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Zacuto's Shootout
Film versus digital capture
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Zacuto Shootout

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March 2010     Nikon Reviews   Canon   Leica   Pentax  


Film and Digital: The Ultimate Shootout


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Holy guacamole, amigo, I've just seen the best comparison ever. Set aside a half hour, dim the lights, and sit back and enjoy the movie.

This isn't some guy in his mom's basement taking pictures of magazines.

This is a Hollywood-level comparison of DSLR video versus 35mm motion picture film, done by people who know, like the ASC members who shoot all Hollywood's movies.

The purpose of this is to see the differences between 35mm motion-picture film and DSLR video for professional motion picture production.

35mm film has been the standard since its introduction in 1889 by Thomas Edison. 35mm still cameras didn't even exist until tinkerer Oskar Barnack whipped up a little still camera as an experiment that used this movie film.

In this comparison, remember that 35mm movie film is only half the size of 35mm still film. In this test, the film frames are only 18 x 24mm, not 24 x 36mm.

This test brings back memories: I worked in Hollywood from 1995-2004 and was involved in these sorts of tests all the time. Heck, of the people shown, I know three of them personally from my Hollywood days.

Another thing this has in common with what I did when I was involved with these sorts of comparisons is that they're using deliberately contrived technical tests, sometimes with test charts.

I've learned that the engineers tend to spend too much time shooting charts, instead of just shooting real subjects and seeing how they look. Thankfully, this shootout does both, but they are still trying to break things with tough scenes that represent tough subjects, instead of just shooting scenes that represent 90% of what's shot.

It's produced by Zacuto, a Chicago manufacturer of custom DSLR accessories needed for DSLR filmmaking. Zacuto grew out of being a rental house (people from whom you'd rent motion-picture production gear if you were shooting a movie), and they also produce shows like this. Zacuto goes on about how they really don't care what wins, but do know that most of their business is as a manufacturer of specialized equipment used when shooting DSLRs to make movies. They want to let more people know how well DSLRs can work.

My only whine is that I saw a cheap Leader waveform monitor, not a professional Tektronix monitor.

This is a great production, as you can tell immediately by looking at it. It was not cheap to do; these people all had to fly in for a few days.

Today all we have is Episode one. Episodes two and three are still coming! Yay!



For those of you not from Hollywood, let me explain what's going on.

When they pronounce that film is "clearly the winner," it is. That's a given, and not the point of this experiment.



This test isn't to determine which is best.

It's to determine if DSLRs are good enough to replace film for motion picture production, since film costs so much.

Shooting 35mm movie film is astonishingly expensive. Shooting on a DSLR is free.

A 1,000 foot magazine of 35mm film costs about $500. It cost another $100 or so to get it developed.

For $600, your 1,000 feet of film only runs about 12 minutes.

Once you get your 12 minutes of film back as a negative, it costs about $800 an hour to telecine it, which is to transfer it to digital or video so you can see or do anything with it. It costs $800 an hour, but that's just the hourly rate for the service, not the run time of the film. Film transfer is a very manual process with color corrections. It takes about ten hours of telecine to transfer one hour of film, or about two hours to transfer 1,000 feet of film.

Thus we've spent about $500 + $100 + (2 hours at $800), or about $2,200 for 12 minutes, or over $10,000 for an hour of film.

When you shoot anything, you rarely get it on the first take. A typical movie shoots a million feet of film. You do a one-light (cheap) transfer each night to see dailies of what you shot the next day, and only properly telecine the shots you intend to use.

Shooting a DSLR costs a lot less, like zero, to do the same thing.

Thus there is pressure to shoot on something less than film, if it can be made to look good enough. These tests are trying to figure out if it's good enough yet.


Film Stocks

In the show, the film stocks are listed with four-digit numbers. These are color-negative motion picture films, not films available directly for loading in still cameras. The differences are more in the shape of the sprocket holes and the back coatings to run smoothly though movie cameras than the emulsions. The emulsions are optimized for exposure times of 1/50 second, since it's rare that they're shot at odd speeds, but that's not a big deal.



Don't expect to get these video or movie results at home.

These are shot with special manual-focus Zeiss lenses specially designed for movie cameras. There is a guy called the focus puller who is in charge of keeping the focus set as the actors move around. Autofocus is irrelevant; focus is pulled manually as everything moves, and they rehearse exactly how and where the focus is going to go in each scene. The Zeiss lenses are manual-focus only.

DSLRs, like motion-picture cameras, are rigged with a follow-focus unit, which is the gizmo with the big white knob. As each shot is rehearsed, the focus puller draws marks on the big white dial for various positions, and as they run through the shot, the focus puller manually turns the dial around.



The colorist or color grader is the guy responsible to transfer the negative film into video so we can compare it to the digital cameras. The weird hardware you see is called a telecine and a color corrector, each of which used to cost about a million dollars a piece. Film transfer is highly advanced, which is how and why Hollywood can pull such great images out of negative film. We can set saturation, white balance, exposure, contrast and everything after we've shot film, if we need to.

The colorist also sets color timing for printing a film.


Color Timing and Color Grading

Color timing is a movie term derived from how colors were corrected when printed in the traditional movie workflow.

Color timing was predetermined for each scene. As each projection print was exposed from the negative, it was exposed by red, green and blue lights in sequence. The amount of time for each color was called color timing, and refers to how the overall color balance was set scene-by scene when making prints to go to theatres.

Today in the digital workflow, color timing means color correction, and gets far more flexible with a Photoshop-like ability to change different regions of the image differently, and to change everything about highlights, shadows and everything else separately.

Today, instead of printing from a negative, movies often use a Digital Intermediate (DI). Film is scanned (telecined), the DI is tweaked and everything is done to it digitally, and finally printed back out to film for release.

Sadly, even Photoshop lacks all the color controls contained in the color correctors used in Hollywood.


Greenscreen and Keying

If you intend to drop an actor into another background, you shoot him against a green or blue background, called a bluescreen or greenscreen.

Later, editing equipment uses the bright blue or green to let it know what's supposed to be the background. This is called "keying," or chromakey.



Video tape has always looked awful compared motion pictures shot on film.

As video is mentioned, one must remember that DSLRs are shooting video.

As the DSLRs look pretty darn good, the DPs (directors of photography) are impressed because these DSLRs look so much better than video tape ever did in the days before HDTV.


Raw data and files

There are abstract references spoken about raw data and files.

With DSLR video, that raw data is never made available. There are no raw files in video.

These references are talking about raw data which never leaves the cameras before it is converted to video files via CODECs.



CODECs are the encoders or decoders used to create and play back digital movie files from raw image data.

In this case, the CODECs are already inside your DSLRs. The quality of these CODECs are critical to the look of your image, since we have no access to the raw video data.

Back around 1999 when DVDs were new, is was common for a Hollywood DVD mastering house to spend half a million dollars on the best CODEC they could to make the best-looking DVDs they could.

CODECs thus to the way in which a camera encodes its video into a file to store on its card.



Here's what I see in this Great Shootout.



Nikon is the pig at this party. It only runs at 720p, and you'll hear references to its CODEC.

The problem is that Nikon's CODEC is designed for file sizes too small for high quality. This is done to allow longer run times, but there are rampant compression artifacts in the files.

These artifacts are both in noise in flat, dark areas, as well as motion artifacts.



Film looks better because it has highlights. Digital still blows-out too easily.

FIlm has a shoulder to its curve, while the digital cameras lack the highlight dynamic range and simply clip-off highlights. You can see this best in the light bulb shot. Film accurately renders the glass bulb envelope, the fingerprints on the envelope, and keep them all distinct from the bulb's filament.

All the digital cameras can do is blow-out the bulb to one big blob. There is no such thing as HDR in motion-pictures; you can't shoot several shots at different exposures at the same time.


Shooting Accordingly, Working Around and Knowing Limitations

In Hollywood, you spend half a week lighting a set. You can light highlights, shadows, and everything exactly as you need them. This is how Hollywood gets perfect highlights and shadows.

You'll hear mentioned, in reference to the limited highlight ability of digital capture, that "knowing this, you can shoot accordingly" or "that's what you can work around."

What this means is that as you set your lighting, you set it so that it matches the smaller dynamic range of the digital cameras. The lighting is set to match the dynamic range of the capture device.

Digital capture still makes it harder on DPs because they still have to be more careful and spend more time lighting a set. With film, it's gotten easy and you often can skip things like gelling windows to the outdoors (tape sheets of plastic filter material over them), since often you can pull these highlights back down in telecine. With DSLR capture, you still need to do this extra work.

When we shoot stills out in nature, we don't have three trucks of lighting and generators. We have to deal with what God gives us, and maybe one on-camera fill flash or a reflector or two. Thus for we still shooters, highlight dynamic range is one of the many reasons that film's superiority is so much more important to us.


The Future

I see the lowered costs of DSLR capture replacing a lot of film capture in the future for Hollywood.

For still photography, the convenience of digital allowed it to replace film back for most of us around 2004.

In Hollywood, DSLRs do very little work today. Millions of feet of film are shot every month, and for directors who want film's quality, that's not likely to change.

DSLR movie capture is a very quickly growing, but still a fringe, technology.

For most things shot to make money, I see inexpensive Japanese DSLRs replacing a lot of specialized American-made Panavision and German Arri cameras as time moves forward.

We've seen this before, as ordinary computers have replaced most dedicated hardware in most walks of technology, like video and movie editing. I remember being given a Moviola flatbed editor back around 2000 when people were paying others to haul them away as junk. They used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Panavision and Arri cameras cost about $250,000 each, and still shoot most of what you see in movies and on TV. A DSLR costs one percent of that.

Even forgetting the cost of film itself, the rental rates for a full DSLR setup are half the rental rates for an Arri or Panavision camera setup. Why so much more than the outright purchase cost difference? Because a DSLR might last a year or two, while a film movie camera lasts decades.


Still Photography

Maybe I love film because I spent so much time in Hollywood. In Hollywood, if it's on film, it's serious, and if it's on digital, it's sort of just been playing around.

Maybe I love film because it looks so much better on a light table or projected directly from a slide than anything on a computer or projected digitally.

The discussions in The Shootout are based around trying to see if DSLRs are good enough yet, not if they are better. They are clearly inferior, but quite exciting because we can shoot for less than one percent of the footage costs of 35mm film. This opens a new tomorrow, especially for low-budget and no-budget shooters.

For still shooters, digital is popular because you can see it immediately. It's fun, but not as good as film if you're shooting at reasonable ISOs.

Film cameras cost nothing compared to digital, while film movie cameras cost 100 times what a DSLR does. With film cameras so inexpensive and offering such better quality, it's sad that so few still photographers pay attention to the glory of film.

Man, I love my film still cameras.


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