Thanks for the memories


The slow but inevitable shift from celluloid to digital has almost taken its course. It
has been a painful process for some and a welcome relief for others. The sheer
magnificence of images shot on 35mm film with its infinite contrast ratio, crystal
clear images and delightful colour spectrum will, for some, never be reproduced
digitally – but time marches on and change is inevitable. Screen Africa asked some
veteran DOPs for their thoughts on the transition.

In 2014, according to Filmmaker Magazine, only 39 Hollywood movies shot on
35mm were released. Film is, it seems, still the stock of choice for really huge
productions that want to look good and have enough complications (and a big
enough budget) that the cost of digital colour correction versus the expense of
shooting film no longer becomes a factor. This trend may well continue into 2015
but not much further.

With the closure of Africa’s only full-service laboratory in Johannesburg, the switch
from film to digital in this country is complete, and all DOPs – both the seasoned
ones and new kids on the block – are utilising the features, capabilities and
potential advantages of what the new generation of lighting, high definition and 4K
digital cameras have to offer.

Goodbye to romance

Acclaimed wildlife filmmaker Peter Lamberti jokes, “The filmatic look is for the
romantic older guys. We try to get the picture to look true to life. Digital does this.
When it comes to wildlife the most significant change as far as lighting is concerned
is that the cameras have more sensitivity so you need a lot less light to get what
you need. I have however found that keeping up with technology comes with a huge
price tag. It’s not only the cameras that you need to upgrade but also the lenses.
Data management can also be an issue in the field. Managing 4K needs huge hard
drives and they have to be backed up too.’

DOP Trevor Brown touches on one of the side effects of the digital transition, “Sadly
as film is slowly but surely disappearing, so too is discipline on every set. “Keep
rolling – tape is cheap’. I hoped that with high-end digital cinematography, discipline
would return, but so far not a chance. It has become habit to just keep rolling and
save time, because storage cards can be re-used, creating much more unnecessary
work for DITs. What I really enjoy about the new technology, though, is the
outstanding dynamic range and colour resolution and the ability to use PL mount
spherical or anamorphic lenses. That’s already close to achieving the film
Vicci Turpin SASC expresses her views, “I have to admit that I was devastated
when digital started creeping into our world and our industry. I was a die-hard film
supporter and always have been even in the 80s. Back then I was faced with the
choice of being a camera operator at the SABC on Betacam or stuck working as film
loader at a tenth of the salary. I chose film.

“When the industry started to change I always chose film above HD, even though
my lighting and way of shooting offered a very smooth transition to digital. I have
always loved reality and textures of life and worked hard to achieve these
consistently in my work. I found I could push film to extreme levels and keep a
very cinematic look. And then along came digital!’

Greener pastures

Tai Krige is less sentimental about film. “Despite being an old dyed-in-the-wool film
guy, I would venture to say that I believe it’s all to the good and I don’t miss
shooting on film stock at all. Pre-digital there was always a chance that your
(hopefully) properly exposed footage is ruined by the very complicated and fickle
passage through the many stages of negative processing, colour grading, etc, and
this over a number of days (while one waits with bated breath). Any small variation
in the chemical baths used could easily ruin your footage. And that’s what I love
about digital – you can see your results almost immediately, and thereafter
virtually grade on set while shooting to achieve the look you have decided
“The latest super 35 digital cameras have brought us to an era where we have more
colour gamut, more resolution and more exposure latitude than film,’ says Willem
Viljoen. “With previous HD cameras like the Panasonic Varicam or the Sony HD CAM
you had to have knowledge of matrix, gamma, knee and other menus to shape the
response of the camera to your preference. They were incredibly capable machines
but did require a lot of background knowledge.

“Today’s cameras with 16bit RAW capabilities like the Sony F55 and 65 are much
more like shooting on negative film stock. Caring cinematographers now have to
learn “Look up tables’ (LUT’s), colour grading software and post workflow if they
want to remain in control of how their images look. Colour grading software like Da
Vinci Resolve is where the LUTs are created. The LUTs are then loaded into the
camera so that the creatives can see what the image will look like after grading,
while you capture RAW log in the camera. You can also leave it in the hands of the
post people knowing that with those raw files, almost anything is possible.’
“Cameras, lenses and lights are simply tools,’ says director/DOP Miles Goodall.
“They continue to become cleverer, smaller, faster and more mobile. The craft of
creating pictures for stories is what we do. My thing has been to use what you have
and see it as a challenge. The digital cameras are almost as loveable as the film
cameras were to me. They become familiar and feel good.’

“I believe that cameramen who only previously worked with film will now have the
confidence to embrace this amazing new world of filmmaking,’ says Brown. That
elusive film look is easily achievable now. The DIT is now what your lab technician
used to be. Working with a good DIT who understands where you are going with the
look of the film, as well as a good grader/colourist, is vital.’

Seeing the light

“I love LED lighting as I love things to be simpler,’ adds Turpin. The way lighting is
advancing it’s certainly making our lives a lot simpler. There are techniques and
disciplines that I have learnt over the years in order to keep the cinematic
“Besides interview shoots and small environments LED lighting has not had much of
an effect yet,’ claims Viljoen. “Smaller set-ups can be lit with a few LED panels
powered by a battery, leaving the set almost cable free, but larger set-ups are still
lit with tungsten or HMI lights.’

“I very much like the advent of LEDs,’ notes Krige. “They offer lightweight, smaller
lighting units which can produce excellent light sources. They are heat free and
easy to work with and simplify your lighting needs tremendously, therefore helping
your craft.’

While the demise of a traditional film camera is imminent, the new guard is here to
take over. The Arri Alexa and the 4K Phantom are exciting additions to the mix as is
the AJA Cion 4K and the Blackmagic URSA and 4K Production camera, Sony F55
and the RED – the list is endless and one must include the Canon 5D and other DSLR
film cameras. Sad as it may seem, as far as celluloid is concerned, it’s time to say,
“Thanks for the memories’.

Written by Andy Stead


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