The Future of Vision

March 16, 2020

The Evolution of Cinematography

Over the last 20 years, advances in camera technology have been the great enabler. Digital cinematography has democratized filmmaking lowering the bar to entry for new shooters, leveling the playing field for everyone in the industry and enhancing the capabilities of veteran directors of photography (DPs). As camera technology continues to evolve cinematographers remind us that it’s not the end-all-and-be-all to their craft. “Technology won’t lead you to greatness. You have to be able to use technology as a tool to get there,” said Atlanta-based cinematographer, Frederick Taylor. “Technology should always be in the service of the story,” notes Hilda Mercado, of the Mexican Society of Cinematographers (AMC). “It doesn’t matter if you have all the latest technology in the world if people don’t connect with the story.” William Wages, of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) agrees. “We have to keep up with the technology, but it’s what’s in front of the camera that matters. I’ve spent my career eliminating the toys and making it about what’s in front of the camera and not behind it.” Six cinematographers shared their views on camera technology and mused about what’s coming next.

 

WILLIAM WAGES 

 

 

Recent credits: Yellowstone (Paramount Network); Lethal Weapon (Fox); The Forgiven (feature film); Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC); Sun Records (CMT).

 

William Wages began his career shooting commercials and documentaries all over the world. Then he moved into mini-series, TV movies and features, including Iron Will and Maya Angelou's Down In The Delta. His television credits include three seasons of Burn Notice and the Spielberg-produced mini-series Into The West. Born and raised in Atlanta, Wages has been nominated for two Emmy Awards, eight ASC awards (winning two) and has been honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in Television. He has developed a number of industry tools, including the Tiffen Glimmerglass diffusion filter and two flagging devices affectionately named WagFlags and WagBags by his crew.

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

WW: It’s phenomenal what’s available to us today; there are so many great cameras to choose from. I personally prefer the Panasonic VariCam 35. I became an early adopter when I tested the prototype, and it blew my socks off with its dynamic range. My testing showed 15.5 stops, maybe even a little more.

 

What advantages does it offer you?

 

WW: The VariCam has dual ISO 800 and 5000 with no significant quality shift, which is a game changer. It allows shooting at very low light levels. I’ve done day scenes in light so dim you cannot read a script yet on the monitor it looks full daylight. The dynamic range of the VariCam combined with the dual ISO has cut my lighting package in half. This allows us to focus on making the movie and not on the hardware.

 

Do you ever shoot film? WW: Not since Burn Notice. There’s no need to, and I don’t miss it. Film was wonderful, but with it the interesting work is on the razor’s edge of what the emulsion is capable of. Therefore, you didn’t know until you saw the dailies if you got it right.

 

With digital you see the image on the monitor and know in real time if you have the shot. How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

WW: The great photographer Ansel Adams said, “The negative is the score, the print is the performance.” Everything I do can be destroyed or enhanced by color timing. It’s in my contract that I get to control the color timing. Power Windows are wonderful tools that have changed everything. Now you can use multiple Power Windows and track with them. These are techniques I use every day.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

WW: In my opinion, we are in for a huge paradigm shift. Big cameras are going away. The new Sigma fp camera is essentially the size of a pack of cigarettes with a lens attached. It doesn’t equal the big cameras, but it is close. Panasonic’s S1H full-frame is 6K and looks like a DSLR still camera, but its electronics are designed for filmmaking. It virtually matches the performance of the VariCam. What’s on your wish list for camera technology? WW: I don’t really have a wish list. My attitude is “the best camera is the one you have.” I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of guy. Put your creative efforts into adapting to what you have then tell the story.

"It doesn't matter if you have all the latest technology in the
world if people don't connect with the story."

SAMUEL LAUBSCHER

 

 

Recent credits:  Return to Roanoke: Search for the Seven (History Channel); Dead Silent (Investigation Discovery, Season 3); Two Roads (PlayStation Network, Season 1); The Instrument (mini-series, Nung River Productions).

 

Growing up in Southern California, Samuel Laubscher was interested in photography and motion pictures from an early age. Now, based in Atlanta, Laubscher has been working in narrative and commercial cinematography, as well as portrait and documentary photography since 2010 using digital cameras as well as 35mm and 16mm motion cameras.

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

SL: If I have the option and the budget I will always choose 35mm film and particularly the ARRI 235. It’s lightweight, and I work a lot with natural light and find 35mm really captures the intricacies of environmental light best. On the digital side I use the ARRI ALEXA Mini. I really appreciate how its colors are a bit more subdued and naturalistic. Nothing gets overexposed too quickly in the highlights. And you can underexpose without it getting too noisy.

 

What advantages do they offer you?

 

SL: Advantage to film are its color rendition, especially human skin tones, and a grain texture and quality that are very three dimensional. Celluloid puts its own charm into an image, and I like that. Alternatively, with digital capture I’m able to see exactly what I get when I get it. It’s cheaper to shoot, and the image is so clean. Digital also works well in low light conditions . . . you can shoot in near darkness nowadays.

 

When do you choose to shoot film?

 

SL: Narrative independent projects looking for a different quality are more open to film and its expressive look. A lot of commercial cinematographers work with 16mm, and I think that’s having a comeback stylistically. The actual weight of a film camera and its magazines is a challenge because we’ve all become used to smaller and lighter digital cameras. It’s also harder to find ACs and others skilled with working with film. On the other hand, Kodak Atlanta is really friendly and supportive in processing film and giving you a digital transfer for post. I love the feeling of a film set; all the crew and actors know the significance of shooting film and everyone dials into it. The actors try to nail their performance on the first take.

 

How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

SL: Most recently HDR workflows have been growing. The standard digital workflow has changed a bit with these different color spaces. I really enjoy being involved in post. It’s a whole other creative step that didn’t used to be there. I like putting the finishing touch on things with the colorist; I’m glad to have the opportunity to help the colorist make some bigger decisions about what the final image should look like.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

SL: I’m interested in the virtual production side of things. I was recently shooting all-digital plates for animators to put characters into for a commercial. The animator on set was taking 360° photos and diagramming and building my lighting scheme in his software. I’d love the chance to work on something crafted live in the Unreal Engine, the chance to do virtual cinematography. The technology is there waiting to be applied. I think the gaming world and film production world might merge.

 

What’s on your wish list for camera technology?

 

SL: Completely weather-resistant cameras and accessories. That may be a pipe dream, but I would love to be able to shoot in full rain without all the tenting/covers. I’d also like to see battery technology advances where cold temperatures don't affect the life of batteries as greatly. I am enjoying how camera systems are getting smaller and lighter, the less intrusion on set for me the better!

 

FREDERICK TAYLOR

 

 

Recent credits:  Transmission.Love (documentary); The King Center (awareness campaign with Bernice King); Thee Holy Brothers (music video for My Name is Sparkle); American_Asian (documentary); Rotary International (polio eradication campaign).

 

Frederick Taylor got his film education at Temple University and earned a graduate degree in communications from Georgia State University. While teaching, he took a leap into shooting hip-hop videos for Russell Simmons and Outkast. He founded Tomorrow Pictures to create content for TV, corporate clients and the internet and to take on passion projects such as documentaries, social justice videos and non-profit projects. Taylor’s award-winning work takes him around the world and has been shown at film festivals and on PBS.

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

FT: The Sony FS7 for run-n-gun, down- and-dirty cinematography. It has a lot of latitude and is so fast in low-light situations. Sometimes I deliberately dirty up images; if you have very powerful subject matter you don’t want to distract with pretty images.

 

What advantages does it offer you?

 

FT: The FS7 marries well with higher-end lenses; I enjoy using old film lenses on it; they’re dirtier, and I get more of a cinematic feel. Sony lenses have become too clean and vivid for me. I can take the FS7, buy a crappy lens, throw a yellow filter on it and get some of the most interesting, intense black and white images that look like they’re from the 1950s.

 

Do you ever shoot film?

 

FT: I love film; I started out with it, but the challenge and cost of getting it developed and transferred has chased me away. If a project had enough money I’d be back shooting film. Or if someone were doing a period film I’d try to make film work for the budget. Everything you remember watching that warmed your heart was shot on film. Today, we’re constantly fiddling with the technology to move people the same way film did.

 

How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

FT: My relationship with post is push-pull. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate its guts. Sometimes I want to clean things up, sometimes I’ve got it here and now, with no color correction needed, I got exactly what I want through the lens. Post production can be like Door #1 or Door #2. Behind Door #1 you use technology as a crutch with LUTs and plug-ins to make things easier for yourself, to create the illusion of perfection through ease. Behind Door #2 you’re in control of the technology to capture or harness the images of the past (like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean) using old film filters and mid-century Panavision lenses to get a better result than if you dialed it in [during] post.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

FT: I expect to see some good and some bad. The reach of tech is a great new inroad. Technology will continue to be more and more accessible to the masses. Developing countries will close the gap between themselves and first world nations in cinema; I can’t wait until The Oscars go to Nigeria for cinematography and editing. Technology will continue to lead the way for women creating more opportunities for them in leadership positions in the industry. The bad is that tech will continue to be a crutch for the filmmaker who suffers from storytelling and confidence issues. I believe tech can create artist mind-blocks that prohibit true storytelling; too many choices stifle creativity. It’s like painting a picture: pick a few colors and start to paint. Don’t waste all your time mixing. Tech also creates a disposition for replicating other people’s works instead of finding your own voice. Some of the best work I have ever created was done in low-tech environments.

 

What’s on your wish list for camera technology?

 

FT: Filtration that’s built into the camera to assist you when you want to soften an image and get a more filmic look and feel. And lenses with glass ground the way it was 50 or more years ago, not with the machine technology of today. I’d like more options than neutral density for filtration on the back of the lens; for gauze effects, opal, frost or like the 85 series. Audio technology on cameras is spectacular these days; it’s unfortunate that more people don’t use it. I’d love to have 4-channel audio instead of just 2-channel.

 

HILDA MERCADO

 

 

Recent credits:  The Resident (Fox, episodes 214 and 215); 108 Costuras and 108 Stitches (feature films); MasterClass (online series); Hidden Heroes (documentary); Dead Silent (Investigation Discovery, Season 2).

 

Hilda Mercado earned an MFA in Cinematography from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and is a member of the Mexican Society of Cinematographers (AMC). She won a student Emmy Award for the short film, A Piece of Earth, and has won numerous other awards at international competitions. Mercado is currently based in Atlanta and travels around the world working on a wide range of projects.

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

HM: I like to use the ARRI cameras, in particular the Amira and ALEXA Mini; they are ergonomic documentary-style cameras. Lately I am leaning towards the Mini as my preferred camera. The Mini is compact, and the sensor is great: I like the way it captures images and the way it looks.

 

What advantages does it offer you?

 

HM: With the Mini I can go from studio mode to handheld very quickly. I like the camera workflow, the way it reproduces color, how it captures skin tones and its latitude between highlights and lowlights. The menu is very intuitive; it’s easy to find what you need. The Mini has a very particular style, a softer image. You can manipulate it with look-up tables (LUT), but it has a nice, softer image to start with that benefits skin tones.

 

Do you ever shoot film?

 

HM: Sadly, no, not for a long time; maybe eight years. I do miss it. Something comes with film that has to do with the discipline of working with film, the fact that you can’t just let the camera run for 10 minutes, you have to be more clear about what you shoot. You need more precision and attention to detail. You need to know how to light film, how to expose it and how that will translate to the final print.

 

How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

HM: During prep I create a LUT that I will give post production, in particular the colorist, as a base palette; a look that should get them very close to the final look before starting the final color correction. I can show the producers and director, with the first dailies, where we will be later. Before a feature I usually sit with the post producer to check the deliverables of the project, the workflow, and if we have any digital visual effects, how to capture what visual effects (VFX) needs so they don’t have any problems. I always try to be involved with all aspects of post and color correction: for features that’s considered to be part of my job. For documentaries sometimes we don’t get to be there because of budget constraints; for TV I’m there with the colorist for the last pass of color, I get to adjust the final details. The only time I don’t have so much say in post is for commercials, because the timeline is so fast. But I give color references and notes to the colorist so they’re always in the range of what I shot.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

HM: Cameras are getting smaller and lighter, which isn’t always a good thing. I don’t want a smaller camera for my handheld work, and a lighter and smaller Steadicam is not always best. I need a camera I can ergonomically put on my shoulder or [one that] is flexible to move from a dolly to a crane.

 

What’s on your wish list for camera technology?

 

HM: More developments in LED lighting. I’d like to see smaller, more flexible units that use even less power and are bicolor going from daylight to tungsten on a switch. I love the DMX system; it saves so much time when you are shooting as you can make last minute adjustments in color and lighting output.

 

As to the camera itself, I’d like to see more compact transmitters and more [outboard] devices, like motors for iris, zoom and focus that require a lot of cables and batteries, built into the camera. Panavision is starting to develop some lenses in collaboration with the RED cameras that have everything built in, so you need less cable. They’re easier to balance on gimbals and Steadicam systems; this presents a cleaner camera without all the cables and motors and transmitter boxes attached to the camera.

 

JAMES DAWKINS

 

 

Recent credits:  Senior content producer for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

 

The career of cinematographer James Dawkins has always focused on sports. As a professional, he spent four-and-a-half years with the Miami Heat and three with the Houston Rockets before joining the Hawks 18 months ago. Dawkins shoots most home games, which he sends to Fox Sports Southeast, NBA Entertainment and ESPN for regional and national broadcast. He also travels to high-profile games and covers the NBA Draft and All Star Weekends.

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

JD: I tried the Sony F55 as a test product when I was with the Heat and have been using it since I joined the Hawks. I love that it shoots 240fps with a Sony RAW recorder connected to the camera; such a fast frame rate! And it shoots 4K at 24-60fps with sound. I usually roll with a Rec. 709 LUT, which brings out a lot of saturation; I record in S-Log 3 so there are more color correction options in post production.

 

What advantages does it offer you?

 

JD: It’s nice to have custom control of the camera settings so I can choose the right options for the media outlets that will be using the footage. I normally shoot 240fps at 24p for ultimate slow-motion. While recording video with sound, I capture at True 4K/24p. Not many cameras shoot 240fps for playback at 24p with colors outside the lines. In summary, the F55 simply outperforms high-end mobile device cameras and prosumer devices that also capture 240 fps. It’s on par with other high-end cameras like ALEXA, RED and even the Phantom. The F55 is a big camera with the RAW recorder and battery attached, but it actually sits on my shoulder and there’s a beauty to its balance. I use a shoulder rig for shooting, even for promos, and rarely use a tripod.

 

Do you ever shoot film?

 

JD: No.

 

How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

JD: In my work for the Hawks I shoot, edit and do graphic design. The ability to shoot really high frame rates adapts well to my editing style, which features a lot of speed ramping. When done properly, speed ramping makes any spot or promo crisp and beautiful, a joy to watch. You can slow the moments you want to focus on: the dunk, the block, the steal, the celebration. You can live all those moments for 10 seconds. You’re able to tell a cleaner and clearer story.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

JD: In today’s world people want content quickly, so I’d be shocked if five years from now cameras were sold without streaming devices. Broadcast and leading NBA content teams already utilize this type of streaming technology with devices that are currently sold separately.

 

What’s on your wish list for camera technology?

 

JD: Number one on my wish list would be a streaming device locked into the camera. Hawks fans want to get into the nitty-gritty of everything, and I’d love to provide them with content constantly: shoot, post and share from a professional camera. I’d also wish for a lens that could go from as wide as 11mm for beautiful close ups to 300mm to shoot detail all the way across the court. I’d love to be able to do that without a lens swap.

MARC DOBIECKI

 

 

Recent credits:  Underwater DP for The Walking Dead (TV Series); Endless Love (Film); Devious Maids (TV Series); camera operator for Zombieland (Film) & Stomp the Yard (Film).

 

What is your current camera of choice and why?

 

MD: No one should have a personal favorite because the technology has to match the creative. It’s always a little disturbing to hear people being very one-sided about a camera. If I’m in a remote location where I need a lot of flexibility in a camera system I might choose one camera body, but if I’m in a studio setting with a lot of support I might choose a different one. There aren’t many options for a professional underwater cinematographer. Choice is sometimes
dictated by the camera they’re using [topside]. But the three dominant
cameras for underwater are the Sony Venice, RED Monstro and ARRI ALEXA Mini LF.

 

What advantages do they offer you?

 

MD: These three cameras are technically at the top of their game; from an image and reliability standpoint they are the industry’s Rolls-Royces. The RED and the Mini are physically right in the sweet spot. The Venice is a bigger system but also a great camera; you actually need some bulk in the water so you don’t transfer slight movement to the camera.

 

Do you ever shoot film?

 

MD: Yes, more on land than underwater. But film use is limited and tends to be for higher budget productions and as 2nd unit cinematography. I still like film, the process and the discipline film brings to a set; there’s an element and structure film brings that’s lost on a [digital] set. Historically, when I shoot film I’m using an ARRICAM LT or ST or an ARRI 435.

 

How has camera technology changed your role in post production?

 

MD: The role of the editor has changed so much in the world of commercials, music videos and corporate. Their role has expanded to include color correction, graphics and sound. And the amount of media and data the editor is confronted with is staggering; it has affected the purity of storytelling. I almost never have control of color correction, whereas I always attended the telecine session in the film world. There’s an echelon of cinematographers who can command that control, but not at my level as a DP.

 

What developments do you expect to see in camera technology in the near term?

 

MD: I think we’ll see a return to digital Super 35 in a much greater way in 2020. With the advent of full-frame technology we lost control of our legacy lenses; we’ve lost the use of some beautiful glass. I think manufacturers will realize there’s still a huge market for digital Super 35 and will not abandon it.

 

What’s on your wish list for camera technology?

 

MD: I’m surprised that at this day and age I have to have a wish list! It’s kind of amazing, because my wish goes to the very core of the camera and how and why it’s built. We’ve conquered the beauty of the image: All manufacturers have image capture under control. The shocking disconnect is between the engineers and the people who actually put the camera on their shoulder, take it in the field and power it up. Cameras still tend to be cobbled together. There are numerous peripheral devices, and we struggle with brackets for them and power distribution to them. This creates a “he said-she said” blame factor in terms of device communication because manufacturers are not integrating these things. I’d like to see a complete camera system where the manufacturer takes ownership of all aspects of the system and responsibility for how it is managed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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