Netflix / Camerimage, premiere !

By François Reumont for the AFC

La Lettre AFC n°292

[ English ] [ français ]

During a seminar, a group of cinematographers joined together to “engage” a dialogue with managers of the American content distribution platform.

David Proctor opened the session with his experience as a cinematographer on “The Innocents”, a series recently produced by Netflix in Europe, and broadcast in 4K HDR. “Personally, I didn’t really change my method of working by shooting for an HDR broadcast”, said David Proctor. “I continue to use my usual tools, my meter and my monitor with waveform… What is very important is determining where you want to push the bright lights to, in function of each scene. The series was shot with a RED Helium camera in 8K in order to take advantage of the full size of the sensor, with vintage Zeiss lenses and diffusion. On set, SDR monitoring and no pressure from the platform regarding that, or the use of HDR. The only thing we had to have a discussion with Netflix about before shooting was the compression rate, which they had set in advance. In any case, even though admittedly I was a bit apprehensive before seeing my work online on the platform, I can tell you that the Dolby Vision standard we’d tested in preproduction and that we’d chosen for HDR distribution is remarkably effective, and literally takes control of the television at the end of the chain to deactivate all of the unnecessary functions that sometimes destroy the image, and provide a result that is very close to what I was able to do in colour grading. The HDR and SDR versions are also more similar to one another.”

Visibly more unnerved by the requirements imposed on these production, Manuel Alberto Claro, DFF, immediately raised the problem of definition, which is often referred to as a sort of artistic guillotine by some filmmakers. “When the platform prevents me from using a particular camera because it doesn’t meet the specifications, especially in terms of definition, I find that to be an intrusion into the creative process and I feel a bit offended as a cinematographer. After all, I think I know what I’m doing and it’s hard for me to understand why I’m not being trusted.”

This is a point of view shared by Geoff Boyle, who addressed Netflix in the following terms : “I think that you’ve all come out of the world of lawyers and of the law. Because you’ve promised your clients 4K, if you only give them 3.4K, they might sue you !”

Without denying the charge of the British DP, Jimmy Fusil (creative development and infrastructure manager at Netflix) replied that the platform’s main concern is essentially qualitative : “You mustn’t only focus on the question of definition”, he explains. “The breadth of the dynamic range, the low compression and high quantification of the digital signal are just as important for us when we are producing content. This is capital in the short term for the broadcasting of our programmes, but it is also an investment in the future in order to preserve these works in a “digital negative” format that will be viewable in the future with the maximum quality afforded by current technology. Take a film such as Lawrence of Arabia for example : the 65mm negative has allowed it to pass the test of time and all of the new generations of broadcasting technology without losing any of its visual force.”

On that point, cinematographers and platform managers agree on the will to preserve an image that is as rich as possible, but also insist on the transparency of the postproduction process and the preservation of the colorimetric space from the set for as long as possible, unlike many of the bad habits that have become habitual since the digital revolution.

Jimmy Fusil continued : “We have no particular insistence on modifying the colours in artistic terms that would imply that all of the series have a sort of uniform look with the Netflix label. However, some people might think that series and films are beginning to look more and more like one another, and I believe that is because of the recent permeability of filmmakers and creators between these two worlds. However, we do insist that the colorimetric space be kept as broad as possible from shooting until finalization. Before, cinematographers used to choose to work using a particular development process with the laboratories. Now, the DITs and the colourists have replaced them in the chain. It is extremely important therefore to agree on a LUT for viewing the images in preproduction and to keep this artistic direction throughout the film’s fabrication process, in order to keep these intentions from being lost along the way during the long postproduction process, as too often happens.”
This declaration allowed Dan Laustsen, DFF, to remind everyone that on the shooting of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the precision and dosing of each colour was such on set that nothing was changed during colour grading.

Questioned by the audience about the pertinence of demanding particular specifications for documentaries, Jimmy Fusil answered that in the case films are acquired (and not produced) by Netflix, those minimum quality conditions were not always met. And that in that case, only the subject and quality of the film count.

“In the end, making films together is above all a question of mutual trust,” Dan Lausten wisely reminded everyone. “But how can we establish that trust when we have a hard time meeting or even identifying one’s interlocutor”, wondered Céline Bozon, AFC. “I recently had an experience shooting for Netflix in France”, she said, “but never had anyone from Netflix that I was able to speak with. It is a bit like working with a ghost, and not knowing what role it has between us and the production.”

Jimmy Fusil acknowledged the validity of that remark and recognized that the platform has sometimes had communication difficulties. “It’s true that we must make more effort to better communicate with producers and technicians, and our participation at Camerimage for the first time is the proof that we are taking things very seriously. We are going to quickly correct that situation by assigning specific contact persons to each territory to allow everyone to ask these questions, and so that we can progress together to find the best solutions. One thing is sure, Netflix will always prefer a quality production at a certain cost to a somewhat botched but cheaper production. And we want to reassure the profession in that sense.”

(Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)