon Wakelin, courtesy of the PGA.
The Producers Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers recently joined forces to conduct landmark tests of seven digital cameras: Arri’s D-21, Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3700, Panavision’s Genesis, Red’s One, Sony’s F23 and F35, and Thomson’s Grass Valley Viper. Shooting the same tests at the same time was an Arri 435, which used four Kodak stocks, two tungsten (Vision2 250T 5217 and Vision3 500T 5219) and two daylight (Vision2 250D 5205 and Vision3 250D 5207). “It was a snapshot in time because the technology of digital cameras is by no means static,” says Curtis Clark, ASC, chair of the Society’s Technology Committee.

The tests will be presented for the first time this month, during the PGA’s Produced By Conference (www.producedbyconference.com). The event will give viewers a chance to see the footage and draw their own conclusions about the cameras’ performances, but the idea is not to crown a winner. “Our only agenda was to supply the community with an educational resource,” says David Stump, ASC, chair of the Technology Committee’s Camera Subcommit-tee. “It’s not a competitive test; it’s not a shootout.”

The idea of the project, which was funded by Revelations Entertainment, was to create a definitive overview of the current state of digital cameras, a collection of footage that could serve as a reference for the industry at large. “It’s really hard to find a set of unbiased test materials made under controlled circumstances,” says Stump. “When a test of any camera is done, the test usually ends up being owned by a motion-picture studio, so the next person who wants to use that camera has to start all over again and do his own tests.”

It was critical that the tests be done in a way that embodied the integrity and authority of the ASC. In 2003-2004, the Society collaborated with Digital Cinema Initiatives to create Standardized Evaluation Material, or Stem, a mini-movie that provided a robust test of image quality for technologies used in digital-cinema distribution. “To this day, Stem and what we did with DCI remains the benchmark,” says Clark. “The Camera-Assessment Series had to live up to that high standard.”

The process began with long discussions in the Technology Committee’s camera and workflow subcommittees about the challenges that were likely to arise. “We tried to lay down a set of ground rules that would fit every camera into both a film-out and digital-out motion-picture production pipeline,” says Stump. “That pipeline could be unique, but it had to share the criteria that are the baselines for all motion-picture production: 10-bit log for filmout, doing a DI and doing a P3 output for digital cinema.” Other standards were set for the cameras as well. “Because cinematographers’ base business is feature films, we drew the line in the sand at the point we felt was sufficient for big-screen work,” says Stump. At minimum, he explains, the cameras had to be capable of an image with resolution of 1080p and a color depth of 4:4:4. “That weeded out a lot of cameras,” he notes.

In recent years, the ASC has pursued collaborations with various organizations in the industry, and for the Camera-Assessment Series, the PGA and producer Lori McCreary were indispensable in pulling everything together. At Clark’s invitation, McCreary had been attending meetings of the ASC Technology Committee, where she was struck by cinematographers’ perspective on new technologies. “Because they constantly have to think about where things are headed, cinematographers can better, more accurately predict the future than filmmakers in other fields,” she observes. The PGA hopes the test results will enable producers to better understand the budgetary and workflow ramifications caused by the choice of a camera. “Workflow directly affects the producer’s job on a daily basis, and we’re not as informed as we could be,” says McCreary.

The ASC and the PGA brought their own concerns and interests to the tests; these included image quality, color space, contrast, dynamic range, ease of use, ergonomics, how well the cameras fit into a typical production workflow, and how much extra time, if any, they required on set. All of these were factored into the design of the tests, situations Stump describes as “commonplace but difficult. We wanted to show how all of these cameras deal with the normal issues of everyday cinematography: windows that look out onto exteriors, daylit exteriors, daylit interiors. How does it look under night tungsten light?  How does it look under a laundry list of typical scenarios?”

During the tests, each camera had its own cinematographer: Bill Bennett, ASC was on the Arri D-21; Mark Doering-Powell was on the Panasonic AJ-HPX3700; Shelly Johnson, ASC was on the Panavision Genesis; Nancy Schreiber, ASC was on the Red One; Peter Anderson, ASC was on the Sony F23; Kramer Morgenthau, ASC was on the Sony F35; Marty Ollstein was on the Thomson Grass Valley Viper; and Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC, BVK manned the Arri 435. “We tried to employ a cinematographer for each camera who gave the manufacturer a sense of comfort and gave each camera its greatest opportunity to shine,” says Stump. “Those were both important things. These are mechanical devices, but all this machinery doesn’t exist in a vacuum; everyone has something at stake. Everyone trying to sell or rent a digital camera has a lot of time and money invested in that device. It was very important to take that into consideration when casting for the right cinematographer to accompany each camera on set.”

The tests were shot at Universal Studios on sets used for Desperate Housewives and at the lake where Bruce, the shark from Jaws, resides. “It was a gigantic effort that required the cooperation and assistance of several hundred people,” notes Stump. “Without the PGA’s help, we could never have pulled it off.” Stump supervised the testing, collaborating with other ASC cinematographers who were also working in a supervisory capacity: Clark, Rodney Charters, Kees Van Oostrum and Richard Crudo. The cameras passed through six different test scenarios, each of which had its own cinematographer (or, in a couple of instances, two cinematographers); those cinematographers were ASC members Charters, Richard Edlund, Steven Fierberg, Michael Goi, Jacek Laskus, Matthew Leonetti, Stephen Lighthill, Lindenlaub, Robert Primes and John Toll. “Lighting was absolutely left to the cinematographers’ discretion,” notes Stump. The following is an overview of the six scenarios:

Day-Exterior Lock-Off: Charters and Edlund

“Our test was very simple,” says Edlund, the vice chairman of the Camera Subcommittee. He notes that a moving camera loses some resolution because the shutter is open while the camera is in motion, but when the camera stops panning, it’s possible to see the pattern of the pixels, which he calls “bathroom tile.” The shot had a complex subject — a house with bricks and shingles and other tiny details — and Edlund thought it would be interesting to see how the cameras dealt with that.

Day-Exterior Tracking Shot of a Moving Bicycle: Fierberg and Laskus

This scenario was meant to reveal any strobing and movement issues with the various cameras, but it also became a contrast test. The shot tracks alongside a bicyclist riding from camera left toward camera right in front of a white picket fence. “The picket fence is a repeating pattern, and so is the spinning bicycle wheel,” says Fierberg. “In the past, some cameras had trouble showing those without annoying strobing.” During the shot, Fierberg pushed in closer toward the picket fence to change the frequency of the boards’ appearance onscreen.

 

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