Bridging the 4K Divide - Sony’s Digital Motion Picture Centre
The Japanese manufacturer helps filmmakers transition to a higher resolution workflow in their new facility at Pinewood Studios
Pinewood Studios holds a legendary status within the British film industry and the studio complex is synonymous with both James Bond and Star Wars.In an exciting turn of events, those two hugely successful film franchises are gearing up at Pinewood right now, with sets currently being built for Bond 24 and Star Wars Episode VII - both of which start principal photography soon. However it isn't just film production that Pinewood is interested in, although with a network of studios all over the world, it remains the group's primary focus. They're also keen to promote independent local films and recently funded Belle, the first British film to be shot using Sony's F65 camera, with other productions currently in the pipeline.
This has resulted in a close relationship between the Pinewood Group - whose owners include Sir Ridley Scott - and Sony themselves, culminating in the Digital Motion Picture Centre (DMPC). Opened in October of last year, the DMPC is designed to help industry professionals learn about 4K filmmaking and the latest 4K workflows. The facility contains a small studio, multiple 4K cameras, grade one professional monitors and a 4K digital grading suite. Sony run various courses for industry professionals including directors, cinematographers and cameramen looking to get experience on the latest 4K equipment.Sony's F65 professional camera uses two 4K sensors, which means it can deliver a whopping 8K of resolution.
The actual course lasts for a day but we had an intensive version over about two hours that tried to impart the important aspects of the training, thus giving us a fascinating insight into modern film production. In the DMPC there is a small studio where directors, cinematographers and cameramen can practice using Sony's F55 and F65 4K cameras. The course is often used as a way of familiarising or refreshing filmmakers in how to actually use the cameras and sometimes directors and cinematographers will test the cameras to see if they can get the effect they envisage for their movie.
The F55 4K camera has been used extensively in co-productions that Sony have been involved with, such as filming football matches, live broadcasts of stage plays and concert films by Muse and Peter Gabriel. However it was with Sony's F65 4K camera that we spent the most time with and it really is a remarkable piece of equipment. The camera uses a 20 mega pixel 8K CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensor that is effectively comparable with 65mm film stock. The F65 has been designed to deliver all the benefits of shooting on actual film with convenience of digital capture.
The F65 uses fixed (prime) lenses originally intended for 35mm film cameras and can create HD/2K or genuine 4K resolution images with a huge colour gamut, outstanding dynamic range, high sensitivity and ultra-low noise. The F65 has a 14-stop latitude and uses an S-Gamut colour system that delivers a colour space wider than Rec.709, DCI, Rec.2020 or even printed film. The dockable SR-R4 SRMemory unit records 16bit linear SRRAW directly on to an SRMemory card at speeds as fast as 5 Gbps and has a capacity of up to 1TB. In general around 15 to 20 minutes is recorded to a card, which is comparable to a film magazine but also means that those processing the data aren't handed hours of footage simultaneously, thus speeding up the 4K post-production workflow.
The F65 can be used with anamorphic lenses or you can choose to compose your shots to any aspect ratio using markers on the camera's monitor. The F65 can film at a number of different frame rates, including the industry standard of 24fps and also the dreaded 48fps. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one at the centre was a fan of 'high frame rate' photography and one person even pointed out that on The Hobbit, after using HFR to get rid of camera blur, they then spent a fortune trying to put it back! The F65 can even film at 120fps for cool slow motion shots, whilst an optional mechanical rotary shutter eliminates the rolling-shutter effect common to CMOS sensors.A film's colour palette has become more subtle than ever but some things never change - "if it's purple, someone's gonna die."
The camera we were filming with was fitted with a 135mm long lens that gave a beautifully shallow depth of field for that lovely cinematic look. Of course using a lens like this makes accurate focus of vital importance and as we practiced camera moves and pulling focus at the same time, we appreciated just how skilled and stressful it was being a cameraman or assistant cameraman on a big budget movie. You could magnify the image on the monitor to help with adjusting the focus and the resolution is so large that even if you magnify fourfold, the image is still a full high definition picture. There's even the obligatory iPad app for remote control of the F65 camera, allowing you to change certain parameters and view them on a monitor; although the original SRRAW footage is unchanged.
After familiarising ourselves with the F65 camera and various filming techniques, we then moved on to the 4K digital grading suite to learn about the post-production workflow. These days, thanks to 'tapeless' image capture, there is more post-production done on set than ever before. Filming generates a lot of RAW data, up to 1TB an hour, and all this footage needs to be downloaded, checked for image quality and backed-up. On a standard $100m film there are a minimum of six copies made of the footage, which is stored at different locations. The more work that is done on the set in terms of capturing and processing footage correctly, the more time and thus ultimately money that's saved. However shooting in 4K doesn't make the workflow more complicated, it just means you're dealing with larger file sizes.
The digital grading facility itself includes a grade one Sony OLED monitor, with others peppered around the studio as well, the actual grading suite which costs around £60-70,000 and a Sony VPL-VW1100 4K projector with a big screen set up. What struck us as we looked at the RAW data on the screen was how washed-out it was; this is because almost all the density (gamma) is controlled in the digital grading process. As long as the footage is in focus, then the digital grader can manipulate the look in almost any way imaginable. This was proved to us as he took the 1.78:1 washed-out RAW data and adjusted the density using an s-curve, changed the aspect ratio to 2.35:1 by adding black bars and selected different colour palettes to subtly influence the effect of the image.
All the shot footage will go through a colourist, allowing the director and cinematographer a chance to see the corrected footage almost immediately and allowing the editors to work with footage that has already been processed to a large degree. Of course there's still plenty of room for additional manipulation once the footage has been edited and the level to which an audience can be manipulated through digital grading is incredible. In the days of film, colour correction was a chemical process and thus fairly crude; although the overall colour palette of a scene could be changed to influence the emotions of an audience, resulting in the famous quote - "if you see purple, someone's gonna die."
These days with digital grading, the level of subtly and sophistication available to a colourist is simply staggering. Not only will they change the density to alter the look of the footage, they will adjust the overall colour palette of a scene and the colours within the scene to manipulate the emotions of the audience. They have control over all the primary and secondary colours, adjusting the saturation, hue and luminance as necessary. There is a vignette feature to draw attention to the centre of the image and various general effects such as 'blitz bypass' (desaturated and high contrast) and romantic (warmer colours, with saturation decreased in highlights and increased in shadows). They can even highlight specific objects within a scene, thus drawing attention to them and aiding the narrative.All this talk of colour temperatures, gamma curves, greyscales and Rec.709, emphasises how important it is to get your TV or projector calibrated.The digital grader can change an actors skin tones, bring out the colour in their eyes and even perform simple cosmetic changes such as highlighting the eyes and removing dark circles. They can also correct mistakes in make-up or fix other errors by defocussing and softening the image, which can help save money for a film production. The colourist will be the last person to adjust the footage before it ends up on the big screen and they will grade with three different viewing environments in mind. Naturally there's the primary grade for digital projection using the DCI-P3 colour space and they also create a grade in the Rec.709 colour space for use on Blu-ray and DVD releases and TV broadcasts.
However they also grade with the internet in mind because, sadly, a lot of people will actually view the film on a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone. It's a bit like a music producer listening to a mix of a song on a car radio to check it still works even when it isn't being listened to on a high-end stereo. Aside from the depressing thought that someone might actually watch an entire film on a smartphone, this fascinating insight into digital grading really emphasised how important it is to get your TV or projector calibrated. Filmmakers are using colour as an additional narrative tool to manipulate audiences more than was ever possible with film and, even with the more limited gamut of Rec.709, these subtle choices will be lost unless your display is properly calibrated.
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