Super 16/HD comparison, the reaction of a Director of Photography

by Philippe Ros, Director of Photography, AFC consultant member, CST

AFC newsletter n°151

[ English ] [ français ]

On October 18th 2005, within the framework of the Satis Forum and at the behest of TF1, the CST organised a presentation of the various production options using Super 16 film and HD, along with high definition post-production options, allowing the various advantages and disadvantages to be explained in each case.

Super16/HD comparison: the reaction of a Director of Photography by Philippe Ros, Image department Representative, AFC consultant

On October 18th 2005, within the framework of the Satis Forum and at the behest of TF1, the CST organised a presentation of the various production options using Super 16 film and HD, along with high definition post-production options, allowing the various advantages and disadvantages to be explained in each case...

All participants and the public agreed that the evening of October 18th turned out to be a great success and I saw first-hand the interest shown by numerous producers, production directors and directors. I would like to take advantage of this « Newsletter » to sincerely thank and congratulate everyone involved in organising this event and especially Pierre Lavoix, the head of quality control at TF1, who only took a few minutes to accept my proposal to arrange an HD broadcast of excerpts that were post-produced using HD, after being filmed using Super 16 and HD.
The quality of his welcome and the professionalism among all concerned were remarkable that evening. Congratulations to Gilles Arnaud for his management of the working group. Thanks to my experience working on the « Rencontres de la CST » on the theme of digital post-production in 2004, I know what organising such an event is all about. Franck Montagné’s work, his synthetic accuracy and the clarity of his synoptic tables were particularly appreiciated by the audience. Thierry Delpit’s presentation on the subject of the broadcast chain was a huge help in understanding a field that is somewhat complex for all of us, thanks to the quality and the simplicity of his presentation.

The excerpt from Five Reasons, an excellent film comparing film and HD, made by our German colleagues, was the high point of the evening. Congratulations and many thanks to Odile Carrière from Arte, Stéphane Egli from Télétota, Jean-François Chaintron, production director, Juan Eveno, Laurent Desbruères and Angelo Cosimano from Digimage, Julia Dubourg from the CST, Bernard Cassan, director of photography, Alain Gauthier from Bogard and my sincere apologies to all those I am bound to have forgotten.
The working group still has a lot to say on this theme and it met again in early November to organise another evening next year on the same theme, using different elements and this time it will be open to all.

I shall now step out of my role as representative of the CST’s Image department to talk about October 18th as a Director of Photography who uses both film and HD techniques, more or less successfully.

HD Filming

One thing kept recurring among all the teams who had their say regarding HD filming and this was the difficulty of coping with the camera, its exposure and its environment, accessories, monitors, oscilloscopes... I agree with the fact that first generation cameras (i.e. those derived from reporting) are not really easy to manage. The ergnomics of HD filming suffer from this and it is a decisive factor in the choice of a technique, but more about that later.
It is obvious - to quote Angelo Cosimano from Digimage - that the training of directors of photography must be given serious thought before it becomes too problematic. Just to remind you, there are several HD camera training courses for directors of photography available in France: Fabien Pisano organises one for Sony France ; Jacques Gaudin organises one for INA; Leonard Rolling organises one for CIFAP and Aly Yeganeh is in charge of the Bogart one. There are probably others I have forgotten.

The problem for many directors of photography who have worked on film is not necessarily training, I’m afraid that for some of them, the problem is more a question of wanting to train. A good number of directors of photography change over to HD at the last minute when it becomes unavoidable (budget reductions, decisions that have not been fully thought through, etc.).
I have often been witness to reactions of defiance or even conservatism with regard to digital techniques, both digital image capture and post-production. The presentation of the « Genesis » was a perfect example of this. I remember at that event, several directors of photography showed their dislike of this new tool, whereas it was in fact quite difficult to see which source of film had been used in the various excerpts presented in the course of the evening.

In view of my experience in the field of digital cinema in recent years, I feel I am qualified to state my own point of view: it is possible to film using first generation digital cameras (Sony 750, Sony 900, Panasonic Varicam) without injuring oneself as long as one takes a few precautions. One is not forced to read through all the camera’s menus to work out its deepest secrets, a video engineer or Digital Image Technician (DIT) can deal with that.
There are colour visors and one is not obliged to see the world in shades of grey, but a cameraman does not have the same possibilities as he does when using film, of seeing everything in the frame. For the time being, the only way of correctly adjusting exposure remains the oscilloscope. Every camera contains a mini-laboratory which « processes » and « develops » the digital images, so to speak.

Someone must be in charge of supervising and managing this laboratory. The cameras and their integrated laboratories are subject to shortcomings and suitable measuring instruments are designed to manage them. Only monitors with a diagonal of at least 23 inches allow the detection of problems and the correct adjustment of the focus. Filming using several cameras is equivalent to aligning these laboratories, which is always better than doing this at the grading stage.

I have just read in the « 25 Images Group » Newsletter a compilation of texts including an article by Michel Sibra. He feels that because of digital technology « directors of photography no longer have the monopoly of images. Nowadays, they share their sensitivity with directors who have instant access to controlling colour and contrast. » To me, this is the perfect example of the considerable confusion that currently reigns, between the image that is recorded during shooting - which must be anything but definitive - and the odd adjustments that can be made on the monitor to give an idea of what it will finally look like.
As for the focus of discussion during shooting, I tend to be very wary of this because I know that the image cannot be evaluated instantly and the experience of running through the rushes, even in HD format, always makes for a calmer and more critical reading than the instantaneous evaluation... but that‘s another matter...

Similarly, Michel Sibra is somewhat confused regarding digital cameras’ recording capacities. « When filming, if one wishes to light a room by having light coming through a window, the lighting must be installed on a « praticable » or even a tower, with projectors outside. When using HD, this is no longer necessary. » Further on he states, « unsolved problems linked to HD, especially in strong light and in strong contrast. » My own experience in this respect is very clear: more light is required when using HD (900, 750, Varicam) to balance the outside-inside than is required using certain film emulsions.
However, I am astounded by the relatively poor knowledge that directors of photography in general have of digital technology, because even if one may wish to think that it is currently possible to do one’s job whilst avoiding using digital technology, it would appear difficult to escape digital post-production. Just to remind you, the Americans have announced that 80 % of their films will undergo digital post-production by the end of 2006. In France, we have progressed from 10 % of films made using digital intermediate techniques two years ago, to nearly 30 % this year.

Similarly, digital screenings are developing rapidly and I feel it is difficult to refuse oneself the pleasure of attending a high quality digital projection (we all remember the excellent job done by IDIFF in Cannes, later presented at the Arlequin cinema).
The point is not to reject the chemical chain, which still gives excellent results (see Motorcycle Diaries, filmed by Eric Gauthier), but to anticipate the future and to be prepared to deal with any situations that arise. I feel it is illusory to attempt to reject evolution and to become part of a hard core chemical clan, thus leaving room for an “anything goes” attitude.

All this means that we directors of photography have to know all about compression laws, digital chains, the various telecinema, telescan and scan formats, as well as the various models of grading consoles and methods of transferring images to film. We don’t have to know everything but we need to be able to understand the problems and traps that one or other system holds in the digital universe. Failing this, we shall all end up suffering this technology and unfortunately, we are bound to get lost in an inextricable maze.

I do acknowledge that it is a real nuisance to discover that the latest software on the HD camera has reversed the options on one of the menus, it’s troublesome and it’s very tempting to yell - since throttling is not an option - at the Japanese engineer responsible for the reversal.
Unfortunately, this does happen and I am looking forward to the general availability, on cinema and television sets, of German or American cameras (and why not Japanese ?) that really fulfil the specifications of directors of photography, colourists and those in charge of transferring images to film.

Projections, broadcasting, the quality of processing and the compression method.
The main point that came over during the evening of October 18th was the importance of the quality and the processing of the base material, in order to pass the threshold of HD broadcasting. Even if the broadcast is not really digital (HDMI sockets were not yet available), there was a genuine purpose in watching the images that we had seen on a large screen suddenly shown on HDTV screens. It was particularly striking in the case of Super 16, where one could see considerable differences in the quality, especially a grainy effect. As for the HD excerpts, where the detail level is not sufficiently lowered, this resulted in a visible “video” style.
In spite of the difference among the televisions in the hall, it seemed to me that very few formats can cope with the various compression modes imposed by HD broadcasting. Even though this is totally subjective, I found that the excerpts filmed using Sony 750 or Panasonic Varicam struggled to reach what we could now call the HD borderline, from a quality point of view. Only the excerpts filmed using 35 mm film and Sony 900 and a few excerpts filmed using Super 16, such as Didier Delaître’s Premier Secours, filmed by Bernard Cassan and the excerpt from Karim Dridi’s film shot by Céline Bozon managed to reach this threshold. And quite by chance, it was these excerpts - shot using Super 16 - that appeared the most convincing during the digital screening. In fact, all the excerpts that had benefited from very great care - whether during filming, developing or post-production - achieved a quality acceptable for HD broadcasting.

We can only hope that in future, compression modes will improve but, thanks to Thierry Delpit’s explanation, it is not too difficult to understand the difficulty of sending such a large quantity of information through such a small pipe...

To conclude, nothing can be hidden when HD is used.

Whether we consider the décors, the make-up, the costumes, the development of Super 16 film or the adjustments on the digital camera, the grading, the grain reduction and much more, HD is a real challenge and I’m sure we shall soon see the scale of this challenge. When we saw the projection on a large screen, it became perfectly obvious that Super 16 has no need to be ashamed of the comparison with digital cameras such as the 900.
Unfortunately, the demonstration of the various defects and qualities appertaining to each type did not take into account a very important point, that of ergonomics. This is the sticking point, where film is still far more flexible and lighter than digital technology when one is required to film sequence shots from all over, as in Premier Secours.

Colourists, in charge of transferring images and post-production

Finally, I would like to mention the essential role of the colourist, both for telefilms and for a return to 35 mm for feature length films, but it may well be worth devoting another article in La Lettre to providing an update from the transfer technicians’ viewpoint.
To conclude, it seems clear to me that this type of evening event raises more questions rather than providing answers, but I’m sure that’s what it’s all about!

16 mm/HD Comparison seen by Sebastian Wolters, Nordmedia, Germany

The event organised by the CST was very interesting and useful. Especially for us from Nordmedia/Germany as we saw different format and genres in HD. Also to present our format comparison and the feedback we got off the French professionals was useful to us in that way as we got remarks/comments from a different international perspective as the French market seems to have more experience with HD productions then we in Germany have.
We hope to further develop our cooperation with the CST and the French market by visiting each other’s events in that field and by working together to offer HD as an alternative to SD.
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